Will we miss quangos?

Local councils will soon find their desks swamped in paper. Soon the very wood that constructs the tables will be obscured by these reports (the only way to know the table is there, I guess, will be the reassuring knowledge that the mountain of paper is not on the floor.)This is part of Cameron’s much trumpeted ‘Big Society’ pledge, as he hopes to put control, power and monetary freedom in the hands of local councils, to be moulded and used as they see fit. Custom made legislation for the tall, short, fat and thin, dependent on dimensions. In many facets of government, the sections obscured from public view by technicalities or the lack of interest, this will be a welcome change from the bloated tangled knot of bureaucracy, but the strength of this ambitious plan will not be measured in those venues, it will hinge on the frontline service, including healthcare.

In a NHS whitepaper released earlier this month, Andrew Lansley outlined his view for our health service. He wrote: “We will be clear about what the NHS should achieve; we will not prescribe how it should be achieved. We will legislate to establish more autonomous NHS institutions, with greater freedoms, clear duties, and transparency in their responsibilities to patients and their accountabilities.” It is in the GP’s and local council’s hands concerning how treatment, organisation, and more importantly, funding should be administered. This tailored approach, it’s hoped, will alleviate some of the major qualms concerning the NHS. On the ground, on the frontline, they will understand the allocations far greater than any politician. But what the politician will know, and what the GP won’t, is how much money there is in the first place and how much there is to be shared around. The great conservative quango hunt, undertaken by the coalition government, has resulted in nine healthcare related organisations to be made smaller, funding slashed, or removed altogether. The knot may seem less densely mangled but should such an upheaval be coupled with swathes and swathes of cuts?

The needs for hospitals and healthcare services are not political, but their funding is. The freedom to shape local services cannot blind the NHS to the stricter budgetary concerns afflicting the government. Say what you will about quangos, say they are expensive to run (apparently costing the country over £180 million), say they have financial motives behind their work, say they do not understand the work that goes on in the NHS, there are many things to be said, but what they can do, when operated honestly, is to create a buffer between the health service and the government. They can mediate, translate and inform; they dilute the science, making it palatable for the political tastes, whilst conveying the legislative or budgetary realities to the councils and health services. They also offer up a wide angle lens. Due to their size and organisation they are able to take in account the national picture. Funding cannot be given for all that is asked, there simply isn’t enough to go around. Money is segmented between areas dependent on demographics, services and situations, but the view of the GPs and the local councils, one penned in by personal and professional interest, will only focus on what they are and are not getting.

The quangos that have been cut have had their remits enveloped within other agencies creating larger cumbersome bodies that may lack the manoeuvrability and adaptability of the old organisations. But for the coalition, for the Big Society it is an easy sell. All the coalition need to do is to repeat the word ‘quango’ coupled with the figure ‘£180 million’ as many times as possible and as quickly as possible and many will be onside, cheering on the dismantling process. But with less money to go around and the demands of the NHS showing no sign of slowing down, the dangers of giving the children the keys to the candy store is that the promised freedom for the local councils will be perpetually out of their reach. Invariably the politics will get in the way and as a result Cameron’s push to limit bureaucracy may in fact muddy and complicate the issue. The knot remains.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité (but some more equal than others)

In France, insurrection is stirring once more. This time, the rebellion comes from within the elite universities, the grandes écoles, as they vehemently oppose the government’s efforts to impose a target on scholarships, forcing them to accept more diversification. These institutions are highly elitist: 90% of students are middle or upper class, the vast majority are white. Nearly all France’s political and business leaders have been trained at the écoles. It is a prerequisite to success. It is demonstrably a system of self-perpetuating elitism.

The state rhetoric of meritocracy and republican virtue is rendered void by the attitudes and practices of the institutions and a powerful minority. Educational leaders argue that the reforms would lead to a ‘lowering of standards.’ They imply that scholarship candidates are less able. In fact they are simply less schooled in a very specific skill set.

In order to enter the grandes écoles, one has to pass the concours. Middle and upper class children are often prepared for these exams from a very young age and are likely to take a year out to prepare. This is obviously a luxury many families cannot afford. These notoriously difficult tests require a deep and detailed knowledge of French culture. This is a breeze for children whose parents are alumni of the grandes écoles and expect the family tradition to continue. They have probably been played Debussy in the womb and fallen asleep to Molière as a bedtime story. Children of different heritage, or from lower socio-economic groups have less chance of success.

But fate is set even before the concours. Getting into the right lycée and taking the right baccalauréat determine a child’s future. Even primary school places are a factor as they can determine which secondary school the child attends. This has lead to richer parents using cleaners’ addresses and renting flats closer to schools- tactics not unheard of here. However, the most frequent, well documented and worrying means to ensure their child’s place at the right school seems to be making a call to a powerful friend. This is attributed to a Tocquevillian attitude, ‘La règle est rigide, la practique est molle.’ (the rules are rigid, the practice is not.) For those with connections, perhaps.

Gaetano Mosca, the father of democratic elitism, famously declared that ‘ruling classes do not justify their power exclusively by de facto possession of it, but try to find a moral and legal basis for it, representing it as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognised and accepted.’

In France, and elsewhere, a system that appears to be democratic, open and universal is used and subverted by those with superior wealth and power. For evidence of this in the UK, see Nik Williams’ marvellous article on the class character of the latest government proposals on education. Disadvantage at an early age too often means disadvantage in later life. To reform at university level is a step in the right direction, although perhaps it is too late. Equal opportunities must be ensured from the outset so, as Chevènement said, the elite is based on its ‘work, worth and talent’, rather than its wealth, birth and contacts.

Channel 4 News let itself down over the Zac Goldsmith expenses story

Channel 4’s investigation into Zac Goldsmith’s general election expenses has not been a good advert for new politics, or indeed for old journalism.

Let’s deal with Goldsmith first.  Clearly there is a case to answer on his expenses.  Whether it’s posters paid for by council candidates that don’t mention the council campaign, or jackets with stickers on where only the stickers are counted as an expense, it doesn’t look good.  His defence – that all election candidates follow the rules in the same way he did – is a poor one.  It’s practically an admission of guilt. 

His appearance on Channel 4 News should also be used as an example to all politicians of how not to defend yourself against an allegation.  He must have seen enough of them giving this sort of interviews during the parliamentary expenses scandal – watch a few of those tapes, Zac.  Spending the first eight minutes arguing over the content of emails about whether or not he had agreed to be interviewed – supposedly, his honour had been traduced – made him look childish.  When you already have a hairstyle more suited to a student union bar than the House of Commons, appearing like an adult should be priority number one.

But for the most part, I am disappointed with Channel 4 News for its handling of this.  First of all, Jon Snow was every bit as guilty for spending those eight minutes arguing over emails.  It made bad tv and gave the viewers nothing.  Why didn’t he just give Goldsmith a minute or two to say whatever he wanted to say about the emails?  He could have responded with a line like, “I’m confident our viewers know we always strive to give those we are investigating every opportunity to defend themselves, so if you want to raise this with Ofcom go ahead,” and then moved on to the actual accusations.  Instead he engaged in the detail of the emails in a very unconvincing way.  I can only assume that Snow’s massive ego was bruised by the accusation over his journalistic ethics, and he just couldn’t let it go.  In future, Jon, just let the viewers make their own minds up.

About the investigation as a whole, Channel 4 News has done a poor job of explaining why they are focusing on Zac Goldsmith alone.  In the original piece and in the interview with Goldsmith, they mention that they looked at lots of MPs and Goldsmith’s stood out as the campaign that appeared to spend the most money while remaining below the spending limit.  Maybe that’s true, but where’s the evidence?  On both occasions this explanation was given to us as an aside – it should have been front and centre in any discussion of the issue, and we should have at least some evidence of how Goldsmith compares to other MPs being investigated.

However, even if it’s their belief that Goldsmith spent more than anyone else, does this justify the exclusive focus on him?  No.  They should have conducted and published an investigation into election expenses among all MPs.  There could have been a reasonable basis for choosing to focus on a subset of MPs, such as those who spent just under the limit, or those in close marginal seats.  Having done this, they could present Goldsmith as an example – perhaps a particularly bad one – of possible rule-breaking among a number of MPs.  It would have left Goldsmith in just as much trouble with the Electoral Commission, and would have denied him the chance to spin this as him being picked on by Jon Snow et al.  Instead, Channel 4 News has left itself looking opportunistic and sloppy.

Goodbye Regionalism, hello….?

Did you see it, tucked away, deftly disguised in the small type, you know, the same small print the Chancellor promised we wouldn’t need to read? There it was, bold as brass: “Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) will be abolished” as part of the transition towards new “Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs).”

This is a momentous step, in Eric Pickles’ hyperbolic words, “in wresting control from the bureaucrats, stopping the top down diktats and axing unelected, ineffective Quangos. It’s the nail in the coffin of the unelected, unaccountable and unwanted Regional Assemblies”.

In other words the Coalition has won the greatest victory for democracy since Lando nailed the Death Star mk II reactor core.

Few people will mourn the passing of regional government agencies; they have become poster boys for inefficient and wasteful big government despite two independent studies found they were among the most efficient and economically productive of all government agencies. And while it is true that the North and Midlands have fallen further behind London and the South East RDA’s were never formulated in a way that could meaningfully reduce these inequalities, and in fact their approach continued to perpetuate their underlying causes.

Regional governance had serious flaws and was fatally strangled from birth by a dual lack of political legitimacy and the lack of power to make real political or economic decisions that could shape the development of their regions.

RDAs operated along a neo-liberal view of the world as a global market place and the result was a focus on making the region as attractive as possible to private investment to power economic growth. But each region has an RDA playing the same zero-sum game, all trying to make their region as attractive as possible to private business through identikit business parks, urban redevelopment schemes, research and development zones and water front development schemes.

Long-term plans for environmental sustainability and social inclusion were marginalised by a self-defeating attempt to attract private capital to drive economic growth. The logic of this competitive regional model ensures that London and the South East will continue to experience the greatest investment, building on their already privileged position and comparative advantage in terms of concentrations of both economic and social capital.

In place of genuine democratic decisions shaping the regional agenda, there was an imposition of a one-size-fits-all model that was overly concerned with structures and functions rather than real human outcomes; and an overemphasis on private enterprise driven economic growth over socially and environmentally sustainable development. In many ways regional government was a metaphor for the whole New Labour project, except Yorkshire Forward didn’t invade a Middle Eastern country.

So now that regional government is dead what alternative is the Coalition offering to reinvigorate local democracy? Well, the joint letter from Pickles and Cable, sent out to all local authority leaders the week after the budget, gives some indication of what their plans may look like.

This letter set out the vague outline of the new LEPs: lightweight and pro-business. So pro-business, in fact, they should have equal representation from the private sector and be chaired by a suitably worthy local big wig, which is an interesting take on democratising local government.

But at the same time as asking for ideas on what these LEP’s should look like, the letter announced the renationalising of a whole swath of decision-making areas that had previously been exercised at the regional level. So despite the “Localism, Localism, Localism” mantra, it seems that power and authority is flowing upwards towards the centre, not trickling down to local communities.

And while local authorities may, and it’s a big ‘may’ at this point, be permitted a greater degree of discretionary control over local spending priorities, the bigger, more strategic planning clearly cannot be trusted to the oiks in the regions.

So what possible reason could they possible give for this apparent contradiction to mask the political wrangling between Cable and Pickles?

Well, it’s because “we believe some of these [policies] are best led nationally.” Well, why didn’t they say so? That’s perfectly understandable, say no more. As the Tories have consistently claimed: a distant Quangocrat in Sheffield cannot not understand the situation on the ground in Rotherham, and an RDA in an office in Newcastle is an albatross around the neck of the struggling small business man in Middleborough.

However, the Whitehall civil servant deciding investment policy in the North West, like the man from Del Monte flying into some small Latin American country to pick oranges and install a military regime – well, it turns out that he knows best, after all.

Save 6 Music, if you must, but sell Radio 1 and Radio 2

So the BBC’s digital radio station 6 Music has been saved from closure by the BBC Trust, the gaggle of professional board members and luvvies who represent the public within the Beeb. Whether you agree with this (non-)decision or not, there are serious issues about public service broadcasting that are strangely missing from the debate.

I’ll be honest – I’m not a fan of 6 Music. I think it celebrates indie mediocrity and provides a haven for presenters who aren’t quite funny enough for Radio 1 or nice enough for Radio 2 or pretty enough for television. But that’s not the point.

In fact, on balance I think 6 Music probably should be retained. But my concern is that the debate about 6 Music – perhaps the most significant engagement of the public in an issue concerning public service broadcasting since the Andrew Gilligan affair – has been conducted exclusively in terms of whether or not 6 Music is any good.

As I said, it’s not good. Tiny listening figures suggest (albeit not definitively) that most people agree with me about that. But the whole point of public service broadcasting is that it sustains things that might not be as entertaining as the other channels and stations, precisely because they are in the public interest. 6 Music’s ostensible aim to nurture new artists is, arguably, a very positive thing.

Very few people have bothered to make this argument. A small band of people seem hell-bent on rescuing 6 Music but have not utilised the strongest argument in support of their campaign. Thirty years of neoliberalism has destroyed the value of public service broadcasting in UK political discourse and values.

Here’s an idea for you. Save 6 Music, but sell Radio 1 and Radio 2. The BBC’s flagship radio stations provide virtually no public interest. I am not saying that public-owned broadcasters should not attempt to entertain. But it should entertain for artistic reasons, not just to chase ratings. The little bits of public service provided by Radio 1 and Radio 2 could easily be provided by the BBC’s other stations, or by public funding of private sector providers. It is certainly the case that Chris Moyles, Chris Evans et al would be able to find gainful employment elsewhere, as much as it pains me to admit that. There is simply no case grounded in the value of public service broadcasting to expect taxpayers to fund two huge institutions which operate as a near-duopoly in UK radio.

There must be an alternative

Am I missing something? The Alternative Vote system is a crock of shit. First of all, it is a majoritarian system not a proportional system. AV is zero percent more proportional than first-past-the-post. It is simply more true to the principle of majoritarianism that FPTP, because it insists on candidates winning 50%.

Yet it is how this 50% is created that is the problem. If no candidate gets 50%, the candidate with the least number of votes is ‘eliminated’. And here’s the rub: it is only his or her ‘second preferences’ that get counted. They count as a full vote, so if those second preferences are enough to push any other candidate above 50% when added to their existing total, they win. If 50% has not been reached, the next lowest is eliminated. And so on.

This is ridiculous. The notion of elimination has absolutely nothing to do with democracy. In other words, why do people who vote for the least popular candidates get to vote twice? There is no principled reason for this. I am not saying that anyone who votes for the Jury Team (who!?) or the Scottish Conservatives or the local TV has-been is an idiot who does not deserve to vote twice. Rather, the point is that no one person deserves to get a second vote any more than anyone else – no matter who their first vote was for.

It is very easy to get bogged down in the details of different electoral systems. But the simple fact is that AV is palpably absurd. If popularity matters, then first-past-the-post works. If proportionality matters, that a fully proportional system is the only option. Have a mixture of these two in a top-up system, if you like. But if second preferences are to be used, you count them all. To do anything else is an insult to the electorate.

Free schools: splitting the class down the middle

So the time has come, Michael Gove has set out the formation of ‘Free Schools’ run by members of the public, charities or businesses, in houses, halls, shops or anywhere with a roof and a table, it would seem. While we have seen Greg Clark open the gates to the localist angle of the new coalition, this is the largest, more contentious segment of The Conservatives’ manifesto and vision and it is bound to define the relationship between the left and right fringes of the coalition government.

 Friday 18th June was the day that people could start sending in applications, which involves a complex web of tests, business plans and checks that seems to be contrary to The Conservatives’ wish to limit bureaucracy within the government. Like many aspects of modern policy making (European drinking hours for example), it is lifted from another country or region, this time Sweden, potentially ignoring the social, cultural and political differences that divide both countries. Cameron and Gove seem somewhat defiant that it is the concept of free schools alone that propels Sweden into the stratosphere it terms of infant literacy rates and standards of education.

This education policy seems to be formulated along the lines of “’I would like to see you do better!’ ‘Ok I will!’” and it opens up the question about who will take on this role. Alongside trusts, charities and businesses, individuals and parents will be allowed to start up a school and it has to be asked, who can afford to start a school without an income of their own? With Free Schools functioning along the ‘not for profit’ ideology, it is rather clear that this scheme is targeted not at the majority of parents but to the minority of wealthy, not-required-to earn parents. This, coupled with the potential halting of free school meals, set up as a pilot by Labour, a choice by The Tories that seems to function solely on a symbolic level rather than one of sound politics, will have many realising that Cameron’s Conservatives may not be  very different from Major’s or Thatcher’s.

As stated in The Telegraph, a recent study undertaken by The Institute of Education stated that the benefits of the Swedish Free School system were minimal, being advantageous to children of highly educated families, therefore excluding those from poorer backgrounds. Many will not be surprised. A Tory plan that benefits the wealthy, should we be surprised? But when we talk about a government we are not talking about a Conservative Government, but a Coalition Government and Clegg’s involvement is problematic. Nick Clegg’s choice to enter into this union cut him off from many elements to the left of his own party. To them he was bedding down next to the enemy for his own political gain. The parties represented the two binary opposites on the British political ladder, two positions where semblances of policy and ideologies are scarce if any.  He held the majority of his party together on the promise that he could draw The Tories nearer the centre, restraining their more extreme fringes. The IOE’s research damages this pledge; many will see The Tories pandering to their base unhindered, while Nick Clegg’s influence is cast aside as unwanted baggage.

Standing beside Cameron as he sets out this policy, that many will see as unfairly balanced along class lines, could poison the Liberal Democrat’s chances come five years. Nick Clegg’s promise to rein in the extremist policy needs to materialise, needs to be visible and only then can this union that he jumped in to appear to be fair and right for the country and his party. The outcome of this education gamble could fail and, while many will take solace in the fact that it could sabotage The Conservative’s chance to hold on to Downing Street, it could also upturn the Liberal Democrat’s own leadership plans. What we could see is a rare left/right sweep that leaves the playing field wide open come 2015.