The allure of the simple

Last night I went to a Limmy book event at the Glee Club in Birmingham. I didn’t really know what to expect, but he was really funny, and the venue was brilliant. He tweets plenty on politics, but usually not particularly seriously, and he summed it up last night as being because “nothing ever happens” and “nobody is accountable for anything”, although he clearly has socialist-leaning views. His lack of conviction in the political system is understandable given what has happened recently, but slightly disappointing.

Additionally, I recently read on Africa is Country an article about why Ghanaians are disillusioned with democracy and long for a stable (male) dictatorship. I recollect people always saying that the “best form of governance is a benevolent dictator”, but that no dictatorships remain benevolent for long. To me, this attitude harks towards an almost religious desire to put our faith in a single, omniscient being, like a god. The reality of the world as we live it, however, is that no-one has that perfection, both morally or intellectually, and that our society is, by necessity, a complex system.

It made me think about poor disciplinary procedures, like for students in universities on non-academic charges (e.g. the Warwick Group Chat case), and for NHS whistleblowers, and highlighted a real issue in most cases of poor disciplinary processes: the lack of independence (and sometimes anonymity) in the process). The political principal of separation of powers is promoted particularly to reduce abuse of power and hierarchies, and the UK has often had a weak, but functioning, separation of judiciary from government/assembly (which are poorly separated).

When it comes to any organisation, I believe that this is the simplest form of separation that is required, and if independent “judiciary” or arbitrators are not available, then the system will almost inevitably fail. In the cases of the NHS, the only thing that helps the system is public interest in the cases which sometimes blow up, like repeated examples in recent years, not least the Mid-Staffordshire crisis. In many organisations, even more complex systems are required to account for different levels of bureaucracy and power, and the solutions are highly likely to be non-unique (and changing with time).

The nature of these solutions is not what I am interested in, what I want to question is whether humans have an innate fear of things beyond their understanding, and like to find simple answers, even to problems which have been shown to require complex solutions in the past. Other examples beyond organisation structure could include government debt discussions (i.e. recent obsessions with reducing national debt and deficit, using simple examples like household debt), or arguments against liberalisation of markets because of the belief that there are singe optimal solutions. The second example is one that I often subscribe to, but like a lot of issues, an additional complexity lies in the fact that certain solutions work better for different market opportunities. For examples, monopoly products or services are almost certainly best provided by the government, but the management of these monopolies could involve internal complexities to encourage innovation or efficiency. That said, when these are poorly implemented they can undermine any case for either liberalisation or nationalisation! (e.g. funding issues in the England & Wales NHS with its internal market).

Recent trends in individualism have made people more isolated from one-another, and yet access to amounts of data unimaginable to past generations have led the public to feel more confident in their personal understanding of different scenarios. This is not truly new, but the consequence of it has been a desire to break government and politics down into impossibly simple solutions, the UK’s 2016 EU referendum a case-in-point.

My view is that simple is good, too-good-to-be-true simple is just dangerous, and novel ways of countering the peddling of misleading mistruths need to be developed. The other aspect that runs beneath this comment on simplicity, is that individuals need to have faith in the different skills of others, and not believe that we need “superheros” to lead us, who have expertise in everything. Elon Musk is perhaps a good example of the modern-day superhero that people want.

A discussion on higher education and perhaps a proposal

I don’t want to delve in to secondary education too much, as it really is generally out of my recent experience, but I am proposing to touch on a wide range of issues related to higher education, and propose alternatives along the way.

An initial point to make, which I will probably continually labour (ad nauseum), is that I don’t believe encouraging early specialism in education is healthy. Formalisation of different specialised disciplines probably only started in earnest in the last century, and recent trends towards hyper-specialised subjects does not genuinely reflect an efficient “division of labour”, along the lines of the economic theories of Adam Smith. I believe that they more accurately reflect a form of empire-building through creating hard-to-penetrate walls of jargon, and subject-specific “traditions”. I realise that this is a difficult thing to

Aimee’s undergraduate medicine systematic review on caffeine consumption during breastfeeding

Against many odds Aimee has managed to get her SSC2 research project published in a PubMed-indexed peer-reviewed open-access journal, for free! I managed to get on the article as a co-author as well, and will gladly field any questions from interested parties!:

Whilst this is a long way from my normal research, medical stuff is inherently interesting, and finding out a lack of research in a field is not exactly complicated (well, apart from the hard part of the research sifting through papers, mainly carried out by Aimee, Lucy and Yen-Fu).

It is a topic of great imprtance, and not exactly well covered as a recent systematic review by Wikoff et al. in 2017 and an umbrella review by Poole et al. this year have shown. In both cases breastfeeding women were not considered despite relatively comprehensive coverage of other sectors of society, and relatively high sensitivity to nutrition that infants exhibit.

Coventry thoughts on knowledge and research

I wrote this quite a while back (March 2017!), but didn’t publish it then. My next focus is going to be on a similar topic, so this is worth posting now:

 

Could conventional theories of knowledge be completely misleading? I am beginning to feel like this is probably the case…

UK universities have become obsessed with the idea of critical thinking, particularly within subjects which offer very little else in the way of employability to students, and I would argue that the definition normally propounded is so wooly as to be nearly useless. The examples cited as good critical thinking are real enough, and often very clever and insightful, but they are also diverse enough as to be hard to assign to a single category of thinking.

I then started thinking about Coventry University’s push to have more staff with doctorates, and questioned the true value of this. I have a PhD (or Dr.sc. really!) but feel quite strongly that other than some practical lab skills (which I barely use), improved communication skills, and the positives that come from an experience that was so tough that the feeling during much of it is that you can only come out stronger, I struggle to see the unique value of a PhD. In fact I often equate PhDs with that third point, but yet realise that many of the best researchers love what they are doing so much that this cannot be the case by definition.

This has led me to question whether the whole scheme of academia isn’t just a mix of a giant ponzi scheme of privilege that is currently ballooning towards a burstable bubble, and an excuse for some clever people to do their hobby, with marginal value to others, as a job!

Perhaps I’m a bit cynical. Well, yes I am a bit cynical, but I truly think that primary knowledge and secondary curiosity are invaluable. For me, they are a significant part of what gives life meaning, and I despair slightly at our online world where primary experience has almost no place, but secondary curiosity is settled so easy as to almost devalue information…

Selective education

Another topical political issue. Something Labour haven’t dared touch except to promise a noble, but unspecific, national education service, in the mould of the thriving NHS. That is a cheap jibe at an idea I support, but it is a little odd to pledge to copy a treasured national institution that is floundering hopelessly with no specific plans of how it is going to be revived too…

That aside, I am not disappointed by Theresa May and Justine Greening’s plans for selective education, mainly because they seem minor changes compared with the wholesale curriculum review that the previous education secretaries have favoured. I have always disagreed with too much choice when state-provided services are concerned, as it seems like a way that central (at whichever level) government can retain (or regain in some cases) control with minimal responsibility, particularly to providing quality across the board. Nevertheless, in secondary education in England, we are stuck with a heterogeneous (not necessarily bad in itself), but centrally controlled artificial market-of-sorts in education. Schools have basically been told not to select on any basis now, although catchment area does in practice provide both a logical draw for parents, and a logical selection process for over-subscribed schools.

Before I go off on a ramble, my thoughts basically revolve around the idea that schools have to select somehow. I buy into the Scottish comprehensive system, but I also buy into the idea that different systems can work just as well (or badly) in different areas, as long as they are well run. I have absolutely no problem on selecting on ability, not out of personal bias because I suspect I would have had no problem getting into a grammar school, but more because I think selection is essential at some level in order to provide a fair service to the pupils. What I do want, more than anything, is for ALL SCHOOLS to be good at what they do. That means that there will have to be trade offs when children and/or their parents choose which school they go to if there is a non-comprehensive system in their area. In order to achieve this, I strongly believe that local authority control must be restored as far as is possible. Whilst this can accommodate independent state-funded and privately-funded schools, a successful policy in this direction would inevitably cause the weaker of these schools to collapse.

The ultimate test of a state school system has to be how well independent schools fare, and at the moment, after a period of improvement in schools up to the beginning of the coalition government, any judgement in this regard is being completely masked by the spread of academisation. All that is happening is that some children are being condemned to a sub-par education with no key indicators to highlight this because these schools are just labelled as “unsatisfactory” and then improved in a cyclical manner. This is not sustainable.

Junior Doctors Strike September…

Keeping up a theme of political commentary, I have to say that the junior doctor’s strike this month is overdue. I suppose that they weren’t sure about how the government was going to react at the beginning, but the perilous state of the NHS has only become more clear over the past 6 months, and the real need not just for safe-guards over the amount of hours existing individual doctors work to be clear, but the need for more total “doctor-hours” just to keep standards up.

I bought into the negative narrative around the wasteful government NHS spending being talked up around 2000, mainly because of the media’s emphasis on wasteful projects and overpaid doctors, but also because of the short-term PFI hospital projects and the nightmare IT database (I think that came later though). I know see that for all the things I disagreed with (and still do), like the need for patient choice, PFI, the internal market, and the pointlessness of large IT projects, New Labour didn’t waste money on the NHS, it greatly improved the NHS temporarily, the positive after-effects of which continued to be felt throughout the Coalition government years, allowing for a reduction in spending with minimal (short-term) problems.

Now that the Tories are back in power they have the problem that all their earlier decisions are coming back to haunt them, and the NHS just cannot provide what it is directed to do by parliament, government and NICE. Small-scale efficiencies are great ideas, but I don’t buy into the idea that the extreme pressures that are present now are better places for efficiencies to be made than the halycon days of the 2000s (for some hospitals). The NHS needs money first and foremost, and it needs minimal central-government projects for a while to allow the system to settle. Quality checks are vital, but grand new political measures or systems are not going to sort things out overnight, and I say this as a big supporter of long-term reform.

So, given that I believe that the NHS has to have some pressure released financially, I think that the Junior Doctors’ strike is the best thing that could have happened to try and achieve this aim. In many ways these doctors, and those following behind, are those with least to lose in that they are high-quality graduates who will almost be guaranteed a pay-rise if they go abroad. Some won’t be as good as the others, and others will be tied to the UK for personal reasons, but a significant proportion of junior doctors will move abroad if they are not happy with their lot, and that does not mean just pay, but for more and more of our generation that means a good work-life balance. Many doctors want, or will already have families straight after graduation, and the anti-social hours will be particularly hard for these doctors without our traditional gender roles. Obviously doctors used to work hard, and many were women even 50 years ago! (Well not so many, but a significant minority), but as many have pointed out, the support measures that were in place then to help junior doctors through the hardest early years are no longer in place – cut out of the system as “waste” to improve the efficiency of all doctors’ roles.

So, if this strike fails, our NHS is doomed and with it the long-term health of the country. Nevertheless, I am an optimist and I believe that if the strikes fail, even if the JDC buckle, there are too many weak points in the NHS currently for the government to manage to hold out on funding increases indefinitely, and things may get worse in the short-term, but they should improve in the longer-term. I would go so far as to say that if the Junior Doctors lose this strike action, then Corbyn would be my odds-on favourite to win a general election in 2020 as I don’t think any fall-out would have resolved itself by then.

Come on Jeremy Hunt, Theresa May, et al. Much as it pains me to say it, do it for yourselves, as destroying the NHS is something that could tarnish the Tories for a long long time. If you could genuinely understand how little the junior doctors have to lose (and from here on in all medical graduates will have 50-90k of debt to content with as well), then I think you might see things the same way I do.

The Labour Party’s turmoil

Labour Leadership2 2015

CandidateMembersRegistered SupportersAffiliated SupportersTotal% of Valid Vote
TOTAL245,520105,59871,546422,664
BURNHAM, Andy55,6986,16018,60480,46219.04%
COOPER, Yvette54,4708,4159,04371,92817.02%
CORBYN, Jeremy121,75188,44941,217251,41759.48%
KENDALL, Liz13,6012,5742,68218,8574.46%
ABC (Anyone But Corbyn)123,76917,14930,329171,24740.52%

The 2015 Labour leadership election was not nearly close. The only aspect in which it was close was between existing members and the anyone-but-Corbyn combination of candidates (ABC), a lead of ~2000 members that was wiped out by even just the affiliated supporters (trade unions and other member-based Labour-supporting organisations), before the massive advantage within registered supporters was considered. The turnout was given at 76%, with a  total electorate of 554,272 voters. That suggests that 130,000 did not vote, and even if they were all members (which is unlikely), the party has grown further under Corbyn’s leadership to over 388,000 registered members at the end of 2015. The number must not have exceeded 400,000 yet, the big milestone achieved in 1997, but the Labour website claims membership is still over 380,000. Assuming a significant proportion of those who joined after Corbyn’s election to leader, that suggests he would have comfortable support within the Labour membership.

Of course, there are suggestions that the Corbynistas who joined are fair-weather politicos, and that they will leave when their membership lapses. This is probably the case for some, but what proportion will not be clear, and a leadership challenge may well encourage them back to defend Corbyn unless a credible alternative is proposed.

And that, for me, is the key point. Numbers matter to the politicians, but they are the result of arguments won for individuals support, and the only way a significant number of Corbynistas and supporters will be won over to ABC is by a credible alternative, not for the centre of the Labour party, but for the left of it. The PLP is distinctly lacking in credible left-wing leadership material, and any who oppose Corbyn may well be signing their death-warrant.

Which leads me to the logical conclusion of this sorry affair for the Labour party: it must split. The ABC MPs (I love my acronyms!) have wanted this from the moment “their” party got “hijacked” by Corbynistas joining in their hundreds of thousands. This is the ABC MP’s problem – their party is no longer theirs by right, and the odds are probably stacked against them. The two possible split scenarios are obvious – either Corbyn’s supporters start a new Momentum-based party, or the ABC MPs start a new SDP-like party. Neither side wants to be the group to start a new party as they have seen how hard it is for new parties to break through our intransigent FPTP system, even as incumbents in the case of many SDP MPs in the 1980s.

As a Corbyn supporter I may be biased, but my support is based on the following observations: centrist policies which basically kowtow to big business are no longer popular. Inequality has grown at a tremendous rate, and the precariat is growing into the traditional middle-class. English wealth is strongly based on house price rises, and the unfairness of this system, as well as some of the unpredictability over the past 10 years, is beginning to bite regionally, not to mention through crazy private rental costs.

I think Corbyn will not lose whatever happens, unless he gives up. He is unfailingly decent and honest in how he conducts himself. He is unfailingly loyal to the Labour party, despite what his detractors claim. He may have rebelled against the whip over 500 times, but he, again unfailingly, did this on conscience grounds. His supporters are aware of this, and once he has a party behind him, rather than constantly sniping or just standing quietly and unsupportive whilst unfair accusations are hurled at him, then the public will become aware of this and he will be the credible left-wing alternative that the SNP have seized in Scotland. Who knows, Labour may even fight back in Scotland if the SNP are too scared to formally call for another independence referendum.

Whether I am right or wrong, the most important thing is that the party split happens asap. Corbyn is not going to give up on Labour, so to avoid a leadership election we must hope that private polling amongst the 172 MPs who have voted against Corbyn suggests that they have no chance and that they choose to start the new party before any leadership challenge. This seems unlikely though, so we may be set for another 3 or 4 months of turmoil before any dust gets any opportunity of settling…

Wow – what a result

Devastating and amazing in equal measure. All the betting odds and financial people were counting on a remain vote. After the initial shock, I am also excited about the next phase of new politics change in the UK. The result was close, and unsurprisingly pro-leave in Coventry (~55.5vs 44.5%).

From a Scottish perspective, I ended up erring on the side of independence, and so understand that protest sentiment, but I also felt very engaged with the Scottish independence movement. As many of my family were pro-union, and quite a few pro-UK supporters were warned out of independence by the fear of leaving the EU, I’ve no doubt that there will be a lot of betrayed Scots today, feeling that England has knowingly voted to split up the union after they voted to stay in the UK. Scotland may well be an independent country by 2020. Who could have believed that in November 2014?!

From an English perspective, my view has not changed that the pre-dominant factor in this vote was Frankie Boyle’s “Britain is racist to the core”. It was a joke, but a satirical, scaringly true view of much of Britain, and mostly of England.

From an analytical perspective, I think David C has made the right move if he wants to do what he can to undermine and ultimately prevent genuine leaving of the EU. I cannot envisage any scenario other than a general election after a Conservative leadership election, which will basically be another EU referendum by proxy…

My personal views… well, I was dead against Brexit, and will support efforts to resist it as far as possible. However, I do think ensuring devolution happens adequately in England and Wales (and symmetrically) is vital for future satisfaction in politics, and that a local approach is vital at this point of European isolationism. The one thing to keep in mind is that anti-EU views are not unique to the UK, and that the EU has been experiencing a whole range of problems recently. Re-setting the institutions may not be a bad thing, but as I have previously said, I don’t think the UK is going to benefit from this process by leading the way. There is also a risk that the EU economy picks up, and other anti-EU sentiments settle down, and the UK is left on the outside. That is a good outlook for the global economy, but will be devastating for the UK.

Negative risks and uncertainty clearly outweigh benefits at the moment, and our economy is clearly going to take a hit. Nevertheless, there are opportunities to transform things for the better. Let’s drown out the anti-immigration talk, and emphasise local economy boosts. The one positive to leaving the EU is the possibility to put up trade tariffs on food to increase local food prices, encourage seasonal eating, and reduce wastage overall. Unfortunately this will be a bit of a shock to some people, and will take a while to equalise out. Silver linings! Scottish independence is the big possible positive in my view though…

Should we leave or should we go?

The referendum… tomorrow!

This title comes from the Radio 4 Show, PM, and its title for the section on the referendum. I think it somes up a lot about teh referendum, as it really has nto been nearly as intensively debated in an engaged way as the scottish referendum on independence. It really feels like a snap decision, and in many ways that is because most people feel general apathy towards the EU, and probably aren’t too bothered whether we leave it or not. A few people have had long-standing dislike for the EU project, and they are a significant few within the Conservative party. Even more have had a hatred for the EU stirred up, that they didn’t even know they possessed, by recent anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric; when I say recent, I mean a sustained campaign of over a decade or so by newspapers led by the Express, but backed up very ably by the Daily Mail, the Sun and even the Telegraph at times.

To sum up my view, this is the worst type of referendum, an exercise in direct democracy in which a ridiculously complex and expensive question has been dummed down to a single question. How can anyone be expected to make this decision based on a rational thought, and when it comes to emotions, it feels like too few of us actually care about the EU, other than a few extreme anti- and pro- EU people (yes there are extreme europhiles – I definitely used to fall within the extreme EU-aphile camp). The main anti-EU sentiment is actually anti-immigrant, or xenophobic anti-foreigner sentiments, based on the poor economic circumstances which lots of people find themselves in.

So, I am digging no deeper than this, and saying that most of the anti-EU sentiment is for the wrong reason. Xenophobia is not a good reason for anything, but on top of that, the main argument for being against anti-immigrant is thin at best. I feel that England is over-crowded, for my ideal, but economically the argument against the current rates of immigration is not strong, and ethically I think it is completely wrong, and misundertands the nature of our stable globalised world we now live in – closing the draw-bridge is not going to make us safer, and probably just reduce our standing and regard in the eyes of the rest of the world.

So, unsurprisingly, I am strongly in favour of staying in the EU. I also feel that anti-EU sentiment is not string enough to win tomorrow, and even if it does win, I suspect the pro-EU sentiment will bubble to the surface and stir up europhiles in the UK, preventing an easy path to separation from the EU. Let’s see what happens tomorrow…

Finham Parish Council election post-mortum

So, I failed miserably in my bid to become an elected representative on the Finham Parish Council, coming last, but with a respectable 400 votes (thank you to those who did vote for me). A friendly man with views that I found slightly objectionable, but aren’t uncommon, chatted to me afterwards whilst I was filling up a skip outside my house the week after the vote. Firstly, he recognised me from the pamphlet I put out (famous of a sort!), and wondered how much skips costs in this day-and-age, but that is beside the point.

This friendly father, doing up his childs house, pointed out that it was obviously “because of the university”. I was unsure what the university had to do with me coming last in the vote (I had a sneaking suspicision it was to with age primarily, as there seemed to be a strong correlation between age and votes, not even dented by proportion of lifesomeone had lived in the area), but he enlightened me that it was because “everyone hates how the university is taking over the city”. This quote may not be 100% accurate, but he was indeed sweeping in his statements, and although it is clearly not true that everyone hates the growth of the university in Coventry, a brief glance at the letters page of the Coventry Telegraph will show you (before the referendum took hold at least!) that there are plenty of people who do get annoyed at the way the university is transforming the city centre. Some think it is for the best, but many are worried by the continual increase in student numbers, as am I in fact.

I also though that I’d messed up by missing Finham off my address, but I am happy to concede that mentioning I am a university lecturer may have been a  mistake in the election to the Finham Parish Council.

Anyway, I should have some exposure locally now, and have learnt how the process works which may help in the future…