Plan B

One of the reasons why I suspect Labour will win the next general election here in the UK is that they are showing impressive discipline. This was on show yesterday at a fringe meeting at which both John Cruddas and Andrew Adonis spoke, alongside Jo Swinson and Menzies Campbell. Amid warm words there was a disciplined message about the urgent need for “Plan B” to rescue the economy. Neither is close to the centre of power in Labour, but both were impressively on message. How are Lib Dems responding?

The Labour narrative is this. The Coalition’s economic plan, if it was ever valid, has now clearly failed. It is time for something else, unless you are an evil Tory who simply wants to use the crisis to dismantle the state and don’t care at all for the less well off. It helps them that quite a few, even most, respectable economists support something like this point of view. This allows many to portray Nick Clegg in particular as economically illiterate. These feelings are quite widespread in the Lib Dems – hence the Labour pressure. How are the Lib Dem leadership responding? With equally impressive discipline at this week’s conference.

At several points, and from several different members of the parliamentary party we got a consistent message, but one that had clearly been crafted for the occasion. The economic plan, they said, was always flexible, and it is responding to the changed economic circumstances by putting off the target date for eliminating the deficit by two years. This sounds to be an ingenious way to make a virtue out of necessity. I don’t remember anybody touting flexibility last year – except, to be fair, for Chris Huhne, the former energy secretary who does not appear to be here in Brighton. And so far that discipline is holding. The party overwhelming backed a supportive motion on the economy this morning, rejecting a wrecking amendment from Plan B supporters. The message was helped by lots of warm words and promises about investment in housing and infrastructure.

As readers of this blog will know, I don’t think that the government’s economic policy has failed, but that expectations of how quickly growth would return were too high. And I don’t think that Mr Clegg is economically illiterate, though I have some doubts about George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor. Far too many economists are basing their views on aggregate statistics, without asking deeper questions about how the economy has been evolving, in a sort of imperial arrogance worthy of Russian Tsars. More on that another time.

Share

The Lib Dems struggle with education policy

Saturday was education day at the Lib Dem conference. Education is dear to the hearts of most Lib Dems, but the party struggles to come up with a clear party line beyond the important policy of Pupil Premium, where state funding of schools is uplifted for those with poorer pupils. This drift was on show yesterday.

There were two motions, one on early years and the other on schools. Both came over as  worthy but wishy washy wish lists, with a rather nanny state tendency on show. The most contentious point on the early years motion was support for increasing professionalisation of nursery and childminding provision. This all feels a bit New Labour and not particularly liberal. The idea that this might be a source of jobs for non graduates doesn’t seem to have taken hold, which is a pity. It would be nice to think that more jobs would be available to single mothers who have had a disadvantaged start in life. But the focus seems be on pushing graduates into those roles.

There was more contention around the schools motion. There is a body of activists who are upset by the way the party has been handling education policy in government, with very little consultation of the party at large, and seemingly tagging along to a Tory agenda. This boiled over a bit with the recently proposed reform to the GCSE exams, which was presented to the world as the result of negotiations between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. But work done by activists on the subject was ignored. The motion was not about this issue, but there was an attempt to spatula it in, rejected by the Conference Committee, which caused tempers to fray.

The motion itself was the usual worthy fare. An amendment on governance was passed which sought to ensure that no interest group had a majority on state school boards…something which would be an issue for faith schools and sponsored academies. It also had some nanny state stuff about training governors. Interestingly the conference also passed an amendment rejecting the proposal to abolish mandatory external tests at the end of children’s primary school careers – SATS. This clearly took the motion’s movers quite by surprise, and showed that the conference was taking bit of trouble over the policies it was passing. I supported this amendment, as a school governor I find these tests invaluable as a means of holding the school to account.

But it would be nice if the party could develop something more radical and interesting, to contrast with the emerging Tory/Labour consensus. This will require some strong leadership. David Laws, the new education minister, is the man who should provide it. But though he is widely respected, he does not seem to be good with the gruelling process of consultation and bringing the activists on side. We shall see.

Share

What do they really mean? Conference euphemisms

I love the Lib Dem conference, which starts next Saturday in Brighton.  But sometimes I tire of the antics of those getting up to make speeches in the conference hall.  There are several sources of my irritation.  One is speakers who take part only to talk about some hobbyhorse issue, taking no other interest in the issue at hand.  Another is speakers who seem to genuinely think they are radical, challenging politicians, but who in fact oppose anything controversial.  And then there are the self-congratulatory, who simply can’t see how the party and its deliberations look from the outside.

So to get these irritations out of my ststem, I have produced the following table of pet hates from the conference floor:

Share

The curious case of Heathrow’s third runway

Why did senior Tory MP Tim Yeo make such a conspicuous bid to support Heathrow’s third runway?  The idea is ruled out in the Coalition Agreement, and it is politically impossible for the government to take forward.  Such a bid can only weaken the government and David Cameron, the Tory Prime Minister.   Rather than indulge in conspiracy theories, I prefer to think it is because most MPs, who are elected in safe seats, and the business lobby advisers, don’t understand how elections are won and lost.

Mr Yeo made his bid in an article in the Telegragh.  After going through the familar arguments put forward by lobbyists, he appealled to Mr Cameron to change the government’s stance, by asking himself “whether he is a man or a mouse”.  The change could be a turning point for the government, he said, giving it a sense of mission amidst a lacklustre economy.

Heathrow’s operator, BAA, and principal user, British Airways, have been campaigning for Heathrrow’s expansion for many years, trench by trench.  It seemed that they had lost this latest bid when the Coalition was formed in 2010.  But they didn’t give up, and have kept their lobby efforts going.  The results are quite impressive.  Grudgingly, general public opinion seems to be coming their way, amid a deluge of supportive newspaper stories.  It has become a totem issue for the political right, desperate for ideas that will both expand the economy and keep public expenditure down.  Mr Yeo is one of a series of Tory MPs that have publically come out in favour.

But scepticism runs very deep here in west and southwest London, where we endure continuous intrusion from air traffic.  Each victory won by BAA (to date mainly over new terminal buildings) has been bitterly contested.  We have seen the smooth reassurances offered in one bid quietly buried in the next.  There is no trust left in BAA and BA.  And amid the swathe of hotly contested marginal constituencies in the airport’s shadow, the importance of the issue has only risen.  This is what forced the Conservatives to oppose the new runway before the 2010 election.  The area is also a stronghold for the Liberal Democrats, who have picked up on local opposition to Heathrow expansion from the start.

It is this last that is the political key for the government.  Liberal Democrats are a beleaguered species since they joined the Coalition.  Hopes that being in government would add to the party’s credibility are fading fast, as local election results show a grim picture.  A very difficult election is coming up.  Here the party’s objectives will be to hang on to what they have as best they can.  Those local lection results show that the party can still benefit from an incumbency effect.  South west London is one of the key battlegrounds, with four Lib Dem seats to defend, and a fifth Tory seat, Richmond Park, a marginal that the Lib Dems could win back.  The party simply cannot afford to support Heathrow expansion.  What’s more, the evident Tory backsliding on the issue is one of the very few shafts of light for Lib Dem campaigners locally.  If the Tories drop their opposition to it in their next manifesto they will be bring out the champagne in Lib Dem HQ.

Which makes the fact that Mr Yeo and others are upping the ante very curious.  This is an existential issue for the Lib Dems, so they will veto any change of government policy – never mind that the Tory Transport Secretary Justine Greening also has a seat under the Heathrow flightpath and has campaigned vigorously locally against expansion.  Politics is supposed to be about the art of the possible.

What might the explanation be?  One popular theory is that it is about Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Tory party.  The Tory right are fed up with him, and would like him to be replaced.  But to do it like this is surely suicidal – we only have to see what happened to John Major, the last Tory Prime Minister, who also had to deal with backbench discontent.  The result was 13 years of uninterrupted Labour rule.

It may simply be a long term plan to ensure that Heathrow expansion goes ahead.  This is surely what BAA and their advisers have in mind.  If they can get the Tory party to change its mind at the top, and the Tories win the election without a few of those London seats, then bingo!  They had already persuaded the last Labour government to press ahead.  But this is a herding cats strategy.  If they persuade the Tories to change their mind, the chances are that Labour will come out against, so that they can win back a few of those marginals in south and west London.  The result of the that election could be very tight, so you don’t just wish away a few seats here and there for the sake of a project like this.

Personally I think it is naivity.  Some on the Tory benches have spotted that if the Conservative backbenchers are behind a government policy, and you add in the Lib Dem payroll vote, who are bound to support any Coalition compromise, then it is enough for legislation to pass, even if all the Lib Dem backbenchers rebel.  So all you have to do is ram a policy past the top Coalition policy process, and you’ve won.  This strategy worked for George Osborne when he wanted to reduce the top rate of income tax – which he did in this year’s Budget in exchange for a series of policy concessions, now long since forgotten.  He had similarly been told this was politically impossible.  This is reinforced by the belief that the Lib Dems will not bring the show down because they are afraid of an election.

But that ended badly.  Mr Osborne’s Budget, including reducing the top rate of tax, is now seen as a politcal distaster.  It did nothing to boost investment and growth, as the Tory rhetoric and “Business” claimed it would.  And as the next election looms Lib Dems are increasingly focusing on how to hold onto their parliamentary seats.  It’s one reason why they jumped at the chance that Tory backsliding on Lords reform gave them to ditch the new constituency boundaries  – which they had come to realise would make things very difficult for them.  Heathrow is a similar existential issue, worth leaving the government for.  No less than two Lib Dem cabinet members have seats near the airport.

But Mr Yeo, like most Tory and Labour MPs, represents a safe seat.  He seems to have little comprehension on how elections in marginal seats work.  The same seems to be true of BAA and their advisers, who probably like to look at national opinion polls and the big picture.  Surprisingly few of the community of advisers, lobbyists and polical professionals that inhabit Westminster have a good understanding of the graft needed to win real elections; even less have any comprehension of how Lib Dem MPs win and hold their seats.  So they make silly mistakes like this.

And what of the the case for expanding Heathrow?  This deserves a blog in its own right.  The case is stronger that my instinctive distrust of BAA, BA and anything calling itself a “business case”, or any group purporting to represent “Business”, would normally allow.  But that is irrelevant in the rough and tumble of winning marginal votes.

Share

Competitive sports: making it compulsory is futile

We’re having a lot of fun in Britian with the 2012 Olympics, and especially here in London.  That’s rather wonderful in its own right – but as usual people are using the occasion to push forward their political agendas.  And the obvious agenda to push is funding for sports, and the promotion of sport in schools.  Any number of half-baked ideas are being floated, including by our Prime Minister, David Cameron.  In particular Mr Cameron thinks that the focus that his school (Eton) had on team sports would be a good idea for everybody. Compulsory competive school sports would be just thing, apparently.  But my scepticism comes from the fact that I endured a private education system almost as privileged as Mr Cameron’s – and I don’t think its emphasis on compulsory sport did me any good at all.

One of the many problems with competitive sports is that they are almost by definition elitist.  Prestige comes from winning.  Winning only goes to those with certain mental and physical aptitudes.  If you don’t fit, and almost by definition most don’t, the whole thing is painful.  You just become fodder for other people to show off against.  This was pretty much how things were for me at my prep school in Ealing.  I used to hate “Games”.  I still have an affection for pouring rain since this meant that Games would be cancelled, and I would be spared the humiliation and risk of getting hurt.

It is at this point my story takes an unusual turn.  In 1969 my father was seconded to Jamaica for a couple of years, and I went to school in Kingston.  This was another privileged institution (The Priory School – I think it’s still going strong), with a very strong American slant.  There was no compulsory sport, and I was very happy about that.  I joined in the odd game of football on a voluntary basis, though not very successfully.  But my parents enrolled me in a swimming club, not linked to tschool at all – one that trained me to a competitive standard, including (very unsuccessful) participation in the Jamaican junior swimming championships.  As something outside the hateful apparatus of compulsory school sport, and with a supportive and encouraging coach (how unlike school sports!), I was happy to go along with this.  Returning home and back to one last year in my prep school, I continued to keep up swimming, at Ealing Swimming Club.  This made me very fit.  I astonished my school teachers by picking up the gold medal for the 440 yards race at the school sports day, along with another gold for the relay team (taking the final leg) and a mere bronze in the 100 yards.  It was less of a surprise when I picked up the Victor Ludorum at the school’s swimming competition.

I then moved on to my secondary school, the “public” school of St Paul’s.  I did not find Games any more agreeable here, with its major emphasis on rugby.  Meanwhile at the swimming club I worked my way up the various grades until I hit the stream where people at the top were in Commonwealth Games contention.  And I was firmly stuck at the bottom, in spite of quite mind-numbing and exhausting swimming sessions.  I felt I had better things to do with my time (like assembling Airfix kits) and gave up.  There was to be no more sporting glory for me!

This has left me deeply suspicious of compulsory school sports.  Coaching resources are limited.  It is natural that they should concentrate on the most promising cases.  If you are not judged (rightly or wrongly) to be in that category you are going to have a miserable time, and won’t get anything out of it more than a fear and distaste for participating in sport.  And most of the people who succeeded in sports at school won’t have much idea what I’m talking about.

If the alleged health benefits of sport are to be realised, then it needs to be voluntary and enjoyable.  There’s nothing wrong with competive sports – and anybody that wants to take part, or even try it out, should have the opportunity.  I would back funding for that – though let’s recognise that this doesn’t have to be schools, and is often better outside.  But making it compusory is a blind alley.

And there’s something else.  If sport is voluntary then those running it have some incentive to make sure that people are enjoying it – instead often being nasty bullies.  Things may be better nowadays, but when I was at school bullying in team sports was rife at schools – and this carried through to the professional game.  We don’t want to go back to those days.

Share

Let’s learn the right lessons from the Winterbourne View scandal

On Monday the government published its serious case review into the Winterbourne View abuse scandal.  Winterbourne View was a specialist private sector hospital for learning disabled and autistic people – people who were sectioned and could not fend for themselves – “vulnerable” in the jargon.  The BBC Panorama programme filmed some spectacular cases of staff abusing patients.  A closer look didn’t make things look any better – abuse had being going on for years, and the hospital was not remotely doing the job it was being paid to do.  This is laid bare in the report.  All sorts of people fell down on the job – the hospital’s owners, police and other services, and the Care Quality Commission.  This should not distract us from the central lesson which the report makes clear – the commissioning of these services was seriously deficient.

The report was published on a day when the news was dominated by the Olympics and by the Coalition spat over Lords reform.  Perhaps it is a pity that this meant it did not get the public attention it deserved.  But it may be just as well.  In the hands of the usual top news journalists and editors, the wrong lessons would have been drawn.  Instead the coverage has been a bit more balanced and considered – I have even been able to pick up mature and balanced coverage from BBC’s Radio 4.  Even so, I’m not sure if the right messages are getting through to the people that matter.    There are some big red herrings.

The first red herring is the use of private sector providers to deliver care.  The report and headlines made much of the hospital owner’s pursuit of profit as being the reason they failed to provide a proper service, in spite of being paid quite well.  But this is nothing new – and there are plenty of shining examaples of good practice in the private sector.  The problem was that they were not being held to account.  Terrible things happen in public sector organisations too, if nobody is asking what they are getting for their money.

Which leads to a second red herring.  An early “lesson” was that the Care Quality Commisssion’s inspection regime was too light touch, and that inspections by this national body should be more frequent and more thorough.  But we mustn’t rely on these big inspectorates, who often fail to understand local nuances and issues, and can end up being excessively confrontational.  At best they can guarantee a certain level of mediocrity.

And thirdly there is the role of family.  The patients at Winterbourne were often from a long way away, which meant that it was much more difficult for the family to stay in touch.  This was condemned as being part of the problem.  This is right up to a point.  Public service commissioners are far too casual about sending people a long way from where they have their roots.  I am uncomfortable with the NHS reformers’ constant refrain of creating fewer but bigger specialist facilties for everything – though they always point to statistical evidence.  But while family can and (usually) should be an important part of somebody’s care, the system should not depend on them.

No, the real issue is with the commissioners of public services, within the NHS and local authorities.  They should take more responsibility for the services they commission and devote more time to holding them to account.  At this point it is very easy to be swept away by a debate over structures, procedures and responsibilities, seeing this as simply an exercise in public procurement, as one might outsource street cleaning, for example.  But again, that is not the important point.

At the heart of the commissioning of social and health services should be the client or patient.  Their individual requirements should be assessed, treatment individually tailored and their progress followed with human interest.  The patients of Winterbourne were sent there by commissioners who thought their job was done by just placing them there.  What was supposed to assessment, treatment and rehabilitation, a process implying progress towards a goal, turned into warehousing.  That should be almost as outrageous to us as the abuse itself.  If the commissioners had been following their patients, they would have picked up their lack of progress, and either worked with the hospital to improve it, or simply taken their patients elsewhere.

This isn’t rocket science.  My wife is a care manager at a local authority, dealing with drug rehabs.  Her authority takes an interest in their clients as individuals, and this invovles meeting clients at the rehab facility from time to time to check on progress…and cutting out facilities that aren’t up to standard.  The problem is that some public sector managers take a more industrial view of things, trying to drive efficiencies by doing things in bulk and treating problems and performance indicators rather than people.  This can give rise to some short term cost savings, but it quickly becomes self-defeating, as processes that fail to take account of people as individuals fail to solve their problems, and you end up with warehousing on a minimum cost basis.  But it is not value for money you keep adding to the workload.

Unfortunately in this aspect of public services, not much much can be learnt from the private sector.  Private sector techniques (lean management, business process engineering) can lead to a more people-centred approach if applied properly – but ultimately the private sector answer to difficult clients is either to pass them on to somebody else, or turn them into dependents and warehouse them for a fee.  Warehousing problems rather than solving them can be a lucrative business, as the owners of Winterbourne, Castlebeck Ltd, clearly saw.

I hope that the government’s ideas for GP-led health commissioning, and integration between local authority and NHS care, will lead the commissioning process to the right place, as they should in theory.  But the bureaucratic obstacles are huge.  It would help to have a clearer vision from on high.

 

Share

Lords reform: the real loser is David Cameron’s project

Today Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced that Britain’s Coalition government would end its attempt to make the country’s upper house, The House of Lords, mostly elected.  It is a bitter blow for Lib Dems, but not unexpected.  What does this say about the state of British politics?

The problem was that the plans did not command sufficient support on the Conservative benches.  There were 90 or so rebels at an earlier vote, and this is enough to kill the bill if Labour oppose it.  Labour had supported the reforms in principle, but said that, as a constitutional measure, it needed more time for debate in the Commons, so opposed the critical timetable motion.  This argument is entirely specious.  Debate on the floor of the Commons is an exercise in farce; it has to be time-limited or else it degenerates into filibuster.  The cynicism of Labour’s position is made plain by the fact that they would not be drawn on the amount of time they thought the bill actually needed.  But there was in any case a more substantive argument from the Labour side: in their manifesto they had said that reform should be made subject to a referendum, which the government side did not want to do.  We can argue about the logic of Labour’s position on the referendum, but a manifesto is a manifesto.

So Mr Clegg was quite right to abandon his attempt at reform.  There was very little credit in the wider world to be had for a fight to the death on this issue.  While the public is broadly sympathetic to the idea, they don’t care very much about it.  Mos readily agree to the trump card argument of British constitutional conservatives: that there are more important things to be doing.

Just about the only way of getting the reform through would have been to accept a referendum.  Although the current polls are favourable, it would be  a difficult referendum to win – a bit like Australia becoming a republic.  Australians favour a republic in principle, but the never the particular structure of republic that is on offer.  It was easy to pick holes in the specifics of the proposals – but that would be true of any proposal born of attempts to create consensus.  The risk/reward ratio just didn’t stack.

Lib Dems are very bitter, since they see this as a breach of faith, as Andrew Rawnsley has explained in the Observer.  They have knuckled down to vote for a number of proposals that they really hated, such as tuition fees for universities (though to be fair some high-up Lib Dems secretly liked the idea), and elected police commissioners, as well as immigration limits.  Of course Tories have voted for Lib Dem policies too, but these are mostly quite popular in the country at large, such as raising tax thresholds.  Although the Tories let them have a referendum on AV, their campaign to oppose this modest and sensible reform was so vitriolic and irrational as to come over as a breach of faith, especially when they attacked Mr Clegg personally on the basis that you couldn’t trust him because he entered into coalition with them!

But the public indifference left Mr Clegg with a problem.  Why bring the government down over this, and not tuition fees, or many other things which are currently unpopular with the public at large?  So the breach is not enough to end the Coalition.  Instead Mr Clegg has decided to withdraw the party’s support to boundary changes to Westminster constituencies.  This reform would equalise their size, to the benefit, so the conventional wisdom goes, of the Tories.

Here it is Mr Clegg’s turn to be politically calculating.  I have heard his supporters make the argument that since there will be no elected upper chamber, we need to retain a bigger Commons – an argument that I struggle to understand.  To be fair Mr Clegg does not use this argument in his email to members – where it comes over as a more straightforward tit-for-tat.  The Tory sophists argue that the Coalition agreement did not actually say that they would vote for the Lords reforms – just to bring forward proposals.  But the same can be said of the boundary changes.

And as things have turned out, the boundary changes are a real problem for the Lib Dems.  In ordinary times they would have been much more relaxed, as they have shown an ability to move out of their strongholds in held seats to win over adjacent areas.  The London MP Sarah Teather won her seat in 2010 in spite of major changes to the boundaries.  But the Lib Dem activist base has suffered with the coalition, and the campaigning environment is much tougher.  They have shown an ability to hold on where the party and its candidates are locally well know, but not elsewhere.  There are no reserves with which to flood new areas.  The boundary changes are a major headache.  Neither are the changes partilcualry popular amongst the general public, whatever the intellectual case.  To get equally sized seats they have run roughshod over traditional local sensibilities.  In Wales the impact  is particularly severe.  Even may Tory MPs will be relieved if the reforms died a death.

But it will create an awkward moment in 2013 when the vote is due to take place, unless the proposal is abandoned.  To defeat the changes Lib Dem government ministers would have to vote against or abstain – this would be new territory for the government and could easily bring it down.

So who gains from this sorry saga?  The first winners are Labour, where their cynical manoeuvring have bought rich rewards.  First they have made the Coalition look weak and incompetent.  But best of all they should now be able to defeat the boundary changes, which they hate.  Ed Milliband’s leadership can chalk up another success after his inauspicious start.

The second winners are the grumpy Tory backbenchers.  They genuinely hated the Lords reform, and will be glad to kill it.  They are also pretty relaxed about idea of the coalition failing.  And as individuals the defeat of the boundary changes makes their lives easier.

For the Lib Dems the outcome is mixed.  It’s a policy failure but it is very clear who is to blame: the Tory backbenchers and the scheming Labour politicians – unlike the AV referendum.  This fiasco is out of the way a long time before the next election is due – and defeating the boundary changes will give their campaigners the best possible chance of hanging on to the 40-50 seats needed for the party to survive as a political force.

The big loser is the Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron, and his project of turning his party into a credible one of government.  For all the soft soap he puts into the Party’s manifesto, it is clear that he can’t carry his party with him.  He took on his backbenchers and came out second.  His party can unite around a right-wing Eurosceptic platform, but winning a General Election, especially on the old boundaries, looks impossible.  A centrist Tory manifesto will not be credible.  His plan to use the coalition with the Lib Dems to de-toxifiy the Tory brand has come completely unstuck.

And the country remains stuck with an antiquated system of government that increasingly loses the respect of both the public and the world at large.  The public is paying a big price for its indifference.

Share

My day at the Olympics

Yesterday I joined London’s Olympic party, when we went to see the gymnastics at the North Greenwich Arena, better known as the O2 (but the company isn’t an Olympic sponsor…) or in its prior guise as the Millennium Dome.  It was the women’s artistic individual overall final.  All too brief – but I’m glad we made it, for once in a lifetime!

The event was due to start at 4.30pm, but we decided to make a day of it.  We set off at 11.30 in the morning, and took the river bus to Greenwich.  We opted to lunch there, about 2km from the arena, since we’d heard so many scare stories about the dominance of the Olympics sponsors (McDonalds for restaurants, Heineken for beer, etc).  Greenwich town is near another Olympic venue – Greenwich Park for equestrian events – so had plenty of Olympic atmosphere.  After a long but rather mediocre lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant, we set off by bus for the arena, as directed by one of the many Olympic volunteer helpers.  London Transport nearly undid the glow of goodwill by taking out of service the bus that was due to take us, with a long wait for the next one shown on the indicator.  But another bus turned up, untracked by the indicator, a few minutes later, with space enough for everyone.

At the venue we were cheerfully herded through the security checks.  All very quick, but it was quite early (about 3pm).  It didn’t help to try and figure out what was going on in the complex system of queues and barriers, just follow the crowds and go where people were pointing.  In the Dome we found a profusion of restaurants (but no McDonalds, or Burger King, come to that), with no conspicuous restrictions.  The scare stories were overdone.  But a sign at one of the bars in the arena itself said “proud only to accept Visa cards for payment” or some such.  I think most people, me included, find that the Visa monopoly on payment cards quite offensive, so they should have put “ashamed” instead of “proud”.  We paid cash, which was fortunately allowed for a bottle of water (though not for tickets or merchandise…).

So we took our seats perched up high in the arena with over an hour to go.  But they kept us entertained and warmed us up, with videos and explanations and previews, and finally a dance by the English Ballet from Swan Lake (from their current show which coincidentally we are due to see next week).

And then it all started.  There were 24 gymnasts (limited to two from each country – a bit hard on the Americans and Russians) divided into four groups, each taking on one piece of “apparatus” – the beam, the vault, the uneven bars and the floor (which is not an “apparatus” in my pedantic book) – the last set to music.  It was quite a lot to take in.  The top contenders were all in one group, so the pros could concentrate on just them.  But the two British contenders (Hannah Whelan and the 15 year old Rebecca Tunney) were in another group – and the predominantly British crowd were keen to give them full support.  And again, the floor exercise tended to draw attention, with its sheer size and, of course, the music.  There was a screen and a scoreboard, and a bit of commentary – but it is easier to follow on the television at home.  There were one or two performances that I wanted to see but missed – like the American Gabrielle “flying squirrel” Douglas on the uneven bars.

The organisers could have helped us a bit more.  They were selling a daily magazine for £5 on the day’s events, but this gave just two pages to the gymnastics, gassing on about the two British girls, with two thirds of a page on the the girl they considered the favourite (the US Aly Raisman), who did not end up with a medal, plus a brief profile for the main Russian contender (Victoria Komova) and an even shorter mention of her team-mate (Aliya Mustafina) – these ended up with Silver and Bronze respectively.  So they almost failed to mention the winner, Ms Douglas, at all!  Still, better than the forecast at the beginning of the magazine which predicted an American who failed to qualify for the final at all (Jordin Wieber).  This whole things misses the point about people who turn up for the events – who are unlikely to be attending more than one event in a day – so don’t want masses of superficial waffle on everything – but some substance on the event they are watching.  A list of the 24 finalists, and their scores in  earlier rounds, and perhaps a little profile would have added to the event.  All the magazine could do was while away 15 minutes on the train home.

No matter! It was lovely to be there, and to make your own choices as to what to follow, rather then the choice of some television producer.  The performances were astonishing.  I am no gymnast, and don’t know much about the sport.  But I am irrestiably drawn to it each Olympics, and have been watching the drama of the team finals and the men’s event on the television.  There was a thrilling finish on the floor exercises as the Americans and Russians slugged it out.  But Ms Douglas was already in a significant lead, the others having wobbled a little in earlier rounds and she clinched the deal with confidence – quite wonderful to watch.  Interestingly the leading women contestants did not seem to be so pally with each other as were the men – they seemed a bit more absorbed in their own worlds.  Tears from the Russians in the end as they failed in their bid for Gold, in spite of the American favourite having come a cropper in qualification.

Alas for Ms Whelan.  She was already struggling after a poor beam and indifferent floor, when she came a cropper on the vault and score zero points (the only gymnast to do so on any apparatus) – she ended up 24th by some distance, though she would not have done much better in the placings if she had got a middling score there.  Ms Tunney did better, ending up 13th after an uncertain start on the beam -she should still have her best years ahead of her.  After her vault (she led and so was the first score to be posted in the third rotation), she even topped the leader board for a minute or so – as my picture shows.

What a wonderful experience!  My head had was never really convinced by the economic case for London hosting the Olympics, and still isn’t.  But the gain is deeper than economics.  It makes us Brits feel world class again.  The organisation is generally excellent, the spirit wonderful.  The tone set by the opening ceremony was shear genius – celebrating Britain inclusively for what it is, and not trying to wallow in past glory.  We can be cynical about lots of it (the scare stories about transport chaos, the sponsors’ monopolies), critical about details (the daily magazine) – but it feels good.

Share

The UK GDP figures change nothing

Today the Office for National Statistics delivered its first estimate for the UK’s GDP in the second quarter.  With a fall of 0.7% they were a bit shocking – we have had a number of quarters with it being cose to no change, and this looks like a proper lurch downwards.  This has provoked some predictable “told-you-sos” by the government’s critics, who say that it shows that the Coalition government’s policies are failing, and call for less austerity.  But what do the figures actually mean?

Making sense of it all is not easy.  The first point is that GDP is not of huge importance in its own right – only as a proxy for the population’s overall wellbeing.  But in a dveleoped economy this latter is more closely tied to employment – and here that statistics  seem to be slowly moving in the opposite direction.  This has created a headache for economists, since this behaviour isn’t in the script.  Some even say that the GDP figures may be in error.  But they have been saying this for some time now, and revised estimates have not made the figures any better.  We need more evidence from the real world to see if anything very harmful is going on.  If, for example, the decline in GDP is a result of a shrinkage of investment banking, where they is lots of money and few jobs, we needn’t lose any sleep.  Or if it results form people taking time off, e.g. for the Jubilee holiday, then again it is no real cause for concern – provided people enjoy their time off.  The truth is that we don’t have a clear understanding of what is happening, and whether it is in fact particulalry bad.

Well, not quite.  We rely on money income, measured by GDP, to generate taxes to fund the services and benefits supplied by the state.  And to pay off the debts left by past governments.  Given that taxes still fall well short of what they are supposed to pay for, this is a worry.  For now things are OK.  The financial markets aren’t taking fright (even as they are in Spain, whose finances are not in such bad shape).  If they do then we can expect all sorts of nasty consequences as interest rates rise, and possibly inflation too.

But what of the argument that austerity is slowly strangling the economy, and we need to ease off?  This is a topic that I have blogged about many times before.  The austerity sceptics are those who basicly think that a sustainable economy is within our grasp, and it just needs a bit of confidence and an upward demand cycle to reach it.  I remain sceptical.  Slowing austerity may simply be postponing a necessary adjustment – and runs greater risks with those financial markets.  These figures do not provide additional evidence either way on this debate.

The problem for the government is that GDP – and tax income – is falling behind their projections, which makes it look like a failure.  But this is more a criticism of the art of economic forecasting than it is of government policy.  But economic forecasting has long been known to be inaccurate, and it always will be.  Many people, on both sides of the austerity argument, are not surprised that the recovery is so slow.  And the forecasts weren’t even politically motivated – since the government transferred responsibility to an independent body – the Office for Budget Responsiiblity.

Still, the case for using the government’s weight to progress worthwhile investments in house building, transport infrastructure and education remains strong, and no doubt their advocates will use this data to pressure the Treasury to loosen up.  But these investments must be for items that will be of genuine benefit – the right sort of homes in the right places, for example – and not just expenditure for its own sake.  And that makes the process slow.

So, in short, these GDP figures are nothing to get excited about.

Share

The G4S fiasco poisons attitudes to the private sector

The British contractor G4S has specacularly failed to find anything like enough staff to support its contract to provide security staff for the London Olympics…which start in less than two weeks.  The details aren’t clear yet, but this one has all the makings of a fiasco that will be examined in deph in MBA courses for a long time.  A bigger question is the effect it will have on public attitudes to the private sector here in Britain.

For now the politicians and journalists are having some fun.  “Is this a humiliating shambles for G4S?  Yes or No?” (or similar words) one MP asked Nick Buckles, the hapless G4S Managing Director, this morning, showing the sort of skills of forensic questioning that make people wonder how useful parliamentary select committees really are. Mr Buckles had to agree.  It wasn’t just the size of the recrutiment gap, it is that nobody at the top seemed to have any idea that there was trouble until a couple of weeks ago.

Another revealing encounter was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.  John Humphreys was interviewing the senior police officer coordinating Olympics security.  The latter referred to G4S as a “partner”.  They’re not a partner, retoted Mr Humphreys, they just a private company only interested in profit.  And that seems to summarise a widespread attitude here.  Private companies are greedy and heedless of ethical standards.  Meanwhile the good old public services, like the police, the armed services or the NHS are selfless public servants working for the good of us all.

What a difference 30 years makes!  Back in the 1980s public services were supposed to be crassly managed, unable to control their unions and unable to deliver anything on time or efficiently.  The private sector on the other hand, the odd (state supported) car manufacturer apart, was all enterprise, innovation and efficiency.  It says a lot for the process of public sector reform that has happened since that public services command such respect now.  The private sector, on the other hand, has not come out of the banking crisis well, as the parallel case of Barclays seems to demonstrate.

This matters because further public sector reform, especially in the NHS, implies greater use of private businesses.  This was already a hard sell politically.  It’s not getting any easier.  Should it?

Well, management screwups are by no means the unique preserve of the private sector.  Last week a coroner reported on a case of a patient dying at our local hospital, St George’s.  This looks like a case too many people being involved, not aware of the complete picture, and nobody taking the initiative to sort problems out.  The hospital said that it had changed its procedures to prevent future incidents like it.  You can almost guarantee that this means an extra check or process spatulaed on top the ones already there – theoretically dealing with the problem, but actually making the process more complex and difficult to manage.  Reengineering of operations to deal with risks like this seems to infinitely more difficult in public sector organisations than in private sector ones, perhaps because it means trampling over well established demarkation lines.  Cases of bad management abound.  The quality of police management was shown in very bad light by last year’s riots, especially in London, where they were caught flat footed by youngsters with Blackberrys.  And as for the armed forces, whose public stock is currently very high, the amount of money they have wasted in equipment procurement programmes is absolutely eyewatering.

And as for the G4S scandal, the wider story is not necessarily against the private sector.  The company is clearly accountable, and is picking up the extra costs instead of the taxpayer.  And surely the procurement process is a much to blame as the contractor?  G4S may have been suffering from “winner’s curse” – required to cut costs to win the contract, and then finding that it had been unrealistic, or taking too many risks.  Realistic or cautious bidders simply get eliminated.  But this is a well known procurement problem – and surely the commissioners should have seen fit to take precautions?  Some rather obvious questions are being asked about how such a large and important contract was being supervised.

And it’s interesting to reflect a little further on the currently popular subject of “culture” in organisations, that, for example, was supposed to be so bad in Barclays.  Well senior managers not knowing about problems building up within their organisation is often a sign of bad culture.  Mr Buckles said he was a “no excuses” manager; so were staff afraid to pass up bad news?  The twist on this is that this sort, tough, no excuses style of management is beloved of politicians and the public (provided they aren’t actually working in the organisations concerned).  I’m not sure that most politicians would recognise healthy corporate culture if they saw it.  And that is bad news for the public sector.

So it would be a pity if this episode slowed down the process of involving private companies in public service reform.  But it would be as well to learn the lessons for public sector procurement and contract management.

Share