Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Are you sure you want to bomb Syria?

November 27th, 2015

“At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” – 1984

It seems bizarre that it is only two years since the Government lost a vote to get permission to drop bombs on Syria and yet it looks like there will be another vote. This time, of course, we’ve decided to bomb the other side. I’m not sure there has ever been an occasion where we’ve quite so explicitly changed sides in a conflict.

My stance on bombing Syria is a bit ambivalent really. In the scheme of things the UK deciding to bomb Syria will have little impact. We have seven Tornado jets that were built in the 80s trying to cover an area of 20,000 square miles. At any time we can only have two of these flying and as you’d expect with old aircraft they’re prone to break down. We do have drones but as we found out recently we’ve already been bombing Syria with drones for the last year.

Coupled with there already being well over a hundred aircraft  in the area we wouldn’t be doing much. We know that after a year of bombing the US have effectively run out of things to blow up so the majority of their missions return without doing anything. Russia are actively bombing things but they seem to be largely destroying the moderate rebels that David Cameron thinks will surge into the centre of Syria to replace ISIS.

My objection to bombing is based on having no clear idea which side we are proposing to be on. Everyone involved in the war in Syria wants something different and I’m far from convinced that ISIS is much of a priority to most of them.


Why on earth would you throw yourself in to the middle of that without any clear idea of what success would look like?

We decided to launch air strikes on Libya and the place is immeasurably worse for it. It is entirely possible we can make a terrible situation much much worse. It isn’t worth the risk of doing that just to make us feel like we’re doing something. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.


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Birmingham Leadership Race

October 15th, 2015

As Birmingham faces an exciting new leadership campaign I thought I’d write down a list of things I’d like to see a potential new leader commit to. Paradise Circus have made a very good point that the Birmingham Labour Party Leadership race serves to disenfranchise a population of a million people. If you don’t even bother to read any more than this paragraph you should sign their petition.

If the Chamberlain Files are to be believed then it looks like we’re faced with a competition between John Clancy, the annual challenger and Ian Ward, basically Albert Bore’s mate. As was pointed out on the Restirred Forum,  before we get bogged down in picking names we should at least have an idea of what we want from someone that rules over a city of a million people.

So this is where I come in with my unasked for priorities. In no particular order and based on no evidence these are the things I’d like to see a Labour Councillor commit to in order to win my vote (not that I’ve got a vote which is part of the problem):-

Transparency – The Council needs to make a proper commitment to transparency. It needs to make contract details, pay scales and commissioning plans publicly available. It needs to provide us with the evidence base it uses to commission services, it needs to involve us in making that evidence base.

Engagement – The Council needs a fully costed engagement plan. More effort needs to be made to go and talk to, and more importantly listen to, the communities of Birmingham. This will cost money and it will involve paying people.

Partnership – In the future the Council will only be able to deliver services in partnership with other people in the city, be they organisations or communities. To make this work the Council needs to commit to devolve budgets to partnerships and let them spend them. Fine be an accountable body but sometimes you need to let go of the cash.

Finance – Yeah we know about the budget cuts, you’ve mentioned it many many times. The Council still has massively more money than anyone else. Instead of telling us what the Council will pay for, tell us what it wants to achieve with the money it already has. This may mean that we need to lose some services but the Council has always been bad at replacing old services with new ones.

Employment – A clear commitment to increasing employment outside of the City centre. This has been neglected for too long. We need to acknowledge that whilst life might be great for some of us in the Guardian featured areas of Birmingham, for others life is generally shit and we’ve just let that happen.

As an addition to that someone needs to make a commitment to keep staff in the Council. Paying everyone over 50 to go away is a stupid way of trying to maintain continuity.

Culture – If we invest in culture then we will have an exciting place to live and we will attract more people to the City. It isn’t wasted money, people don’t want to live in a soulless metal fronted wasteland with a metric ton of shops. Well it does seem that people do want that but retail won’t last forever.

Locality – Give local communities money for them to spend on things they need. Money spent locally has a much more profound affect than if it is spent City wide or regionally. And proper budgets, not £150k to bribe people with skips before an election.

Contracting – Birmingham needs to stop massive contracting processes. Yes, it might be easier from a contract management point of view but it is killing small enterprises and it is leaving the City really vulnerable when contract inevitably fail.

I’ve deliberately left out children’s and adult social care. This is a mess and requires so much more than a trite two sentence summary.

That’s my list. I’ve no idea whether that means anything to anyone but I’d hope that anyone with a hankering to run the largest metropolitan area in Europe would have some response.


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Do You Know How Trident Works?

September 30th, 2015

tridentOver the next few months there will be a lot of hysteria about renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. One of the things that most annoys me about this hysteria is that people seem to be obsessed that Trident sums up all nuclear weapons and a vote to not renew Trident means unilateral disarmament.

Before this debate gets going it would be really useful if people could take a bit of time to think about what Trident is and what it does.  That’s what I’ve been doing, looking things up on the internet. I found these things out on the internet, off Wikipedia. Are these things you knew?

  1. Trident is designed as a system to simultaneously destroy ten cities at once. Using one missile that disperses a number of warheads. The idea being if a country launches an attack against the UK we can then take out most of their major cities in one go. It’s not designed to launch one single warhead but it is possible to equip it with less. It’s actually quite difficult to use it to destroy anything less than a country.
  2. The Trident system allows a full complement of 192 warheads to be fully operational. Because of nuclear non-proliferation treaties we restrict this to 40 warheads. In the future we will restrict this even further to 25 warheads. There is no point where we will ever be able to equip the system to the full extent of its capability.
  3. We lease the missiles from the US, we make the warheads but not the missiles. The entire programme to renew Trident isn’t about missiles, it’s about the submarines they live in. We will never own the Trident system.
  4. Trident came into operation in 1994. The first time we were fully defended by Trident was 1998, eight years after the cold war finished. We’re now talking about replacing it.
  5. The US also uses Trident but they’re not considering the same renewal programme. They’re considering spending less money to extend the life of their submarines rather than building new ones.
  6. Unlike the US, the UK Trident allows the captains of nuclear submarines to launch missiles if they believe the UK has been destroyed. Weirdly this can happen if Radio 4 stops broadcasting. The US system requires full authorisation from the US, they brought in added security to stop rogue commanders. The UK decided not to bother.

Trident is a very good system if you’re considering fighting a continental nuclear war but it doesn’t reflect the world we live in on any level. I don’t like to advocate for a nuclear weapons system that would be easier to use, I’d rather we did unilaterally disarm, but we should consider alternatives.

There are alternatives to the Trident system. We can attach warheads to cruise missiles, it would take us a while to get that working, but we could do it.

The debate about Trident is not a debate about having or not having nuclear weapons. It’s about building some very expensive submarines. That does have an impact on jobs, but that should be part of the debate and not a simplistic argument on whether the country will be defended or not.

We need to have a proper debate about what the strategic threats are likely to be in 20 years time. We should have a proper debate about how we think nuclear weapons could be used and if we as a country are comfortable about that. We need to have a debate about whether we are working with the rest of the world to disarm.

We shouldn’t blindly carry on fighting the cold war just because nobody can be bothered to find out what it is we’re paying for.



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Labour Party Introspection

August 6th, 2015

LabourWatching the Labour Party tear itself apart is weird. Not because it’s unexpected, after the sort of election defeat that follows on from one of the most incompetent Governments we’ve had it was expected. It’s weird because the analysis of why they lost and the battle for a new leader has come out of nowhere as one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen. Those of us that have a bit of a soft spot for politics looked at the Scottish referendum with a bit of envy. People coming out on the streets and being passionate about politics is something that we’ve had drummed into us doesn’t happen any more.

It’s weird that the Labour leadership election, albeit on a smaller scale, seems to be having a similar effect. And the Labour Party look terrified.

Possibly it’s the first time in a while that people see politics as something they can influence rather than something that is done to them, who knows? I hold my hand up and admit that I’ve not been much of a Labour supporter for many years but have registered to take part in the leadership election. Not because I have an affinity for the candidates but because it looks like there might be a slim chance that a party develops that speaks on my behalf. I think it was a reckless decision to let anyone take part, but it could be one of the greatest things that has happened to this country in years.

Leaving aside whether the Labour Party stands more chance of being elected with one person or another it does need to take it’s responsibility as an opposition party seriously. It needs to present opposite arguments to the Government rather than try and appear as similar as possible.

Yesterday Jon Cruddas released his review of why Labour failed so badly in the last election. One of his principle conclusions being that the public endorses the economic policy of austerity and feared the Labour Party’s response to the deficit. I’ve seen much comment that the question in research relating to austerity was loaded. I agree it was loaded but don’t think that undermines the finding. The whole discussion about deficit management and austerity has been loaded and that points to the Labour Party’s biggest failing.

The failure of the opposition to make a case against austerity has failed to broaden the discussion and conditioned people into believing in a largely discredited policy. Nobody is making the case that the majority of economists reject austerity as a failed experiment, nobody is acknowledging that most countries reject it as a policy and nobody is pointing out that it was only when the last Government significantly reduced cuts that the economy grew. If this case isn’t being made by the opposition then it is no wonder that this is not becoming an issue accepted by the media nor where the middle ground of public opinion lies.

Most people don’t know anything about economics, most people don’t want to know anything about economics, most people are quite happy to accept simplistic household income analogies as fact. It’s fine that most people don’t want to know about economics but it is not fine to then base economic policy on their refusal to understand how an economy works.

Which comes back to the Labour Leadership election. The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate has allowed people to begin the debate that this country needs. Proposing that deficit management isn’t the be all and end all of politics is not controversial. At least it isn’t controversial outside of the UK. We need to be able to have a public debate so that the much sort after “middle ground” of the electorate begin to understand there are other views and that evidence and practical experience doesn’t support current policies.

Without this debate we will be doomed to follow public opinion on whatever crazy ride we collectively decide to go on next.

So, as an outsider, I will support Jeremy Corbyn, not because it will make the Labour Party more or less electable (I dispute that it will have a material impact one way or the other), but because it is in the national interest to challenge policies that are ripping the economy to pieces. Obviously the counter argument to that is the primary purpose of the party is to get elected and then to attempt to redress the damage done by the  current Government. I reject that, if a so called “electable” Labour Party must stand on the failed policy of austerity to conform with public opinion then it would be duplicitous to then reject that when elected.

I hope the Labour  Party will see the groundswell of public support that they are getting at the moment and realise that there is small constituency of people who think differently to the received economic wisdom. It is their job to encourage that through their role as the opposition.


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Devolution Number 9

September 29th, 2014

Since the conclusion of the Scottish referendum I’ve noticed a strange enthusiasm for using the result to provide tenuous validation of every conceivable world view. I didn’t want to be left out, this is my interpretation of what a sudden explosion of interest in democracy means for wider devolution.

The most surreal reaction to a significant proportion of Scotland’s population wanting to leave the UK and an even greater proportion wishing to remain in the Union, is the Conservative view that this legitimises a rush to further marginalise Scottish decision making through the creation of an English parliament. The abject lesson of the Scottish referendum is that you do not rush constitutional change. The rush to force the referendum through meant a stark yes or no choice that very nearly split the Union and only served to emphasise the contempt that all political parties are held in.

One of the enduring recent political narratives has been how we re-engage with people to encourage them to vote with a particular emphasis on how we engage young people. This referendum has hopefully demonstrated that a failure to engage with political process is not, as was assumed, apathy on the part of the electorate. When the right question, with probably more importantly, the right range of possible answers, was asked people came out and made their views clear.
There is an appetite to engage with decision making but clearly not if the only available answers are based on an increasingly homogenous political elite. People are less enthusiastic in engaging with a process that cedes decision making to remote individuals who are presented merely because they were willing to compromise their beliefs to extraordinarily similar political parties.

I think this means that we have to relegate existing political parties to participants in a discussion on constitutional change and devolution instead of letting them define it. Without a clear mandate they will instinctively tinker with constitutional change in order to reinforce their own dominance. This is clearly demonstrated in the half baked notion of an English parliament and the constant moving of electoral boundaries.

The instinct for self interest is not peculiar to Westminster. The recent claim from the English core cities (basically the large cities in the UK that aren’t London) that the rush to constitutional change should confer to them greater decision making, and theoretically more money, is equally flawed. I live in one of the core cities and recent years have seen that characterised by a complete failure in governance. An inability to provide basic child protection, rubbish collection and endemic gender discrimination in its pay structure has left Birmingham floundering. Many of these issues have been compounded by a significant drop in funding but fundamentally this has been caused by political failure by all parties.

So I would suggest that if we are to explore greater devolved decision making then we need to start that with building up units of decision making from the very bottom upwards. This begins with communities and communities of interest. The most basic unit of decision making should come from communities that share an identity. In the main this is likely to be geographical but need not be exclusively.

People with a shared understanding of an area who are provided with real opportunities to influence that area will take part with decision making. In Birmingham we’ve tried to follow a process of devolving local decision making by creating “constituency” structures. The principle reason this has failed has been the bizarre decision that whilst decision making should be devolved it should be devolved to Councillors in a central building overseen by Council officers. This is devolution in the model used by the Soviet Union with its satellite states.

Also through using parliamentary constituency boundaries decision making didn’t automatically relate to the way that communities identify themselves. This is a principle problem in creating devolved decision making structures; they must not be created merely to enable easy management.

This has been a consistent problem with the plethora of changes we’ve seen in recent years to public services. Be it health organisations (Clinical Commissioning Groups) that are shaped by who plays golf with who, or police structures that are based on lines hastily drawn on maps that “sort of look equal”. This is devolution that is intended to confuse and alienate people.

This can also be seen in our regional structures. The drivers behind Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) were Local Authorities that liked each other. Not communities that shared culture, history and aspiration. To use Birmingham as an example, the Greater Birmingham LEP exists because many of the bordering Authorities didn’t like our previous Council Leader. This is ludicrous.

We need to build units of local decision making that are consistent across organisations, which the people who live in them understand and that recognise culture and history.

This is a long process that requires people to talk to communities and not simply make central decisions (looking at a map) or rely on the “local” knowledge of politicians. This is true be it small community units or even regional units. These all need to be reshaped to include the voices of the people that live in them and to give people a sense that they can influence change beyond the irrelevant political pageantry.

Across every community there are groups and individuals that are shaping and influencing their local environment and they’re doing it whilst bypassing political structures and simply not understanding the range of quasi legal public services that pay lip service to engaging with them.
We should harness these people and groups and work with them to formulate devolution. It’s unlikely we’ll get this done by May.


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An Engaging Bureaucracy

June 21st, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write anything more interesting than the CDs I like, but I’ve recently managed to extricate myself from the turmoil of NHS reorganisation via the medium of redundancy. It also means I’ve got a fair amount of time on my hands to write things.

The recent widespread news coverage of the latest horror  story to hit the Care Quality Commission (CQC) focussed me to try and sum up what I’ve learnt from the last few years of NHS reform, and even further back over ten years working in patient engagement. The problems being experienced by the CQC are not surprising, in many ways  they are illustrative of problems that  the entire health and social care system has being storing up for many years. I don’t believe it is a failing of individuals, I can see that those directly affected by the decisions of the CQC have a right to expect some justice but the wider problems are  more endemic.

It is obvious that the system of  regulation we have  created  does not have the capacity to do the job that is needed. I say obvious because it seems to be publically failing on a fairly regular basis. Having said that, sizeable sums of public money are supporting this system of regulation and the  public have  a realistic expectation of a return on that money.

I believe the system of regulation is failing in the UK because it has been designed to fail, it is a system that has been created by a bureaucracy to police itself. The failure of design and delivery stems from one common point, a  lack of appreciation of what quality actually means.

The delivery of health and social care in the UK has historically been delivered via a bureaucracy, patients do not choose to take their health needs elsewhere  thus the subjective element of quality analysis has been consistently removed from planning processes. This post isn’t advocating an imposition of market dynamics on health care, it merely points out that, sometimes, the way markets are constructed gives an added level of feedback that is crucial in understanding quality.

The subjective element of quality  is the  part  that all of our systems of regulation fail to appreciate. The resource constraints on the CQC forces it to focus on inspection through objective analysis  of  data  without testing it against real patient experience. This is understandable, there  is a beautiful binary aspect to the delivery of healthcare (people lived or died) that makes a lot of this quite easy to do on a large scale with limited resources, but it doesn’t draw a very good picture of quality.

It’s simplistic philosophy but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gives a good overview of the competing elements of quality, though Pirsig’s fascination with calling them “romantic” and “classical” probably won’t find a comfortable home in NHS redesign. I prefer objective quality and subjective quality.

To fully understand the quality of services delivered, in the absence of  people withdrawing their custom, there needs to be a wholesale change in the culture of how health and social care services are delivered.

I’m not advocating a change in structures, structures are easy to change (though the last two years might not substantiate that). Our bureaucracy needs to fully understand that  it will only truly appreciate quality if it can better develop transparency and engagement.

Engagement has been a consistent mantra in public services for many years but has never been properly developed. There are a number of reasons for this, here are a few of them:-

Engaging with people is a slow process, you need to build trust for relationships to work, quite often that makes it look like staff that are very good at engaging are actually just sitting about chatting. The public sector has never been comfortable with staff that can’t maintain the illusion of frenetic (if useless) activity. Because it is slow it is expensive, because it is slow and expensive we often look for short cuts. Those short cuts  lead organisations to institutionalise the very people we need to engage with. Simplistically this means organising meetings that reflect the bureaucratic nature of the organisation itself.

This means we create forums that reduce the potential for staff to be uncomfortable, it reduces  the public willingness to challenge and completely removes any notion of obvious transparency.

One of the worst examples of the institutionalisation of engagement can be seen in the adoption of the notion of the critical friend. This assumes that people in a position to challenge public sector delivery should adopt a position sympathetic to the organisation whilst  providing constructive criticism. This notion fails on two levels, it fails to understand the nature of the power relationship between the individual and organisations and it fails to appreciate what we all think about critical friends, we find them annoying.

This theory seems to stem from the idea that  organisations will not listen to robust challenge but need to know that the issues being raised come from a foundation of sympathy. This is ridiculous, it indicates that public sector management needs to grow up and talk to people like adults. This is a disparity in power between the individual and the organisation, often that disparity will manifest itself in anger and frustration, the organisation needs to both appreciate and accommodate this.

Public services need to open themselves up to challenge in all its forms, this won’t be pleasant but is the only way that they can begin to appreciate  the  subjective element of quality. They need to do this by meeting people where they meet in the community structures that already exist.

Those with responsibility for regulation, should understand that everything they need to know about how services are delivered  is in the communities that they are being delivered to. They have to find a way to get into those communities without subcontracting engagement out.

We are at  a point where the new organisations that have responsibility for health and social care have an opportunity to do things differently. Unfortunately the time to do this is running out and all the signs are that the new is merely replicating the old.


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Yes or No?

March 5th, 2012

I’ve got to admit that the debate about whether we should have an elected mayor in Birmingham has left me completely cold. I can’t really motivate myself to have an opinion one way or the other. I’d say that this isn’t a symptom of apathy, I’ve worked in the very bowels of our local government and have an unhealthy interest in governance.

With the referendum in only a few short weeks I’ve decided this is something that I probably need to have an opinion on. You never know, it might ignite public interest and it would be handy to be able to argue one way or the other convincingly.

There seems to be a fairly vociferous campaigns on both sides and I’ve been trying to see if they have any compelling arguments either way. The Yes to a Birmingham Mayor campaign looks fairly slick and purports to have at least some grass roots support. I’m not completely sure how widespread this really is, I don’t meet many people who are that bothered by the efficacy of the Leader/Cabinet model of government.

We do need to remember that when the Birmingham Mail tried get a petition together to trigger a referendum they met a steely disinterest.

Looking at the Yes campaign they make some interesting points which I will go through laboriously :-

1 ) You can directly elect your leader and if they fail, you can get rid of them at the next election.

That seems fair enough, the current system means the council leader is selected by the ruling party. It’s not the most accountable system.

2 ) You will know who your mayor is and the rest of the world will too.

There is nothing to stop the leader of the council being visible. Having the title of mayor does not excuse poor communications. I’m not sure why the rest of the world is relevant, if people in Birmingham understood slightly more about who was in charge then that would be a start.

3 ) Birmingham is struggling and a leader with a genuine mandate can drive positive change.

I don’t buy this. I think change is achieved through consensus and I’d say that the current system, where Councillors select their leader means that they have more of an interest in achieving change. If you consider Birmingham to be struggling then this is a symptom of the policy environment rather than the system that brings it to us.

4 ) You’ll be able to see how decisions are made and who makes them.

The current system is pretty transparent and I can’t see there being much of a change if we have a mayor. In fact all the systems will remain the same.

5) A mayor can make sure decisions are made closer to you and your community.

I would completely dispute this. At the moment local Councillors take local issues and feed them up to their leadership, if you have a Councillor who is in the ruling party then they might have some influence. With a mayor the intelligence from communities will be disconnected from the policy process. If decisions by a  mayor reflect local views then this would happen  despite the system rather than because of it.

6 ) A whole layer of unaccountable government bureaucracy can be removed by combining the Leader of the council and the Chief Executive.

There is nothing to stop us combining the role of leader of the council and chief executive now. It would be a spectacularly stupid thing to do but we could do it. The local authority can influence the spending of around £3 billion, the day to day management of this should not be left with someone who wins a popularity contest.

7 ) The mayor can celebrate our successes and bring people together to solve problems by being a recognisable leader.

Again there is nothing implicit in the mayoral system that means we can’t already do this with better communication.

8 ) A directly elected mayor can help Birmingham fulfil it’s potential. Nearly every major city in the world has a directly elected mayor. Birmingham deserves one too.

Is this even true? I mean the bit about every other City in the world having one? It seems quite a claim. As for Birmingham deserving one, well they do say that people deserve the Government they vote for.

Comparing this with the No campaign becomes a bit more problematic. First off the web site looks like it was made twenty years ago. The aesthetic shouldn’t undermine the central point but the reality is it doesn’t present an image you can engage with. This is emphasised by the No campaigns ability to get into an argument with itself on the front page.

After offering to supply speakers for events it has a little debate with itself on what the optimum number of speakers should be. Glancing at the bottom of the page you will notice that this has been put together by MP John Hemming, the written word is not his natural medium (or seemingly web design).

There is a handy list of reasons for a no vote so let’s go through those as well (I haven’t linked to the individual points as they use frames, yes frames in the 21st Century) :-

1 ) One person cannot listen to a million

This is a fair point and is a good rebuttal made to the yes claim that decisions will be closer to communities. This point does drift off into nonsensical rubbish about how a mayor would hold an advice surgery, as nobody with any sense expects them to do this we’ll just ignore it.

2 ) It will cost more in hard times

Any way you look at it, it will cost more money. If it delivers better governance then it could be a price worth paying.

3 ) It is not within the British tradition

Er, what the hell has that got to do with anything? If the current system doesn’t work then change it.

4 ) It leads to corruption

This is a bold claim. There have been corrupt mayors but I don’t think Birmingham can really claim any sort of anti-corruption moral high ground with the existing system.

5 ) It takes attention off important issues and concentrates on personalities

I suppose the mayor possibly being a more visible presence could be considered to be a focus on personality but I can’t see that this could be represented as a bad thing. You only have to look at the City Council sponsored Forward magazine, and their fascination with current leader Mike Whitby, to realise that we have this already.

6 ) Birmingham’s villages will be ignored with concentration on the City Centre

I haven’t seen a more succint summary of what has been wrong with Birmingham’s governance for the last 20 years. The Bullring and the new Library are shiny testaments to how much Birmingham’s “villages” are currently considered. So no change there then.

7 ) The mayor is likely to spend a lot of time travelling outside Birmingham and less time in Birmingham

This is probably the most amusing claim. So where is Mike Whitby this week? The Carribean? India? Dubai? China? The man’s not short of frequent flyer points.

8 ) The pro campaign cannot explain how it will improve things

I have some sympathy with this. The yes campaign doesn’t make a very compelling argument but simply stating this doesn’t take the debate any further. It actually comes across as a bit childish.

9 ) People normally vote against it and Stoke got rid of one

This is just strange. The argument for not having one is that a number of other referendums have said no in other cities. The whole point of this process is we get a referendum so we can decide. If we don’t want one we don’t have to have one.

10 ) Birmingham’s successes in the past came without a directly elected Mayor

Well this is true. Equally Birmingham’s failures have come without one as well. Reading the text associated with this claim is just confusing. It seems to be alluding to an article that it claims was written in 1890 yet alludes to the 1940s. A remarkably prescient bit of writing.

The no campaign does have some good points, it just makes them in a really ham fisted way.

I was referred to this article written by Cllr James Hutchings that makes a much more coherent case for not having a mayor. It covers many of the same points but is better written and less patronising. I’ve always been a fan of Cllr Hutchings.

The problem with all of this is,  although the no campaign hasn’t made a good argument, they don’t have to. We know how it works now, we need to be persuaded that the system in the future will work better. I can’t see that the yes campaign has come anywhere near doing that.

There are a few things that aren’t addressed by either group. In reality will the new system be any different? Ostensibly, no.

To campaign successfully across a city the size of Birmingham you need infrastructure, you need people putting leaflets through doors, you need money to make leaflets. An independant would need to buy this in or generate a lot of good will really quickly. I don’t believe that examples such as Hartlepool and Middlesborough are relevant to us, both are much smaller in area and both had candidates that had their profile raised through other media.  (there is an excellent assessment of why I’m wrong here)

Would a mayor aligned from one party be that different to the current situation? I don’t think so.

After all this I’m not sure I’m any closer to having an opinion. Hopefully the campaign will galvanise some sort of proper arguments one way or the other, though they better hurry up.


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Pension Fun

November 28th, 2011

As we move towards industrial action, on the 30th November I have a feeling that there will be a sudden increase in rather distorted media coverage.One of the key things that irritates me is some of the language that is used around the principle reason for the dispute. The dispute is fundamentally about pensions and the desire of the Government to see people in the public sector work longer, pay more and receive less.

Interestingly the reasons cited for this need to change is the fact that changing demographics mean that pensions are/will shortly be unaffordable. This is odd as the received wisdom on pension reform comes from John Hutton’s pension report. His report is fairly clear that the burden of pensions is falling rather than increasing.

There is a certain logic to this. We are at the point where the post war generation are picking up their pensions, this will be followed by generations where birth rates were on the decline. This is coupled with a massive reduction in public sector employment. Taking the NHS as an example there has been a 50,000 reduction in staff over two years meaning nearly 5% of the work force has gone off the books. Add to that local authorities and the police you see a substantial reduction in the burden.

What is hidden in the Government story of pensions is the principle that it is unfair that public sector employees get pension terms that are not comparable with private sector employees. Note that it is apparently fair to change the terms and conditions of a previously agreed contract but not fair to have favourable terms to group of people you have no control over.

This is where the language begins to annoy me. You often hear terms such as “gold plated pension” and “generous pension schemes”. These terms imply that a pension is somehow a gift that is granted through the largess of the state.

This isn’t true. A pension is nothing more than an element of your pay. Some pay you receive up front as taxable income, whilst some pay comes in the form of employers pension contributions that is deferred until retirement.

We need to get away from the thinking that pensions are some sort of magic gift from the tax payer.

The fairness argument is essentially saying that public sector workers need to have their wages reduced. It doesn’t matter if you mean just the taxable element or the pension contribution, both are essentially wages.

The extrapolation of this is that nurses, teachers, social workers and care assistants are paid too much. If you are arguing for public sector contribution to pensions to be reduced this is what you are advocating. That is an entirely reasonable position to take if you believe it, but do not couch it in terms of pension reform.

This is basically the politics of envy.

We should also remember that reducing pensions has a consequence.

Pension funds are a massive source of investment for the private sector. Leaving aside the point that many funds were unduly affected by the lack of banking regulation, we need what they have left to invest in growth. Reducing the capacity for funds to do this seems naive at best.

We also have the issues we are storing up for the future. Giving pensioners enough money to live on reduces the chance that they will become a burden to health and social care in their old age. This is why improving private sector pensions is a much more pressing concern than reducing public sector pensions.

If we support people in the private sector to have investment in their future, then when it comes to means tested social care benefits more people will be supporting themselves. This is basic maths.


Posted in Media, Politics | Comments (3)

Pick Up The Pieces

August 12th, 2011

I decided to write about rioting.

This has been an odd thing to get round to writing. I’ve been thinking about it for days but everytime I’ve gone to start typing I’ve read something that eloquently sums up my views far better than I can myself.

A case in point being Russell Brand’s excellent thing in the Guardian.

First off I don’t think I have any particular insight into why our society apparently began to unravel this week. I don’t have any solutions and can’t pretend to really have any understanding of the people involved. My life is fairly comfortable and is as removed in social terms, if not geography, as it is possible to be.

I think the thing that really prompted me to and get my thoughts together on this was the reaction of Michael Gove on the radio, on Wednesday morning. I can’t remember the exact words as I was having a shower at the time but in short he said we shouldn’t seek to understand recent events as they were purely a manifestation of good vs evil. I added the word manifestation as this is what he really meant, he said something else that didn’t work as well.

I thought about that for quite a while.

It’s obviously idiocy of the highest order but there was something that resonated with me. As with much of the coalition Government narrative, it is a complex event boiled down to a simple explanation. The reductionism of this is so effective that the words essentially have no meaning. This is dismissing events as though it was little more than a Batman comic.

It operates on the same simplistic level that appears to have convinced the mainstream media that macro economic policy works in the same way as a credit card.

This has been coupled with the constant refrain from the Government, that to seek answers is to justify criminality. This is the attitude of someone trying to hide something. The rules of cause and effect don’t have a moral component. I believe that boiling water turns it into steam, this doesn’t mean I’m justifying it .

What I think I can safely say is that many thousands of people did not spontaneously, and suddenly, all reach the same conclusion, that wanton criminality was the way forward. This inclination had to be latent and needed to be triggered.

The causes of all of this are likely to be complex, though not ignoring that personal choice is probably the overarching factor. I don’t think we can ignore the role of politics within this, and I don’t mean this is something caused by the Conservatives alone. All parties have a similar responsibility for the change in moral norms that has clearly happened over generations.

We are living in an age where it is most likely that young people will not achieve levels of prosperity that their parents have. This isn’t an issue of poverty be it absolute or relative, it is an issue of hope and aspiration. I don’t mean that civil disturbance is influenced by settling for a smaller telly than your Mum and Dad. I mean that we are living through a time where the entire tempo of our lives is a regression on what has gone before. It is only moral boundaries that stop us seizing at quick and easy routes to comfortable living. Be that a moral objection to auditioning for X Factor or an implicit understanding that we shouldn’t rob banks.

This makes it all the more important that we ensure that everyone has got something invested in our society, something that they don’t want to lose. Without that we have no real form of censure.

The world wide recession has clearly impacted every strata of our society but this has been coupled with an ideological experiment to remove the state from our lives. This isn’t as simplistic as the reduction of budgets, it is also the message that is given to us by the Government that we must take responsibility for our lives back from the state.

This message is couched in the economically bankrupt imperative of deficit reduction but the reality is an ideological reduction of the state.

I imagine that this message was intended to develop the flawed concept of the Big Society as we all embraced our personal responsibility. The reality is that we see that many young people have recognised that it is their responsibility to generate their own wealth and simply decided to take it.

If you consider this article in the Telegraph you can see why such a reaction has come about. Any young person shaping their values in our society can see from the example of our political, media and financial classes that illegality is a technical barrier. If this notion isn’t redressed through family then I’m not exactly sure where people get their lead from.

Of course that doesn’t justify the decisions that young people have taken.

It does leave us with a problem, how do we stop this happening again? We can maintain a massive police presence for a few more days but then we run out of money. At some point we will need to reduce this and I’m not convinced that we have managed to change the minds of many of the people that decided that Sunday was a good time to set everything on fire.

Yeah, I don’t have an answer to that.

We need long term solutions and a fair bit of that will only come through setting examples. That will mean getting rid of politicians that we know are corrupt. Regulating the media and regulating the financial sector. Anything less will only fuel an erroneous perception of injustice.

It is fine for the Government to experiment with removing the state from our lives, in the hope that the private sector will fill the void. As with any experiment we need to be prepared for what happens if we get results we don’t expect. In this case criminality has filled the gap left by a shrinking state and lethargic private sector.

We have seen some efforts to fill this gap by society itself. We’ve seen vigilante mobs on the streets and we’ve seen spontaneous civic cleaning. Whilst I understand that, in some forms both of these are needed to make us feel good about ourselves they divert attention away from what really helps us out in the short term. The last few days have seen Council workers out first thing in the morning doing the real cleaning before any fo us get up. Throughout the night we have seen the Justice Service, that has been decimated by the Government trying to send an immediate message out to communities.

We need to recognise that we can experiment all we like but when it goes wrong we need at least a semblance of a safety net, in the form of the state, to pick up the pieces.


Posted in Media, Politics | Comments (4)

Serviced Birmingham

June 4th, 2011

Birmingham has  many things to be proud of but its ability to manage the most basic publicity is not one of them. It absolutely confounds me that when creating the plan to outsource IT jobs to India, someone didn’t think about the publicity implications. From a PR point of view it ticks just about every hysterical box that you can imagine.

Since this managed to get itself  plastered all over the papers, I’ve been trying to figure out how a  Council could be so publicly inept. Birmingham’s problems with managing the current financial climate are well documented  but is the publicity garnered from the savings on 100 jobs really worth it? I do believe that savings should be made if we guarantee that money gets redirected towards the most vulnerable people. If sending some services off to India means we can spend more on people with disabilities then I think I’d grudgingly say, that’s something we should consider.

Unfortunately the economic reality in Birmingham is not that simplistic.

In 2006 Birmingham decided to take all of the IT infrastructure out of Council control and create a new organisation called Service Birmingham in partnership with Capita. The theory being that partnership with the  private sector would bring “efficiency” to the public sector. A contract was created and Service Birmingham is paid annually to provide IT services. The profits that are generated from the operation of this contract are split between Capita and Birmingham City Council (I don’t know what the split is).

As with any private sector company the principle driver is to generate profits for shareholders. The only way to generate profits is to drive down costs whilst maintaining the same income; outsourcing drives down costs.

So this raises an interesting question, if Service Birmingham are lowering their costs by outsourcing jobs to India then are they equally reducing their claim on the contract with Birmingham City Council? I have no idea what the answer to that question is  but I’d be very surprised that if, as a result of this process, there is any change in the terms and conditions of the contract we have with Service Birmingham.

This also raises the issue of the relationship of this quasi private entity and their political masters. The majority of the press coverage of this has labelled it as a Tory Council sending jobs to India. It would be quite a naive political organisation that wouldn’t consider the minuscule benefits of outsourcing 100 jobs to India against the nationwide bad publicity. If  you consider that the budget of Birmingham City Council is around £1 billion is it worth it? No, especially if you consider the paper thin majority the ruling coalition is sitting on.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that it was a decision taken completely out of the political process and with little consideration of the people apparently in charge of the City. The only people likely to benefit from this are Capita shareholders and, apart  from the people who have lost their jobs, the people most  likely to suffer are Tory Councillors.

This really is a cautionary tale, beware the beast you create.


Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (0)

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