Introduction to Simon and Fran

Simon is a middle-aged academic, and his wife Fran is a local government official. They don’t have any children, partly through choice, but mainly because they haven’t been able to on the few attempts that they made, both deliberately and non-deliberately.

Simon has arrived back late from work, cycling, and he slips through the back door quietly, as if that may somehow mitigate his late arrival. “Sorry I’m late Fran, how was your day?”

“Hmmm, so so… yours?”, said Fran, her eyes glued to the TV and her words coming between bites of a pizza.

“Apart from the nagging feeling that I’ve achieved nothing despite not stopping since 8.45, it was great. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m even doing the right stuff, because I don’t have time to properly plan my workload.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ve never planned mine. Ever. Somehow I get through the day!”

Simon has been putting away his cycling equipment carefully, his methodical approach to tidiness and life in stark contrast to his state of mind after a day at work. “That’s because your a civil servant, and you’d have to go an a round-the-world trip without permission to be laid off,” Simon replies without thinking properly. As the gears of his brain return to the conversation, he hastily adds “unless there’s restructuring of course.”

“For fuck’s sake Simon, haven’t you noticed that there’s a fucking Tory government in power squeezing the lifeblood out of local governments that were practically impotent anyway”. Simon hadn’t got away with his late arrival, and all he had managed to do was temporarily avoid nucleating an unstable situation, until he insensitively forgot about all the lay-offs in the council. Or, perhaps Fran had cleverly avoided blowing her top at his arrival, and had waited to make him feel that it was something else that had stoked her anger, not the persistent issue of late hours at the office.

“Why were you late anyway? I sometimes wonder why we’re married when we see so little of each other.” Simon was also a leader at a local Cub Scout group. The other leaders really liked him because he was organised, sporty and outdoorsy and, above all, male. Fran knew that he was planning a special camping trip for the cubs, but wanted to put pressure on him to minimise his time. Why did he want to run a Cubs group if he didn’t have children himself? Did he regret not having children?

“It’s just the workload. To be honest, I’m thinking of giving up my Cubs roles so that I – we – can have some time to ourselves.” Simon knew that his workload was impossibly high, and that Fran could never trump that. Obviously, separation or divorce could easily trump minor job quibbles, but Fran was a surprisingly inert character over the long-term considering her personal volatility. He also knew that the Cubs group was a slight soft point for Fran for whatever reason. Perhaps she liked seeing him in a fathering role?

“That can’t happen. Obviously. You need to sort out your workload soon. I can’t be waiting here for hours with the food getting cold. You could at least have texted me to let me know.”

Food? Pizza cooked from frozen doesn’t count as food, thought Simon. “Yeah, sorry, I will do” mumbled Simon has he fumbled with a triangle of slightly greasy, very rubbery pizza.

 

 

Geeky website hosting…

I’m not normally that interested in technological developments… but I have been quite fascinated by running websites for a wee while now… I was hosting this at home on a Banana Pi, but have decided to host it in a cloud now (I wanted to try out moving it, and running from cPanel…).

Well, success! I’ve created a really complicated structure, but it seems to be working… More to come no doubt…

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 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 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 because I suspect I would have had no problem getting into a grammar school, but because I think selection is essential at some level. 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 most 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…

 

The financial burden on new doctor trainees

The real cost of education

The first generation of doctors are graduating this year with much larger student loans than previous medics: those on accelerated programmes had to pay £9000 for their first year (2012-2013), then £5625 for the next three years due to contributions from the NHS Bursary reducing the total (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/276460/nhs_bursary_scheme_new_rules_ed3.pdf). Ignoring any coordinated reduction in maintenance grants (which there has been), these students paid a total of £25875 for their tuition fees, either up-front or mostly via a loan (all via a loan is not possible any more). Whether this is good value is a complex question, but it can be relatively objectively compared to what students who started their accelerated courses in 2011 paid – a grand total of £3465 in their first year (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/276449/nhs_bursary_scheme_old_rules_ed15.pdf). That means that graduate medics who are first-year foundation doctors from this August will have paid more than £22000 in tuition fees than those in the year above them. The difference is similar for those on longer degrees: 5 year medics paid £13860 under the old rules, £36000 under the new – a difference of £22100. A five or six year medical student may not incur much greater tuition fee costs than an accelerated four year medical student, but they will have additional living expenses. The first medics under the new tuition fees regime, who started in 2012, won’t graduate until this summer (4-years) and next year (5-years), but with debts as high as this already, not to mention additional debts from reductions in the maintenance aspect of the NHS Bursary, these graduates are going to be motivated by the cost of their education like none before them.

 

And they will not be motivated by money from a greed perspective, but out of survival; unless they are relatively successful doctors in terms of pay, that debt will grow and grow until they are over 50, and they will continue to pay a percentage of their earnings to pay it off for that whole period. An article by the Student BMJ highlights the complexity of the calculation depending on what they earn and what they’ve borrowed. If they don’t have debt, they will be at least £22000 worse off than they would have been a year earlier (for 4 year graduates this year), meaning that opportunities to buy houses and settle down will be under greater financial strain. Remember that the youngest any of these four year graduates will be is 25, and only if they just did a three year degree with no gap-years and proceeded straight onto the course. I don’t know what the average age will be, but I would guess that the mean will be comfortably above 30, when most women would have hoped to have had children if they wanted to start a family.

 

And that final point gets to one of the biggest mistakes of this imposed contract – most new doctors are women, and unless we want to have less able graduates becoming doctors, we need to find ways of making family life as a mother work as a doctor. I can only speak for my family, but financial pressures like those stated above will make financial incentives to go abroad that much easier to accept. I have already lived abroad, and enjoyed it very much. I envisaged my future was in the UK, but if we move abroad with young children it will be hard to see our future back in the UK. This is a very real fear that the government has to contemplate – that they are scaring off the brightest and best future UK doctors. They may be able to recruit skilled doctors from abroad, but they will be competing ina  global marketplace, and given the exodus from the UK, they are unlikely to hire comparably well-qualified doctors if they could have competed for the same jobs as the UK-qualified medical graduates.

 

So I am not suggesting that the foreign doctors will be worse – many will be better doctors – it is just that they will also be looking globally, and will probably have other advantages over our own graduates in terms of their worldliness and their linguistic plasticity (is that a concept? Hoepfully you get my jist…). It just highlights the problems of trying to expand the remit of a system that is already running well above-capacity, without increasing funding. Obviously individual doctors cannot just work more hours for more money. Most junior doctors would gladly work less for less money, if necessary, if the system was better staffed and more efficiently managed. I have no evidence for the assertion, but I challenge anyone to think of a competing scenario that sounds plausible – They would clearly happily work less for more money! However, I strongly suspect that getting more money, but being expected to work longer hours, no matter if that more money is disproportionately higher (say double-time) is not an attractive proposition to most family-minded doctors. Of course there will be some who have no life outside medicine, and for whom more work will not be abhorrent, but they will always, thankfully, be a minority. Obsession is good for a few, but would not be healthy if it were required of doctors.

 

This un-edited ramble will peter out with a final observation of what the maximum loan that an undergraduate may obtain under current rules (ignoring the maintenance award that they will get from NHS Bursary) – with no maintenance loans, the total fees would £36000, which Ercolani et al. rise with compound interest to £39946, using 2014 RPI values, and assuming a five year degree. Annual maintenance loans of £4375, £5500, and £7675 give total debts (upon graduation) of £63870, £70022, and £81916 respectively. Assuming RPI of 2% (the target generally), that gives a first year interest ranging from £2000 (or ~£165 per month) for £39946 debt, to £4100 (or ~£340 per month) for those with £81916 debts. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/4/e007335.full

 

Students can now get maintenance loans of £8500 per year… This is a serious tax.

A new type of corporate taxation?

This is just an idea, and I am far from an expert in any of the fields, but social equality is a topic I have thought a lot about. One thing which was so positive about Swiss society was the high employment. Social issues linked to long-term unemployment were pretty non-existent, except perhaps when linked to refugees.

How could this be achieved in a less prosperous, and much larger country without all-out state socialism? I am in favour of re-nationalisation of a large range of services, but definitely not complete state-ran retail, manufacture and other things. One way that large companies could be forced to increase employment (and probably reduce executive pay in the meantime) might be to link corporate tax rates to the number of employees. This may be difficult with complex contracts, but I would encourage ONLY directly employed individuals within that company (not subsidiary etc – it could possible encourage simpler accounting).

There a string arguments against any increase of employment – productivity is a measure falsely blamed for drops in economic output, and often cited seriously on current affairs programmes and debates. Productivity would have to be ignored as a serious metric for economic success, and perhaps recognized for what it really is – a measure of how poorly people are being paid, and how closely linked to primary production the industry is (this is a gross over-simplification, but these are two major aspects for similarly industrialised nations). Countries which pay less well, and have more primary energy/agriculture, and even manufacturing vs services will appear much more productive in theory.

The other big argument against the way I suggested an employee-linked tax could be implemented (I can think of off the top of my head!) is that it would reduce the likelihood of contracted work, and may benefit big vertically-integrated companies. This may well be the case, but only if those vertically-integrated companies are genuinely working efficiently, and actually, I think it wouldn’t really be an issue, as it would encourage companies to actually employ someone if they need someone (thereby improving a company’s in-house expertise as well as reducing pay going into pointless profits for the benefit of non-productive owners).

Actually, maybe that last bracketed point is the main one – this would shift the financial balance from the shareholder to the employee, without radical shifts in ownership…

It would only really work on companies of a large size, and so could start at a certain size, thereby incentivizing small innovative companies.

It’s just an idea-mind… should I patent it? (joke)