Monday 28 February 2011

Not quite heirs to Blair

I have a column in the March edition of Public Finance, explaining why the coalition's public service reforms are not as much in the Blair tradition as they imagine.

David Cameron’s closest coalition colleagues are said to follow a ‘cult of Blair’ on domestic reforms. They proceed with pace, avoiding Tony Blair’s lament that he acted too slowly. They proudly display the scars on their backs from opposition to their changes. And they are extending some New Labour initiatives in health and education. But they have parted company with its ‘investment and reform’ approach in important ways - and that might be their downfall.

You can read the full column here.

Sunday 27 February 2011

The definitive death of Dev's doleful legacy

Ireland's election result is no less groundbreaking for having been largely predictable. Fine Gael is likely to form a strong government with Labour, between them holding 113 seats out of 166 in the Dail. They will seek better terms than the crippling 5.8% interest rates that they have to pay on their European bailout loans. But essentially they will preside over a continuity of the austerity that had been begun under Fianna Fail in the years that saw its demise. But the real importance of the election is the collapse of DeValera's party, an event that with the liberal reforms that were symbolised by the 1990 election of Mary Robinson as President, the neutralisation of Northern Ireland as an issue and the collapse of Catholic church authority under a welter of child abuse scandals has finally brought to an end the stifling insularity that characterised Ireland from the 20s to the 70s.

Of course, some things haven't gone away. The economic collapse has brought back the spectre of emigration, though it lacks the permanence or distance of earlier years and there remains a strong and growing private sector thanks to the low corporation taxes so hated by Germany and France. Fianna Fail, with just 20 seats, has partly lost ground to a stronger Sinn Fein party which has obscured its past to secure 14 seats. But as importantly, the Irish Labour Party, despite a haltingly confused election campaign, is now Ireland's second party, with 37 seats and has done better than its previous best result in 1992. It is the predominant party in Dublin, and the opposition benches also have several hard left TDs who may form an informal alliance with Sinn Fein to challenge the next coalition with Fine Gael on around 75 seats, from the left.

That Fianna Fail has fallen so low doesn't, of course, mean that it will permanently be stuck in the doldrums. Its new leader, Micheal Martin has at least halted what could have been an even worse slide. The Canadian Conservatives showed that parties can recover from such a drubbing. But what it does mean is that the old assumptions are finally dead and buried. To some extent, the Celtic Tiger boom was the catalyst for much of that change already. But it was presided over by Fianna Fail, which had managed to adapt in many ways to those winds of change, though never convincingly to embrace them. So, the transition could never be complete while the party of Dev continued to dominate Irish politics.

Now that party will need to face up to a future that it had sidestepped while Bertie was in charge as the money flowed in. Ireland needs to show that it can be modern and efficient with more realistic and soundly based growth. Whatever happens, there is no doubt that the election of 2011 will come to be seen as just as seismic an event in Irish political history as the 1918 poll that saw the demise of the Irish national party in favour of a Sinn Fein that gave birth to the two parties that dominated independent Ireland's politics for 90 years.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Ireland's call, Kenny's choice

There is a peculiar air of unreality around the Irish election campaign. The big issue seems to be whether one-time teachers like Enda Kenny, the man likely to be Taoiseach by the weekend, should continue to access teachers' pensions (which he has decided not to take while in office). However, the real issue is whether it is good for Ireland to face a Fine Gael minority government rather than the long anticipated coalition with Labour.

To be fair, Kenny has fought a pretty good campaign, though he started it with a reputation for leadership so low that the only way was up, and as predicted here, Labour has provided a spectacular object lesson in how not to win elections, schizophrenically tacking left on tax and spend policy while running ads intended to undermine Fine Gael's appeal to middle class, fiscally conservative voters. The party leader, Eamon Gilmore, who had a brief moment not so long ago when he could credibly talk of himself as a future Taoiseach, has lost his personal lead as potential Taoiseach to the new kid on the block, Micheal Martin, who has rescued Fianna Fail from oblivion if not a pretty crushing defeat with as few as 30 seats. More seriously, his strategy of talking of higher taxes for those earning over €100k (£85k) a year could have cost him a swathe of Dublin seats, as Fine Gael is now leading the capital's polls.

Even so, Labour is still likely to achieve a result that will come close to Dick Spring's 33 seats (from a 166-member Dail) in 1992, and Fine Gael seems certain to exceeed 70 seats. (The Guardian will be disappointed that Sinn Fein will probably have to settle for a dozen seats at most, though Gerry Adams will probably take a seat). But with a swathe of independents, including assorted Trotskyists, likely to win seats, the temptation for Kenny could be to ignore Labour and cobble together a coalition with the independents. However, Garret Fitzgerald, a former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, has struck a timely note of caution in this respect in a speech, as the Irish Times reported:
Dr FitzGerald said such a coalition would be “much more solid” than seeking support from Independents, which he described as “disastrous”. “With Independents you have no idea. They can blackmail you for something in their constituency,” he warned. Dr FitzGerald believes the two parties can sort out their differences. “If they sort those out and stick together for five years, you have the kind of majority needed to do all the unpopular things that need to be done.”
Kenny has sought to increase his international standing during the campaign with visits to Chancellor Merkel and EU President Jose Manuel Barroso, intended to suggest that he could re-negotiate the stiff interest rates demanded for the Irish bailout. Even if he does, he faces a pretty tough time as Taoiseach. It would be crazy to go into it without a strong partner in government, and Labour is still the only serious option. Gilmore has started to remind people of this and to rein in the more damaging rhetoric. Kenny needs to show he means business, by urging vote transfers to Labour on Friday, if he wants the chance to lead as Taoiseach rather than forever having to buy off the whims of unreliable independents.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Time for a few more U-turns

I'm afraid I hadn't got around to stirring myself into a righteous rage about the management of the forests before David Cameron ruthlessly hung the hapless Caroline Spelman out to dry over the ill-communicated and poorly considered proposals. He badly needs to get a grip from No 10. But I am sure that its impact would have been far less damaging than two other government plans that remain a core part of the coalition project: forcing GPs to take over most of the NHS budget and the scrapping of the EMA. Both require swift retreats or they will lead to future problems when it is too late.

As I have said here before, there is nothing wrong with GP fundholding, where GPs actually want to hold the funds and where certain services that they will have no interest in commissioning are provided elsewhere. There is a lot wrong with simply handing over £80 billion of our money to consortia on the hunch that it might be a bit less bureaucratic or a bit more efficient. After all, the King's Fund has shown decisively that the Government's rationale for change is wholly bogus. Some GPs may have a natural aptitude for strategic decision-making. But just as some are lousy at diagnosing diseases, some will be hopeless budget-holders, at least when it comes to dealing with such large sums. This policy has disaster written all over it. Like the forest sell-off, it has no real support except from a few keen fundholders (and if they are keen, let them do it). In his heart, the PM must know this. Since he's in u-turn mode, here's what he should do. First, slow the reform timetable and the abolition of primary care trusts to allow reluctant fundholders to join as volunteers rather than conscripts, as with academies. Second, make the policy permissive, so that those with good business plans get the right to commission and those without must go back to the drawing board. Third, introduce a quality threshold alongside price into the value-for-money criteria, so that the policy doesn't end up replacing good provision with weaker but cheaper alternatives. Oh, and give Andrew Lansley another job where he can be less destructive.

On EMAs, it is a little different. This is a policy driven not by ideology but by funding. Ironically, the determination to pretend that school budgets were not being cut to fund the pupil premium led to the destruction of a proven, targeted measure to encourage ambition and achievement for poorer pupils to fund an untried, untargeted pot of money that will merely be used to plug funding gaps in schools that receive it. Michael Gove told school leaders six months ago that he wanted to persuade the Treasury that EMAs should stay. He clearly didn't succeed. But now that we are seeing the combined impact of government policies on young people, he needs to try again. Not least because without it, in the absence of compulsion when the participation age is raised, there will be nothing to persuade poorer young people who should do so to stay in further education when that is a better long-term option than a badly paid job with statutory part-time training tacked on. I know poorly paid young people lack the voting power of weekend forest-goers, but if the government cares about social mobility, it will make important changes.

Here's what Gove should do. First, all students who received an EMA in Year 12 should get one for Year 13 or the college equivalent. Scrapping an EMA mid-course is unforgivable: have university students been asked to pay a higher fee mid course? This will also avert another court defeat if a legal challenge takes place. Second, savings are needed, so the EMA should in future be made available to all students entitled to free school meals while at school whose family income remains low. This would encourage students to claim FSM at school, helping schools in areas where there is a stigma about FSM to claim the pupil premium. But it would still save money by confining eligibility to the poorest students. Third, the EMA's requirements for study and attendance should be strengthened, with rewards for those gaining good qualifications. Fourth, there should be a differential transport element depending on where students go to college or school. Such a scheme could be introduced at lower cost than the existing EMA but it would make a direct link with the pupil premium and bridge the gap between school and university, where poorer students receive significant support.

A wise education secretary would make the change before a beefed up Number 10 policy and strategy function works out what a disaster EMA abolition will prove to be - and before he loses another court case.

Monday 14 February 2011

Will Fine Gael govern alone in Ireland?

Enda Kenny has not exactly had a good press in his years as leader of Fine Gael. Last year, I joined RTE discussion shows where his leadership was being compared with that of Gordon Brown. Last week, he was much criticised for failing to join a TV debate with the new Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin and Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore. And Gilmore had until recently been expected to be in a position to dictate the terms of a new coalition government, if not demand the post of Taoiseach as his more ambitious election posters optimistically declare across Ireland.

Yet today all the talk is of Enda for Taoiseach at the head of a Fine Gael government propped up by some of the 15 or so independents expected to triumph as Fianna Fail gets a deserved drubbing from the voters. The Taoiseach-in-waiting has even headed off to Germany for a photocall with his Christian Democrat colleague, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to discuss possible changes to the economic bailout. Meanwhile, Labour's hopes of exceeding the 33 seats that Dick Spring won in 1992 are starting to fade, especially if the constituency polls are to be believed.

As it happens, I'm not sure all the polls are right. Fianna Fail's 15% showing seems too low, and Martin has had an impressive performance suggesting he is a leader who had nothing to do with the government in which he sat as a permanent fixture at the cabinet table. And the vagaries of Ireland's PR system could deliver transfers from left-wing parties to those on Gilmore's slate. it would also be a big risk for Kenny to try to govern with fickle independents in some sort of minority government rather than having Labour in a stable coalition which could have 105 seats between them.

Yet, there is also a sense in which a fundamental tactical error by Gilmore has blown his expected gale - talk of Labour taking 40+ seats was commonplace - off course. Winning two seats in most Dublin constituencies requires the votes and transfers of middle class voters who have been badly affected by the country's economic crisis as much as those of traditional Labour voters or transfers from the likes of Sinn Fein. Yet when Gilmore should have been reassuring those voters, he fell into the classic trap of tacking left by promoting higher taxes for people earning over €100k (£85k) which has been effectively attacked by Fine Gael. This has seen Labour's vote starting to fall back - as low as 20% in one poll yesterday (and lower in aggregate constituency polls), where the party was scoring in the high 20s and low 30s not so long ago. If Fianna Fail's vote is understated, Labour could fall further.

Of course, there is much to play for in the next 12 days, and the public may respond to Kenny's go-it-alone declarations by giving Labour a stronger mandate. Labour still seems likely to have a big increase in vote and seats, and Fianna Fail to face unprecedented losses. But it is just starting to feel that far from being the great breakthrough election that many had predicted, this will be the one where the baton simply passes to Fine Gael minus any of the reforming instincts that Labour could bring to the table.

Good governance in Ireland requires a strong Labour showing on Friday week. Gilmore should take a few lessons from his veteran colleague and former finance minister Ruairi Quinn on how to play the economy ahead of tonight's five-leader debate. He has no time to lose.

How to make Big Society more than just BS

David Cameron is having another relaunch of his Big Society today. Always a bad sign in government, this one is boosted by his slightly implausible declaration that this half-formed policy is his great mission in life. Desperation suggests itself, not least as the policy has suffered its share of knocks in recent weeks.

The thinking behind the Big Society is perfectly reasonable. At least it would be if it didn't rely on stale caricatures of Labour's approach. When I worked with David Blunkett, he regularly spoke of citizenship and volunteering, which translated into curriculum changes and the promotion of programmes like Millennium Volunteers (since renamed) which is not much different from Cameron's citizens' service. Blunkett also belonged to a Labour tradition that owed much to the pre-war mutualism of the co-operative and trade union movements, which promoted credit unions and penny libraries in Victorian England. Tony Blair regularly promoted 'Big Society' themes such as mutualism in the delivery of public services through trust schools, for example. Gordon Brown was obsessive about encouraging volunteering.

Their enthusiasm produced valuable measures, but no-one would pretend they amounted to a great breakthrough. And there is even less reason to believe that Cameron will be any more successful however much he puts the policy up in lights.

For a start, there is already a certain amount of 'Big Society' activity going on - Cameron highlighted Balsall Heath in his Observer article yesterday, just as Blunkett did a decade ago - but its existence is not proof that it can rapidly be extended, especially if it is simply seen as a substitute for local authority cuts that ministers crassly pretend either are not happening or are nothing to do with them. As Will Straw points out in a great piece on Left Foot Forward today, citing comparisons between poor US states and Sweden, cutting public spending actually tends to reduce volunteering. Changing the culture requires more than words.

Then there is the lack of enthusiasm not just about those who are not already volunteers, or among those who volunteer, as I do as a school and college governor, to become more actively engaged. This is not just because they don't understand what the Big Society is all about, though they don't, but because their lives are filled with work and family commitments. Most people don't want to run their local school or park unless they think the system is failing them. And most people are happy with their local services. One survey today suggests a similar lack of enthusiasm among the coalition's MPs.

And there is also the matter of education. A cultural change will require a shift in what young people learn. Citizenship is patchy in schools, but instead of being revitalised it could be axed in Michael Gove's curriculum review. The International Baccaureate requires a degree of volunteering from young people, but Gove's English Bac gives credit for nothing beyond the narrowly academic. If the Big Society is to resonate, it must start with young people, many of whom already raise money for charity and would happily volunteer in their communities with the right encouragement. There needs to be space for them to try establishing social enterprises in schools and the translation of citizenship on the curriculum into citizens' service for all. Doing so could develop valuable personal skills that would stand them in good stead at work or in university.

But there is little such understanding in Cameron's 'here today, gone tomorrow' speech. Commercial loans for social enterprises will hardly encourage a flurry of activity, and seem yet another example of how the banks have hoodwinked the coalition. Of course, the civil service will rebrand lots of initiatives as Big Society to please their masters, just as they did with theThird Way when it was the phrase of the moment, and as they have rebranded plenty of fairly ordinary school proposals as 'Free Schools' to beef up the numbers in the DFE. But if Cameron genuinely wants to realise what he says is his great mission, he needs to start with young people, be honest about the cuts, recognise the true potential of mutual and social enterprises, and find ways to support those who give of their time as volunteers. Unless he does so, the Big Society really will be so much BS.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Thursday 10 February 2011

A little honesty on the cuts, please

The complaints by 90 leading Liberal Democrat councillors about the impact of the local government cuts give the lie to claims by the unpleasant Eric Pickles and his team of local government ministers that councils could achieve all the necessary savings painlessly (at least for 'frontline services'). It is impossible for coalition ministers to treat these claims in the same way as they airily dismissed announcements from Manchester City Council about its cuts.

Of course, there are some savings to be made by small London councils merging services like education (it used to happen in something called the ILEA) and schools may be able to merge administrative functions. But the blunt reality is that there will still be job losses - often at the front line - and cuts in everything from Sure Start to libraries. It is as fatuous for Pickles and others to claim that everything would be all right if only council chief execs cut their pay or their middle managers were named and shamed in local papers for earning £60k a year, as it is to imagine that a bit of ritual stake-burning for bank bosses will restore our national fortunes.

What we require is a little honesty here. Of course that applies to the opposition too. In truth, local government would have been a prime target for cuts by Labour if it was in power, though one might have hoped that the stealth cuts to schools - £250k on a £6m budget is typical - might have been avoided with a less frenzied frontloading of the savings, especially the short-sighted axing of most formula capital.

However, the coalition cuts are made all the worse at the frontline by the pretence that that they either aren't happening or aren't needed. Such duplicity can only cause real outrage when the reality hits home. The coalition's austerity drive would have far more credibility if they stopped playing the silly game they tried in opposition of suggesting that the biggest cuts in nearly a century could be achieved painlessly. If the government want us 'all to be in this together' in sharing the pain, they need to be honest about where it will hurt. And they should stop blaming those they have forced to implement the cuts for getting on with their job.

A little honesty might work wonders for the government's rapidly dwindling reputation.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Slow progress on free schools

Michael Gove put a brave face on it over the weekend as he sought to talk up interest in free schools. Yet for all the rhetorical enthusiasm, the fact is that just eight primary free schools are likely to be ready to open in the next two years, with perhaps another 27 in some sense advanced. We should not scorn these projects: each represents the vision of their promoters and can offer extra diversity in their communities. But one can question the importance of their development to wider school reform. The TES in an editorial last Friday argued that free schools are an irrelevant sideshow, arguing that the system is only likely to take off if for-profit providers are allowed, something politically untenable at least before the next election.

And a closer inspection of the eight free schools announced on Friday suggests little that could not have been established under existing programmes.

* There is a Suffolk school becoming 'free' to avert local authority closure by becoming a secondary school
* Jewish, Hindu and Anglican religious schools of the sort that expanded significantly under Labour
* A Montessori school that will surely eschew ministerial phonics edicts
* Two schools that actually call themselves academies, one established by Ark, one of the strongest academy chains and the other by a next door primary academy in Enfield.
* There is only one school that suggests a genuine desire by parents and teachers to introduce something wholly new: The Free School, Norwich

Essentially they are eight new academies - albeit mainly in the primary sector where Labour unwisely declined to expand academies. They differ little from existing academies or religious schools, and the pattern seems little different with most of the other 27 (aside, perhaps, from the planned Mahirishi school in Lancashire.

All of which makes one wonder why Andy Burnham, Labour's education spokesman, has set himself so against free schools. His opposition is as ridiculous as the elaborate claims being made by their enthusiasts on the other side. Free schools may offer a useful addition to the educational landscape, they may provide a little extra competition (and a few planning headaches for some councils). And they may give their pupils and parents a sense that state education can meet their needs.

But they seem pretty unlikely to transform the system in the way that the original secondary academies (and, legally, free schools are simply academies) - particularly those established in disadvantaged areas with strong sponsors - already have. That is because, unlike Sweden or America, where free and charter schools have thrived, Britain already has a strong tradition of diversity and independence in the state sector. That said, no Labour government is going to reverse what has already been set up: so our spokespeople should stop pretending otherwise. Instead, let's welcome those free schools that see the light of day, but focus our energies on ensuring that academies - whatever they are called - continue to advance the lifechances of children in the poorest areas of the country.

We must support the transition to Egyptian democracy

When I was in Egypt last year, it was pretty obvious how tired the middle classes had become of the stagnancy of Mubarak's rule. It was not that people were living in dire poverty: rather it was the squalour of the public space, the creaking infrastructure, the rubbish-strewn Nile on the outskirts of Cairo, the poor standard of public services, the turgid nature of the state-owned media and the lack of any outlets to let off steam. Visiting the nation's celebrated antiquities, the contrast with the remarkable civilisation developed at the time of the Pharoahs was stark. So while the scale of the recent protests has been remarkable, the fact that they have happened is less surprising, including the mass gatherings today. And while Britain and the US have understandable anxieties about the future of the Middle East peace process and the impact on Israel, there should be no equivocation on the importance of Egypt having the chance to become a democracy.

Nobody is suggesting there should be elections tomorrow, though Mubarak would have helped himself a lot had he not so blatantly rigged last year's polls. But the military can act as a guarantor for democratic parliamentary elections on a fixed date not too far in the future, as well as the planned Presidential polls. The months in between should be a time not only to restore order and faith in the Egyptian economy, especially tourism, but as importantly to establish a free media, democratic political parties and a proper constitution that guarantees those freedoms. Instead of the disappointing (if understandable) equivocation that has come from Washington and Whitehall, we need now to hear a firm understanding that it is indeed the Egyptian people who should decide their futures, and that they will receive whatever help they need from international organisations, including those in Britain, Europe and the US, dedicated to the promotion and development of democracy. We must stop any pretence that the will of the Egyptian people is embodied in the person of Hosni Mubarak. There is self-interest here too: unless we adopt that approach, we lose whatever dwindling diplomatic influence we may hope for in post-Mubarak Egypt.