The Madness of King Ed

June 30, 2011

I love annoying people, because I’m a bit sociopathic like that. However, I do bow down to the efforts of the Labour Party in this regard, who appear to have engaged in a 15 year experiment on how much you can piss people off before they turn around and say, “Fuck you, we’re voting for someone else.”

The whole point of the Labour Party is to represent the interests of working people, working people without capital. Ostensibly a creation of the unions on the back of disappointing representation by the then Liberal Party, that representation remains central to its existence. Blair’s movement of the party away from outright socialism and into social democracy can be seen in this context; whatever else you may say about Tony Blair, it seems pretty clear that this move was intended to indenture capitalism into the service of the working public.

He did this while ignoring the reduction in the power of the unions that took place under the previous Conservative administration, but did actively praise unions as a force for good, only condemning a stupidly provocative RMT strike timed to take place during a General Election. He was never the unions’ man, and so his relationship with them could be construed as constructive, rather than something he was ashamed of.

Contrast that with Ed Milliband, who has condemned today’s strikes out of hand. He’s done this for the very real political reasons of not wanting to appear too close to the unions and to ensure that Labour is not perceived as the party of the public sector. I’m sure he believes he’s demonstrating ‘leadership’, that abstract quality beloved most by politicians who do not possess it.

But ‘leadership’ implies leading people somewhere. Milliband is ostensibly leading his party and the unions to a future in which strikes over significant changes to pay and conditions are not justified. This is not in the interests of working people. This is a trap by a Government which includes my party, to take advantage of public disquiet over union activity in order to restrict it. I don’t doubt that this is driven in main by the Conservatives, but our potential aquiesence to it is something about which I am deeply concerned.

A Labour leader, rather than simply warning of this trap, should actively work to disarm it. The boss of PCS, Mark Serwotka, pointed out this morning that the amount paid out under public sector pensions is actually predicted to decrease in the future as a percentage of GDP. This is something Milliband should be saying, in an effort to lead the public to the side of the people he’s ostensibly meant to represent. He would still be wrong – regardless of the percentage of GDP spent on pensions, public sector employees should be looking after their own future via defined contribution pensions rather than relying on the Government to do it for them post retirement – but it’s still something he should be saying. To not do so is to betray the very people he’s meant to represent, as has been Labour’s strategy for the last fifteen years. When even Blairite Dan Hodges disagrees with Milliband, you might hope he realises his own mistake.

Yesterday was fun. While I do enjoy the writings of Johann Hari, there’s no denying that he’s frequently sanctimonious and pompous, and the sight of hundreds of people gently mocking his erstwhile practice of replacing quotes from his interviewees with quotes from their other public outpourings was, quite frankly, hilarious.

Hari appears to have taken it all in good, albeit pompous, spirit. This is much more than can be said for Guido, who took this example of Hari’s pretentiousness and decided to run a politically motivated attack piece. This spoiling of the joke allowed other pompous blowhards on the left to rush to Hari’s defence. Guido then had the nerve to ask if those blowhards would’ve defended him in a similar situation. A more pertinent question would be if Guido would demand that a right-wing journalist be stripped of their awards for systemic deception. Somehow, I doubt it, otherwise he’d do little else.

However, this whole saga raises an interesting point. It’s clear that the public have different expectations of journalists than journalists do of themselves. Many of Hari’s defenders seemed to think that an ‘unstylish‘ peccadillo like this was not something worth mocking Hari over. Moreover, his defenders in what you could call the celebrity twitterati seemed to resent the fact that their friends were as open to public mocking as the likes of Jan Moir. Twitter provides a near-instant expression of popular opinion on a given subject, and in this instance it appears that a significant number of tweeters were of the opinion that any transgression of journalistic integrity was worth, if not condemning, at least worth mocking.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that journalists now want to draw a line under this episode, and move on. The Hari issue will go away. However, it’s clear that the issue of accountability in journalism will not. The market provides an inadequate method of assuring journalistic integrity, because people who buy news products do not necessarily do so on the basis of the accuracy of that product, but on to what extent that product coheres with and confirms their worldview. The columnists of the Daily Mail are not held to high standards because their product is so effective at appealing to their audiences’ worldview that purchasers of the Mail do not stop buying it when their inaccuracies are (repeatedly) revealed. We need another mechanism for insuring such integrity, in the interests of having the sort of properly informed public debate necessary for a liberal society to work. The Press Complaints Commission, chaired as it is by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, does not constitute such a mechanism. The crowd-sourced mocking of Twitter might point the way towards something that does.

Bad Economics

June 28, 2011

Via the normally excellent Chris Dillow, I have learned that there is a thing called Experimental Economics. Apparently, some of these experimental economists are studying something called Ego Depletion. This is the idea that we have a limited amount of self control at any given time, and that actions undertaken that require self control deplete that amount.

In the paper I’ve linked, experimental economists have been doing some experimenting. They’ve found that people who’ve been ‘ego depleted’ are more likely to act selfishly. Naturally, this is a great boon for anyone who wants to explain away the behaviour of anyone undertaking tedious work; it’s not their fault they’re alcoholics, as their ego has been depleted. Look at how small it is now.

So how does this experiment work? Well, our economists make a distinction between implicit and explicit motives. Broadly, this distinction is between instinctive, habitual reactions to a situation and rational, reasoned responses. When determining your reaction to a situation you have to spend some of your self-control resource in order to opt for the latter. So people who’ve spent their self-control will be more likely to make instinctive or emotional choices. Our economists test this by giving two groups of people two slightly different tasks. In one group, participants in the experiment have to cross out all the ‘e’s in a document, while the other group had to cross out every ‘e’ except when it was followed by another vowel or had a vowel two letters away in the same word. The second group had to spend more self-control, and so were ego-depleted.

Participants then took part in an ultimatum game. This is a game in which one participant makes an offer of a share of a sum of money to another participant. If the latter accepts the share, both get the money in accordance with that share. If they refuse, neither do. This experiment has been used to demonstrate that people value fairness in the distribution of resources. In this case, our experimental economists predicted that people with diminished self-control would be more likely to make selfish offers as a consequence of that lower self control, while on the flip side they’d be more likely to reject unfair offers as a consequence of their emotional reaction to the unfairness of the situation.

What a massive heap of shit.

This is what happens when you let economists play Dungeons & Dragons for too long. They’ve decided that people have an amount of ‘Ego points’ that they can spend on casting spells – sorry, exercising self-control – before they have to replenish them by resting at an inn or similar. One imagines that they believe the working world goes somewhat like this:

CAPITALIST BOSS casts EGO DEPLETION on HUMBLE PEON

It’s super effective!

I can’t even begin to go into what’s wrong with this experiment, there’s just so much. Firstly, it’s not clear why any task requiring more mental effort somehow counts as ‘depleting ego’. Both tasks are tedious. The one they’ve chosen as ‘depleting ego’ is actually marginally more interesting than the other as it actually requires concentration, rather than mundane ticking of recognised letters. It would, however, mean that people are more likely to be tired afterwards, and have less energy to use to analyse the consequences of their choices when playing the ultimatum game. They’d therefore make less successful choices. This appears to be case from the results as presented. However, there is no way of distinguishing this hypothesis from the one actually put forward by the experimental economists. This, I would aver, is a bit of a Flaw.

You can’t just magic up a pretend psychological model and then use experiments to ‘prove’ it which could prove practically anything. However, this has been the habit of economists for centuries – I’m not surprised Chris likes this paper, as he’s a Marxist, and Marxism is nothing if not a magicked up model of human psychology. It’s also been their habit to ignore bits of evidence which don’t fit with their pet theory, and indeed in the paper the experimenters point to some neurological evidence which appears to contradict their ‘implict-explicit’ model, and then decide that the evidence is equivocal!

It’s always worth bearing in mind that big tranches of economics are based on glib one-size-fits all psychological models like this one. This is why economists keep getting stuff wrong.

Paying off the disabled

June 22, 2011

Howls of righteous outrage greeted Philip Davies’ proposal that the disabled should be able to work for less than minimum wage. For once, the righteousness was indeed righteous; the implication of the proposal is that the labour of the disabled is worth less than that of the able-bodied, and so they’re less likely to be hired if the price for that labour of less worth is below the minimum wage.

Naturally, in the implacably divided political blogosphere, outrage was met with outrage. The attitude of the Right was broadly that if the disabled were only able to get jobs when people paid them below the minimum wage, then they should bloody well be able to take jobs below the minimum wage. Davies’ comments were interpreted in the context of a broader objection of the Right to the minimum wage, which is that it excludes from the labour market those whose labour is worth less than it. This objection has the advantage of being true. What it doesn’t imply, however, is that any particular subsection of society should be singled out as being less likely to capable of selling their labour at or above the minimum.

Let me tell you what will happen if this proposal goes through. If an employer is choosing between two prospective employees of equal ability, one of which happens to be disabled, they’ll be more likely to employ the disabled one. Good, say the Right, more disabled people working. However, the reason why they employ the disabled person is that they can pay them less than the minimum wage. If the choice was between two able-bodied people of equal ability, the employer would be willing to pay the minimum wage for the same labour. If this proposal goes through, then disabled people who otherwise would’ve been able to sell their labour for the minimum wage if it didn’t exist would have an artificial lowering of the value of their labour relative to the same quality of labour when sold by an able-bodied person. It would serve to depress the price of disabled labour. It would be a state intervention which results in an unfair market distortion.

Either be opposed to the minimum wage, or be in favour of it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t introduce artificial distortions into the labour market on a sectional basis; only misery can result.

Jonathan Calder is a naughty, naughty man. Following this weekend’s Social Liberal Forum Conference, he has asked – nay, demanded! – that the Social Liberals actually set out what makes them different from Social Democrats. This would perhaps be an innocent question if the rest of his post did not refer to his encounters with ‘soggies’ in his youth. You see, something I would say I share with Jonathan is the fact that I didn’t understand what the word ‘wet’ meant as applied to people until I joined the Lib Dems, and that leads me to suspect that Jonathan is engaging in that most noble of sports, wet-baiting.

Nothing riles – nothing agitates – wets more than having to define themselves, as that inevitably leads to conflict within a group of people with marginally different definitions of what that group represents and a deep need to define themselves by this external label. This is archetypal behaviour of lefties parodied in The Life of Brian, and so Jonathan’s post met with a screaming furball of responses, not least that of James Graham, which veers between a rejection of the usefulness of labels and an affirmation of his use of ‘social liberal’ to define himself.

All this is of course hilarious, and I’m sure Jonathan was wearing a grin when he added ‘Thanks for the comments’ to the bottom of his post. However, I’m suddenly feeling charitable, and not withstanding as much patronising language as I can force into this post, I think it’s fair to have a bash at coming up with a non-spurious definition.

David Howarth’s chapter from Reclaiming the State is intended to provide a definition of social liberalism, and opts for the rather churlish trick of defining it so wildly it includes practically everyone, to the point where John Stuart Mill is probably not a classical liberal. He claims that a ‘social liberal’ is concerned with ensuring that people have access to resources sufficient to guarantee their freedom, in contrast with ‘classical liberals’ who merely want the withdrawal of state interference. Within this he differentiates between those who believe that this resource access/redistribution should only be carried out to a level sufficient to allow everyone political freedom, and those who believe that other ‘fairness’ principles should be added to basic liberalism. It is the latter branch of ‘social liberalism’ that comprises the Social Liberal Forum, although one can never tell.

Now, it’s easy to be dismissive of people who want more of that most abstract of concepts, ‘fairness’, and its slightly more intellectual twin, ‘social justice’. However, this recognition that social liberals want more ‘fairness’ can actually be cashed out in an interesting way. Many of the wets of my acquaintance have spoken about Amartya Sen’s work on justice, and made frequent reference to ensuring equality of capability and similar new ways of justifying being wet.  However, this is to miss significant parts of Sen’s work which are much more relevant to the Social Liberal Forum.

Sen argues that transcendental institutionalism (the philosophical modus operandi which intends to define justice through the definition of a perfectly just set of institutions for a society) has thus far failed to wholly capture what justice is. Instead, he avers that there is a useful role for comparative justice – i.e. comparing two particular states of affairs and determining which one is more just. This process is to be carried out by reasonable public debate, with a range of criteria for how this can be achieved and several ways of assessing those states of affairs – including his capability theory, but not exclusively.

If social liberalism is the implementation of this viewpoint, then it cannot be defined except by the issues with which it is currently dealing – i.e. the aggregate of one’s positioning on a range of social issues, like the NHS and corporatism, as James Graham refers to in his speech to the Conference. Its distinguishing feature from social democracy is that it is a process rather than an ideology of Government. It may come to the same conclusions about particular issues, but it will not necessarily share principles in common with social democrats, because it does not have specific principles. Rather, it represents the process of deciding between specific choices, rather than the ideology that sets up the conditions for those choices.

As such, it represents a useful check upon those of us, including myself, who tend towards the minimal-requirements-for-political-freedom end of Howarth’s social liberal scale. Assessing our suggestions against the demands of justice is both pragmatically and politically useful. While we are capable of making firm choices about the path ahead, the wets will always prevaricate, because that’s what such a process demands – constant re-evaluation. Social liberalism cannot be ideology of Government, but it can be a useful adjunct to a governing party. I contend that there is a full role for the Social Liberal Forum over the course of this parliament. Just don’t let them near a decision.

Rent-seekers

June 13, 2011

Chris Dillow has put up a post attacking Ed Milliband for failing to recognise that Labour’s biggest fault is its inability to recognise that capitalism produces a particular structure of power – one which can be abused in a fashion inimical to justice. If bosses are able to extract rents from the workers and raise their wages relative to those of the lowest paid, then this demands action, rather than the pathetic gestures Milliband favours.

This is true. What’s also true is that the reason this happens has nothing to do with capitalism and everything to do with power. Power, in state or capitalist form, permits rent-seeking – or extortion, if one wishes to get all melodramatic about it. And the State can be just as bad as the capitalists. Let me give you a couple of examples, in the form of a rant.

I’m currently running the UK’s annual celebration of wind energy, Wind Week. This involves putting up wind turbines in cities across the UK for a day or two to highlight the increasing role wind plays in our energy mix. Lovely stuff, and the precursor event I held in London last year came off quite nicely.

This year it’s been different, because councils are feeling the pinch and have become determined to extract revenue where they can. In Belfast, the Council have insisted that only their electrician can provide cabling in line with health & safety requirements – at a cost of £500 per day. In Glasgow, the Council insisted at the last possible minute that we give them £640 for the privilege of using a public space. In Newcastle, my home town, the Council insisted that we pay for a licence for distributing leaflets, and then required that the request for that licence be requested by a Board member, before demanding a final signature to a legal letter from myself. All to hand out fliers.

Broadly, this is rent-seeking behaviour from Councils desperate for funds. I’ve found it deeply frustrating. It’s worth noting that the two mainland Councils are controlled by Labour. And that – the instinct of the Labour Party to rent-seek from a position of power – is something Milliband is culpable for too.

I love The Daily Mash.

The wonderfully satirical website was kicked off in 2007 by Neil Rafferty, a former political correspondent for The Sunday Times, and Paul Stokes, former business editor of The Scotsman. As former journalists, they clearly have a good grasp of the inherent absurdities in much of what their former comrades churn out – and the capacity to subvert it on a daily basis.

It’s a lucrative business – two-thirds of their readers earn over £30k, a great statistic for attracting advertisers. Rafferty and Stokes clearly know their audience well. They know how they think, and what appeals to them.

For example, this article on the possibility of lower-ranking universities closing is right on the money. The title, “Closing bad universities could exclude people who did nothing at school” is an adequate summary of what many people who went to higher-ranking universities secretly think. Secretly, and sometimes overtly. We’ve all had those conversations.

It’s almost as though it’s actually targeted at a particular set of opinions held by a well-off demographic, and serves to confirm those opinions while secretly laughing at everyone else. The analogy would be the Daily Mail, which is again set up to confirm the opinions of a particular demographic by expressing horror at the antics of everyone else.

The founders are journalists. Journalists don’t report the truth any more, that’s what agency reporters are for. Instead, journalists shape the truth into something so tasty you’ll want to gobble it up and come back for more of their news hors d’oeuvres. It just so happens that the tastiest form of news for a particular demographic, amongst whose ranks I count myself, is humour. This very particular market covers the increasingly successful The Daily Show, and – I suppose – 10 o’clock Live.

It’s a bit worrying when a significant number of people actively seek out opportunities to view the world through some sort of ironic detachment, as though everything outwith their immediate circle is some sort of silly mistake and will be sorted out as soon as right-thinking people get onto it. On the other hand, it is very funny.

Following their election victory last year, Islington Labour set up the Islington Fairness Commission. Great news, I said. I am entirely in favour of fairness; after all, where would we be without abstract nouns?

The Commission’s job was to investigate how Islington could be made a fairer place, and, familiar as I am with Islington Labour’s incredibly high opinion of itself, I anticipated that they viewed it as something that should eventually be rolled out across the country, and to be something that people should think of in the same way that we now think of the NHS. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should check out their record on free school meals for all, which they genuinely viewed as the triumphant capstone of the welfare state.

Party politics aside, the Commission was designed to be inclusive, incorporating inputs from a variety of stakeholders including Lib Dem councillors and the Chamber of Commerce. This was the right thing to do – my cynicism aside, a better society can only be built by bringing everyone with you. The news of this approach cheered me. I was less cheered when I heard that the chair of the Commission was to be Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level.

For those who haven’t read it, The Spirit Level is an attempt to explain every social ill as a product of inequality by comparing countries with different levels of inequality against different social ills, like crime or ill health. As with most theories of everything, the book starts off in its comfort zone, attempting to explain increased mental illness as a product of increased social anxiety brought on by increased inequality. This sounds at least mildly plausible, but then the book goes on to try to claim that everyone is made more unhealthy by increased health inequalities and it devolves into a series of scatter graphs with questionable ‘best fit’ lines running through them. Gerry Hassan has this to say about it:

Yet, it is almost impossible to compare these countries on equality; they are very different in their cultures, values and histories. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’—a universalist, sweeping statement—which cannot be substantiated by most of their data…. Part of the success of The Spirit Level is liberal guilt, part the retreat of the left, part wish-fulfilment and projection.”

There’s a good series of eviscerations over on The Spirit Level Delusion, a blog by Christopher Snowdon. Despite being a libertarian, Snowdon appears to like proper facts rather than the made-up research fond of the climate sceptics so dominant in his creed.

Given that the Commission was to be chaired by Wilkinson, I anticipated that its product would be a combination of wishful thinking and impractical suggestions. Its final report has now been released, and it contains 19 recommendations. Let’s go through these to find out how right I was.

Income
Recommendation 1: Wages
No-one in Islington should do a hard day’s work for less than they can live on.

- Employers in Islington should pay all their directly employed staff as a minimum the London Living Wage (currently £8.30/hr). Employers should also review their procurement, contract and best value policies to ensure that, as far as possible within UK and EU law, the London Living Wage is the minimum paid to all their contracted staff as well.

There is literally no recommendation about how this is to be achieved. None. The only body this could apply to is the Council as a consequence, which while being a step in the right direction was already a Council policy.

Recommendation 2: Pay differentials
Tackling income inequality is crucial to forging a fairer Islington.

- All major employers in the borough should publish their pay differentials to enable them to be scrutinised and challenged where appropriate. In the case of Islington Council, this should mean establishing a formal subcommittee, including officer, member and union representation, to review pay differentials within the organisation with a view to reducing income inequality where possible.

Nothing wrong about transparency in the private sector around pay, but again there’s no recommendation as to how you’re going to get them to do this. The report also recommends that the pay differential in the Council should be 1:12 between the lowest and highest paid, which is an odd ratio and nothing at all to do with new CE’s salary level.

Recommendation 3: Debt
Personal debt compounds poverty and inequality, and may worsen as people in Islington lose their jobs.

- Islington Council should explore the possibility of passing a by-law to prevent payday loan companies from operating in the borough. And it should vigorously use its enforcement powers and those of its partners to take action against illegal activity by loan sharks who prey on vulnerable Islington residents.

Ah, an actual policy! And I bet it’s one the pawn shops lobbied hard over. This will make them a fortune, as people trade in Granny’s silver until payday at similarly usurious rates of interest as the now banned payday loan companies. I’m also disappointed to learn that the Council isn’t already using its powers of enforcement vigorously; the implication being that previously it just couldn’t be arsed to take action.

This one really annoys me, actually; people sometimes need payday loans, and there’ll always be a market for them. Why they didn’t want to encourage existing credit unions to expand is beyond me, but of course it has nothing to do with credit unions being genuine examples of civil society that aren’t Council-driven.

Work
Recommendation 4: Employment
Employment for Islington’s residents is the best way to tackle poverty in the borough.

-Employers in Islington should, by means of legitimate positive action (such as advertising job opportunities in local media before national media) increase the proportion of local people they employ, especially among currently under-represented groups, such as disabled people. In the case of Islington Council this should mean increasing the proportion of Islington residents in its workforce from 23 per cent to 30 per cent by 2014.

Islington jobs for Islington workers! It’s a good thing that Islington isn’t surrounded by similarly deprived boroughs containing people desperately in need of work within travelling distance.

Shit, Hackney exists. Someone should’ve told them that. Luckily I’m sure better-off people in Islington won’t go for lucrative Council jobs just along the road from them, and will certainly defer employment to poorer people from other boroughs.

Recommendation 5: Jobs for young people
No young person in Islington should be altogether out of education, employment and training.

- Employers in Islington should do more to support young people who are at risk of falling into the cycle of poverty. In particular, they should support the new initiatives being developed to this end by Islington Business Board, including their programme of mentoring and work experience which will support young people into employment or training or help them to start a business of their own.

Ah, that Wilkinson, he does love his wishful thinking. On the other hand, the Council offering more mentoring and work experience placements isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recommendation 6: Corporate social responsibility
We need businesses and charities in Islington to be on the side of fairness.

- Islington Chamber of Commerce and its partners should develop a plan to promote the following important activities among businesses and charities in the borough, for example through a Fair Islington kitemark scheme:
o Pay at least the London Living Wage to all staff
o Have a pay differential of less than 1:20
o Ensure access to both premises and opportunities for disabled people
o Offer apprenticeships and/or paid internships
o Offer work experience placements
o Have employee representation on remuneration panels
o Recognise trade unions
o Offer family-friendly employment practices, including flexible and part-time working and job-sharing opportunities
o Offer support for childcare, including childcare loans
o Support workless people to prepare for the world of employment

Ah, so this is their enforcement mechanism. A badge. Schumpter was taking the piss out of socialists using badges as a reward for good behaviour in their ideal societies back in the 50s, which as a scholar I’m sure Wilkinson is well aware of. But, to give the scheme its due, let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen. Businesses invited to take part in this will add up the cost of all the above against the extra trade attracted by having a badge in their window. The ones that do do this will be businesses catering to middle-class customers who can afford the extra cost, and who already do most of these things already, especially with regard to pay. The least well-off, those family members working for poverty wages in their uncle’s takeaway, will not be affected. But little Johnny who’s working during his summer holidays will be quids in.

Families
Recommendation 7: The first year, and before
What happens during pregnancy and a child’s first year is crucial to a child’s life chances.

- There should be a major review, convened by the new Health and Wellbeing Board, of all public, private and voluntary sector activity in Islington to support parents, and parents-to-be, from the point of a child’s conception to his or her first birthday. In particular, this should look at significantly improving the coordination of services, especially those delivered by GPs, Midwives, Health Visitors and the Council.

Shit, they’re having a review. Well, I bet child poverty will just give up and go home. The reason quoted for better co-ordination between various services is to reduce the complexities encountered by new parents. This is a laudable aim, but it falls under the heading of, “You mean they’re not doing this already?!”

Recommendation 8: Affordable childcare
A lack of affordable childcare is a serious barrier to parents returning to work.

- Islington Council and its partners should establish a local ‘Childcare Coalition’, involving schools, public sector organisations, the voluntary sector, for example Islington Childcare Trust, and employers to increase the amount of affordable childcare available in the borough, especially during school holidays. This should include, for example, protecting the extended schools offer despite cuts to its funding. The ‘Childcare Coalition’ should also work to persuade employers to support parents in working flexibly around childcare provision.

Actually, this is a really good idea. I’m not going to knock it. To be fair to socialists, they’re normally pretty good at looking after kids, whereas child poverty is something the Right really doesn’t understand.

Recommendation 9: ‘Islington Reads’
The ability to read is essential for a fairer Islington.

- A new community collaboration should be set up, organised by a partnership of public sector and voluntary sector organisations, to share reading skills across communities in Islington. This will help both children and adults to improve their literacy.

On the other hand, this is utterly meaningless. I presume they mean some sort of voluntary teaching arrangement – I did this once for kids that had difficulty reading – but given they’re wrapping it up in Council clothes I’d bet that it’ll be nearly impossible to engage with. This is something that’s really better left to the schools and the voluntary sector.

Community
Recommendation 10: Giving time, giving money
Giving time and giving money is a good way of challenging poverty and inequality in our borough.

- Islington Giving should be supported to:
o champion Islington’s needs and encourage residents and businesses to donate time and money to the campaign
o continue its efforts to recruit, train and deploy 500+ new volunteers in the borough by 2014
o establish a new ‘Good Neighbours’ scheme to reduce social isolation, particularly among older and disabled people, and build community spirit in the borough
– Islington Council should, with Voluntary Action Islington, coordinate the valuable volunteering time it affords its employees, so that such efforts are targeted at Islington recipients in greatest need.

The charities mentioned here are doing great work. Pity that the Council wants in on the act.

Recommendation 11: Public space
We need to reclaim, protect and maintain communal spaces in Islington for community use.

- Islington Council and partners should identify all unused communal space in Islington, especially on estates, to free it up, make it accessible and use it, following the example of successful projects such as Edible Islington and the London Orchard Project.

You mean the Council doesn’t already have a register of all the land it owns and maintains and its current status? What on earth are they doing?

Safety
Recommendation 12: Antisocial behaviour
Antisocial behaviour damages communities and contributes to social isolation.

- A single telephone number should be established for reporting antisocial behaviour, requiring collaboration between Housing Associations, Homes for Islington, Islington Police and the Council. This should improve residents’ experience when reporting antisocial behaviour and simplify the route to getting concerns addressed. The resulting coordinated response should enable a more effective and efficient approach to tackling antisocial behaviour, particularly on estates.

Actually, this is a pretty good idea. Full marks for understanding the efficient use of force.

Recommendation 13: Fallout from crime
Tackling crime is about more than just punishing its perpetrators.

- Islington Council, together with its partners in Victim Support and Islington Police’s Safer Neighbourhoods Teams, should enhance the work done with individuals and communities that are victims of crime and antisocial behaviour to resolve local problems. This should include further work to implement restorative justice, acceptable behaviour contracts, community payback and reparation, and the return of the proceeds of crime.

Aren’t all these things happening already? ‘Enhance’ pretty much means, “Keep it up chaps, well done.”

Housing
Recommendation 14: Overcrowding
Tackling overcrowding needs to be a top priority in Islington.

- Planning policies and the Council’s new-build programme should prefer family-sized housing.
– Tenancy audits should continue to establish the potential for down-sizing.
– Islington Council should do even more to enhance its downsizing offer to under-occupiers. This could include three-way swaps; holding local swap meetings; ensuring a move happens within a year; getting people who have downsized to speak to people who are eligible to do so about the benefits; and offering a tailored package of support to help older people downsize from properties they can no longer manage (while making clear to those who may be concerned that evictions and forced transfers on these grounds are out of the question).
– Each year the council should estimate the maximum potential number of under-occupation moves, based on the supply of smaller homes, and provide incentives and support to reach this maximum.
– Reviews of allocation policies and lettings processes should ensure that priority for overcrowding is maintained, and where possible increased.

Let me translate this one: “We know proper tenancy reviews are necessary for the fair allocation of a limited resource, but we haven’t got the balls to recommend anything that might possibly result in someone getting hurt, so instead we’re going to go for a rather pathetic half-way house that’ll cost more and be less effective.”

Recommendation 15: Housing supply
Increasing the supply of decent, genuinely affordable homes is essential.

- Islington Council should strive to bring empty space into residential use by:
o Eliminating empty space above shops through writing to all shop owners to discuss the opportunities and benefits and requiring relevant staff, for example Town Centre Managers, Trading Standards officers and Environmental Health officers to enquire about space above shops as part of their routine
o Identifying empty space in commercial and office buildings for conversion for residential use, especially properties that have remained empty for some time and those that are in residential rather than commercial areas
– The Council and Housing Associations should maximise their efforts to eliminate housing fraud and illegal sub-letting, so that social housing is used fairly, according to need.
– The Council should work with Housing Associations to ensure a supply of genuinely affordable social housing and discourage rent levels that are out of reach of people on average or low incomes.

God forbid that they would recommend that more houses be built.

Health
Recommendation 16: Health inequalities
Islington’s stark health inequalities demand a more active and targeted response.

- The new Health and Wellbeing Board should draw up a clear plan of action to address well-documented health inequalities in the borough. This plan should include targeted responses to populations in need, including preventive programmes tailored to the needs of deprived or excluded groups, such as people with learning difficulties or serious
mental health problems, homeless people and older people.

While it’s a bit mealy-mouthed to say, “Other people should work out what we have to do here”, the fact that they’ve identified a body to do it is a legitimate move.

Recommendation 17: Children’s health
Good health in childhood is essential to a fairer Islington.

- NHS Islington and Islington Council should:
o support all schools in Islington to achieve ‘enhanced healthy schools’ status and all children’s centres to achieve ‘healthy children’s centre’ status
o ensure every child has free vitamin drops up to the age of 5 years
o undertake an inequalities analysis of immunisation uptake, to ensure that effort to support this programme is adequately targeted
o and seek to reduce the number (or at least check the further proliferation) of fast food outlets near schools

These are actually pretty sensible suggestions. I’d have preferred a stronger commitment on the opening of new fast food outlets, but hey, well done on this one.

Recommendation 18: Mental health
Times of economic hardship are particularly stressful, so we must increase support for mental health.

- NHS Islington needs to increase the number of people accessing support for depression and anxiety, particularly with levels of unemployment rising and increasing financial hardship which will increase mental ill-health in the borough.

Yes. But how?

Recommendation 19: Exercise
Islington’s health would improve significantly if more people exercised.

- Islington Council should:
o negotiate with the Mayor of London and Transport for London to make it easier to cycle in Islington by getting the Barclays Bikes scheme extended further north into the borough, by encouraging people from all backgrounds to use it, and by getting the Freedom Pass and/or other concessions to work on it
o explore with schools, Aqua Terra and other relevant partners how to make it easier for local residents to use the excellent school sporting facilities, including swimming pools, we now have in the borough
– Islington GPs should use to the full their ability to prescribe exercise.

These are all solid suggestions, but I’m surprised to see the most obvious one isn’t there – “Make it safe to use the parks when it’s darker during winter.”

Overall, it’s exactly as I expected – mostly wishful thinking with little real content. But everything in it is entirely well-meaning, and I worry that I’ve come across as snidely kicking a communist puppy. It is for this reason that I expect my fellow Lib Dems will vote that the Council adopts it on June 30th.

In the centre of Newcastle, atop a gritstone pillar, stands a statue of Charles Grey, the architect of the Reform Act of 1832. A native son of Alnwick, Grey was Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834. The Reform Act abolished rotten boroughs and extended the franchise from 400,000 to 650,000 people. The 2nd Earl Grey also gave his name to the tea of the same name, after receiving a gift of tea flavoured with bergamot oil from a foreign official.

Grey is a North Easterner of whom I can be proud, and there are many others – from George Stephenson, the inventor of the first practical steam engine, to Admiral Collingwood, who led the second line of ships at Trafalgar. But in recent years, this proud heritage has taken a back seat to economic decline, as identified in this astonishingly good (for the Guardian) article.

The reasons for this are varied, but can be traced back to the nationalisation of key industries in the aftermath of the Second World War. Control over the coal mines which gave rise to the phrase ‘Taking coal to Newcastle’ passed to a centralised Coal Board, ostensibly in the name of democratic sovereignty. Early on, this won improved conditions and wages for the pit workers and their families, but left the economy of the North East vulnerable to the whims of the rest of the population. The gradual sell-off of the mines under a series of governments, culminating in the Thatcher Government’s closure of many of the remaining pits, left a deep hole at the heart of the North East’s economy, one from which it has never really recovered.

Nationalisation – giving a central Government de facto control over your economy – cost the North East dear in the 1980s. The agenda of the Blair Government with regard to the North East was regeneration by increased public spending, to the point where by 2009 25% of the working population were employed in the public sector, which accounted for 56% of Gross Value Added.

This had a strong impact upon the private sector in the region, not least because national pay rates for public sector work meant that pay in the public sector in the NE was often higher than the equivalent job in the private sector. I know from the experiences of my friends and family that if you’re half-way capable in the North East you’re much more likely to work in the public sector – why not, when you’re likely to be paid more for the same skills?

Increasing the cost of employing the best people has had an impact on the development of private enterprise, as that 56% figure demonstrates. At the same time, having such a big chunk of the economy in the hands of central Government means that when that Government changes, so do the prospects for the economy. The cuts will, once again, cause misery in the North East. However, protesting against them is pointless, because even if they were rolled back it would only serve to begin the cycle of economic deprivation again.

We need control of our own economy, to prevent the electoral vagaries of the rest of the country screwing us over in the same way they’ve done for the last sixty years. We need a regional assembly with powers at least approaching those of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland has a similar percentage of its population employed in the public sector – but only 47% of its GVA comes from it. Since the foundation of the Parliament in 1998, average Scottish incomes have increased by 60%, while increasing in the North East by 50%. This is despite the fact that more public money is spent per head in the North East than in Scotland. More spending by the UK Government is not the answer.

I voted against a regional assembly in 2004, because the proposal was for a toothless talking shop. It’s time to re-examine that choice, to cut our economy free of the damaging influence of central control.

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