Power junkies: How the heady cocktail of political centralisation is damaging UK democracy

Simon Parker, director of  the think tank for localism, NLGN, and nationally recognised expert on local government, shares his thoughts on how decentralisation could deliver us a wiser, less exhausted government and more engaged citizens that together could transform the UK political culture for the better…

Simon ParkerWe have grown used to the idea that politicians are impervious narcissists, endlessly grasping for power and immune to the pressures and doubts that assail ordinary mortals.

The past week has proven how wrong we are. From Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna pulling out of the Labour leadership race to an apparently confident and capable cabinet minister displaying a ruddy flush of embarrassment across the throat while being questioned by Andrew Marr, we have been reminded that politicians are human too, and if they seem otherwise it is often because we simply expect too much from them.

Dangerous substance

Political power is a dangerous substance. Literally addictive, it operates on the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by cocaine, and if you take too much it can result in massive egocentricity and imperviousness to risk. The problem for British politicians is that our over-centralised system of government mainlines power into their bloodstreams from day one.

They have to operate the most powerful central government in the developed world, controlling more 90 pence in every pound of tax and wielding power over everything from the frequency of council newsletters to hospital waiting times.

The weight of power and responsibility is huge, the working culture often crushing and the scope for a healthy personal life is often extremely limited. Being prime minister of Germany, Denmark or Australia is probably pretty hard going too, but at least huge swathes of social policy responsibilities are devolved to federal states or local government.

“we have created an inward-looking Westminster bubble…all the routes of power and influence in Britain lead straight back to parliament”

The natural consequence of giving national politicians so much power is that British politics has become an extremely high stakes game. Decisions taken through winner-takes-all processes of parliamentary decision making can instantly transform huge swathes of the education and benefit systems. No wonder we expect so much of our politicians, and no wonder the media pays so much attention to them. No wonder we have created an inward-looking Westminster bubble when all the routes of power and influence in Britain lead straight back to parliament.

This profoundly unhealthy approach to politics might be justifiable if it made us more equal and prosperous, but since Thatcher’s centralisations of the 1980s – many of which were enthusiastically entrenched under New Labour – the gap between rich and poor has widened and large parts of the country have been left behind economically.

Responsibility without power

The truth is that the power ministers have taken for themselves has done much more to create the illusion of control than its reality. As the former home secretary, David Blunkett, once put it, British politicians have responsibility without power. He neglected to mention the role that politicians themselves played in creating that situation.

We need to help our politicians kick their dangerous power habit and demand that they return power to the country’s cities and people. The result will be wiser government, more engaged citizens and a more realistic workload for exhausted secretaries of state. If we want ordinary, decent men and women to enter politics, then we have to transform a political culture that can bring out the power addict in the most modest of people.

Taking power back [FC]Taking Power Back publishes on 1st October 2015 however you can pre-order from our website here (RRP £14.99).

Don’t forget Policy Press newsletter subscribers get a 35% discount when ordering through our website. If you’re not a subscriber yet why not sign up here today and join our Policy Press community?

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Ferguson, Baltimore, and the American Way of Life

Salvatore Babones, author of Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America, shares his views on why protest against police treatment of African Americans is a fight for the ideals of the American way of life…

Salvatore Babones

Salvatore Babones

It all started in Jamestown, Virginia about 100 years before the Revolutionary War. Or it all started in Ferguson, Missouri with the police shooting of Michael Brown. Whether it started with the beginning of black slavery in America in the 1600s or with a tragic act of violence on August 9, 2014 it is now consuming the nation. The United States is in revolt against police violence, and the leaders of that revolt are mostly young and black.

It should come as no surprise that many African-Americans are angry about the way they are treated by police. Based on my own calculations from official government statistics, at any one time more than 6 percent of all African-American men age 25-39 are in prison. I estimate that about one-quarter of all African-American men spend at least part of their lives in prison.

Criminalization of African-Americans

African-American men and women also face routine harassment of other kinds. Racial biases in hiring, housing, and credit are widespread and well-confirmed by academic research. African-Americans are stopped by police so often that the “crime” of driving while black has entered the English language. Such criminalization of African-Americans starts early. More than one-third of all African-American children have been suspended or expelled from school, according to statistics from the NAACP.

Police officers using tear gas during the first wave of the Ferguson unrest

Police officers using tear gas during the first wave of the Ferguson unrest Credit: Wikipedia/Loafsofbread

Then there is the ultimate penalty: death at the hands of the state. African-Americans account for more than one-third of all judicial executions, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center. Judicial executions are relatively rare, about 40 per year. Many more African-Americans die at the hands of police without any hearing in court. No one knows how many African-Americans are killed by police each year. The government doesn’t bother to keep statistics.

The killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland are only the tip of a gruesome iceberg. Some of the many stories of African-American men and women killed by police in recent years have been collected by Rich Juzwiak and Aleksander Chan on Gawker.com. Of course, white Americans have also been killed by police, as conservatives are quick to point out. But the rates of aggressive policing targeted at blacks and whites are simply not comparable.

“America is not a country at war and it does not need a militarized, shoot-on-sight police force”

What the targets of aggressive policing do share is powerlessness: they tend to be blacker, younger, and poorer than the population as a whole. Very few white, middle-aged professionals ever face police violence. African-American youths without jobs are not the only targets of the police state, but they are targets for multiple reasons. Wearing multiple targets, they are at very high risk of becoming victims.

Aggressive policing leads to tragedies like the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray killings, but it harms Americans of all kinds in many smaller ways. America is not a country at war and it does not need a militarized, shoot-on-sight police force. A return to the civilian ethic in policing would be welcomed by all of society. Police officers should be the friendly neighborhood helpers of children’s mythology, not armed warriors ready to shoot.

For half a century the Los Angeles Police Department has branded itself with the motto “To Protect and to Serve.” They are the right ideals for a police department. The LAPD itself has rarely lived up to those ideals, but we can’t blame the LAPD, the Ferguson police, or the Baltimore police if they fall short. Police practices reflect government priorities. When you call the cable company and get terrible customer service you don’t blame the operator. Similarly when police behave badly the problem isn’t the person; it’s the policy.

America needs a whole new approach to social policy, one based on progressive principles of self-actualization instead of conservative principles of social control. The police state is all about social control. Conservatives like to wrap social control in a glorious flag of patriotism, but the patriotic American tradition of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is much more about self-actualization. The protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore aren’t demonstrating against police violence. They are demonstrating in favor of the American way of life.

Sixteen for 16 [FC]Salvatore Babones is Associate Professor of Sociology & Social Policy at The University of Sydney. His new book Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America is the first book in the Policy Press Shorts series. For more information about the policies proposed in Sixteen for ’16 see the book website at 16for16.com.

Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America is available for purchase from our website here (RRP £9.99). Don’t forget Policy Press newsletter subscribers get a 35% discount when ordering through our website. If you’re not a subscriber yet why not sign up here today and join our Policy Press community?

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Are our schools in safe hands?

Author and academic Stephen Ball believes that the biggest area of concern in UK education is about the academisation of the school system – an agenda that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has reiterated her support for, announcing that under a new education bill failing schools could be forced into taking on academy status.

Academy status takes the management and funding of education away from the publicly accountable local authority and places it into the hands of charitable organisations, who are overseen by central government. But is it wise to fragment and delocalise the structure of our school system?

Stephen Ball

Stephen Ball

On March 9th 2015 David Cameron Announced that a further 500 free schools would be opened in England in the next five years under a Conservative government, creating an extra 270,000 school places in free schools by 2020. This expansion would take place alongside the continuation of the academisation of existing state schools.

The Academies Bill, laid before Parliament just 14 days into the Coalition government enabled secondary schools, primary and special schools classed as ‘outstanding’ to become academies without a requirement to consult local authorities.

In November 2010, the possibility of schools applying for academy status was extended to those deemed ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted, if partnered by an ‘outstanding’ school. Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, said that he expected that academies would become the norm among English schools.

Academies programme – ‘self-generating’

The Academies Act also authorised the creation of Free Schools – a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, independent, state-funded school, which is free to attend, but which is not controlled by a Local Authority.

The Academies programme is both imposed on ‘failing’ schools and is self-generating – ambitious chains and individual sponsors wanting to run more schools, and head teachers and governors looking for budget maximization – ‘failing schools’ are handed over to existing chains or ‘brokered’ by DfE consultants to new sponsors. ‘Outstanding’ schools are encouraged to form relationships with less well-graded schools and superheads are parachuted in to ‘save’ under-performing schools.

Both academies and free schools were created as responses to what was presented as the low standards of performance of some state schools, especially in areas of social disadvantage. These schools, it is argued by their sponsors will bring creativity and energy to bear upon entrenched social and educational inequalities.

“overwhelming proportion of pupils … not receiving a good education”.

In fact, a number of Academies and Free Schools have been deemed by Inspection and performance outcomes as ‘under-performing’; some chains of Academies have been found to be unable to manage their schools effectively; some chains and academies and free schools appear to be indulging in dubious financial practices; the free schools were supposed to be targeted at areas of social disadvantage but recent research indicates their distribution does not reflect this aim.

The Ofsted assessment of E-Act academies reported “overwhelming proportion of pupils … not receiving a good education”. Inspectors visited 16 of E-Act’s 34 academies over a two-week period – one was judged Outstanding, four were Good, six were judged as Requires Improvement and five, including Hartsbrook E-Act Free School, were Inadequate.

Hartsbrook has now been closed twice and has its third sponsor. Inspectors also discovered E-Act had deducted a proportion of pupil premium funding from each academy until 1 September 2013. Ofsted was unclear how the deducted funding was being used to help disadvantaged pupils.

Four free schools have been rated “inadequate” by the inspectorate, of the 41 that have had judgments published as of April 2014 – this is 9.7% compared with the national average for all schools of 3%. Overall, 79% of state schools are rated good or outstanding compared with only 68% of free schools (watchsted.com 2014).

‘no better off’

In December 2014 the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, a one-time academy superhead, stated in his annual report that struggling schools are ‘no better off’ under academy control and said there could be little difference in school improvement under an academy chain or a council.

Imagining the position of a head teacher of a newly converted academy, he said: “In fact, the neglect you suffered at the hands of your old local authority is indistinguishable from the neglect you endure from your new trust”(The Guardian 10 December 2014).

Finally, a report for the House of Commons Select Committee, on conflicts of interest in academy trusts (Greany and Scott, 2014), identified a number of dubious practices and inappropriate financial arrangements and concluded, “that the checks and balances on academy trusts in relation to conflicts of interest are still too weak. In the course of the research we came across a significant number of real or potential conflicts of interest that we found concerning” (p. 3).

There have been a number of high profile examples of financial malpractice.

Academies and Free schools are specifically intended to break the local authority monopoly of school provision, indeed to residualise LAs. However, evidence indicates that many academy trusts are unable to manage their schools effectively, that many academies and free schools are underperforming compared with their LA counterparts, but that many recruit a more socially advantaged intake than their LA counterparts.

In all of this there is a lack of oversight and transparency. Our relationship to schools is being modelled on that of the privatised utilities – we are individual customers, who can switch provider if we are unhappy, in theory, and complain to the national watchdog if we feel badly served – but with no direct, local participation or involvement.

References

Greany, T. and J. Scott (2014) Conflicts of interest in academy sponsorship arrangements: A report for the Education Select Committee, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education, University of London.
Most free schools take fewer deprived pupils than local average, figures show – The Guardian (2012)
Ofsted chief says struggling schools ‘no better off’ under academy control – The Guardian (2014)
Free schools fail Ofsted inspections at much higher rate than state schools – The Guardian (2014)

The education debate 2nd edn [FC]The education debate by Stephen J Ball is available for purchase from our website here (RRP £12.99). Don’t forget Policy Press newsletter subscribers get a 35% discount when ordering through our website. If you’re not a subscriber yet why not sign up here today and join our Policy Press community?

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

How financing affected the 2015 UK General Election campaign

What part did financing play in last week’s election results? We know that political parties are crucial to British democracy and that the grassroots constituency branches provide both people and money to drive an election. 

Ron Johnston

Ron Johnston

Ron Johnston, co-author of Money and Electoral Politics discusses campaign finance and how it has affected the 2015 general election on the Guardian Politics Weekly Extra here.

Charles Pattie

Charles Pattie

In their much-needed book, Money and Electoral Politics, Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie use the latest research and hitherto unpublished material to explore financial differences across the UK’s three main parties in the four years leading up to the 2010 General Election. They look at how much local parties raise for election campaigns and find that the more money candidates spend then, the better their performance.

Analyses of their annual accounts, however, show that many local parties are unable to raise all of the money that they are entitled to spend on such campaigns. This reveals an unhealthy picture of grassroots party organisation in which the capacity to engage effectively with many voters is concentrated in a relatively small number of constituencies and is likely to remain so.

Policy Press CoverWant to know more? You can purchase a copy of Money and Electoral Politics from the Policy Press website here.

Don’t forget Policy Press newsletter subscribers get a 35% discount when ordering through our website. If you’re not a subscriber yet why not sign up here today and join our Policy Press community?

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

 

22 reasons to vote #imvotingbecause #GE2015 #whyvote

With hours to go until Polling Stations close and constituency level polling indicating that this is going to be a close run thing in many areas across the country, your vote can really make a difference. So if you haven’t voted yet here are 22 reasons why you might want to go and make your mark NOW!

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Announcing the first winners on election day…#GE2015

Photo credit: BBC

Peter Hain protest march – Photo credit: BBC

Last week we offered you the chance to win one of five signed copies of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism by simply answering the following question and being picked out of the correct quiz answer drawer:

“Where did Anthony Crosland first serve as a Member of Parliament?”

The answer was of course:

South Gloucestershire

As we wait with ever-increasing anticipation to find out who, if any one party at all, is the winner in today’s General Election, things are thankfully that bit more certain at Policy Press HQ and so we are thrilled to announce that our competition winners are:

  • Back to the future of socialism [FC]Lynn Griffin
  • David Mcguinness
  • Thea Raisbeck
  • Peter Goodyear
  • Olivia Al-Noah

Congratulations to all our winners – a signed copy of the book is now on its way to you- and huge thanks to all of you who took part in the competition!

Not lucky this time? Never fear you can still buy Back to the future of socialism at the special pre-election discount price of £9.99 (RRP £19.99) from Policy Press website or download the kindle edition for only £4.79 here. Discounts apply until midnight Friday 15th May.

Shame, stigma, fear and rage: Lessons from Berlin the day before #GE2015

Policy Press director Alison Shaw recently travelled to Berlin for a few days. Contemplating a wealth of history during the trip, Alison shares with us her thoughts on some of the similarities with the threats facing us today, especially around freedom of expression, the use of  shame as a political tool and the rhetoric around food and work.

Policy Press - 018 resizeA few weeks ago I was in Berlin. It is an amazing city with a complex history. We went from gazing at stunning statues of Queen Nefertiti from 14th century BC to mind-boggling brain-activated artificial limbs (husband is a neuroscientist!).

We saw the now rather glamorised Wall that separated East from West, but the thing that stood out was the Topography of Terror, a museum on the site of the central institutions of Nazi persecution, where the leadership of the Secret State Police, the SS, were housed.

Politics today

It is an astonishing museum on the history of the Nazi movement. Three things struck me in particular that are relevant to politics today.

Burning booksAs a publisher I was taken by the photos of piles of burning books – knowledge is power, and clearly those that take away that knowledge wield an intensified power. Freedom of speech and tolerance of ideas is so vital in society.

The Charlie Hebdo murders, and the response from the different communities, put this into stark relief. Our ‘global village’ is small and we have to find a way to live in tolerance with each other. The rise of extremism is something that concerns us all. But the almost hysterical rhetoric about immigration in the UK is deeply concerning.

The question is how do we engage communities who are fearful of other cultures. The rise of UKIP is something both the left and the right in Britain need to understand – they are providing something people want – so, in a multi-cultural society, how can the traditional parties address those concerns whilst staying true to their beliefs?

“The significant effect shame has on people has come to the fore recently in work on poverty.”

The second aspect that stood out was the use of shame and stigma as a method of control, such as the parading of individuals down the streets with shaved heads and placards reading out their misdemeanors.

Shame is a powerful emotion that most of us want to avoid and thus is extremely powerful. The significant effect shame has on people has come to the fore recently in work on poverty. Amartya Sen described shame as the “irreducible core” of poverty. The shame of it by Gubrium, Pellissery and Lødemel takes research from across the globe to show how policy makers must take account of the psychological aspects of people’s experiences  to provide policies that work effectively.

Families and poverty with border [FC]Closer to home O’Hara’s interviews with those facing the savage cuts to welfare in the UK for Austerity bites highlighted how shame plays a significant role in people’s responses to poverty with Daly and Kelly’s ground-breaking study Families and Poverty supporting this.

Jennifer Jacquet’s Is shame necessary? (Penguin) turns the concept on its head by looking at how the public can shame the powerful into behaving better as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the shaming of the 1% such as by Dorling in his fully updated edition of Injustice and Sayer in Why we can’t afford the rich. It will be interesting to see if there are real changes made to policy and legislation to address the inequality of the 1% to the 99% as a result.

One text line stood out for me at the Topography of Terror and that was “Those who do not work, shall not eat” which was used as the justification for the murder of the mentally and physically disabled and the mentally ill. Now we don’t murder people in the UK but we have moved to an extremely punitive sanctions regime for those ‘who do not work’ and we do leave people with literally nothing to eat.

Outraged

I remain outraged that we have benefit sanctions that are so tough that people have no money at all for months because they are late to a benefits appointment by 5 minutes. What are they meant to do? The bedroom tax has had an appalling impact on the disabled and the welfare cuts are hitting the disabled and mentally ill hard as services and care support are cut.

In the new Afterword to Austerity Bites, O’Hara gives the example of a young disabled woman who had had her support cut – she had gone from being a Cambridge undergraduate who, although severely disabled had been able to live a full life filled with promise, to someone who said: “There have been just two emotions in the last month – fear and rage. I joke that the Tories should just round up all us disabled people and have us shot – it would be quicker and cheaper than what they’re doing and it would put us out of our misery. It’s a dark joke but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. I wonder when will we fight for equality for the disabled?”

According to Mahatma Ghandi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” How are we doing as a society? Pretty badly I would say for one of the globe’s wealthiest nations.

Related links

How benefit sanctions left me sleeping on the streets


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