One school’s journey 3 of 3 – 5 lessons for public services

Telferscot 3Telferscot School, the primary school where I am Chair of Governors has been passed as Outstanding by Ofsted. In my previous two articles I have looked at how the school has achieved this, and the role of school governors. In this article I want to look at what lessons I have learned about how public services should be run. It shows that the grandstanding by commentators of both left and right is missing the point.

Lesson1: the public service ethic can work. Many on the right assume that no nationalised public service can work – that its workers are driven by instincts of self-preservation and personal advancement, and that the primary purpose soon gets lost. Many would like public schooling to be run on a voucher system, with the schools themselves being private businesses. And if not that, they want the state system to be contrived to be as close to that ideal as possible, with independently run schools competing for children. Telferscot is an ordinary state-run school, managed by the local authority. Its senior management are state employees on ordinary state-determined salaries with no special financial incentives for good performance. And yet it is as tightly managed as anything in the private sector, and clearly focused on its wider social goals. The driving motivation of managers and staff is to do public good. Without this motivation they would be tempted to cheat the system, and avoid the hard cases, so that the statistics look good while public services role is undermined. The professionalism that this implies is truly impressive.

Lesson 2: there must be a big bad wolf in the system. Trade unions try paint an opposite idea to the right-wing one. They want a public service run by publicly-spirited employees in a climate of collaboration for the public good. This idea might bring a tear to the eye, but I have seen no evidence that the public service ethic by itself is enough to drive improvement. The process of running any organisation well requires disruption and tension. There is always a big bad wolf that makes you do things that you don’t like doing, or confront difficult problems you want to put off to another day. In private business that big bad wolf is the need to stay profitable in a competitive environment. What is it in English schools? Above all it is the Ofsted inspection system, coupled with public performance measurement. Ofsted inspections are arbitrary and often superficial. The teaching unions hate them. But the consequences of a poor inspection can be dire for the careers of senior managers – while good ones provide them with a public accolade. It works.

Lesson 3: combine local management with national standards. Most public services are vast bureaucracies, bound by publicly discussed policies and procedures. Schools do not escape this pattern. Polices on teachers’ pay, for example, are negotiated nationally, and run to 115 pages, updated each year. But schools are run with a higher degree of local, discretionary management than almost any other branch of public services. Managers manage, rather than follow policies and procedures. Such discretion often ends badly in public services – but it works in schools because there is high public accountability. There is constant contact with the “customers” – the pupils and their parents. Ofsted inspections are a public process. Key performance data are publicly disclosed. But I think there needs to be something else: national standards. In schools this comprises the National Curriculum and basic assessment methods for results at key stages in a pupil’s career. These standards focus on outcomes – what schools are meant to achieve, rather than how. They can be overdone – an overly prescriptive curriculum, or testing that is too frequent. But without them it is easy to lose comparability, and accountability is lost. The current coalition government’s record on this is mixed. The last government tended to be over-prescriptive, adding in fashionable items according to the political priorities of the day – and the current government has done a decent job of paring this back. But some of its ideas on school curriculum are a bit “retro”, apparently based on the ideals of the past, rather than looking it what is needed now (look at history, for example). But the real problem is that they are giving the Academy schools too much freedom, which carries the risk of them going in tangential directions with a conflicting agenda. Problems with some faith schools have reached public attention, but it could betoken a bigger problem. The government has also thrown chaos into primary school assessment techniques, by taking away state sponsorship of progress measurement standards.

Lesson 4: inclusion is for everybody. There is a tendency amongst those who think about public services to focus on the neediest cases. This is understandable – they are the most challenging, and yet often it is where the system is least effective. And if money is tight, the temptation is to reduce resources available to everybody else. But there is a problem. Services that focus exclusively on the needy cease to be truly public; they promote a separate “underclass” who use public services, against the majority that do not. The less needy, those whinging middle classes, must be carried along too.  Telferscot achieves a lot of what it does through a good social mix. That means that the middle class children must do well, and their parents must like the school. They are happy to go along with the social inclusion agenda provided that they think that the system works for them too. One of the few places where our Head Teacher agrees with Michael Gove, the Conservative former Education Secretary, is that state schools should emulate private ones. They can’t do the small class sizes, but they can do an interesting and diverse curriculum. This is something both left and right are in danger of missing. The left tend to despise the middle classes and their needs (notwithstanding that most leftists are middle class themselves); the right want to economise by concentrating resources on the neediest. But social cohesion means that society must look after everybody’s interests, not just the neediest.

Lesson 5. Consider the whole person. The bane of public services is that they focus on diseases rather than patients, to use a medical analogy. In schools left-wing teachers used to shrug at poor results for deprived pupils. “Not our problem” they would say. Instead it was housing, jobs or something else outside their job-description. But the most exciting thing in schools over the last decade, especially in London, is the way that this attitude has been broken down. In order to improve their results, schools have been muscling into areas that are way outside a narrow view of their remit. They reach out to families who are experiencing difficulties. They take a leadership role in helping to resolve family problems, bringing in other services as required. As a result they are helping to solve problems rather than passing them on to other agencies. Families are not allowed to lower their expectations; they learn how to help themselves and be less dependent.

To me these lessons are an endorsement of a liberal public services agenda. But most political debate seems to be on irrelevancies – like the government’s programme of extending Academies.  The thinking on both left and right is stale. The right underestimates the need for public services to support social cohesion, and the commitment of taxpayer money needed to do this. The left would rather play the blame game than find constructive solutions to social problems. Both seem stuck in imagined past golden age. There is another way.

 

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Happy Christmas from Thinking Liberal

Today I was going to post the third in my series of reflections about being the governor of a successful school. But I suspect that too many people will be too busy to read it. Not coincidentally I’m probably too busy to write it anyway. I really should nip down to Waitrose to buy the final Christmas supplies before the shelves are stripped bare. And then wrap a few presents. And so on.

So instead I will just wish all my readers a Happy Christmas. Whether I resume posting next week remains to be seen…

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One school’s journey 2 of 3 – what should governors do? Examine effectiveness not policies

Telferscot 1Earlier this week I posted about the school where I am Chair of Governors, Telferscot Primary School in Balham. We are celebrating our recent acquisition of Outstanding status from Ofsted. That achievement mainly reflects on the school leadership, and in particular the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin. But what of the school’s governors? I suspect hat quite a few of my readers are, or have been school governors. Our journey may be of particular interest.

What is a school’s Governing Body supposed to do? Unfortunately you will not much practical help from officialdom, local or national, well-intentioned though they might be. For them the Governing Body conforms to a bureaucrat’s dream: responsibility without power. They see the Governing Body as the corporate embodiment of the school itself. They even address Council Tax bills to it. All the power rests with the Governing Body, which then delegates it based on a many-paged document, mainly to school management.

And yet governors do not feel that they are in such a position of power. They find themselves constrained by conventions and regulations that leave them with almost no practical responsibility. The Governors can’t pay those Council Tax bills; they can politely forward them to the school Bursar for due consideration. The Governing Body is not a day to day presence at a school, and deals with decisions referred to it, rather than being some kind of controlling presence. Many involved in education, especially teaching unions, just regard them as interfering amateurs that could easily be dispensed with altogether.

The bureaucrats (and legal advisers, come to that) try to reconcile the gap between responsibility and power through the idea of management by policy, and its cousin, procedure. They think of a well-run school having bulging files of policies and procedures that tell its management and staff what to do in any situation. These policies and procedures can be reviewed at regular intervals by governors, and they can politely suggest changes here and there, and therefore assert themselves to a degree, and be saddled with responsibility if anything goes wrong. But anybody that has run an effective organisation knows that management by policy is not a very good way of doing things. At best it is a waste of effort, as policies are ignored; at worst it leads to an over-cautious, defensive style of management that undervalues the role of leadership. Policies have their place in the best run organisations, but the more there are of them, the less value they have. Managers and staff should take decisions based on context and with a strong measure of common sense, things that are almost impossible to justice to in a detailed policy.

So what should a Governing Body do? This starts with the one area where they have undoubted power: the appointment of the Head Teacher. I was a governor when Telferscot appointed Ms Martin in 2001, but not on the recruitment panel – so I can’t claim any credit for that decision. But my colleagues’ approach was interesting. They did not pick the safest, best-qualified candidate. They picked a candidate that had little experience of headship, and showed every sign of causing trouble (as one of the members of the panel told me). They were inspired by Ms Martin’s vision, and felt that the school could do with a shake-up.  It was an inspired decision, and a case of governors making a real difference. It also shows that governors must embrace risk.

But once your Head is in place, then what? The relationship between the Head and governors goes to the absolute heart of the governors’ role. In a good relationship the governors provide a first level of accountability for the Head, and a sounding-board and support. This requires some imagination on both sides. The Head needs to appreciate that opening up to governors, bad news as well as good, is the only way to build a strong, supportive relationship. Ms Martin grasped this very early, and has welcomed governors into aspects of the school that other Heads would frown on. This includes having governors on staff recruitment panels, for example. It also means pushing the boundaries of confidentiality, especially with senior governors.

But governors have to earn this sort of confidence. That, of course, means being absolutely safe with confidential details. It also means being constructive and helpful – and not getting into oppositional role-plays for form’s sake. Good humour is essential. Governors and Head (and, indeed, other senior school managers) should enjoy being together and talking about the school. Headship can be a lonely job, and the educational bureaucracy is not usually very interested in what individual schools are up to, so long as they stay of trouble. A good governing body can provide an appreciative audience. Through this openness and interaction, governors build up a picture of what is happening at the school and of its strengths and weaknesses. So when it comes to the big things, they are ready.

This softer side is at the heart of effective governance. But it needs to work within a disciplined framework. Public bodies like schools are subject to external scrutiny. Scrutinisers need to see evidence.  That means getting basic frameworks of documentation right and up to date, decisions properly documented, and for it to be clear that the governing body is informed about all relevant aspects of the school. It also means documenting challenge – something our inspectors like to see. When meetings are good-humoured and when management is open about weaknesses, then challenge can be a little difficult to document – even though the process itself is challenging. But that is a matter of learning how to frame minutes.

But the governing body does need direction and focus. Here we have been following advice from the Department of Education (DfE) to get away from some of the details that governors have in the past been interested in – when I first became governor we talked endlessly about school swimming. Instead we need to get to basics of pupil progress and quality of teaching. This means looking at and discussing data, and getting away from mountains of policy approvals.

It has been a learning curve. But this is what Ofsted reported:

Governors have a thorough understanding of the work of the school, of pupils’ performance and of the school’s finances. They bring a range of expertise, knowledge and commitment which they have shared to good effect. Since the time of the last inspection they have used these to build on the school’s strengths and success. They seek and undertake training to make sure they are clear about their roles, standards and keeping children safe. The governing body plays a rigorous role in managing the performance of their headteacher and receive information about the performance of teachers and how they are rewarded and helped to improve. This is demonstrated through the improvements in pupils’

This  gives us the confidence to move forward. We are in the process of reconstituting the governing body and changing its formal lines of operation. We will continue our move away from policy documents to understanding what the school is doing and how effective it is. We plan to reduce the  number of committees and structure governor visits differently. We do not have a vision of a small, tightly run executive board, as DfE advice suggests, but of a larger body of interested people who collectively can examine many areas of the school’s activities, and provide school management with support as well as scrutiny. By and large these interested people will be parents. And meanwhile I am in the process of an orderly transfer of the role of Chair to putative successor (I’m in my eighth year – the recommended maximum).

As the school completes its move to two form entry, and takes on a second site, the future promises to be interesting. It has been a privilege to be involved in the school’s success.

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One school’s journey 1of 3 – characteristics of one outstanding school

Over a month ago now I, and four other Telferscot 2governors at Telferscot Primary School in Balham, were interviewed by the Ofsted inspector. As Chair I managed to show a good grip of our performance statistics and the general overview. But all the governors contributed knowledgeable answers . The highlight was when the inspector asked us about the curriculum – the parent governors burst into an enthusiastic description of what the school was doing – showing not just enthusiasm, but knowledge and understanding .

It was an impressive performance. And so went the rest of the inspection. Children, parents, teachers and staff, and above all the Head and management team, each delivered an impressive display. Ofsted’s report rated the school at its top grade, Outstanding, in all categories: leadership and management; behaviour and safety of pupils; quality of teaching; achievement of pupils; and early years provision. The school had always been a good one, but at last we had caught up with the ever-rising bar to be considered Outstanding. This was thoroughly deserved. The school’s journey was very much an individual one – but it still throws light on wider issues of public policy.

Back to the beginning. Ofsted, for the benefit of my non-English readers, is England’s chief regulator and inspector of schools. Its rating system has become the benchmark by which schools, especially state schools, are judged. School managers and staff live in dread of its inspections. Telferscot is a state primary school, covering ages 4-11 (Reception to Year 6), and a pre-school nursery. It is in transition from being single form entry (with a standard class size of 30) to two form, which now goes up to Year 3. A further two forms of entry, and a second school site, are in prospect. This makes it a relatively small school (currently) by London standards, though still above the average for the country as a whole. Its children are from mixed social and ethnic backgrounds, with a solid core of middle class families, but plenty of families in more challenging circumstances. It is a bit of an “average school” in its mix of pupils, and a sort of microcosm of the challenges facing the country’s school system as a whole – which ironically makes it rather unusual – most schools are more homogenous. I have been a governor since 1999, and Chair of Governors since 2007; the previous inspections by Ofsted that I experienced were in 2001 and 2009.

The school’s operations are based on three key areas: a broad curriculum; inclusion; and hard management. These three things are driven by the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin, who took over in 2001 – but the first two, at least, had foundations that go back before that. I would like to say a little about each of these three.

The idea of a broad curriculum contrasts with the alternative of a curriculum that focuses on the basics of literacy and numeracy.  The tension between these ideas shapes much of the debate on education, which, of course, does not stop lots of people trying to advocate both sides at once. The idea of a broad curriculum in turn rests on two ideas. First is that a broad curriculum is required to prepare children for later life; children need much more than basic literacy and numeracy – they need to know how to be socially responsible individuals , how to work with other people  and to enjoy the process of learning itself. The second is that a broad curriculum provides the best context in which the “basics” can be taught. It provides the opportunity to make such learning both more memorable and enjoyable. Children shouldn’t just know how to read; they should enjoy reading and be eager use their literacy to expand their horizons. At Telferscot the broad curriculum is focused on the idea of the “Creative Curriculum” – one that incorporates the arts. This means working with a number of arts groups, including London’s South Bank.

Inclusion means drawing in children from all backgrounds and working to ensure that they all share the same experience of school and know how to be together. One aspect is the multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-cultural side of the school, which celebrates its diversity. This is wonderful – but pretty routine for London. Much more challenging is bringing along those from difficult social backgrounds, where the children tend to lack support at home, and those with special learning needs or disabilities. The school has, in my memory, made no permanent exclusion of a pupil,  and only one temporary one. Inclusion is about knowing, and working with, the wider family, and about arranging for additional educational resources for those with additional needs. It also involves keeping the school open and active outside school hours, from 8am to 6pm. This aspect of the school’s work is one its most challenging, but clearly motivates school leaders – and it is inspiring.

Broad curriculum and inclusion are lovely, liberal ideas that lots of people will agree are a good thing. But making them happen and delivering excellent results across the whole school is another matter. This requires what I have called hard management. There are no easy rides; all people who work at the school feel accountable and pushed to achieve more. The primary instigator of this is, of course, the Head Teacher, Ms Martin (or rather, Miss Martin, as she is known at the school). The Head has to be both hard on everybody (not least herself), and to provide help and support -as well as fostering a spirit of teamwork and good humour that means that people enjoy working together. There are two important things I want to add about this aspect of running the school.

The first is that the school’s success really took off after it adopted a top-heavy approach to school management, with at first three and then four senior staff completely out of the classroom (not counting the non-teaching side), save for providing temporary cover for class teachers when absent. This gives the school’s management to strength and depth to deal with all the extra things the school must do to sustain a broad curriculum, inclusion and deep accountability. It need hardly be added that these managers need to operate as a real team, so that the Head can feel completely confident of the Deputy holding the fort, and so that each member of the team can feel they are making a real contribution to the school’s progress. Head teachers need to be strong personalities; not all find the transition to being team leaders easy.

The second thing is the use of data. The data here means test results and teacher assessments which show the progress each pupil is making in the core curriculum subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. This starts with publicised results for the “Key Stages” at the end of Years 2 and 6, including the Year 6 SATS tests. But while a lot of public attention is focused on these, school managers need something much more frequent to identify potential problems before it is too late to do something about them. Ofsted increasingly uses such data to understand progress, and the school management almost obsesses with it.

Many liberal minded observers of education worry about this emphasis on data. They worry that it undermines the idea of a broad curriculum and the real needs of children, and that it sucks the living soul out of education. But such criticism neglects two things. The first is that such a focus on data really is the only way of making sure that no child gets left behind, and true inclusion. In a class of 30 it is quite easy for teachers to focus on averages and miss the needs of a small number of quiet but underperforming children. Britain has a bad record on this – of leaving a neglected “tail”. The second thing is that one of the outputs of a broad curriculum should be achievement in the basics. It really does hold the whole process to account. If the data shows weaknesses in literacy or numeracy, then this really isn’t something to be glossed over. Telferscot’s emphasis on creative curriculum has a bias towards literacy, which is easy to integrate with the arts, rather than numeracy. The focus on data exposed this vulnerability and the the development of its maths teaching has been one of the main areas of focus for the school’s management, something that has heavily influenced recruitment, for example.

I could go on. I want to write two more articles. The next will cover the field of school governance – which is the bit where I personally can be said to have made a small contribution to the school’s success, and claim a slither of actual professional expertise. And finally I want to draw out some wider issues for the development of public services.

 

 

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Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

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Labour should be taking credit for the coalition’s economic policy, not whingeing about it

“Too far, too fast.” Remember that criticism of the British coalition government’s economic policies? It was repeated incessantly by Labour politicians in the first years of the government. And, it appears, the government was listening. The actual trajectory of progress on the country’s massive fiscal deficit is close to what Labour were recommending. And economic growth has returned. So what are Labour saying now? They are vilifying the government for going not going far enough and doing it too slowly!

It is, in fact, quite hard to understand Labour’s political strategy on the economy right now. The party lacks credibility, according to opinion polls. It is natural for them to try and change the subject, to more comfortable topics like public services, but foolish to think that they can avoid talking about it. Following yesterday’s Autumn Statement by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the biggest noise from the party was about the coalition’s broken promises. And indeed, back in 2010 the coalition’s plan was to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015; instead, it seems to be generally agreed, they will only be half way there. Progress is, in fact, more or less what was envisaged by Labour’s alternative plan. This sounds like criticising the government for following Labour policy.

It’s not a first. Labour were equally scathing about the government’s record on immigration, after its pledge to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 was spectacularly missed. And yet Labour was not advocating any policies that would have made this promise more achievable. Indeed it is not at all clear whether Labour would have done much different.

And there is a ready explanation for why both the government’s promises were not met. World events. Economic growth in the rest of the world, and especially elsewhere in Europe, has been below expectations. You can get only so far by rowing against the tide – and if you do on the economy, net migration goes against you. Of course neither promise should have been made (if indeed the deficit reduction plan can even be called a promise). They were dependent on matters outside the government’s control. This is obvious, and it is to grossly underestimate public intelligence to suggest that the anybody thought that the numbers were written in stone. What matters to the public is what the government should have been doing differently. And here there is no clear message coming from Labour benches.

What we get instead is a flood of expressions of discontent. Pay has not kept up with inflation (“the cost of living crisis”); the rich have been let off; we don’t like the public service and benefit cuts.  It’s all like the children’s complaint “it’s not fair!”. And the weary response of the public to this complaining is surely that of the child’s parent. It’s a difficult world. Could you manage any better?

What is the purpose of Labour’s relentless negativity? It is a poor way to attract votes to itself. Perhaps they just want to reduce turnout, or encourage Conservative voters to support Ukip? Perhaps they plan to flourish Labour’s vision of hope a bit closer to next year’s election? But the last time Labour won from opposition, in 1997, the message of optimism was clearly apparent by this stage. Labour seems to have an ambition to win a majority in Parliament with the smallest ever number of votes, by splitting opposition votes and persuading people to stay at home. What sort of a vision is that?

But I don’t Labour’s negative and confusing rhetoric is part of a cunning plan. It is a reflection of confusion that goes deep into Labour thinking, especially about the economy. The party has not admitted that it made major mistakes in handling the economy in the years up to 2007, at which point the economy collapsed. They mumble something about being a bit to easy on bankers. They also say that they should have been tougher on immigration, though exactly how, and whether this would have helped the British economy, is very unclear. Instead, in private, they complain that the criticism of their record is unfair, and that the public is wrong to blame them. It was the world banking crisis that did for them; and the government was not as profligate as it is made out.

There is an element of truth to these complaints. Few criticised the government’s record at the time, after all. But the party has to confront some difficult facts. First is that the party was clearly guilty of hubris before 2007. There most memorable slogan was “no more boom and bust”, which they shouted out at the height of a boom, and just before one of the most spectacular busts in British economic history. Shrugging it off and saying it was somebody else’s fault does not pass muster. And second is that the level of government services and benefits that prevailed at 2007 was unsustainable. It may have looked OK according to the size of the economy at the time (though that is debatable), but a lot of that economy was built on air.

What Labour needed to say back on 2010 and 2011, after having chosen their new leader, Ed Miliband, was that Labour had messed things up badly. They were honest mistakes, made from the best of intentions, and following the best advice, perhaps. But they were mistakes and the party must learn from them. But instead Mr Miliband fudged the issue, preferring not to provoke a big argument in his own ranks. At the time he wished to ride a wave of anger at austerity, and it was necessary to leave unchallenged the fiction that public service cuts were unnecessary.

It is too late for that confession now. But it can be no wonder than the party’s credibility on the economy is so weak. As one columnist said in this morning’s FT, you can think that the coalition economic policy is disappointing, a mess even, and still think that Labour would be even worse.

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David Cameron pitches for the political centre on immigration and EU. How depressing

The Conservative leader and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s grasp of the dark political arts is not gone. Last Friday he gave a long-awaited speech setting out his proposals on managing immigration from other EU countries better. It received generally favourable coverage. And, before anybody had a chance to think through what he had said, the story was muscled out by a series of announcements about public spending commitments, in advance of tomorrow’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If this goes according to plan, Mr Cameron has redefined the political centre ground at a stroke. Will he succeed?

In the preceding weeks, not coincidentally while the Conservatives were trying to fight off a by-lection challenge from Ukip, various suggestions had been floated about what the speech might say. The most eye-catching was some sort of quota system for accepting intra-EU migrants. This drew much criticism from other EU leaders. In the event this idea was dropped. Instead Mr Cameron proposed to limit their access to benefits and tax credits, including those for both those in work, and those out of work. Migrants would not be entitled to these benefits unless they had been resident for a full four years.

In terms of pure politics this was astute. More moderate commentators were relieved that the quota idea, and its immediate confrontation with other EU leaders, was buried. Limiting access to benefits, on the other hand, sounds a bit like what the opposition Labour Party, and even the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, were suggesting. But the time limit and scope was much greater than anything these parties proposed – pleasing the more hawkish commentators, especially in the right-wing press, who are the main attack-dogs in British politics. Sensibly he left the matter of access to free health services under the NHS untouched. Many older Britons have retired to Spain, where they get access to that country’s health services for free; indeed Britain seems to be exporting oldsters almost as fast as it importing youngsters – something the government will not wish to discourage.

And so Mr Cameron will try to present himself as the voice of sweet reason and moderation as the General Election approaches. On the one hand we have the liberals and the left, who are ignoring the British public’s anxieties over immigration. On the other we have the swivel-eyed loons of the Ukip, who demand must more drastic measures, including departure from the EU, which would do severe harm to the country’s economic prospects. Mr Cameron does the faintly plaintive, sweet moderation act pretty well. He praised the contribution of immigrants in his speech, and simply suggested that the country had been having a little too much of a good thing.

And the bulk of the British public may well agree. Mr Cameron’s suggestion that we renegotiate our EU treaties and put the result to an in-out referendum sounded similarly sensible and centrist. That the political centre seems to be drifting so far towards muddled populism might alarm liberals like me, but this is reality.

But there are problems. The most immediate is whether his own fractious Conservative Party will buy it. Many party workers, and a lot of MPs, actually agree with Ukip about immigration and the EU. Mr Cameron’s policy may sound like a cop out to them. If they start to get  vocal, the Tories will look divided, and their credibility will fade. There were mutterings over the weekend, but we will have to wait and see on that. His party did allow Mr Cameron a free hand before the 2010 to define it as more moderate than it really was. If they have any sense they will do so this time. If the British public has any sense they won’t fall for it.

The political class are obsessed with the General Election due in May 2015. Any dates after this only matter in terms of manoeuvres designed to secure an advantage at that point. And in that light, divisions within the Tory party are Mr Cameron’s main threat on the issue. It is looking beyond that date that the real un-wisdom of Mr Cameron’s stance starts to emerge.

The first point is that it still leaves a problem with the EU renegotiation. While there is some scope to limit access to benefits under current EU treaties (by moving towards a contributory principle), changes of this nature will apparently need treaty changes. Mr Cameron had calculated that the EU would need treaty changes anyway to secure the struggling Eurozone – so adding in a few goodies for his benefit would not be too onerous. But the EU’s leaders are heading in a different direction. With anti-EU populists on the rise across the continent, leaders want to avoid any treaty change, since these are likely to be held hostage to referendum results. Unfortunately voting No to a treaty change has not proved fatal to any EU country so far – it has simply improved negotiating leverage. Going through this process just to save Mr Cameron’s bacon may well be too much. This takes the country a further step towards the EU exit, something that Mr Cameron seems to want to avoid.

The second point is that this plan does not actually address any major economic stress point. Access to Britain’s benefit system does not seem to be a major draw for intra-EU migrants – though it may be a stronger incentive for migrants from outside the EU. The British public will not notice a diminution of EU migrant numbers. The policy is designed to address tabloid exaggerations, not reality. The tabloids will simply move on to some other nonsense. All that pain for no real gain.

Still practical solutions to the country’s problems count for little in the current political debate. The populist right blame the EU and immigrants for the country’s problems. The left blames some combination of bankers, capitalists, greedy rich people or deluded neoliberals. We may suspect that our problems lie deeper – with demographics, globalisation and the development of technology. We may also suspect that the proffered solutions of left and right will make things worse not better. But no politician, campaign group or tabloid journalist seems to care. That is the real scandal of Britain’s political class.

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