The winds of political change

UK by-elections (like last week’s in Rochester and Strood, where the UK Independence Party gained its second MP) have always been an opportunity for electors to vent their contempt for the national politicians, before things return to normality at the general election. By-elections generally do not matter; general elections do. So voters’ actions are perfectly rational.

But few people, even the pollsters, are predicting that things will return to normal at the general election in May 2015. Though Scotland did not vote ‘Yes’ to independence in its recent referendum campaign, the performance of Labour, the main ‘No’ campaigners, was humiliatingly poor. But the Scottish National Party is now piling on support. It now has 90,000 members – roughly half the number that the Conservative and Labour parties are able to achieve, even though their UK-wide base is twelve times larger than Scotland alone. Again, the SNP has often done well in by-elections, but never managed to break through in UK national elections. But now there is a real feeling that normality will not return this time, and that the SNP will steal anything up to 40 Westminster seats from Labour.

The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partners in government, are meanwhile being humiliated just about everywhere. In the Rochester and Strood by-election, they lost their deposit for the eleventh time running, polling just a few hundred votes. Their core supporters think they have sold out to the Conservatives, while voters who want to send a rude message to Westminster have thought UKIP a much better way to do that. In the past they voted for the LibDems, but now the LibDems are part of the Westminster establishment that they despise.

The main parties, then, find themselves no longer leading the agenda; what will decide the election is how these minor parties fare in May 2015. But this phenomenon is not unique to Britain. All over Europe, minority parties are shaking the political class and winning footholds in the legislature.

What is going on, and why? Perhaps we have to look outside the political process to understand. In commerce, for example, traditional business models have been fundamentally disrupted by the internet. Retailing in particular has been rocked by new suppliers, new ways of shopping and new delivery systems. With things like Amazon Click & Collect, why do we need a Royal Mail – even a private one, as it is now. And much the same is happening in politics too. Small communities can find each other, and organise and mobilise, and cause real problems for the traditional parties.

Given today’s technology, there is no reason for people to settle for off-the-peg goods and services. They can be made to your specification, and shipped direct to your door. Barriers to entry have been swept away, as new suppliers with new ideas and not much more than a website can suddenly enter the market and challenge the incumbents.

It is the same in politics. When people have a choice of umpteen different TV or phone or utility packages, they become increasingly contemptuous of national and local government ‘take it or leave it’ services. When Air B&B or Über enables people to access services in an instant, they wonder why they have to fill in forms and queue up in council offices. What is the point of a Met Office when you can get the weather on your phone from countless other providers?

And national parties find it harder to dominate the national debate, as newspaper sales have been falling, because more and more people get their news from online channels – and not necessarily from the traditional media companies, but from a huge number of new media channels, plus (increasingly) social media and other sources. Activist groups can find each other and mobilise. The domination of traditional media and traditional parties is being eroded by people power.

Through internet and communications technology, we can also bypass government services more easily. Telephones were a nationalised industry thirty years ago, but nobody even thinks about re-nationalising them today. And given the new multiplicity of information and entertainment channels, more and more people are asking why we really need the BBC – that one-time flagship of the British establishment – as a state broadcaster.

The internet also makes it easier to find a private doctor or a private tutor, or indeed to find a job and an apartment. Self-help groups provide help to patients or parents that the lumbering government systems simply cannot provide. Who needs government?

Not many of us, any more. Nearly as many people in the UK (176,632) told the census that their religion was Jedi than there are currently members of the Conservative Party. With falling memberships, party candidates are becoming increasingly irrelevant to most people. They are chosen by a dwindling core of of grey-haired Conservative activists or hard-line-socialist Labour ones, with outdated, intolerant or patronising policies to match.

The politicians’ response has not been to understand these new trends (their attempted use of social media is, as we have seen recently, usually disastrous) but to insulate themselves. Politics is no longer something that successful people in other fields did for a few years as a service to their country, but a full-time career, carefully preserved as such.

No wonder people are upsetting their applecart. And no wonder that they cannot understand why.

Are our children safe with Children’s Services?

The great majority of those who work in local authority children’s services do the very best they can in very difficult conditions.  They suffer abuse from the parents with whom they deal and the media, poor management, criticism from Ofsted and, from their perspective, inadequate resources.  What’s more, neither they nor anyone else know how well they are performing.

In 2003, the Laming Report made a huge number of recommendations.  The body of their report made it clear that there was too much process (bureaucracy) and too little time with the problem families.  Performance was assessed by activity (paperwork) and not by outcomes; the body of the report called for that to be reversed.  But outcomes did not feature in the actual recommendations which, ironically, focused on increasing the bureaucracy and made matters worse.

In the eleven years since, government has recognised that performance should be measured by outcomes and some limited progress has been made, e.g. for adoption services.  But where child protection is concerned, we simply get lip service.  No outcome measures have been suggested, nor the specific metrics, nor how they should be gathered.  In short we have no idea what “success” in child protection would look like or which local authorities are doing better than others.

When, last month, I asked the Children’s Department Minister, Edward Timpson MP, about performance measurement in this area, the answer was that they had turned the whole matter over to Ofsted.  The rest of his letter discussed the bureaucracy involved but there was not a word about how performance should be assessed.

This is, of course, a cop out: Ofsted should measure performance against standards set by government, as it does for schools.  Government is responsible for specifying what it wants in return for our money.  How else can they know whether to spend more or less?

Both Ofted’s “Framework and evaluation schedule” (published this June) and Rotherham inspection (published last week) have many references to the importance of measuring outcomes but nothing about what outcomes should be desired, what the metrics should be nor how they could or should be collected.  One has to feel some sympathy for the Rotherham local authority for being chastised for failing to do something that no-one has explained, not even the Department responsible.

Our children may or may not be safe with Children’s Services.  The bigger question is whether they are safe with this government.

Well, yes Sir Simon, but how do we calculate this?

Simon Jenkins is reviving the notion that clever people like himself, those Great and the Good, can tell all of the rest of us how to live our lives. His particular example is supermarkets but it could be anything at all really, given the proclivities of some to tell other people what to do.

We went from that High Street thing, to supermarkets, to out of town supermarkets and perhaps now to online sales:

Land is Britain’s most precious resource. The point of planning is to economise its usefulness.

We’d argue a bit there, Britain’s most precious resource is Britons. Their, our, accumulated knowledge, labour and the accumulated labour (also known as capital) handed down from our forefathers. But that aside, yes, of course, we wish to create the maximum economic benefit from whatever resources we have (and that does not mean just money, of course not, we’re talking utility here).

At which point we’ve got to ponder, well, how do we do that maximisation? And the truth is no one knows. That’s why we cannot plan. Should someone, in the 1980s, when considering a planning application for a supermarket have predicted the rise of the internet, Amazon and Ocado? Could they have done so? In the 1990s?

Yes? No?

If not, then it couldn’t have been planned for, could it?

At present, smart planning ought to be thinking ahead of the boom in online shopping. What mistakes might there be in pandering to its gargantuan appetites? What are the implications of every street jammed with home delivery lorries? What of every suburb blighted with distribution centres, supplied by giant hangars littering every motorway?

The correct answer here is “we dunno”. Nor do you and nor does anyone else. We’re all just going to have to suck it and see. Or, as we might put that a little more formally, allow the market to sort it all out. We consumers will work out which of the various options we ourselves prefer, those who cater to our desires will prosper and we’ll end up with a system that might not exult entirely everyone but which does the best to provide aggregate human utility that can be managed at this stage of technological progress.

And yes, that does mean that Sir Simon and his ilk don’t get to plan it all for us. Exactly what annoys them all so much of course.

Firms can pay us to recycle

Recycling comes more instinctively for those on low incomes and who live in low-income countries compared to their respective high-income counterparts.

To increase the amount that we recycle and conserve, we must privatise the process and enable private companies to people for recyclable goods. In many areas, if people put out more goods for recycling than their allotted quota, the local authorities refuse to collect it. Private companies, however, have incentives to collect as much as they can and would do otherwise. By further incentivising households via fair compensation, we could significantly increase the rate of recycling. Furthermore, why should we, as suppliers of recyclable goods, be expected to hand over our products for free?

Also, given the tough socioeconomic climate, extra income derived by providing an additional, monetary reward to households that recycle whilst cutting government expenditure would be helpful.

People who recycle out of necessity are aware of the economic value of those goods; in India, consumers are paid to hand over their recyclable goods such as glass bottles, plastics, newspapers, etc. by various private companies and this initiative is practiced voluntarily across society due to the mutual financial benefits it incurs. In the UK, there are some places where we can ‘cash in’ our bottles, cans and newspapers but they are few and far between – it is also inconvenient for us as suppliers. Furthermore, if firms in India are able to collect from peoples’ houses and also pay for those goods, why are our firms unable to do the same? One reason could be that India has a relatively flexible labour market and lower wages. However, even though higher wages are prevalent in Britain, relatively advanced technology can still make this feasible by keeping costs down and financially rewarding those whom they procure goods from. Alternatively, and preferably, we could ease up on immigration restrictions a bit more, remove the minimum wage and instantly make this business model feasible.

In the UK, the financial benefits of recycling are neither directly felt by the consumer nor properly managed by the collection authority. Instead, it is squandered by inefficient management and stunted by unfair outcomes. If government continues to subsidise and undertake this activity then this inefficiency and its corresponding sub-potential recycling volume will continue.

Can we stop talking about the alleged ‘gender wage gap’ now?

Many are boasting good news on the ‘gender wage gap’—I agree, it’s great news: the Office for National Statistics’ findings offer more proof that wage gaps have very little to do with gender, and much more to do with choices each gender is prone to make.

From the BBC:

The average full-time pay gap between men and women is at its narrowest since comparative records began in 1997, official figures show.

The difference stood at 9.4% in April compared with 10% a year earlier, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, a gap of about £100 a week.

This as well:

Hourly earnings figures reveal that, in April 2014, women working for more than 30 hours a week were actually paid 1.1% more than men in the 22 to 29 age bracket and, for the first time were also paid more in the 30 to 39 age bracket…

…The government said that, from next year, it was extending the rights for shared parental leave. It had also invested in training and mentoring for women to move into higher skilled, higher paid jobs, and guidance to women looking to compare their salaries with male counterparts.

Women, from the start of their careers, are now earning a higher salary than men; and, if they choose to make the decision to stay in the work force, they are more likely to be promoted than their male counterparts as well.The real gap, it seems, is not between women and men, but between mothers and child-less women. Leaving a job early on in one’s career or for an extended period of time to have children will impact a women’s salary when she returns to the work force.

As this is the case, I think the government is probably right to extend rights for shared parental leave (though the money put into training will surely be a waste; women who are ambitious and attracted to careers in science, business, and formerly male-dominated sectors aren’t having much trouble pursuing them). But anything legislated from the top-down can only go so far to change cultural opinions that have been in place for centuries about the role of women and the household.

In reality, women’s choice in their private and home lives will be the greatest determinate as to what further changes we see in wage gaps. It seems there’s evidence that good economic climates actually lead more women to stay at home with their kids rather to go out and get jobs – at the same time, we are witnessing an increase in stay-at-home-dads, which, most likely, has multiple reasoning to it: more women are demanding to work, and more men feel comfortable making the choice to stay home.

Either way, it seems there is no obvious discrimination between men and women when they enter the work place; as far the element of motherhood is concerned, we should be less focused on the numbers and far more focused on ensuring that women are not being socially pressured, either way, to make any decision that is not completely their own.