Why we need a different ‘conversation’ before May 7

As the General Election campaign shifts into a different gear – the wall to wall coverage, the on / off TV debates , the post debate analysis and the stage managed events in local high streets for the cameras  – the gap between the politicians and their reference group and the rest of the country will get wider.

The big questions:

  • what was / are the causes of the austerity measures?
  • what has been the immediate impact of the cuts?
  • what is the likely impact over time?

are all ignored and re-framed to meet the particular needs of the mainstream parties.

There are two aspects of this silence or consensus between the parties which should be of concern to all of us.

Firstly, the discussion is almost entirely based on the idea that there is or was no alternative to the austerity measures. The circumstances leading up to the banking crisis of 2007/2008 have been rewritten or reordered. Both mainstream parties shared a view that there should be minimal regulation of the banks. It was a view that was common across the international networks of politicians and financial interests. The Clinton Administration in the US was an enthusiastic supporter of deregulation, as were New Labour and the Conservatives. So there is an important point here: The crisis was not solely New Labour’s nor was it caused by excessive public spending. And as the events of 2007 ( Northern Rock) or 2008 ( Leaman Brothers) slip into the past we are likely to miss-remember what happened and why. 

Secondly , the popular discussion is almost entirely devoid of international comparisons or examples. So that the new Greek Government are presented as unreasonable for wanting to change the deal with the EU, or the demonstrations in Spain are seen as peculiar to  the country rather than illustrative of a different response or a different way of seeing the austerity crisis.

It is this lack of a different conversation which is is of concern. On May 7 in many places there will be local elections too. This is a chance to link the two events. And yet that discussion is not happening. But for a brief moment in the polling station the two will be handed to us to act on. Symbolically we will hold separate ballot papers: one for local councillors and one for the MP. And yet we don’t bring these two together and within a few seconds they are separate again.

How we might link them and what that might mean in framing a different political conversation will be an idea I will return to next week.

Further Education Matters

At the end of last month, the Government outlined their plans for adult further education.

Excluding funding for apprenticeships, the budget for 2015/16 will be cut by 24 per cent. That’s 24 per cent of the funding for adults who want to gain a better education later in life. Further education was deeply scarred as it was, with a third of its budget already severed since the 2010 election.

The teaching of basic skills such as numeracy and literacy is a key aspect of further adult education, and it’s not as if the UK ranks highly on this front and we don’t need to worry. According to the OECD, it’s quite the opposite and the government is fully aware of the problem.

Its own 2014/15 report on Adult Literacy and Numeracy stresses the importance of these skills both to the economy and to the learners themselves, who are healthier, happier and better off as a result of their improved abilities.

At a personal level literacy lies in the development of self-identity; in our social, cultural and emotional life. In my recent study Learning trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners (2013), I explored the learning journeys of adult basic skills learners.  For the male and female learners, returning to education was a means for them to develop their literacy skills and more.

Literacy was very much linked with their subjectivity and how they viewed their self-worth in the public space (for example, work) and private spaces (for example, the home). They wanted to develop their confidence, improve their social and economic positioning and improve their life chances and those of their children. The study confirmed the incredible power of Adult Education to enrich learners’ lives, and importantly offer them choices they never thought possible.

When one of the research participants, Joanne, a single mum with three children, arrived at college, she struggled to read and write. Initially, she sat at the back of the class, lacking confidence and avoiding eye contact. However, after Joanne joined the research group, we began to spend more time together. This allowed us the opportunity to speak in detail about the barriers she had faced and her hopes and aspirations for the future. She described how she had come to college to learn to fill out forms and to become more confident in spelling. However, as Joanne’s confidence increased in both herself and her writing skills, there was a simultaneous shift in aspirations. This was the first time she had planned for the future.

She began to make choices that she previously thought were not for people from her background.

She began to speak about a career rather than a job. After completing a Level 2 course in literacy and numeracy, Joanne progressed onto an access to nursing course, then to university to pass her diploma.

She is now a qualified staff nurse working in the north of England.

Any discussion of basic skills, and its impact in challenging the barriers and inequalities faced by many learners, cannot overlook the vital issue (and what can be a real barrier) of funding.

Basic skills provision needs to continue to be fully funded for all adults, including providing choices of flexible and accessible formal courses together with supporting those with skills at lower levels to engage in informal learning.

Basic skills courses for young and older adults can offer them a crucial second chance of re-engaging with education.

Who’s going to win?  Show me the money

I blogged previously about a conference at which academics made predictions for potential election results based on a range of factors.

One of those factors was money.

It is possible, by looking at the Electoral Commission website, to see which constituency or local parties have received the most in donations in any particular quarter. Parties have to send this information in by law when donations are over a certain amount.

Election campaigns cost money.  Election campaigns in seats which a party is hoping to win, or is defending hard, cost more money. So logically those local parties generating most in donations are those who are main players in tight contests.

It’s also the case that national party fundraising efforts will often focus on particular target seats.  I know as a party member myself that requests for money are being made for some constituencies and not others.

So to test this thesis, let’s look at what everyone would agree is a marginal seat (Warrington South) and what everyone would agree is a safe seat (Bootle).

Warrington South, from 1 September until today, shows £15,000 of large donations coming in to two parties (Labour and Conservative).  Bootle however shows no large donations to any party.  Even if the searching reaches back to 2013, still no large donations appear.

Now of course it is possible that donations go to another part of a political party before being moved to a local account nearer the election. It may also be that some local parties are very active in fundraising terms, but the sums donated are small enough to be under the regular reporting radar. But even with these caveats, the contrast between Warrington South and Bootle is stark.

come cannot be a sole predictor.  After all it’s not just what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. But in an environment in which a ground campaign could make the difference, the capacity to campaign, and the preparation to do that, is significant.

Why we are missing out on a genuine political conversation?

Over the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to ‘real’ people talk about their hopes and aspirations as well as their anxieties and fears.

Their voices, as opposed to those which we hear on the news or indeed those that we engage in at conferences or workshops, provide a very different frame of reference from that which has shaped the political and national conversation over the last five years.

In this conversation people talk about what happens when their benefits are stopped or they describe the experiences of managing on very low wages ( sometimes barely meeting the minimum wage) and how they support their extended families in very emotionally fraught circumstances.

Or the conversation has been about how to raise the question of domestic violence and gain support from local community organisations, when to raise the issue runs the risk of even further marginalisation or exclusion. What about how one individual now feels able to talk to their child’s teacher whereas before they felt vulnerable and lacked the confidence to do so. Or where an individual describes the support they have had to start a training course which they didn’t think they would be able to do?

All of these conversations (some in the different parts of the North West, others in London) are examples of how the televised general election presents a very partial and different discussion.

The alternative conversation is one in which the support to vulnerable individuals and communities is itself vulnerable. The ways on which talented and committed individuals, some paid professionals, but many not giving of their time voluntarily, support others, campaign for change or indeed just offer very ordinary but humane support is huge and amazing.

It’s a different world from one which is trivialised on the news over how many kitchens a politician has. In this conversation we see the infrastructure of the social and welfare state creaking and bending.

The risk is, apart from what happens to individuals, that the gaps between these two worlds accentuates and on so doing it becomes much harder to have the political conversation and so individuals become even more disconnected from political discussions.

This is a theme to which I will return.

Predicting results.. what works and what doesn’t

Predicting election results is a mix of art and science.  We can all think of polls and pundits in the past who have got it wrong.  But there are some signs observers can look out for to make at least a partial judgement.

Yesterday (March 5th) I attended an excellent event at the BBC in Media City which looked at the North West (the region with the joint highest number of marginal constituencies) and attempted to make some predictions.

This got me thinking about what we should be looking for as indications of potential political success at election time.  So I’ll be writing a few pieces about the various measures and what they might mean.

Yesterday’s predictions, which only involved four seats in the North West region changing hands, used a number of factors including financial donations, polling data, local election results, incumbency factors and so on.  Audience members raised other potentially significant aspects such as levels of activism, key campaign issues and the personalities of the various contenders.

The aspect I am concentrating on today is local election results.

It is easy to look at a constituency, look at the local election results in the run up to a General Election, and make a party-based judgement on those figures.  In fact, in isolation, local election results are among the weakest of predictors of GE success.  Let’s take Edge Hill’s local constituency, West Lancashire.  In the run up to 2010 there had been Conservative local victories in Skelmersdale.  (If you don’t know the area, think in terms of Labour suddenly winning Surrey).

These were unexpected and many felt this pointed to a growth in Tory support that would turn out the incumbent Rosie Cooper.  In fact , although there was a small vote-share increase for the Conservatives, in line with the national trend, Ms Cooper is still the MP and had a 2010 majority of more than four thousand.

The thing is, local elections are simply different.  Firstly the turnout can be considerably lower than in a General.  Secondly, party allegiance can be weaker.  Finally the personality and activity level of a local candidate, particularly one running on an “us against them” ticket can be significant in a way that simply does not transfer.   This becomes apparent on those polling days when a General Election and Local Election take place on the same day in the same area.  Vote-splitting can be very common.

So what do local election results tell us?

Well they give some indication of party organisation.  A badly organised party will not  usually manage a large number of victories.  They give some indication of activist levels as volunteers need to be found to stand and again found to campaign. And they give some indication of local roots and knowledge.

But what they don’t do is tell us who will become an MP.

In 2001, had local election results been an indicator of national success I would have become an MP in Liverpool.  This on its own should be a warning to those who put too much prediction weight on the colour of the local council.

Why changing how public services are run and financed is off the agenda

How public services are funded and how they are run have been two central questions to dominate news and political conversations.

The scale of problems associated with the NHS, from the crisis in A&E to the scandals revealed in the Francis Report in Staffordshire, have all been about money and staffing.

And yet, as the General Election gets closer these two questions are moving into the background. It seems to me that whilst the headlines are all about poor funding and inadequate staffing levels, both of the major parties are not quite sure what the answers are. They would rather the discussion was focussed on the personalities and the gaffes (as much as they say they would rather concentrate on the issues).

We saw last week with the news that the new Greater Manchester body is to be given responsibility (or share it with existing NHS organisations) for all health spending that the major parties were not sure how to react. In a sense it was a counter intuitive response : the Conservatives who are supposed to be sceptical about the way Labour Councils are run, is in fact, transferring millions of pounds and responsibility for a range of services to an overwhelmingly Labour dominated new authority. And Labour, who are supposed to favour greater devolution, found themselves with their national spokesperson on Health being critical of the proposal. And (predictably) the news followed these two apparent contradictions.

I want to suggest that what they tell us is that neither party is clear (or confident) about what to do next.

The funding crises in the public sector is built in for the next five years. Austerity is not over we are about to move into the next phase – Austerity 2.0. The real discussion needs to be about what we are prepared to fund (both the level and the scale of service) and that avoiding either of those two questions does not help the public conversation.

Unaccustomed as I am…..

This Spring sees the last lot of party conferences before the big event.

Some are specific national conferences, like the Conservative Welsh Conference that has just taken place.  Others are UK wide, like the Lib Dem conference due to take place later in March (13/14/15th) and Ukip’s event in Margate. Organisations such as “grassroots” organisation Conservative Home also hold events around this time.

Party conferences serve a wide range of functions, from policy-making, to socialising, from training to selling.  But the ones just before a General Election are those in which each party tries to make the event a “shop window” on vote winning policies and camera friendly delegates.

For everything happening on stage, there is as much if not more going on just out of sight.  The aim is to get the best camera angles, the best speeches, the most TV coverage.

Likely policy announcements are trailed weeks in advance with a drip-drip approach to media management.  Sessions are timed so that the most vote-worthy happen at the times most likely to provide an audience.  And of course the Leader’s speech is briefed out in advance and planned with a good clutch of soundbites in mind.

This might make attending conference as a delegate seem a little pointless.  But party members still compete for places at these events and put great stress on being there and taking part.

As a regular conference goer I find it fascinating to watch the changes that happen as the electoral cycle goes round.  Conferences shortly after an election can be loud and argumentative.  Those shortly before tend to be well disciplined and worthy.

In 2005, Florence Faucher-King published her work on the anthropology of party conferences. She spent years immersing herself in four different party cultures (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green).  From who has votes to who has voices, this is a fascinating look at how the tribes behave.

But the tribe of members is arguably less important at a pre General Election conference than the tribe of media. This Spring, watch out for those manifesto moments.

(I’ll be taking a separate look at any comment worthy party conference happenings as this blog goes on. The BBC’s Parliament Channel often covers large amounts of each party conference so it’s the place to go to for conference obsessives).

Why policy matters and why we need to talk about it more

The General Election campaign, not formally announced but underway,is being dominated by the personalities (or lack of).

So it matters that the Green Leader had a difficult interview or that senior MPs can offer to trade their services for £5,000 a day but that other (potentially more significant things) issues can be ignored or missed altogether.

An important announcement by the Government some time ago (and backed by the other major parties) was the decentralisation of decision making and budgets to something called the City Region of Greater Manchester.

The language is not as important as the act and the decision that have been made.

All the decisions on policing, fire and rescue, transport, planning and infrastructure will be made by the leaders of the 10 authorities in Greater Manchester. Alongside some decisions on education and training (probably related to skills and apprenticeships).

At some point, possibly 2017 or 2018, an elected mayor will be responsible – a kind of Boris Johnson mark two. And now the Government are saying that all health spending will be devolved too. So goodbye Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). And what about the NHS restructure introduced in 2010? The new addition has major implications for the kind of health service we have, we might want and we might hope for. But that wont be part of the General Election campaign.

The decision to decentralise is a really important and significant one. There is a whole set of arguments which support it and , indeed, it can be seen that it brings decisions closer to where we live.

But not to include it as part of the May 2015 conversation is a big error and misses the trick of connecting policy decisions to the wishes of local communities and thus brings the national (or in this case a kind of regional) to the local.

Its part of the accountability and transparency that makes civic society healthy (or healthier than it is) and we should be asking questions about what this new announcement means. It could be a way of reviving our public and policy conversations.

 

What price an MP?

In the wake of the cash for access scandal there has been much comment about MPs remuneration and whether they should have incomes beyond their role as MPs.

The various comments by Sir Malcolm Rifkind – the free time he had on his hands; dismissing his salary of £67,000; his right to have a higher standard of living given his professional background etc. – put paid to his political career and we await to see what happens to Jack Straw.

The arguments for raising the pay of MPs are familiar, i.e. in order to get the brightest and best candidates you need to pay more, or you can’t expect talented people who would otherwise go to the City or the Bar to sacrifice themselves and their living standards and manage on an MPs salary.

But the logic of the market cannot be applied to the role of a Member of Parliament. This is a highly privileged position which is essentially about access and proximity to power.

This is what often gets missed when the role of an MP is compared to any other job in financial terms.

Much can be made about public service but the role is essentially about power and everyone who puts themselves forward to become an MP in the Palace of Westminster are well aware of this.

That’s why I don’t buy the ‘logic of the market’ arguments. If MPs choose to use their privileged position to line their own pockets or feel put out that they are not earning what other ‘high-fliers’ earn, then they are in the wrong place and should look for employment elsewhere.

Words… words…words

Is there any phrase more annoying than “hard- working families”?  This seems to have entered the political phrasebook and is now trotted out by just about every party on just about every occasion.  Some say it was first used in the 1990s although Liverpool University’s Dr Stuart Wilks Heeg has pointed out a use in Hansard in the 1920s. (Just above the start of column 515)

When George Orwell wrote about Politics and the English Language back in the 1940s he argued that for clear thinking you needed clear language.  He wanted political writing to be more direct and straight forward.

One reason I dislike the phrase “hard-working families” is that it combines vagueness with a sort of “dog whistle message” intended to push certain buttons.  If you think about it, how on earth can a family actually be hard-working (unless of course the children are up the chimney and granny is on piece work)?

I suspect this coming election will be full of words and phrases that either don’t mean a lot or mean a huge amount if you can pick up the signals.

So to join “hard-working families”  here are the other two in my starter list of three words or phrases that should go in the banned box.

“I want to start a debate on this”.  A common political phrase in interviews and discussions which roughly translates as “don’t really know what I think about this one”.

“Firm but fair immigration”.  What on earth does that mean?  If the opposite doesn’t work (in this case flabby and unfair immigration) then the phrase carries no concrete meaning.

Writing speeches is not easy.  Taking part in interviews and debates can be tricky.  So you can see why scribes and speakers fall back on their regular phrases.

But I wonder if, this time, we can have a little less obfuscation and a little more of Orwell’s clarity.