Category Archives: UK public policy

Political parties are a crucial part of British democracy. Are they accountable enough?

With the Labour leadership contest almost upon us, it is looking ever more likely that Jeremy Corbyn will win. As the odds on a Corbyn leadership shorten, so the howls of anguish from centre-left commentators increase. My Twitter feed is almost unanimous on this: a Corbyn victory would make Labour unelectable and guarantee at least another decade of Tory government.

But why should this be the case? Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, tremendously popular. The latest polls show that 53% of Labour party members are planning to vote for him as their first preference, and that he would easily win a run-off against either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper.

The problem may be that Corbyn is too popular with party members. That is, he is giving them what they want – a kind of intra-party populism – rather than trying to sell to them a platform that he thinks can win an election. A successful modern politician, it seems, must make tough choices and compromises, between her ideals (and those of her party members) and what she think the rest of the voting public wants. Populism only works if applied to a sufficiently large number of voters.

In a democracy, compromise is essential. Different sections of the population have different preferences and one group can rarely have everything it wants. But the way in which a democracy is administered determines how and where these compromises are made.

In countries with proportional voting systems, people can (in principle) vote for the party that best represents their beliefs. The parties win seats in parliament according to the number of votes they receive, and will then begin the process of thrashing out a compromise and forming a government. Compromises are reached within the democratic institution of a parliament, through negotiations between elected members who represent the various viewpoints of the population.

In the UK, with our first-past-the-post voting system, it doesn’t usually make sense to vote for the party that is best aligned with your beliefs. Just ask the millions of people who voted for the Greens and UKIP earlier this year, for a return of two seats. Instead, the rational approach is generally to vote for whichever of the two main parties has come up with the best-looking compromise.

However, the compromises that we get to choose between are not formed within our public institutions, but within the political parties. The wider electorate doesn’t get a say in these compromises, except insofar as party members try to second guess their preferences in developing an electable platform. As a result, the major parties are themselves crucial parts of the UK’s democratic machinery – yet they carry out their role outside of the institutions that are supposed to govern our democracy.

Now, I don’t mean to argue that a proportional voting system is necessarily a better way of reaching a compromise. In the UK, voters can choose between manifestos that represent complete programmes for government with ready-made compromises, while under PR voters might have to choose their representatives without knowing what compromises they will ultimately make. But in the UK, the messy compromises that are crucial to a democracy are worked out within the two main political parties, whose memberships comprise less than one percent of eligible voters. It seems reasonable to ask whether that is a sufficient level of engagement and accountability for such a central part of our democratic system.

The UK does not spend a disproportionate amount on benefits

OK, I know I’m a bit late to this party, but even by the standards of government publications, this paragraph from George Osborne’s recent Summer Budget (section 3.4) is a stinker:

However, despite progress during the last Parliament there is still more to do. Taxpayers are still being asked to pay for welfare expenditure that remains disproportionately high. 7% of global expenditure on social protection is spent in the UK, despite the fact that the UK produces 4% of global GDP and has only 1% of the world’s population. As chart 1.14 shows, spending on working-age welfare has increased significantly in real terms over the last few decades. Too many families continue to be trapped on benefits. The Budget sets out the next stage of welfare reform, delivering on the government’s commitment to save £12 billion from the working age welfare bill.

I’m not sure where these figures came from, but there are very plausible. It would in fact be surprising if the UK did not spend a “disproportionate” amount on social protection (broadly speaking, public pensions, social care and benefits) when compared to the whole world. Many people living in developing countries are in desperate need of social protection, either because they are too ill to work, there are no jobs available, or for any number of other reasons. But they don’t have access to it. The governments of these countries may be corrupt and not care about the needs of large proportions of the population, or they may simply lack the infrastructure needed to collect enough taxes to provide meaningful social protection. Western countries are much richer than the world as a whole and have much stronger institutions, so they are able to spend more than the global average on social protection. This is a good thing.

So it is a nonsense to compare the UK to the global average. This is the wrong comparator group and sets a laughably low ambition for what a government can do to enhance the welfare of its citizens. It makes more sense to compare the UK to other OECD countries.

Spending on social protection as a % of GDP in OECD countries

The figures look rather as you would expect. The UK spends a smaller share of its wealth on social protection than almost all other rich European countries. If we are spending a disproportionate amount on this, spare a thought for the poor French! The Summer Budget figures imply that they account for 11% of global social protection spending and only 4% of global GDP.

There is one country that clearly bucks this trend. The US is a very rich country (GDP per capita is nearly 50% higher than in the UK) but it spends relatively little on social protection. However, while the US is a great country that UK would do well to emulate in many areas, it is not a leading light in the field of social protection. To take a random example, women in the US get precisely zero paid maternity leave.

To summarise: the UK does not spend a disproportionate amount on social protection. In fact, we spend less than most comparable countries in Europe. Nonetheless, the US shows that it’s possible to spend a smaller proportion of GDP on these things, but we might have to become 50% richer and cancel maternity leave to achieve it.

Reasonable arguments can be made for reforming parts of our benefits system, but this is one of the weakest and most disingenuous I have seen. While it is careful to stop short of telling an outright, falsifiable lie, its purpose is clear: it is seeking to mislead the reader. Although it removes the risk of that gotcha moment when a full-blown lie is exposed, seeking to mislead is morally equivalent to lying and politicians should be called out for it more often.

Good marks, bad vibes

George Monbiot tells us that pushy parents are ruining their kids’ lives. Although, of course (and as George recognises), we don’t know whether pushy parents are ruining their kids’ lives. There aren’t many trials conducted of parenting techniques, and even if there were it would be impossible to make them properly randomised and controlled. It’s just not realistic that we could impose different parenting styles on two equivalent groups.

So we are left with a series of hints and suggestive facts. George mentions a few from a UK perspective: more children are in mental health care, more are admitted to hospital for self-harm and more have counselling for exam stress. Alongside this is a general feeling that we are putting more pressure on kids to succeed in school. This really isn’t much evidence. There’s no reason why we would link the first two (admittedly worrying) trends to pushy parents. And it seems just as plausible that the third is driven by increasing use of counselling as increasing levels of exam stress.

But perhaps we can do better. If parents are putting pressure on kids to do well at school, what effects would we expect to see? Well first, we would presumably see kids doing better at school. I’m not willing to believe that making kids study harder doesn’t generally improve their grades. The question then is whether this is accompanied by any negative outcomes, such as stress, unhappiness or mental health problems.

As it happens, we have some internationally comparable data on these things. The OECD’s PISA tests assess how well children in countries across the world’s perform in exams; and George’s article points us towards a recent international survey of children’s wellbeing, which asks kids from a number of countries how they feel about their home and school life. To minimise confounding factors, I’ve chosen a question closely linked to exam performance (satisfaction with grades) and compared this to the country’s performance on the PISA tests.*

Children from countries that do better on PISA tests are less satisfied with the school marks

The results are quite striking. I had really expected to find no correlation (that’s what usually happens when I have an idea like this) but in fact there is a strong negative correlation. Children from countries that do better on PISA tests are less satisfied with their grades.

Of course this doesn’t prove anything about causality. I’m not sure it’s plausible that higher marks cause lower satisfaction, but it seems possible that never being satisfied might drive kids on to do better. It’s also possible that something else (pushy parents, say) is making kids perform well in exams, but at the same time making them feel bad about it. Or of course, further investigation might reveal this result to be a fluke.

At the very least, though, this should make people question the hand-wringing that accompanies the release of the OECD’s PISA ranking, in which the UK is invariably at best stagnant, at worst declining”. Emulating countries like South Korea, which sit near the top of the rankings, might amount to making our kids do better at exams but feel rotten about it. It’s not obvious to me that this is the route to a happy and successful life.


 

* The data don’t refer to quite the same year, or to children of quite the same age, but I think that it is still a relevant comparison.

Means-testing and the progressive state

In Sweden, the amount you get from the state pension is linked to the amount you earned while you were working. That is, the richer you are, the more you get.

I can already hear the howls of “regressive” if this was suggested in the UK. Broadly speaking, our public pension pays out a flat rate (provided you’ve paid national insurance for enough years) which is just about enough for someone to live on. It seems more likely that we would take that away from wealthy people than give them an enhanced rate. Just look at the debate around the winter fuel allowance, which is effectively just a cold-weather top-up to the state pension.

This raises a paradox. Any Guardian reader knows that Sweden is a socialist utopia with high taxes, strong public services and lots of redistribution. How can they be doing something so regressive?

Of course, richer people in the UK also get bigger pensions than poorer people. The difference is that this is done privately, rather than by the government. In the UK, many people pay money into private sector pensions and when they retire they can convert this to an annuity (or at least they could until the government abolished pensions). The Swedish public system mirrors this setup by counting up how much you pay in and converting that to an annuity when you retire. The more you put in, the more you get out.

This is just not how we do things in the UK. State support (the NHS aside) is usually seen as a last resort for the destitute, to prevent poverty and starvation. Means-testing is used to target government resources on the poor and prevent them going to the rich. This is our idea of progressive government.

But our progressive European neighbours like the Nordics actually do a lot less means-testing than we do, while managing to be highly redistributive and have lower inequality than us. How do they manage that? By having higher taxes and a larger public sector. In general, the most progressive countries in the world are characterised not by their efforts to target spending on the poor, but by universal benefits and relatively high, progressive taxes.

Now it is possible to argue that this model is not optimal and that a smaller state would be good for economic growth. In that case means-testing makes sense, since it allows you to achieve more redistribution if you are constrained by the need to keep government small. Alternatively, it could allow you to shrink the size of government if you are constrained by the need to redistribute. Limiting benefits to the poor also supports the small state cause in a more insidious way, by stigmatising claimants and undermining public support for state spending.

I am yet to hear a UK politician make the argument that means-testing is the corollary of small government and low taxes. Instead, Nick Clegg tells us that he “doesn’t see why someone like Alan Sugar should be entitled to a winter fuel payment” since he’s “got a bob or two”. I’m sure that Nick Clegg understands the link between means-testing and the size of the state, but libertarians and state shrinkers clearly think that it is easier to get their policies through by having a pop at the rich than to try to convince voters of the merits of small government. Which is a shame, since there is an interesting debate to be had.