Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It ain't worth a bucket of spit..

I see in the news over the weekend that Hazel Blears has entered the race to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party - making her the sixth candidate. While it's not been top of my priority list, I have been mulling over who I should support.

I've pretty much decided that I won't be supporting Peter Hain, even though he's the only candidate who would actually know my name. We all know the polls are showing the next election will be close, and I just don't buy what seems to be his theory that getting out the core vote will be enough for victory. Sad to say that under first-past-the-post, the only way for Labour to win a General Election is to convince both the floating voter and the core voter to back you, and Peter's only speaking to the heartland.

I've also pretty much decided not to vote for Harriet Harman or Hilary Benn. I've got a lot of time for Harriet, and she can claim a lot of credit for pushing childcare and family-friendly policies up the political agenda. However, I think she comes across as a bit insipid on tele and was really crap talking about regional government just before the referendum (some of us have long memories). I could have supported Hilary Benn, but his campaign has been dire and I have no idea why he's standing,. For example, his website is full of boring departmental speeches that look like they have been written by civil servants.

So that leaves Alan Johnson, John Cruddas or Hazel Blears. I like the fact that Blears and Johnson have based their campaign in Salford and Leeds respectively, that Cruddas is taking seriously the woefully weak state of local parties and that Blears made a pitch for the 'aspirational voter' (which I take to mean the floating voter). I also like the fact that each of them seem normal, and after seeing and hearing so-called bright young things on the radio and tele recently I think that's vital. Jim Murphy, Pat McFadden, et al - each of whom impressive in many ways but sometimes give the impression that they've just woken up from a coma.

So I'm not going to decide just yet, but have a look through their websites and mull it over for a little while longer.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Meet the Press for Idiots

US late night talk-show host Conan O'Brien discovers a sister version of Sunday morning US news/political programme Meet the Press


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Amazing Maze game

You've gotta try this one out!


Friday, February 16, 2007

Education in Tyneside

I had a very interesting conversation last night about education in Tyneside. Basically it's pretty common knowledge that Gateshead has much better educational outcomes than Newcastle, but last night somebody I know argued that Gateshead played the system a bit. His theory was that Gateshead were good at getting kids GCSEs in a wide array of subjects, such as media studies, etc, but that they weren't so good at making sure the kids get maths and english. I suppose the theory is that if you have maths and english you will do better in the jobs market, and employers do go on about these sorts of things (although I'm not sure I would look so closely at subject areas myself).

Anyhow I downloaded the figures from the DfES website to have a look (available here at table 18). Basically I looked at GCSE attainment at the end of key stage 4 (age 16), and the proportion of kids who get five or more good GCSEs (grade c or above). In short the English average is 59%, and in the North East this is 57% (which I think must be a substantial catch-up by the North East in recent years). In Newcastle the figure is 56% and in Gateshead it's 70%.

So that confirms a situation that's pretty common knowledge in the North East, but what of the argument about maths and english. Here the national average for kids getting 5 GCSEs grade C or above, including maths and english, is 46% and in the North East it's 40%. Newcastle's figures are 34% and in Gateshead it's 45%.

So there is some truth that Gateshead's record is a bit less impressive when you take into account maths and english - from being well above the national average they come down to being pretty much at the national average. However, results achieved in Gateshead are still much much better than in Newcastle, despite the similar socio-economic background of both authority areas. Which brings me back to the question I was floating in the first place - why is it that Gateshead has such better outcomes than Newcastle? As it can't be explained simply by socio-economic background, it must be something to do with what the council, the schools and the teachers are doing. Which I find encouraging at a time when people seem to assume that local government can't make a difference to people's lives in their areas.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The UNICEF report - highly depressing reading

I've just looked through the UNICEF report into the well-being of children, which has been heavily covered in the media in the last few days, and depressing reading it was too. It's a complete indictment of this country.

According to the report, the UK was clearly the worst country when it came to behaviour and risk (obesity, substance abuse, violence, and sexual risk-taking), relationships (with family and peers), subjective well-being (children's perceptions on their health, education and happiness). We were also amongst the worst when it came to education and material well-being, and our best position was when we were only just below the average on health and safety. Clearly there are methodological problems when it comes to measuring some of these types of things, and the reports authors did advise caution. But when the UK is consistently reporting such bad figures, it's fair to say that there must truth behind it.

Jonathan Bradshaw was on the media yesterday arguing that that income inequality was the cause of most of the discrepancies, and while I have a lot of sympathy with this there are broader questions about the UK's culture as a whole. And we cannot just wash our hands of responsibility for these issues, and blame it all on the government. Some things they could do (eg, banning advertising to children) but with some things they can't take too direct a role (kids bedtime, or whether families have meals together). We have to take some personal responsibility for how we treat each other and what we regard as important. I'm willing to bet that if a petition about child poverty was put onto the Number 10 website it would fall far short of the petition misrepresenting road user charging (which to me looks like its asking for billions of pounds to be spent on roads). One and a half million people signed that - how many would sign a child poverty petition?

But on the issue of income inequality, I have some sympathy with the government's argument that the UNICEF figures are pretty old and it is true that hundreds of thousands of kids have moved out of poverty since then. The government don't have a bad record on child poverty, but the question is what's next? More of the same won't eradicate child poverty, and might not even bring that many more kids out of poverty, and I can't see any new ideas coming forward.

Incidentally, when the UNICEF report showed that not even the most successful countries have eradicated child poverty perhaps the government should consider a more realistic target? Say bringing child poverty under 5%, to levels similar to Scandinavia? If there is always going to be some unemployment in society, as people will always change jobs periodically, perhaps there will always be some incidences of child poverty. Reducing child poverty from one in three to one in twenty would still be one hell of an achievement.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Newcastle council: at the vanguard of neo-liberal thinking?

Seeing as looking for a job is mind-numbingly boring and in any case doesn't fill the day, I thought I might as well spend a bit of time adding to the blog, post-round the world travel. So the blog will evolve from an occasionally amusing record of my little adventures, to a dull-but-worthy discussion of politics and/or public policy.

I was prompted to do this by the front page of today's Journal newspaper, which splashes a story about a leak of a document written by a friend of mine who works on secondment for Newcastle City Council. The full story can be read here and here but in short Neil Murphy has argued that "the public sector is too big. Like for like it pays more than the private sector" and that "at certain skills levels... there is clear evidence that the public sector is crowding out the private".

Having been the butt of stories such as these in the past, I know that the newspapers can seriously distort your meaning in the search for a more interesting story (I don't blame journalists, that's their job. But the rest of us need to take a more cautious approach). But there are a couple of direct quotes here which I can't agree with, much as I like and respect Neil.

"The public sector is too big". Too big for what? My assumption is that this gist of the argument is that it is somehow impeding economic growth, and that if it were smaller economic growth in Tyneside would be larger. I disagree. More public spending does not inevitably lead to less economic growth. There is no evidence which suggests that it does - mostly its driven by assertions from the business community who are pursuing their vested interests of trying to keep salaries as low as possible (they always like competition until they're affected by it).

In UK terms a fairly high proportion of the North East's output (GDP) comes from the public sector, but actual spending isn't really that high. It's because the private sector is so weak that the proportion is relatively high. Our actual level of public spending per head in the North-East is lower than in some of the economically successful nations and regions. For years London and Scotland have had both higher levels of public spending and higher economic growth rates than the North-East. On the other hand, Wales has had higher levels of public expenditure than the North-East but a roughly comparable rate of economic growth (ie a pretty crap growth rate).

Data from the OECD would seem to confirm this analysis. Countries such as Japan and Switzerland are low-spending nations but have had slow growth in GDP per head in recent years. However, in countries such as Finland and Sweden, where levels of public expenditure are substantially higher than in the UK, growth has been significantly higher than in the UK.

Quite simply there is no simple relationship between Government spending and economic success, and the size of our public sector has little or nothing to do with the size of our economy. It reflects our political values and the degree to which a country believes that we can do more together than individually.

Final thought: if the council are sensible, they'll now put it up on the website so that people can read for themselves the full account and not what is necessarily an abridged version in the Journal and what is highly likely to be sensationalised. Unsurprisingly it isn't even mentioned.

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