Saturday, 24 November 2012

Is the UK set to become part of the "post-developed" world?

Britain's politicians and business bosses like to paint our country as a "world leader": a thriving, socially-progressive First World hub of technological  innovation and ruthlessly efficient public services.

But the other day, as I sat at my computer writing a story about the cut to local councils' road maintenance budgets - further reducing their ability to patch up our ever more pockmarked roads - it occurred to me that a new term was needed to describe Britain's socio-economic status.

Just as we use the term "post-industrial" to describe a society that has moved beyond heavy industry and instead employs people to make flat whites and work in "creative design agencies", web start-ups and investment banking, we need a fresh phrase for a country that is dismantling its national health service, savagely cutting social care and even reducing weekly bin collections.

My friend, a fiendishly clever policy wonk (think Data in Star Trek) who works for a local authority, suggested "post-developed de-developing countries," which, while not particularly catchy, captures it quite nicely.

But while my friend and I were being light-hearted, the implications here are far from funny. Think this is just petty scaremongering? What the majority of people don't realise when talking about "the cuts" is that most of them haven't happened yet (as my friend put it: "we've only eaten a polo mint so far, but the main course is on its way").

Plotted on a graph, you can see local authorities budgets plummeting just as service demand from Britain's ageing population is set to sharply spike - and that isn't taking into account the extra demand created by the cuts to services (for example, cuts to adult social care will mean a rise in pensioner hospital admissions).

The satirical news site the Daily Mash ran a story this week headlined: "Britain to probably have some electricity in 2014." The scary thing is, I wouldn't have been that surprised if it had been genuine.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Why do we need elected police commissioners? Don't be fooled, this isn't about devolving power to local communities, it's a chance to shift the blame

After election fever comes the comedown.

As those days and nights spent sweating over the prospect of a Romney victory, watching Karl Rove's mathematical meltdown, and wondering whether Obama really could take Florida dissipate into the cold reality of "fiscal cliffs" and "grand bargains", elections junkies the country over are being forced to go cold turkey. The  psephologists have crawled back to their academic lairs and Nate Silver has been returned to his magic box.

But just when it seems nothing could top the thrill of seeing Romney vanquished and Obama re-elected as only the forth Democrat President to win two terms since 1900, a new election hoves into view. And this one you can actually vote in! Yes, that's right dear voter, this Thursday is the elections for England and Wales' 41 police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

Except, inexplicably, it seems the rest of the UK isn't exactly radiating with enthusiasm. Large numbers are completely oblivious to the fact it's even taking place, with voter turnout expected to dip below 20%, a record low for a national UK election, while the vast majority of people are unable to name any of their local candidates.

All of which suggests this was not a burning issue for the UK electorate. So why exactly is it happening? And what will the new commissioners actually do? According to the Home Office website, the PCCs will have influence over key areas like CCTV, street lighting, graffiti and tackling gangs, but their central purpose is to
ensure the policing needs of their communities are met as effectively as possible, bringing communities closer to the police, building confidence in the system and restoring trust.
In other words, it's all about local democracy: "Bringing more of a public voice to policing and giving the public a name and a face to complain to if they aren't satisfied."

Which is convenient, because with a 20% cut to the police budget in the pipeline and the loss of 15,000 officers by 2015, one would imagine there's a whole lot of people about to feel very unsatisfied. Notice a rise in anti-social behaviour or a drop-off in police response times a couple of years down the line? Don't bother the Government with your quibbling, your PCC clearly just hasn't been doing their job properly. Off with their head.

The idea that this is a genuine exercise in localism just simply isn't credible, because the Coalition is only interested in devolving power to two sectors: the private and the voluntary. If you want to know what Cameron and Osborne really think of local government, go and count the number of empty offices at council buildings across the land.

While I'm sure the individual PCCs will, once elected, work hard for their local communities, they ultimately look set, as Polly Toynbee put it in Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-Time, to be "squeezed into insignificance between an interventionist Home Office and the private contractors lined-up to take over large slices of policing." This is, after all, a Home Office determined to decide where and how the money is spent like never before. Ironically, it's with the privatisation of the police that the PCCs could have the most - indeed, a worrying amount - of influence. As shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pointed out in a piece for the Guardian:
The new commissioners will face serious decisions on the future of policing and private contracts. A strong push is under way both from Tory government ministers and from private companies to contract out large swaths of public policing, yet there has been no debate about the risks or the safeguards needed.
The introduction of PCCs also further politicises our police force. While the founder of the modern police force Sir Robert Peel's claim that the police should act "in complete independence of policy" was always a pipedream - the Battle of Orgeave, anyone? - there's no question that the PCC system has the potential to turn policing into a microcosm of party politics.

But let's not be pessimistic. My hope is that individual PCCs will use their position to hold central government to account: speaking up on swingeing cuts, vehemently opposing further privatizations and loudly voicing the concerns of their local communities. They might have been intended as political window dressing, but who's to say they can't make their voices heard?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A personal, last-minute letter from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to the American electorate

Dear America,

I think 47% of you are feckless types dependent on Government handouts. As a hedge fund manager I destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs and my people skills are so poor that I actually told an interviewer I preferred data to people.

I look forward to your vote.



Saturday, 3 November 2012

Class, a new left-wing think tank, can help craft a coherent response to this Government's cruel indifference to inequality

Last Wednesday I attended the parliamentary launch of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), a new think tank set-up by Unite the Union to act as a lightening rod for left-wing debate and discussion.

There was a packed turn-out in one of the Commons' beautiful Committee Rooms to see speeches by, among others, Independent columnist Owen Jones, TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady, and Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the brilliant The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

The parliamentary launch centred around the release of Class's recent publication Why Inequality Matters (available to read online here), which draws heavily on the ideas of The Spirit Level. For those that haven't read it, the central thesis is simple: the larger a society's income inequality, the more devastating its social problems.

Whereas Peter Mandelson famously said that New Labour were "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" as long as they paid their taxes, The Spirit Level empirically shows that material inequality actually leads to higher rates of mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancies, and even murder, while severely limiting social mobility, trust and life expectancy.

Owen Jones rightly pointed out that a think tank can't single-handedly save the world, but the launch of Class is genuinely important as a means of helping the left present a coherent response to policy planners and journalists. As someone tweeted to me recently: "While the left thinks about things deeply, the right acts." And you know what? They're spot on. As right-wing economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1962:
Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. [my italics]
And that's precisely what a think tank can do: float ideas in the pubic sphere ready for when they are needed.

Take, for example, the banking crash in 2008, a time when the "politically impossible" certainly did become "politically inevitable" - large swathes of the UK banking system were nationalised in order to prevent the entire global economy going belly-up, something that even those on Labour's far-left could hardly have dared dream of.

Unregulated free-market capitalism was shown to be profoundly knickerless, but the financial system has largely carried on as if the whole thing was an unfortunate blip  thanks to the lack of a coherent left-wing response (I recommend reading Class's "think piece" on the effects of the crash, a brilliant summary of the idiocy of free market dogma: not only is it profoundly unjust, it's also economically unsound).

Faced with high unemployment, a rapidly vanishing welfare state and a shocking lack of social housing, Britain in 2012 is calling out for some fresh ideas. Let's hope Class can help deliver them.