Tag Archives: think-tanks

Girlguides fail their policymaking badge

I hope Jane Merrick doesn’t feel that by quoting two of her articles in half an hour I am actually stalking her. But the Independent reports a new paper published by Girlguiding UK, the Fawcett Society and the BYC today about how our political system is failing young women:

More than a quarter of girls are put off by a lack of information about how they should take part, while 17 per cent believe it cannot make a difference.

Nearly half of young women say they would like to be more involved in volunteering, but when this comes to local or national politics, the figure drops to 28 per cent. Domestic violence, gangs and knife crime, bullying and equality at work emerged as the most important issues for young women.

The report calls for a new Youth Green Paper, including a demand for one person under 25 to be on every parliamentary shortlist, and the ability to vote by text message or through social networking sites such as Facebook.

I hope the Guides won’t be sewing their policymaking badges on their sleeves just yet (incredibly, the badge shown above is the real deal, and the global umbrella for guides is called the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts or WAGGGS). Are they really serious about youth quotas for candidate selections? Is this based on any experience of candidate selection processes whatsoever?

Gender quotas for candidate selections have done little to increase women candidates, as I believe the Fawcett Society themselves argue from time to time. Imposing a quota does not magically increase either the quantity or quality of the women wanting to stand as parliamentary candidates; all it tends to do is eat up time and energy spent on bureaucracy.

What we need is not a quota, but supply. Again, since the Lib Dems recognised that in the case of gender we have started making (slow, due to the fact that the relevant schemes remain under-funded) progress. If you want to increase the supply of young people in political parties, you will have to focus on developing their youth wings – all of which are various degrees of basketcase at the moment. The Guides could help actually, for example by working with the youth wings in a cross party way to promote active citizenship and encourage young women to explore their political interests. But that would mean not treating the youth wings of political parties as the pariahs of youth politics, as they currently are. A bold move; do the Guides have the guts to support it?

As for voting by text message or Facebook; words fail. This might make good faddy copy, but the implications for stolen elections are unbelievable, as even a cursory glance of the relevant literature shows. Elections held online are essentially unauditable and open to being hacked. Once again, if they are going to make bold pronouncements about how elections should be run, why didn’t they seek a partnership with a relevant youth organisation with an interest in such things, such as X-Change? If they had, they might actually have raised a far more important policy issue: that under our current electoral system all these gimmicks will fail to achieve much while it is clear that the system is rigged from the start.

Today at the Lib Dem Conference, Howard Dean made a startling claim: more under 35s voted in the US elections last November than over 65s. In fact it sounds so startling that I want to go away and factcheck it, but either way the level of youth participation has shot up in the US and it has been achieved not by having token youth candidates or letting them vote by mobile phone, but by offering them real politics and a chance to make a difference. The Girlguides should be paying more attention to that than trotting out the same old tired tropes.

Ashdown, Amnesty and the ippr

Background: last week I wrote a short article on Lib Dem Voice about the ippr’s new report on surveillance and data protection, pointing out how it had been funded and lamenting the fact that Lord Ashdown has, in effect, been used to legitimise the argument. This resulted in a furious response from Lord Ashdown himself, most of which I have dealt with in the subsequent comments thread.

There has been one lingering thread from all this which I have been quietly pursuing. Lord Ashdown listed a number of other funders for his Commission which I didn’t mention. These are:

DfID
Cabinet Office
The Foreign Ministry of Sweden.
Amnesty International

I didn’t mention them because they didn’t finance this particular report. Nonetheless it is true that the Commission itself has a plurality of funding. This hardly negates my argument, but if Lord Ashdown wishes that to be placed on the record, then fair enough.

But then I dug a little deeper, looking at the Security Commission’s section on the ippr website and scanning through all their publications. I could find references to the Swedes and DFID, but not the Cabinet Office or Amnesty. Since the Cabinet Office hardly counts in my book as pro-human rights and privacy organisation, I wasn’t particularly bothered if Lord Ashdown wanted to boast of getting money out of them. But Amnesty was somewhat more curious, so I have spent the last couple of days trying to find out the exact nature of their funding. And now, thanks to the helpful person running Amnesty’s Twitter account, I have it:

We do not fund the work of the commission per se, but contribute to a series of security lectures they hold. We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism. [Direct message sent to me]

Now let me be clear: as far as I am concerned, Amnesty’s role here is unimpeachable. They are doing exactly what I would expect a major human rights organisation to be doing. But it does highlight a couple of points coming out of Lord Ashdown’s missive. The first is that Amnesty’s funding is entirely unrelated to the production of this report and thus it is extremely misleading to even bring it up. They aren’t even contributing to core costs which would make them indirectly responsible for its publication.

Secondly, he stated that:

All funders are required to sign a contract which explicitly forbids them from trying to influence the content of what we publish. As it happens, one funder did try to exert this kind of influence and their money was returned to them immediately and they were immediately showed the door.

I’m sure they do all sign such a contract, but it is a silly one to make. They know exactly what they are getting. In the exact same way, it is not as if CAMRA are funding the ippr on a research project on community pubs (announced today) with any doubt in their mind that the research will conclude that community pubs are worthless and should be shut down. In the case of Amnesty, they are quite explicit: “We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism.

EDS, Raytheon Systems et al don’t merely have an agenda, they have shareholders and a fiduciary duty to maximise profits. I don’t begrudge them funding research but I do assert my right to highlight it.

I am unaware of a single disinterested IT professional who actually supports the agenda driving the database state. Equally, I have seen the sheer energy which has been wasted in countering apparently independent research on climate change which, it turns out, was funded by Big Oil over the past decade. We simply cannot afford to ignore the degree to which money is driving this agenda and what an unlevel playing field it results in. And that is why I am uncomfortable with a man like Lord Ashdown effectively lending it greater legitimacy that it would otherwise warrant.

I am genuinely surprised by how many fellow Liberal Democrats have sought to shout me down or belittle me for raising this issue, or claimed that getting told off by Lord Ashdown has left my credibility in “smoking ruins.” Whether my reputation is in ruins or not, I’m afraid I’ll keep blogging about this. Sorry to disappoint.

Lord Ashdown and I have words…

A few days ago, I quickly penned a brief article for Lib Dem Voice about a new ippr report which amounts to a paean to the database state. What the coverage about it did not mention was that the report was funded by what amounts to the ICT industry which will be the main beneficiary of such a massive expansion of the so-called “transformational government” and that this has not even been mentioned by the mainstream media. What irritated me somewhat less but which was nonetheless pertinent was the fact that the working group which commissioned this paper was co-chaired by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown.

The immediate reaction was almost deafening silence from the LDV readership, an audience not known for its reticence in putting its views forward. But this weekend Lord Ashdown himself issued a furious response. He went on to make a number of extraordinary accusations, dwarfing anything I wrote, which was actually quite mild about him (I only really challenged him to put his views on the record, which he sort of now has – job done). So you can read my counter argument as well.

It does all rather recall my rather mixed feelings amount the man. Just last week I hailed him as the best leader the Lib Dems have ever had. Yet he is also a leader who secretly discussed merging the party with Labour (hotly denying it at the time) and a cheerleader for the 2003 Iraq invasion. So you’ll excuse me if I don’t view his judgement as infallible.

“New Nagging” – a very Cameroon concept [UPDATED LOTS]

Small bit of advice to Andrew Lansley. If you have to insist that you are not “nannying” that is almost certainly what you are doing. Finger wagging doesn’t stop being finger wagging just because you have the fingers of your other hand crossed behind your back.

I know I need to read the actual speech rather than the media precis, but my kneejerk reaction is: what on earth has happened to Reform? They used to be the thinktank that so-called ‘Orange Bookers’ slammed in everyone else’s face as the epitomy of laissez-faire economic liberalism. In the past few months they’ve transformed themselves into one of the usual thinktank subjects – constantly harping on about how government should intervene here, and regulate that.

* * *

I’ve now read Lansley’s speech – I’ve even skimmed through Alan Johnson’s speech on obesity last month for good measure. I struggle to find much in the way of a substantive difference between the two. Both proudly unveil partnerships with the private sector. Lansley states “Providing information and example is empowering, lecturing people is not.” Johnson states “vilifying the extremely fat doesn’t make people change their behaviour.” There is a subtle difference there but it is not immediately apparent.

In the comments below, Dale Basset makes much of the fact that Lansley states that “Legislation will be a last resort.” Is he honestly suggesting that Alan Johnson would say anything different? It isn’t as if the government have been falling over themselves to introduce legislation. In fact though, it simply isn’t true. In Lansley’s bullet point list of steps to take, legislation – specifically European legislation – is right on the top of his list. Points 3, 5 and 8 are also primarily regulatory and/or concerned with state intervention.

His prescription for tackling adult obesity may be legislation-lite, but it is very heavy on “supportive rôle models and positive social norms.” Be honest, given that this is supposed to be aimed at adults, does it not sound more than a little patronising? He actually suggests a teenage version of Lazytown, but by implication he is suggesting an adult version as well.

And as for the children, he explicitly calls for more nannying, merely questioning the nannying style: “we need more of a ‘Mary Poppins’ than a ‘Miss Trunchbull’.”

Bearing all that in mind, he is lucky that he doesn’t get done under the Trade Descriptions Act for calling his speech “No excuses, no nannying.”

Finally, regarding the ‘no excuses’ stuff, it varies between the nonsensical and the deranged. He explicitly attacks the government’s Foresight report for sending out the ‘wrong’ message to obese people. Since when did obese people, with the obvious exceptions of Lansley and myself, sit around reading government reports (admittedly, this may change if they end up cancelling Countdown)?

The line “Tell people that biology and the environment causes obesity and they are offered the one thing we have to avoid: an excuse.” is all too reminiscent of John Major’s call for society to “condemn a little more and understand a little less.” In short, it is classic Tory Flat Earthism. Who cares if there may be important biological and environmental factors behind the increase in obesity? Whatever you do, don’t tell the fat people.

I speak from personal experience here when I tell you that we fatties are perfectly good at finding excuses ourselves. We don’t need government reports to provide them for us and we certainly don’t need populist politicians to protect us from ‘unhelpful’ things like scientific research. I’m happy to take responsibility for my own body shape, but that is another thing entirely from dismissing external factors. One external factor for instance is being singled out as the fatty every day throughout your school career. While I’m no scientist, I have no personal doubt that there is a link between obesity and mental health, as this interesting Ben Goldacre article suggests. Not only might the “no excuses” culture of Toryism not work, but if its main effect is to simply make fat people feel even worse about themselves it could prove counter-productive.

One of my favourite David Boyle books is Tyranny of Numbers. Way before its time, in it he comes up with a number of ‘paradoxes’ about our target obessed culture. Paradox Number Seven states that “When you count things, they get worse.” It certainly seems to me that the more our society obsesses about obesity, the bigger a problem it becomes. Why this has become such a big thing over the past decade I can only guess at, although I suspect it has something to do with irresponsible medical professionals getting carried away with numbers which suit their budget submissions, and a burgeoning diet industry that can now afford to hire sock puppeting lobbyists (and even MPs). I look around me and don’t seem to see much more obesity than there was 20 years ago, yet everyone I know with a bit of muscle on them is BMI classified as obese. It strikes me that a proper ‘conservative’ attitude would be to not get carried away with all this at all. And ultimately, it if boils down to a choice between traffic light labelling on food and having Chris fucking Hoy rammed down my throad as the latest Lansley-approved ‘rôle model,’ I’ll stick with the regulation thanks.

Tory calls to make maths “chic” badly miss the point

The value of mathematics cover (composite)Reform is an interesting think tank. They claim to be non-partisan and solely interested in the neutral pursuit of “a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity” yet in reality have a tendency to favour reforms which involve a reduced role for the state and are not at all surprisingly firmly on the Conservative end of the spectrum. Their token Labour and Lib Dem sponsors, Frank Field and Jeremy Browne respectively, do little to confound their reputation for having a rightward inclination.

All of which makes their latest publication all the more perplexing. I’ve read the press release and executive summary of The Value of Mathematics (PDF) and it seems a little confused. I’m not an educationalist and am not qualified to answer their criticisms of how maths is taught in school. What I can say is that with the best will in the world, Gordon Brown can hardly be blamed for it. So why all the smirking innuendo about “Gordian knots”? The legend of the Gordian Knot is not famed for is association with mathematics as far as I know (although I am grateful to wikipedia for leading me to this article, which hardly undermines my point), nor is mathematics teaching a particularly intractable problem. And is Alexander’s solution – effectively smash and grab – sound like the sort of solution that is really needed? Alexander didn’t cut the knot in order to make people free; he did it to rule the fucking world! The closer you look at it, the worse a metaphor it turns out to be.

Perhaps if Reform was more interested in Phrygia than Prada they would have appreciated this, but clearly knowledge isn’t actually something they have much time for, as this quote from Elizabeth Truss reveals:

“In today’s Britain it is acceptable to say that you can’t do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn’t read. We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic.”

This quote highlights two conceptual fallacies within this report. The first is to equate the lack of people taking mathematics to an advanced level with innumeracy. Getting less than a C in GCSE maths doesn’t make you innumerate and more than getting less than a C in English makes you illiterate. It is a crucial distinction if the problem you purport to be identifying is a lack of scientists, engineers and statisticians rather than the poor quality of supermarket cashiers.

If the problem is the latter, and in fairness it should be pointed out that the report does briefly reflect on this (albeit it only to the extent that it quotes one of those surveys where businesses get the chance to whinge with no actual empirical data to back it up) then you have to take a number of remedial steps. That lead to the sort of policies Labour came out with in the late nineties. Fundamentally, it is a primary education issue more than it is a secondary education issue. Improving maths GCSE is a bit of an irrelevance in this respect.

That isn’t the problem that the report is mainly concerned with however, and it is highly doubtful that the UK would be a happier, more prosperous place if every person in the street could do complex algebra. Indeed, it could be argued that we would be better off if fewer people were doing maths at Key Stage 4. If there is a problem, it appears to lie in the fact that people who are good at maths are not fulfilling their potential and that there is a general cultural problem where intelligence is undervalued in a society obsessed with image and bling.

This leads me directly to the other conceptual problem. What’s all this guff about transforming maths from “geek” to “chic” (the report repeats this phrase throughout)? My favourite line in the report has to be this:

The many people who enjoy Sudoku, logic problems and computer games highlight the considerable potential interest in mathematics.

No it doesn’t. At all. Whether the two are linked is another matter, but interest in computer games has risen at an inverse proportion to interest in mathematics. Neither them, nor Sudoku and other logic problems are about maths at all, any more than crosswords and cinema are about English literature. None of them are “chic” – all of them are “geek” – yet they’re still popular. Doesn’t that suggest they just aren’t getting it?

Will our problems really be solved if only they talked about Pythagorean equations in Sex and the City with the same enthusiasm that they talk about handbags? Maths has always been “geek” and always will. Trying to fool kids into thinking it is somehow hip and happening isn’t going to solve anything. The problem isn’t Stephen Hawking and the solution most definitely isn’t Victoria Beckham.

Chic is the problem; in a world which celebrates superficiality and shallowness any vocation which requires a bit of brain power is going to struggle. Maybe if people like Elizabeth Truss, a Cameroon A-lister, weren’t so down on “geek”, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I’m sorry to bang home the point, but it does suggest an inherent confusion. You simply cannot with one hand dismiss attempts to make maths “relevant” while calling for it to be made “chic” with the other. To do so is utterly fatuous.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if, despite this being one of the paper’s main conclusions, they actually spelt out how this would be achieved. On substance however, the only thing the paper is willing to say about how to make maths “chic” is to have more “rigour” and more things like the UK Maths Challenge. They call for less state control while simultaneously demanding that the government “steps in” to halt the “current inexorable drift” towards modularising maths GCSE. All of this sounds like more state control to me, not less.

This is the other problem with the paper; in calling for less state control, it lacks the courage of its convictions. Outside of the Department for Children, Schools and Families I don’t think anyone fails to recognise that “teaching to the test” is doing anything but harm. But at the same time, they can’t help having a pop at “the misguided trend towards ‘progressive’ teaching.” But you can’t have it both ways. It wasn’t Thatcher who insisted on “progressive” maths teaching in the early 80s, it was the teaching profession. It is my experience that in areas such as the national curriculum, politicians tend to defer authority to civil servants and “experts” with remarkable consistency regardless of political ideology. It is those “progressive” experts who seem to be behind the “inexorable drift” that they are so opposed to. And if we are all to be much freer in choosing which schools our kids go to, a great many of us are likely to opt for ones with “progressive” attitudes.

The answer to that, surely, is that enabling greater experimentation will mean that best practice can evolve organically. No-one should be under any illusions however that giving teachers more power over their own jobs, and parents’ more power over where to send their kids to school is going to magically result in better teaching automatically. Nor are parents or even teachers going to put the interests of the national economy at their top priority. Many parents will pick schools on the basis of what religious ethos (or lack thereof) they adhere to. Many will opt for ultra-progressive education methods such as Summerhill‘s. China does a great job at hothousing mathematicians, yet somehow I suspect Reform would have issues with their education system.

There’s actually very little in this report which is about less control; merely bad teaching. That’s fine, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t conflate the one with the other. Liberalising education is a big, radical step. Pretending that doing so will lead to all schools adopting the same teaching methods is a fantasy. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Conservatives equate less state control with a rejection of “progressive” education and the problem they identify stemmed from the Thatcher and Major administration. Both these facts cast significant doubt over whether Tories really do get liberalisation.

Government certainly must share some of the blame, but it is important not to ignore the wider social pressures. Learning has always been uncool and it is foolish to pretend you can somehow make it so. A celebrity and vanity-obsessed culture is always going to under-value science and mathematics and any look at maths teaching in this country needs to reflect on that. Yet of course it is those cultural values that Cameron, and Blair before him, has capitalised on. After the London elections we now know what a real electoral force those values can be. So it is hardly surprising that a Cameroon report of this type is going to present those trends as a solution rather than a problem, no matter how foolish this appears to be.

The demographics of Um?

I meant to blog about the Centre for Um discussion paper on demographic change by Alasdair Murray a couple of months ago, but I ended up getting distracted. As part of my general post-holiday catch-up, I thought I’d get my comments off my chest now, but as it was a while since I read the paper, I’m a little rusty.

On specifics, I don’t quibble with a lot of what the paper is saying. It is surely correct to point out the problems of simplistically emphasising how the aging population will lead to more elderly dependents on the economy without looking at how other dependents (the young, the economically inactive) effect the economy at the same time. I don’t think any liberals question the need to scrap the fixed retirement age of 65 (socialists are another matter – I seem to recall Labour activists queuing up to denounce this at their last autumn conference). I agree also with the need to bring more young people into the labour market – a stark contrast with Labour’s obsession with giving 50% of the population a (potentially worthless) university degree and raising the school leaving age to 18. There certainly should be an emphasis on skilling young people, but that should be done in the workplace, not in pseudo-universities (on which point, can I recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft‘s article on the subject last week: “Those who insist that expanding higher education is virtuous in itself never stop to say why this should be so. And they never explain why it should be better to be a third-rate media studies graduate than a first-rate carpenter.”).

It is the wider arguments of the paper that trouble me. First of all, the bland claim that “pessimistic predictions about Europe’s demographic future overstate the problem in most countries and ignore the potential to adapt.” That is half true, but how are we to adapt if we ignore the pessimistic predictions? Alasdair Murray points out that a number of countries have already dealt with the “pensions time bomb” in their policies, but this has to be at least partially because of the scare reports that have been dribbling out over the past 20 years and more. This doesn’t prove them wrong: it proves their worth.

More irritatingly, I can’t go along with his bald assertion that inter-generational conflict isn’t worth bothering with. He bases this on two lines of argument: that there is little evidence of an emerging conflict, and that young people are better educated, richer and have higher rates of employment than their parents.

The first argument is just plain daft; it’s the Nelson defence (“I see no ships”). To start with, it depends where you look and what you’re looking at. What’s more, the fact that there is little tension now is not to say that there won’t be tension in the future.

The second argument misses the point that it isn’t incomes that we are quibbling about, but assets. Those subsidised right-to-buy homes people bought in the 80s simply do not exist. Greater earning potential is one thing, but if the economy drives people into habitual debt – thousands just to get “credit rating”, tens of thousands on graduation, hundreds of thousands of mortgage debt – that leaves very little at the end to build a nest egg. I’ll come onto the underlying assumption in the paper that population growth is an unalloyed good in a moment, but assuming that is the case for a moment, it is surprising that he appears to have missed the growing evidence that one of the main reasons that people are starting families later in life now is because they struggle to afford the housing; indeed housing is barely mentioned either in the paper as a whole, or in the section on inter-generational conflict.

Worst of all, he parrots that old canard about wealth cascading down the generations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this: that’s the problem. Because people don’t, as a general rule, spread their wealth evenly to the younger generation: unsurprisingly they favour their children. This entrenches privilege, deepens the divide between rich and poor and, by putting wealth in the hands of ever fewer families and individuals, is a potentially catastrophic cause of social immobility. No-one is questioning that the millionaire couple who profited from the buy-to-let boom will eventually hand their assets over to their children; what we’re questioning is whether they should be the beneficiaries and what economic impact it will have further down the line.

The biggest single omission however is that this paper does not mention the environment, climate change and the management of natural resources. At all. I’m amazed that you can even write a paper on demographics without mentioning these things. A dry debate about immigration is one thing, but what do we do if Bangladesh goes underwater and Africa becomes an arid dustbowl? Where do the people go? What if they decide to come here? Cheery forecasts about pensions is one thing, but what about peak oil? Europe’s stagnating population is one thing, but global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 (it seems like only yesterday when we reached the 6 bn mark – now we’re at 6.6 bn).

You may argue that all these big questions go beyond a simple paper on the economics of European demographics; I accept that they would have lead to a substantially different paper. What I do seriously question however is how the paper can assume that population growth is a good thing that policy makers should aim for. The paper does not oppose pro-natal policies, just the practicalities of the more crude of these (such as Germany’s tax system). Instead, it recommends policies that “best create the conditions where fertility rates might rise by removing structural obstacles to female labour market participation”.

I’m not in favour of radical anti-natal policies such as China’s one child policy, let alone anything more draconian. Nor do I believe in putting obstacles in the way of “female labour market participation” with a view to reducing fertility rates. I do however feel that population growth and environmental sustainability are heading for a full on collision, that one will have to give way to the other and that if the species is to survive in the long term, it had better be the latter. How do we develop genuinely liberal anti-natal policies? And if those policies are successful, won’t they exacerbate the problems associated with an aging population (if fertility rates dropped significantly, the average age would increase quite rapidly)?

In short, while he has some good points, Alasdair Murray’s pamphlet is exactly the wrong paper at the wrong time. It sets out to deal with a problem which, from the outset, it asserts has already been solved, and fails to answer the important questions relating to demographics that we need to be answering in the 21st century.

School vouchers: the new Tory approach

It would appear that my post on Tuesday about school vouchers was timely. The second in Direct Democracy’s series of Localist Papers is on precisely this topic.

I haven’t read the pamphlet yet, but my knee-jerk reaction is indeed negative. On first reading their proposals sounded like the Monty Python right for men to have babies. Allowing people to claim the cost of education from their local authority to spend however they choose, rather than a wholesale voucher system, does indeed sound like a simple exercise to subsidise public schools while offering everyone else almost nothing. New independent schools would struggle to get started under such a system.

The analogy to the right to buy scheme is unfortunate: while I don’t have a problem with the ‘right to buy’ the Tory scheme was actually a ‘right to subsidy’ and a ‘prohibition for local authorities to reinvest in housing stock,’ the socially regressive consequences of which we are now suffering from in terms of a dramatic plunge in social mobility and racial tensions caused by a lack of social housing. So much for localism.

I can’t help but think that if you’re going to introduce such a system you should introduce it wholesale. The piecemeal approach will simply cause more pain over a longer period of time. Nevertheless, I need to read the whole paper. Another one to add to the list.