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.

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.

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…

 

Rugby safety, and why not GAA?

Matt Perry and Allyson Pollock were on Today yesterday debating the dangers of rugby for school children. Well, I say debate, more like Allyson massacred Matt in an unsportsmanlike or, more accurately, professional manner on an issue that she has researched and campaigned on over the past decade.

I love rugby, I always have. There is always a danger when you have always liked something that you keep on loving it just because your old self tells you to. I came to this realisation recently when I tried out refereeing and realised it wasn’t for me. I started to question why I liked rugby, and I realised that it was when I played it that I truly loved it, and now that I don’t have the time (nor, increasingly, the body) I cannot love it in the same way except through my memories of playing. On the other hand, I can still regularly play indoor football, which I also like very much (note, I still don’t love indoor football!).

The safety aspect of rugby I have have often dismissed out-of-hand too, but the significance of a serious spinal injury is so immediate that it cannot be easily ignored. They so often get written off as freak accidents, even by those who receive them. The truth might be that they are freak accidents, but they shouldn’t be written off. The freakishness of them does not make them unpredictable statistically, and the statistics of serious injury occurrence can be compared with other sports.

Without citing all the articles, rugby has a relatively high prevalence rate of injury – higher than football and gaelic football in matches. More importantly though, for Allyson Pollock’s arguments, are the prevalence of serious head and spinal injuries, which are much higher than the other games. In Gaelic football they appear to be genuinely freak accidents, like the recent head injury to Ronan Clarke by hitting a post, and I suspect that is also true for football, although heading can’t help the likelihood of head clashes. In rugby, professional rugby concussion rates per 1000 playing hours seem to have never dropped below 3, and have risen in recent years to over 10. This compares with 17 for boxing apparently (alarming close really), and <0.3 all head injuries in gaelic football.

I know what sport i want to play in the future should I ever find enough time (other than indoor football of course), and although I used to always imagine myself coaching a childs’ rugby team, I know what sport I will try and encourage in the future: GAA

The funny thing is, even though I do love rugby, I think Gaelic Football is a better game overall and I really hope it can grow in the UK the way Beano has managed to help it grow (with many other of course!) in Europe… In the end, gaelic football skills can only help elite rugby anyway, if players choose to play rugby later on.

Fresh meat series 4 episode 2

I’ve enjoyed Fresh Meat’s puerile sense of humour for quite a while now (well as long as it’s been on for!). I also enjoyed Bad Education, but I think Fresh Meat’s story lines worked better because the storylines always seemed a little less contrived. When programmes are coming to an end, particularly after more than one or two series’, then you expect the material to get a bit thin. This expectation was, for me at least, blown out the water by this episode. In hindsight, episode 1 also marked a slight shift towards deeper sociological point-making than just stereotyping. Like any good observational comedy it isn’t really making anything up, just exposing the reality for the hilarity it really is…

In this case, the episode starts with some of the characters visiting the careers advisor (they are in their last year after all), and the gulf between their expectations of what job they will do (or what a job might involve) and the reality is clear. This may appear to be a cheap shot at students in general, but the arc of the whole episode demonstrates that the writers wanted to make a deeper point. The climax of the episode is the son of Kingsley’s new older girlfriend visiting their house for them to persuade why he should become a student, where he points out some very raw home truths which none of the students have been thinking – they can be summarised as, “what is the point of going to university to study a subject that isn’t relevant to your future career and come out with a debt that will take 30 years to pay off”. Obviously some students do study vocational degrees, but they are clearly in the minority, even now. As for the debt, students will take out loans for living costs (a maximum of £8200 per year when living away from permanent home, at a University outside London, £10702 per year at university in London!). This means that a poorer student will acquire debts of £17200 per year for ANY course if they were at Manchester like Fresh Meat’s characters…

A bit of simple maths shows that for a three year degree a student studying in England could acquire debts of £51600. Fifty one thousand six hundred pounds! How can any student afford that? Simple answer – they don’t know what they are letting themselves in for. Earlier in the episode, the careers advisor points out to JP that the average graduate starting salary in the UK is currently £22000 (and still in free-fall in real-terms). The government that brought this in – the apparently student-friendly Lib Dems and neoliberal-loving Tories – argued that this was fine as poorer student (who get the biggest debts) will actually pay less because they will never pay off their whole loan!! Well, at first glance, what a clever back-hand swipe for poorer students by Vince Cable, the U-turning Lib Dem in charge of this. But any more than a cursory thought exposes this comment for the spin it really is. For a start, any student who hasn’t paid it off in full in 30 years has either been earning too little to pay any back (contributions start at incomes of £21000), or has basically been paying a tax all that time, and may have paid make many times the original loan amount. The control the government has was highlighted just after the first of the Plan 2 graduates graduated in 2015, at the Autumn spending review where the Chancellor announced that the starting salary for repayment would be capped (hoping that inflation will make it a real-term drop, and increase income from it).

So, the debt is real, and it is worse for poor students. The really poignant aspect about the episode was how it highlighted the cluelessness of the students. All of them, whatever their background was. The worst was obviously Vod with her huge debts, and generally impossible situation, but the episode really highlighted how they had all just stumbled into lifetime-defining decisions not just with their eyes-closed, but having been hoodwinked into thinking it was the only option.

So, a puerile comedy that told a truth that I haven’t seen so well articulated anywhere. England now has the highest headline tuition fees of any public university system in the world, and the third-highest level of costs borne by students once various forms of support available are taken into account. This is unsustainable, and even the Telegraph recognizes that there is a problem.

The question is just a matter of when, not if, the system will need to be modified. Even if tuition fees rises are capped, there is a generation of students who first graduated last summer with enormous debts who will start to come to a collective realisation that they have been hoodwinked, like those in Fresh Meat. Maybe the Higher Education system will contract in the UK, or maybe government will increase funding to solve the problem. My bets would be on the former path, and the government’s lifting of a cap on the number of admissions universities could offer, for whatever reason, appears to be increasing the likelihood of university mergers via contrived free-marketeering. Our universities deserve better, and, more importantly, our country deserves better than leaving universities to “natural” neoliberal free market processes. However, if we do nothing, then the shell of a higher education system we could be left with in 10 years time will be what we deserve. Well done for pointing this out fresh meat, and well done Rosa’s son!

Fancy starting a new left-leaning party?

I first joined the Liberal Democrats as a fresh-faced 16-year-old in 2002, inspired by the leadership of Charles Kennedy and repelled by the leadership of Tony Blair in equal measure. I thought that the Liberal Democrats were the party of the future on the left; Charles Kennedy said they were, and New Labour were careering into a jargon-jingo land of nonsense, completely removed from their “democratic socialist” constitution. I may have been naïve, or even wrong to do so, but I joined the Liberal Democrats because I believed in democratic socialism. Like nearly everyone else growing up in the UK in the naughties, I thought that liberalism was a matter of course.

The late 2000s brought about a shift in Labour with a more principled leader fighting against the election-winning, but increasingly un-democratic, un-socialist, and un-liberal machine that Labour now was, and that Gordon Brown had been integral in creating. I haven’t read Frankenstein, but what I know of it suggests that the parallel of Gordon Brown as Dr Frankenstein, and the Labour party as the monster would not be wholly inaccurate. With this reality dawning on the electorate, the Liberal Democrat MP numbers reached a zenith in 2005, before Charles Kennedy was unceremoniously dumped. I don’t care what it seemed like from inside the party, I was an outsider at this point who supported the Liberal Democrats because of Charles Kennedy, and his sacking upset me enormously. However, I remained a Liberal Democrat supporter, and like many other peripheral supporters I suspect, I was unaware of the magnitude of the shift in direction of the parliamentary party under Clegg.

By 2010, although I followed politics closely, even having studied it for A-level, I still wasn’t aware of the Orange Book, just that Nick Clegg was more right-wing than me. Nevertheless, Clegg provided a great account of himself in the run up to the 2010 election where the Liberal democrats got the largest number of votes, and biggest vote share since 1983. However, with the luxury of hindsight, perhaps the result should have been scrutinised a bit more closely, and a bit more criticism levelled for the fact that despite all Cleggs’ apparent popularity, and the appetite for “new politics”, the vote share only increased by 1% point on 2005, and MP numbers fell by nearly 10%.

Even just forming a coalition with the Conservatives was offensive to me at first, but I accepted it as I thought that the Liberal Democrats would have some clearly defined red-lines which they would not cross, particularly tuition fees (but I also thought electoral reform might be for some reason), and felt enormously let down when these lines that I had invented were crossed. My view is just my view, but I’m starting to think that it may be more common than I originally thought. The election of Corbyn as Labour leader is bad for the Liberal Democrats because it had a chance to be the main party of the left, and wasted that opportunity under Nick Clegg. The British electorate does not want many parties all saying the same thing, they simply want a clear choice, and Jeremy Corbyn’s election will start Labour on the way to providing some very clear policy differences between Labour and the Conservatives.

From a personal perspective, a Corbyn Labour will be very tempting. I re-joined the Liberal Democrats on 8th May choosing to have Charles Kennedy on my membership card because he represented what I want from politics. A thoughtful, common-sense approach to liberal democracy with a caring socialist bent. I realise that the Liberal Democrat’s want to be a broad church, but I fear that by accommodating the small-state liberals and classical liberals/libertarians under the same banner the party missed a prime opportunity post-Kennedy. Despite this, I think that a “turn to the left” under Tim Farron, with his focus on his key campaign issues is the best way forward. But I would say that, joining as a Social Democrat!

Until Charles Kennedy’s death it appeared that he had been side-lined, not just in terms of actual function, but also in terms of his views. As Alastair Campbell disclosed in his tribute to Charles Kennedy, Charles Kennedy texted:

fancy starting a new Scottish left-leaning party? I joke not

As the tributes to Charles Kennedy showed, he was probably the most liked Liberal Democrat politician of the recent era, and perhaps the Liberal Democrat party should think seriously about re-appropriating some of his more common-sense left-wing views and rhetoric. Perhaps it could even become that that new left-leaning party?! The Lib Dems may have missed that earlier opportunity to become the nations’ second party, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be more opportunities to re-grow. Corbyn’s popularity is bound to have changed the political landscape whatever the result of the Labour leadership election.

New beginnings…

Rambling

I don’t know where to start, so I may as well start with a slightly rubbish post. I’ll introduce myself, although I feel sure that no-one will find this blog for ages, if ever.

My name is Jamie, and I’ve recently done a number of things. In particular, I’ve moved to Coventry in the past year, and I’ve even more recently (re-)joined the Lib Dems. It seems funny to write publicly about my political view, as I feel like I was told as a youngster quite strongly that you didn’t ask people how they vote, just like you shouldn’t talk about money and other such things.

Anyway, my motivations for being a Liberal Democrat are slightly complicated. At this point I ought, probably, to confess to having joined the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservative societies when I started uni. That said, I did absolutely zilch for/with any of them, and so I don’t have many political skeletons in my closet. I will also add, perhaps apologetically to any Tory friends of mine, that it did feel like a bit of a joke when I signed up to the Conservative mailing list –  they had no chance of winning that three-way battle (at that point anyway).

My interest in the Lib Dems started at school – I’m not sure when exactly, but I do remember representing the Lib Dems (and winning comfortably) in a mock election around the age of 11 or 12. I read a lot of newspapers at school, and watched a lot of “Have I Got News For You”, and grew to love – a strong word, probably too strong – Charles Kennedy. At the age of 16, I wanted to compliment my science education with some arts and thought, unoriginally, of studying History first. That didn’t fit with Chemistry in the timetable, so I went with English – neither did that – and so I was left with Spanish (no way Jose) or Politics. Studying Politics was probably the most serendipitous subject choice I’ve made, mainly due to the teacher JO’N, but also because it opened my eyes to the West Wing (and much later than it should have, House of Cards – THE ORIGINAL!).

My best friend at this point was a distinct New Labour Blairite. I think he has reformed with time, but I could not stand Blair since I saw him speaking on TV in 1996. All children knew, even in his apparent heydey, that this was a man who spoke a lot of guff. I sometimes look back to my younger self and think, what would I have thought then? I feel like I wiser and more open minded then (well, I was definitely more open-minded). Anyway, Blair made Labour a non-option, and learning about politics, under JO’N at least, made the Tories a non-option. I must admit, that at this point, Labour with Brown in charge appeared, to me, more appealing than the Lib Dems without Kennedy. I think that, despite being indoctrinated into hating American personality politics, I saw British politics in just that light.

Like I said at the top, this is a rubbish post, just written to give some political background. I’ll conclude by summing up some general views of mine:

  1. I want a more equal society with simpler taxation and more fair redistribution
  2. I think that some things should be held in public ownership for the good of the systems in question (e.g. public transport, communications, utilities), but am open to novel solutions – not sure I agree with the current franchising models though
  3. I would rather accountable government regulated the internet than unaccountable corporations, but am against blanket surveillance
  4. I would subsidise renewable technology development to the hilt in the UK – the only way is up in that industry, and the UK has led the way in energy innovations so often only to lose the benefits due to underinvestment
  5. I want serious devolution, with as many powers as possible at local levels, but I also believe it needs to be symmetric – the current asymmetric devolution in the UK is unsustainable

Here ends ramble number 1