As ex-readers may have noticed, this is an ex-blog.
The end came quickly, as I thought it might, but kind of hoped it wouldn’t.
I’ve got lots to do, and not that much time. Some of what I do will change people’s lives for the better, and some of it won’t. But if there’s one thing Dr Rieux in La Peste* and Rossmann in Amerika taught me, you’ve got to bleeding try. So the blogging’s got squeezed to the point of no return.
It’s not the end of me completely in written form; I’m planning to pop up in written form in other places, and I’ve not forgotten my commitment to part 2 of the Habermas post, or my follow up to Gove as fascist post, but both these starter essays, and others, have got me reading more voraciously, scribbling more incoherently and even thinking thoughts occasionally, more than I thought they would, and blog-based follow ups that no-one reads anyway now no longer seems to fit.
If you’re stuck for something to read, go re-read Stumbling and Mumbling. Chris is basically right.
* ”None the less, he knew the tale he had to tell could not be one of final victory. It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts.”
I have addressed the Right’s self-righteousness on matters grammatical before, on the basis that trying to teach kids grammar out of context is really quite stupid and wrong.
But it occurs to me that a better critique of the latest outpourings of bilious silliness is best addressed, for want of a suitable rejoinder from a French lesbian poet, by an extract by the great seventeeth century comédien, Molière, who knew a thing or two about combatting the vanities of the ancien régime. In Les Femmes Savantes he takes the piss gloriously out the affected ways of those for whom ‘correct’ grammar is the be all and end all.
So I bring you a bit of Act II, Scene 6, in which the two grammarians, Bélise and Philaminte, aka. Michael Gove and Toby Young, defend the decision to sack servant girl Martine for the offence of bad grammar.
Elle [Martine] a, d’une insolence à nulle autre pareille,
Après trente leçons, insulté mon oreille
Par l’impropriété d’un mot sauvage et bas,
Qu’en termes décisifs condamne Vaugelas*.
Chrysale [confused husband]
Est-ce là… ?
Quoi ? toujours, malgré nos remontrances,
Heurter le fondement de toutes les sciences,
La grammaire, qui sait régenter jusqu’aux rois,
Et les fait, la main haute, obéir à ses lois ?
Du plus grand des forfaits je la croyais coupable.
Quoi ? vous ne trouvez pas ce crime impardonnable ?
Je voudrais bien que vous l’excusassiez !
Je n’ai garde.
Il est vrai que ce sont des pitiés :
Toute construction est par elle détruite,
Et des lois du langage on l’a cent fois instruite.
Tout ce que vous prêchez est, je crois, bel et bon ;
Mais je ne saurais, moi, parler votre jargon.
L’impudente ! appeler un jargon le langage
Fondé sur la raison et sur le bel usage !
Quand on se fait entendre, on parle toujours bien,
Et tous vos beaux dictons ne servent pas de rien.
Hé bien ! ne voilà pas encore de son style ?
Ne servent-pas de rien !
Ô cervelle indocile !
Faut-il qu’avec les soins qu’on prend incessamment,
On ne te puisse apprendre à parler congrûment ?
De pas mis avec rien tu fais la récidive,
Et c’est, comme on t’a dit, trop d’une négative.
Mon Dieu ! je n’avons pas étugué comme vous,
Et je parlons tout droit comme on parle cheux nous.
Ah ! peut-on y tenir ?
Quel solécisme horrible !
En voilà pour tuer une oreille sensible.
Ton esprit, je l’avoue, est bien matériel.
Je n’est qu’un singulier, avons est pluriel.
Veux-tu toute ta vie offenser la grammaire ?
Qui parle d’offenser grand’mère ni grand-père ?
Ô Ciel !
Grammaire est prise à contre-sens par toi,
Et je t’ai dit déjà d’où vient ce mot.
Ma foi !
Qu’il vienne de Chaillot, d’Auteuil, ou de Pontoise,
Cela ne me fait rien.
Quelle âme villageoise !
La grammaire, du verbe et du nominatif,
Comme de l’adjectif avec le substantif,
Nous enseigne les lois.
J’ai, Madame, à vous dire
Que je ne connais point ces gens-là.
Quel martyre !
Ce sont les noms des mots, et l’on doit regarder
En quoi c’est qu’il les faut faire ensemble accorder.
Qu’ils s’accordent entr’eux, ou se gourment, qu’importe ?
Philaminte, à sa sœur.
Eh, mon Dieu ! Finissez un discours de la sorte.
* See here on the grammarian Vaugelas – this being an important theme of the play.
Today, the Times Educational Supplement reports on the spelling and grammar tests being forced upon primary school children against the advise of educationalists:
Experts consulted by the Department for Education described the tests, which will be taken by 500,000 Year 6 students this summer, as “really flawed” exams that ignore academic research on the best ways to teach grammar.
Debra Myhill, a professor of education at the University of Exeter, and Ruth Miskin, an expert on phonics and member of the national curriculum review team, were among experts who raised concerns about the spelling and grammar (Spag) tests when consulted by the government.
They are concerned that the tests do not ask students to use grammar in context, meaning they will not be able to apply rules more generally. “I did a very detailed analysis of the test and I had major reservations about it,” Professor Myhill told TES. “I think it’s a really flawed test.”
Today, coincidentally, my son was doing a practice paper for this test. It’s been provided by educational publisher CGP*. Here it is for sales online.
This is question 7, scanned as completed by my son:
The question asks children to say which words are nouns, and which are verbs. He says ‘flying’ is a verb, which is correct (Clever boy. It’s a doing verb**, he tells me confidently, as in ‘Gove is really flying by the seat of his pants with these ill-considered tests’ (I paraphrase).
Except, he’s wrong. Foolish boy. ‘Flying’ is a gerundial noun, as in “Flying by the seat of one’s pants in educational matters is unbecoming to a Secretary of State for Education. That’s what the Collins English Dictionary people say.
So is he right or wrong? Technically, it is a verbal noun, so it’s a noun, but are they expecting him to know that, or do they want him to display his ’verbs are doing words’ understanding. I honestly don’t know what answer is expected of an 11 year old, even of one who’s already sent chapters of adventure novels of to publishers, and who was a published comic-book author at the age of 7.
All of which goes to support Professor Myhill’s view that these grammar tests, with words out of context, are indeed ”really flawed”.
But I’m not sure Michael Gove** will care much that my son may grow up to believe that gerundial nouns are part of some kind of leftwing plot to reduce educational standards.
* I’m not clear on what basis CGP have set these sample tests, and what advice they’ve had from the Department for Education, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the distinction between noun and verb, taken out of context in this way, is likely to figure in the actual tests next month.
** Quick further research suggest it might be called the present or gerund participle of the verb.
*** Talking of nouns as verbs, I now suddenly remember that ‘gove’ can be a verb too.
Luke Bozier’s emergence as a writer of quality sex fiction (h/t @carlraincoat) reminds me that TCF is really very good in this genre too, though we specialise more in sex-fiction-as-interface-between Habermasian-lifeworld-and-anti-hegemonic-narrative.
Of course, TCF is always well ahead of the curve, so this little snippet is from a couple of years back, before sex fiction became part of the zeitgeist. Still, we can pump this stuff out at a great rate of knots, so if any publisher wants a couple of short novels by the end of next week, we don’t mind making an honest bob or two.
Anyway, enjoy (though be careful if you’re reading this at work)
It was then the realization hit Malcolm, as fiercely as that recent blow on the back of the head from an agent of the state, in which he now fully understood that violence was always and irredeemably inherent.
Yes, yes, he thought. Ethel was the one. Ethel was the one who really understood the dynamic relationship between the ideological superstructure and the essential economic base, and how surplus value was really at the heart both of the so-called postwar economic miracle (as Jessopian ‘spatio-temporal fix’ in the principal form of the welfare state) and now more so much more clearly in ‘raw power’ form in this latest crisis of capitalism.
‘Oooh, Ethel’, he swooned, as she folded him in her womanly arms, strengthened by years of proletariat toil, and held him against her beating heart of socialist endeavour.
‘Ethel, tell me again about the relationship between Rosa Luxembourg’s incisive vision of how the working classes can come together in revolutionary force, and the somewhat later but, you suggest, no less relevant, writing of Gramsci on intellectual and moral reform within a temporal nation-state context.
‘Take your overalls off, comrade’ whispered Ethel, huskily, Poulantzian in her growing desire for unity between socialists. ‘I need to feel your Lukacs compendium’.
Malcolm moved closer, and as the sun dipped behind the horizon, far to the well metaphorical left, Ethel gasped: ‘Now that’s what I call entryism by the Hard Left, comrade’.
The NHS is dying, pretty well exactly as I said it would some two years ago now:
Some scandals may emerge in time over ‘backhanders’ paid by the private hospitals to the private commissioners, and in some circumstances it will turn out that the people doing the commissioning are simply commissioning themselves in another name – the whole inefficiency of which the provider-purchaser split was supposed to stop – but it will all be a bit esoteric and complicated for people to understand, and there won’t be much of a fuss.
In fairly short order, we may get these new commissioners creating two tiers of provision from within GP surgeries, with one level of care for those not paying, and those who just happen to have signed the relevant insurance policy forms, which just happen to be in the GP surgery.
Insurance-based healthcare, and the exclusions that this brings, will come not through a government announcement, but by the surgery backdoor……
The consortia [now called CCGs] will end up being led by two or three ‘movers and shakers’ in each area, whose job will be simply to negotiate a decent deal for their colleagues and let the private commissioners get on with the rest. There will be no revolt in primary care, and in secondary care no-one will actually notice till it’s too late.
Two years on, it’s being more widely recognised that, as of 1st April, the NHS privatisation will being quietly but in earnest, as the section 75 regulations kick into gear, Clinical Commissioning Groups with often overwhelming direct financial interests in private providers put services out to the market, public provision withers on the vine or simply goes bust, and private insurance arrangements start to become the norm, initially for (the more profitable) elective healthcare, and then for the rest. As Lucy Reynolds from the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine rightly notes, what comes next in this wildly ‘imperfect’ market is market abuse and health cost inflation. This inflation around the ‘cherry-picked’ services, Lucy might also have noted, will lead to the stripping of resources from the less profitable services – no health budget ring-fencing will protect that.
So what is to be done? By 2015, if and when Labour regains power, the promise of a repeal of the Health & Social Care Act (and the accompanying Section 75 regulations) may be a welcome statement of principle, but it will not significantly change the way in which services have already been privatised, seemingly irrevocably. In many cases, there simply won’t be the public services to transfer them back to, and the incoming government is likely to consider the full-scale implementation of NHS II a little too much of a fiscal challenge, even if the recreation of the cumbersome institutions of 1948 were desirable.*
What Labour can do, though – and needs to start thinking through now – is to tackle the local institutional architecture, in a way which creates the platform both for the establishment of local democratic control of both the type and quality of provision. If it gets this right, this might actually lead, in the medium term, to a better health service than we currently enjoy - as I’ve noted before, it does not become Labour to gloss over the very clear health and social care failings caused by the managerialist ideology that has held sway for the last thirty years.
More specifically in terms of local institutions, the Labour government-in-waiting should first consider retaining the Clinical Commissioning Groups. but diluting the power of GP practices within them by making theirs a minority voting position, through the introduction of members of Foundation Trust governing councils (increasingly focused on quality standards if the Francis Inquiry recommendations are carried through) along with elected councillor representation in keeping with Councils’ new public health function. The immediate impact of this is likely to be presumption against private sector provision where other options still exist (they won’t in many places).
Second, the Labour government in waiting should commit to ensuring that these new-style CCGs adhere both to the letter and spirit of the Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012 under which all CCGs (and the NHS Commissioning Board), have a duty to consider:
(a) how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area, and
(b) how, in conducting the process of procurement, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.
(Oddly, this is Tory legislation, aimed primarily at breaking the perceived monopoly power of local authorities, but can be used to the same effect against private sector dominance in healthcare provision. That will really piss off the Tories….)
These two relatively simply steps will set the direction of travel back against wholesale privatisation, although of course attempts to terminate contracts are likely to result in lengthy and quite likely unsuccessful legal battles, so early progress is likely to be quite slow.
Nevertheless, institutional change at local level by government, especially if accompanied by moves within the Labour party and the broader movement to re-energise Trade Councils, in a move away from the vapid Tory ‘consumer localism’ and towards a quality-oriented ’worker localism’**, could provide early impetus for the creation of a properly socialist health and social care system – a system fit for the 21st century (whether or not this is tax-based or progressive social insurance based doesn’t really matter as long as it provides for equitable provision) , with private operators increasingly steadily cleared out in favour not just of direct NHS Trust delivery, but also a new surge of worker co-operatives (although charities and social enterprises may also play a valid part).
* It is always worth remembering, in the context of the fetishisation of the 1948-style NHS, that until very late in the day a radically different – and I would argue preferable – NHS structure was being argued for. This was a much more decentralised and locally accountable system, rather than the monolith we grew to love despite it tendencies to managerialism (and I would argue that this is why service standards have declined in the NHS faster than in local authorities, say). See Rudolf Klein’s seminal The Politics of the NHS for more (the later edition is called The New Politics of the NHS but the early chapters are the same).
** This is not to argue for the introduction/retention of localised terms and conditions. Trade unions should of course be encouraged to negotiate at national level, and a properly brave/strategic Labour government would use the need to ‘renationalise’ the NHS, and to invest quality in the hands of its staff (as opposed to its bosses) as a rationale for the relatively painless (in terms of reactionary public opinion) repeal of restrictive trade union legislation. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath on this one.
A few months ago I launched a pre-emptive strike on Dr Ben Goldacre:
It strikes me that the impulse to control a problem rather than ‘uncontrol’ it away finds its most dangerous expression in the growing ‘evidenced-based policy’ campaign being headed up by all-round-good-guy-civil-liberties-defender Ben Goldacre, in association with the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights team. Between them, they have produced a convincing story about how society would be much better off if all social problem interventions were assessed through Randomised Control Trial methodology developed by the biomedical sciences. This is all very well, but the promotion of such scientific rigour overlooks the need, in order to fit the method, to atomise problems and interventions in a way which embeds garbage can model social policy practice. Ultimately, a problem and intervention focus diminishes the power of people to make their problems go away, and enhances the power of the state to make interchangeable those problems and the people who have them. But that’s a longer blog.
I never did get round to that longer blog. Fortunately, though, someone much cleverer than me has. Here’s Will Davies, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (and the brilliant Potlatch blog):
[T]he spread of medical epistemology into public policy is strangely anti-theoretical, thanks to a somewhat naively optimistic view of a single technique: the randomised controlled trial (RCT). RCTs operate according to induction. The facts are meant to speak for themselves; the data and the theory are kept neatly and self-consciously separate from each other. A medic, Ben Goldacre, has co-authored a paper on the policy applications of RCTs for the British government, which opens with the line ‘RCTs are the best way of determining whether a policy is working’…….
By adopting the inductivist epistemology associated with RCTs and Big Data, social policy-makers may learn a great deal more about the world, but may also become commensurately less sure of what it even means for a policy to work in the first place.
There is a risk that, as with RCTs in psycho-pharmaceuticals, diagnoses of social pathologies might start to spiral. Whole new problematic demographic sub-groups will start to appear to the gaze of the data analyst; new correlations of behavioural problems will be spotted; the perceived sources of our social, psychological and neurological malaises will simply multiply, and we’ll long for an age when it was all just a problem of the wrong ‘incentives’. Tesco’s Club Card is rumoured to produce 18,000 sub-groups of customer; the equivalent for the state would be 18,000 sub-groups of pathological behaviour to be nudged back into line. Without the extreme simplifications of rationalist theories, society would appear too complex to be governed at all. The empiricist response to the government’s paper title, ‘What Works’, might end up being ‘very little’, unless government becomes frighteningly ‘smart’. Alternatively, if theory no longer provides the procedures of evaluation, there is a risk that private backroom politics will do so instead…..
Nothing simply works unambiguously in social policy, gold standard or no gold standard. No policy delivers benefits without any ‘side-effects…….A policy might ‘work’ in terms of reducing unemployment*, but lead to an increase in family break-down. The inductivists response would be – yes, and that’s precisely the type of pattern that our new evidence centres will detect! So why use the rhetoric of ‘what works’, when it is plain that nothing unambiguously works, at least without also offering the standard (the QALY for social policy, if you like) through which ethical dilemmas and trade-offs will be addressed?
Will’s article is – like my earlier, less well formulated one - a call for the retention of political judgment at the heart of public policy, and a warning of what we risk by simply handing over control to the positivists, as the government now seems intent on doing. This is not to say that RCTs have no value, of course. But their use needs to be, of itself, a political matter, in which the area of research and the outcomes being tested are a matter for public and political argument.
This piece, therefore, isn’t a personal attack on Ben Goldacre (the title is just a brazen attempt at linkbait readership). It’s not an attack precisely because Ben recognises appears to recognise the issues raised above, in a way which Will doesn’t acknowledge.
In his most recent paper, on how RCTs might be become the norm in education policy-making, he stresses the need for professional involvement not just in the research, but in decision-making over exactly what research happens and why. The problem is that such a worthy aspiration can all too easily be hijacked by a governments (not just the current one) very keen on the idea of using research evidence to impose their own views of what success in education looks like, and less, but much less keen on the development of the kind of ambitious, democratically oriented research governance infrastructure that he advocates, and which he suggests will provide the ”opportunity…..to become and evidence-based profession, in just one generation”.**
So, for example, where Ben may take reassurance that “performance on specific academic or performance tests” have quite measurable outcomes, and means to improve such performance are therefore open to RCT methods, I see risks that RCTs might be used to embed such tests (and their associated curricula) at the cost of the wider educational enrichment of children.
Overall, I sincerely hope that Ben does turn out to be the leader, or a key opinion former in what would be a genuine Kuhnnian paradigm shift in governmental policymaking (or, as in the terms he uses in his new paper, that he becomes one of a new breed of Cochrane-style ”mischievous leaders, unafraid to question orthodoxies by producing good quality evidence”. Nevertheless, I can’t help worrying that Ben’s undoubted talents both as scientist and salesman are being co-opted for a deeply political process of depoliticisation.
To allay my fears, and get me (for what I’m worth) on side with his campaign for research both well-done and well-chosen, I’d like to set Ben a challenge – a challenge emanating from this sentence in his new paper:
Nobody in government would tell a doctor about what to prescribe, but we expect all doctors to be able to make informed decisions about which treatment is best, using the nest currently available evidence.
Quite right. There’d be uproar if a government minister started telling the medical what drugs were best, and s/he just wouldn’t dare.
But, as I set out at some length here, that’s precisely what the Prime Minister did to the nursing profession last January, when he casually announced that nurses would now be required to reorganise the way they work and institute ‘hourly rounding’, because he had heard that this was a good thing.
As I set out back then – using the available evidence - this was not just an utter outrage and insult to nurses, it also creates huge long-term risks of a downward spiral in care standards (as I set out more fully later, there may well be very different reasons for the apparent decline in hospital care standards, none of which have been picked up as possible causes by Cameron’s Nursing and Care Quality Forum (who now simply ignore my letters and emails), which was set up after he had made his intentional rounding decision and which has duly complied with his wishes without undertaking any further research.
But no-one but me noticed what was going on. Not even Ben, who you’d have thought might be alive to something so close to the medical profession. (I did tweet the importance of what was going on at him, in the light of my article, but he didn’t respond.)
So here, better late than never, is the challenge. If Ben really is a Kuhnian/Cochranian hero for our times, he’ll join me in a concerted call for a Randomised Control Trial around the use of intentional rounding in British hospitals, to establish whether it does actually improve care standards. The methodology will be necessarily complex, as outcomes are not tha easy to measures, but there are probably still enough wards left who have not instituted the new process to make it feasible to undertake the trial on the basis of existing organisational patterns (and therefore cheaply).
If he doesn’t bother, then I’m afraid I’ll be a little more convinced that, far from being a new Cochrane, he is indeed just a good exemplar of an actor in Olsen’s Garbage Can Model (this takes us neatly back to where I started): “a decision-maker looking for work”, content to take commission from the land of Gove for what is, if he’s honest, a somewhat thin paper bashed out on a wet Tuesday afternoon, happy to persuade government that they should look in his garbage can for a solution he came up with earlier.
*Will Davies’ example is an apt one, since reducing unemployment through ‘nudge’ tactics, and an RCT to prove that such tactics do ‘work’, is the example the Behavioural Insights team in Cabinet Office are most keen to promote as evidence of their worth. However, I think there’s a somewhat wider ‘side-effect’ to be considered, which exemplifies more clearly than Will’s postulate the way in which the unchecked growth of RCTs (and other positivist methods) might act to depoliticise social policy. This side-effect is that reducing unemployment/getting people into work is embedded, via the research, as sine qua non of economic as well as social policy. While this may seem reasoable at the moment – after all, full employment remains a mainstream aspiration – it may well be that it is no longer an appropriate policy aim. As Chris has set out, it may be that, whatever macro-economuc policy decisions are taken, we are in for a long period of stagnation or low growth. Says Chris:
[I]n a stagnating economy, aspirations are dangerous. When there’s no aggregate growth, one person can “get on” only at the expense of another. Aspiration thus becomes a (near) zero-sum game, which is a recipe for conflict and social tension.
In such circumstances, it’s arguable that getting everyone into work becomes a very bad social p0licy (and more recently Chris sets out a ‘supply-side socialism’ alternative of a citizen’s income). But if, in the meantime, policy comes to be driven by research into the best way to attain a harmful and decisive outcome……..well, you know where I’m headed.
** It’s worth noting here that by far the biggest challenge such a step change is likely to face is the uncomfortable reality that success or failure in education is currently caused mostly by factors way beyond the scope of anyone involved in education, and not therefore amenable to teacher-based solutions.
Miliband has, I’m afraid, got his reaction all wrong.
Had anyone from Labour HQ actually bothered to read the single piece of research behind the proposals, they’d have realised that it simply doesn’t say what everyone, in all parties, wanted it to say. As I have set out in detail, the research doesn’t prove that minimum unit pricing will reduce binge drinking, and it acknowledges that very clearly in the main report:
The elasticity matrices [the method used in the research] on their own are not sufficient to reveal the likely behaviour of the population to price changes, since these also depend on the preferences for beverage, drinking location and price point that the different sub-groups exhibit. However they do form a useful starting point for analysis, and can be compared with existing results from the literature. (p. 50)
This acknowledgment, and the other deep flaws in the research, will be set out in consultation responses (including the one I submitted), and the Tories will simply point to those responses to explain their u-turn. It doesn’t matter that the Tories’ real motivation for dumping the pricing proposal has nothing to do with the evidence, but is driven by a mix of electoral calculation and fear of taking on the Right of the part. By May, the narrative already being set out by David Davis - that the research doesn’t stack up – will have been firmly established.
Thus, by effectively coming out in support of minimum unit pricing, Labour is getting itself on entirely the wrong side of the debate. In a month or two, when the final government response to the consultation is published, Labour (and the SNP as a side effect) will be painted as the illiberal nasties who do don’t give a hoot about evidence but just want to punish the poor, while the Tories will have positioned themselves as the reasonable party, who consulted on the idea, listened to public opinion, and then took a mature, evidenced-based decision not to proceed.
In short, Labour is going to cop it on this one. Miliband may have had some fun today at PMQs, but the Tories will have the last laugh, as Labour is tarred with the very ‘authoritarian’ brush Miliband had worked so hard to avoid. The key lesson is that when Labour priorities media management over actual policy import, it does so at its peril. It should already know this, from the time it abandoned sound immigration policy in order to look tough, but maybe this time around it’ll learn…….
Richard Angell, Deputy Head of Progress party-within-the-party, had written an interesting column during the week on how Labour parliamentary candidates are selected. This might sound dull as ditchwater, but the process is actually a pretty key variable when it comes to what kind of person we end up getting to represent us in parliament.
Richard, who runs Progress’s member-only selection training, claims that:
the way in which ‘org sub’ has set about implementing changes – massively increasing the cost and more than doubling the time potential candidates need to spend in the constituency they hope to contest – are likely to make it easier for full-time politicos – whether they be ‘Westminster village’ thinktankers and aides to frontbenchers or trade union officials – and harder still for others to stand for Labour.
There are a number of problems with his ensuing argument.
First, there’s the decidedly worrying assertion that the extension of the selection period from four to eleven weeks means that:
it will not be a level playing field, as those who work for an MP, a think-tank, or trade union, are given all the time off they need to campaign.
Really? I’m not certain your average taxpayer, who generally foots the bill for those working for MPs, would be too pleased to hear that. Put simply, if that is happening, it should stop immediately. Likewise with trade unions. And the idea that people working for think-tanks can simply take paid sabbatical for an eleven-week period ignores they fact that think-tanks - like any other business – have to generate income in order to survive. As it happens, I know a think-tanker who is running for selection, and the idea that he can simply drop his work commitments for nearly three months looks a little absurd.
Then there’s Richard’s argument that needing £1,000 for 3 leaflets (in a 300 member ward) will militate against working class candidates. This is rubbish. First, many working class candidates will have some support from a union branch. Second, and more important, it doesn’t need to cost that much. As a councillor in a ward with 1,000 houses I produced a quarterly newsletter of eight to twelve pages for many years at no more than than around £150 per year all in, using an old Riso printer and buying the paper from Makro. No, it wasn’t glossy, but it was effective. I think Richard is simply assuming the Progress-style glossies are a prerequisite for a successful campaign, when in fact clearly low-cost materials can be just as effective with the right content (as Richard himself acknowledges with his DVD anecdote).
The most important flaw in Richard’s argument, though, is this:
Crucially, those going for selection will get the membership list – and the expense of an all-member mailing – before the party draws up a longlist, let alone a shortlist. This makes the cost of entry very high for some, with no guarantee of getting to make your case directly to the membership. The additional complication of supporting nominations makes the process more likely to favour insiders and ‘chosen sons’.
This conveniently ignores why the nominations process has been reintroduced. Obviously I can’t speak for the sub org on this, but I assume it is so that candidates get a chance, in more informal settings, to discuss local issues with members, and learn what their priorities might be, not least so that come the shortlisting this can be reflected in their interview. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that, come the longlisting, those doing the listing should consider thee extent to which local members and other parts of the labour movement have been convinced enough by the candidate that they then offer their nomination. To suggest that engagement with members and unions is simply a bureaucratic impediment is, I am afraid, something of an insult.
More generally, there is an assumption underlying Richard’s piece which requires challenge. This is that MPs are some kind of supremely talented breed, and that to fill a seat we need to catch the net nationwide for the brightest and the best – the clue is in the way Richard’s reference to “the time potential candidates need to spend in the constituency”. But as I’ve set out previously, the job of an MP is really just not that difficult - and the salary is broadly commensurate with the skill set needed for the job – and, we really don’t need to shop around nationally to get good candidates in place. I could name at least a dozen people in my own constituency who would make very good local MPs, most of them from working class backgrounds. While I’m not against people coming up from London to pitch in if they so wish, any move which makes it easier for local candidates who are already in (or at least close to) the constituency, should be welcomed.
Ultimately, Richard’s piece is a contrived defence of the status quo: MPs as overlords of their constituencies rather than servants of it. The NEC sub org committee has delivered a small victory for those who’d like to see candidates able and willing to engage with the genuine grassroots, and to do so in ways which favour working class candidates – such as knowing the local patch - over and above the glossy professional CVs and skills required to sell yourself to the party hierarchy.
The big news of the day for econo-geeks is the letter from the Head of the Office of Budget Responsibility to Cameron, rebuking him for his false assertions over the impact of austerity on growth.
In the longer term, though, I don’t think will be the most signficant lie in Cameron’s speech. I think this will be:
This deficit didn’t suddenly appear purely as a result of the global financial crisis. It was driven by persistent, reckless and completely unaffordable government spending and borrowing over many years. By 2008, we already had a structural deficit of more than 7 per cent – the biggest in the G7.
No source is given for this 7% assertion, but as far as I can tell* it comes from the 2012 IFS Green Budget which says:
Our estimates, based on the OBR’s latest official forecasts, suggest that the apparent ‘hole’ in the UK’s public finances that has opened up since the March 2008 Budget – that is, the additional structural borrowing that is now forecast to persist in the medium term, over and above what was forecast in the March 2008 Budget – equates to 7.5% of national income (or £114 billion in today’s terms) (p.51).
This does not, of course, say what Cameron appears to be claiming. In fact, we get the actual estimated structural deficit figures for 2007/08 further down the same page:
In 2007–08, total PSNB stood at 2.4% of national income. Since, at the time, the Treasury thought that the UK economy was operating slightly above its productive potential, underlying structural borrowing was estimated to be a slightly higher 2.6% of national income. The larger output gap** now estimated by the OBR implies that structural borrowing in 2007–08 in fact stood at around 3.5% of national income [my emphasis].
The reason I think this apparent lie is more important than the one about the austerity effect is that it looks like it’s going to be the main one used to beat Labour with. As the next election approaches the Conservatives will realise they are unable to defend their own record on the economy, and will need to rely on the “mess Labour left us in” narrative which served them well early on.
The general ’worst in the G7′ structural deficit accusation is not entirely new – it dates back at least to the ‘emergency budget’ in 2010 ( see p.8, although no figure is given there, just a reference to an OECD report, in which I’ve been unable to find the assertion backed up). However, it has not been used again until recently, and this firming up of a (false) figure appears to be a conscious attempt to resurrect it. Further, the 7% figure is important because it allows the Conervatives to claim it is the highest since the war, whereas in fact the IFS report makes clear that it was higher twice under the Major government:
A structural deficit of 3.5% of national income in 2007–08 would have been the highest level since 1995–96 (when it stood at 3.8% of national income) but still far below its previous peak of 5.5% of national income in 1992–93.
In any event, I expect to see the 7% structural deficit line to be trotted out regularly by the Tories, including by Cameron at PMQs, over the coming months. I hope Labour will be alert enough to call them out on the spot, referring to the actual figures set out in the IFS report.
* I suspect the 7% figure comes from here because it was trailed at the weekend (possibly by mistake) in a tweet from the Conservatives’ press office:
Terrible banking was cause of banking crisis. Before that happened, the UK under Labour, was running deficit of over 5% of GDP.
@citizenandreas check the Most recent IFS report on structural deficit when banking crisis hit.
** It’s also worth pointing out that measuring the output gap is a very unexact science. The figures used in the IFS report are based on OBR work, which in turn depends on a wide variety of source information to try to calculate ”the difference between the current level of activity in the economy and the potential level it could sustain while keeping inflation stable in the long term”. These sources include , for example, British Chamber of Commerce surveys of recruitment difficulties in firms. While the OBR report says that the historical analyses “appear to give a plausible representation of UK business cycle history and remain close to the range of alternative estimates”, it also notes that “[a]ny output gap estimate remains uncertain, even when it relates to the past. Similarly the estimates presented in this paper are subject to significant uncertainty and remain work-in-progress.” With these caveats, the OBR report finds that a structural deficit of 3.5% in 2008, pre-crisis, compared with the 2.6% on which the Treasury was basing its projections.