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The Lady is not for Wobbling: Mrs May, social care and spending political capital

A shorter version of this blog was originally published by Prospect magazine.

Matt Flinders

When is a wobble not a wobble?

This might not seem the most obvious question to be asking in the context of the current General Election campaign but that’s exactly what makes it so important. Could it be that Theresa May’s recent backtracking on the costs of social care was nothing of the kind? Instead part of a more subtle game of preparing the public for tough choices that will inevitably have to be taken? Have we just witnessed the political equivalent of a footballer’s fake dive?

Partisan politics aside, there is little doubt that Theresa May is an incredibly astute politician.

She plays the game well and to some extent she has re-written the rulebook. The game of politics is rarely as simple as kicking the ball or scoring goals; more concerned with playing other players off against each other, often within your team, and knowing exactly when to go for the legs instead of the ball. The simple point I am making is that Theresa May has climbed to the summit of the British political system as if it really were a weekend wander with Philip.

“[The manifesto] highlighted the existence of major and increasing inter-generational inequalities…”

I’m clearly exaggerating to make my point and ‘the commentator’s curse’ may now ensure Theresa May’s immediate collapse under a double-pincer tackle from behind (where are Boris and Gove this week?) but my point is that there was something odd about the Conservative Manifesto launch and the subsequent brouhaha over social care costs. This was a strong and bold manifesto, it explicitly re-positioned the Conservative Party towards a more traditional model of conservatism and – critically – it highlighted the existence of major and increasing inter-generational inequalities that will at some point have to be addressed.

This was no ‘back of a fag packet’ hastily scribbled treatise but a thoughtful manifesto for social change that bore the clear imprint of one of the most impressive brains ever to have worked within No.10 – Nick Timothy. Could it really therefore have been that no one saw the backlash about social care costs coming? Was this really a manifesto written in a rush and therefore in need of later refinement?

I don’t believe it. There was something far more fundamental and strategic going on. Theresa May was effectively cashing-in a little political capital in order to make a point. The current system is unsustainable. Previous governments have consistently protected the position of older generations for the simple reason that they are the social cohort overwhelmingly most likely to actually vote. This is not fair. The reason young people tend not to vote is because they feel that the political system does not work in their interests (which is largely true because they don’t vote). Therefore British politics is trapped in a self-sustaining cycle of cynicism that risks simply increasing levels of inter-generational inequality while also preventing the introduction of policies to address certain embedded structural disparities.

In this context the Conservative manifesto’s position on social care and universal benefits was not under-cooked or ill-prepared – it was a calculated decision to soften-up large sections of the public and forewarn them that the current situation is untenable.

It takes a brave politician to adopt a strategy that will undoubtedly be unpopular with a core section of their traditional electorate but the simple fact is that Mrs May can not only afford to be brave but there is an argument that she actually needs to deflate the dominant position of the Conservative Party – to cash in a little popularity in order to make the public aware of the need to take tough choices later on.

“This was a calculated move, a slight tug of the string, to take just a little wind out of the sales of the Tory kite…”

The idea that a strong politician might actually want to cultivate just a touch, a dash, of unpopularity might seem completely bizarre but there are risks for a government, particularly in the British context of being too strong, too dominant. Like a kite flying high the stronger the wind the more impressive sight but so too are the risks of a sudden implosion, a panel torn or a once taught string suddenly snapped. Too large a majority risks having large numbers of MPs wandering the corridors of Westminster bemoaning the fact that their phone never rang; the offer of a ministerial position never made. Angry, embarrassed and over-looked these backbenchers tend to congregate, scheme and plan….(why do Boris and Gove keep springing to mind?)

I could well be wrong but my sense is that this was no wobble. President May is too bright to make such a basic error of judgement. This was a calculated move, a slight tug of the string, to take just a little wind out of the sales of the Tory kite, to cash in just a little political capital in order to manage the politics of public expectations about the future.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He can get the word brouhaha into almost any sentence and his latest book – What Kind of Democracy Is This? – is published by Policy Press next month.

 

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post 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.

 

Election focus: Missing the point – education in the #GE2017 manifestos

Stephen Ball, author of the best-selling The education debate (third edition out in August) gives a passionate take on how the party manifestos are missing what should be at the heart of education policy.

Stephen J Ball

“What is most striking when reading the party manifestos for the General Election and listening to the speeches and debates is the absence of education.

There is quite a lot of writing and talking about money – funding – and about structures – grammar schools or a National Education Service – but very little about what its purpose is, about teaching and learning, about what is means to be educated.

To some extent those things are taken for granted, pre-given, closed to debate. Education is about and for the economy. Its about investing “in people to develop their skills and capabilities” (Labour Party) – investing, a key trope of the neoliberal sensibility, sits oddly in the Labour Manifesto.

Over and against that, in a perverse rhetorical reverse,for the Conservatives education is about meritocracy – although clearly no one Labour or Conservative has read Michael Young’s book! – and it’s about tackling “enduring injustices” and “breaking down longstanding divisions” (Conservatives).

How do we go about breaking down these divisions?

Well, obviously we re-install new divisions recycled from injustices of the past – Grammar schools and ‘a knowledge-rich curriculum’ and knowing ‘the times tables off by heart”. And this is because “if you are a white, working class boy, you are less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university” – who writes this stuff? Have they never read the statistics relating to Roma and Traveller and looked-after children?

If you want to read something that’s actually about education you have to turn to the Liberal Democrats. For them it “fosters understanding and tolerance, and it empowers children and communities”, although it has “a dual role” in also “giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to be part of a productive, competitive economy” – well being and emergency life-saving skills and arts subjects also get a mention by the Lib Dems alongside entrepreneurship.

At least there is a glimpse here of someone thinking that education might be about something else than preparing for the world of work, something that is about our social relations, our role as citizens, about development critical capacities.

“Education might be about something else than preparing for the world of work, something that is about our social relations, our role as citizens, about development critical capacities.”

Despite all of that, you cannot write about education policy in a manifesto without rehearsing the key tenets of the global education reform consensus.

When it comes down to it education policy is about “driving up school standards” (Lib-Dems p. 28) and “we will drive up standards” (Labour p. 37) and ensure improvements in “schools’ accountability at key stage 3” and have “75 per cent of pupils to have been entered for the EBacc combination of GCSEs by the end of the next parliament” (Conservatives p. 51). And to achieve all of that we need, of course, “strong leadership” (Labour).

“It’s not about education, it’s ‘the economy stupid’.”

The Lib-Dems remind us, that “England’s young people are some of the unhappiest and most anxious in the world”. I wonder why, and I wonder why that does not seem to bother politicians or parents?

Well that’s because when it comes down to it, what really counts, what is really important is not the educational experience itself, not the sort of people we have become, not how we relate to others, not our mental health, but how well we do in tests and exams. That’s what gets our school to the top of the league table, that’s what get praised by the Inspectors, that’s what gets our teacher a rise in their performance related pay, that’s what gets us into a university with a high rate of return in terms of graduate pay. That’s what we are investing in. It’s not about education, it’s “the economy, stupid”.

“It’s not about education, it’s “the economy, stupid (James Carville for Bill Clinton 1992).”

Is a general election an opportunity to debate and consider the sorts of young people our education system is producing and thus what sort of society we might be living in the future? Forget it, “its all about money kid, everything else is just conversation” (Gordon Gekko).

You can pre-order The education debate by Stephen J. Ball  here for just £11.19.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post 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.

Election focus: Avoiding Another Failed NHS Experiment

In the next post in our Election Focus series, David Hunter, author of The health debate, explains that the election must not become an excuse for shelving much needed health system transformation.

David Hunter

“A possible unwanted side effect of this most avoidable of unnecessary general elections, and the accompanying purdah into which everyone has slumped, is the impact on the NHS reforms initiated by the NHS Five Year Forward View published in 2014 and its update in the Next Steps delivery plan published last month.

One can only hope the NHS Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, is correct when he asserts that ‘there is no version of reality’ in which his changes will not be needed and actively pursued. Even if he is proved right there could still be disruption if a new health secretary replaces the current post-holder, Jeremy Hunt.

Or if the all-consuming Brexit negotiations divert the government’s focus and slow down the pace of change as seems likely. Or if a new administration decides to replace Stevens. As the chief architect and champion of the changes, he is critical to their success, especially at such a delicate stage in their evolution and before they have been fully embedded.

New Care Models and Sustainability and Transformation Plans

The election comes at a pivotal time in regard to progress with the New Care Models (NCM) nested in the Vanguards initiative and the evolving Sustainability and Transformation Plans (or Programmes if you prefer) (STPs) agenda.

“…opens up the prospect of further stalemate and a failure once again to get to grips with long overdue changes to reshape the NHS for the new challenges it faces.”

In the case of STPs, Labour has stepped back from its rather foolish pledge announced in the leaked manifesto to impose an immediate moratorium on them if elected. But while the final manifesto now states that Labour will merely ‘halt and review’ STPs, the move still heralds a return to heavy-handed ministerial meddling from the centre.

As a way of running the NHS, it has rarely if ever been desirable or worked. Moreover, it opens up the prospect of further stalemate and risks failing once again to get to grips with long overdue changes to reshape the NHS for the urgent and complex challenges it faces.

What’s needed?

For the changes to succeed requires sensible resourcing and sustained commitment over a reasonable time period, both of which are already fragile under the current government. If re-elected with a larger majority it is unlikely much will change which could leave the changes in a precarious state, especially when coupled with the desperate pressures the NHS is already under both in terms of financing and staff recruitment.

So, while perhaps not putting the changes at risk in the way Labour’s proposals seem destined to do, a Conservative government with a fresh mandate need not axiomatically be good news for the NHS.

If the political outlook for the NHS changes presently being implemented looks potentially bleak or risky whoever wins, it will be incumbent on senior managers and clinicians, perhaps with the support of the Royal Colleges and others, including local government, to lead and drive the changes.

An opportunity

The Vanguards and STPs represent a chance of a lifetime opportunity to transform the NHS as it approaches its 70th birthday in July 2018. Too often in the past resistance to change has won out and the result has been an NHS which in many respects has become ossified and no longer fit for purpose given the changes in demography, lifestyles and the evidence of growing inequalities.

“Too often in the past resistance to change has won out.”

Successive inquiries and critiques of the NHS have pointed to the repeated failure to take prevention and public health seriously, to integrate health and social care, and to rebalance the health system away from costly, acute hospital care. The Vanguards initiative and STPs are confronting head-on all these deep-seated systemic problems that have persisted in the NHS for decades.

Drawing conclusions from the NCMs is premature and inconclusive. Generalising from very complex and different models and contexts is a hazardous business. But, putting these health warnings to one side, the early evidence emerging shows a passion, enthusiasm and high level of commitment to make the changes work. They are also felt to be the right way to go in terms of patient care.

Once the evidence from the local evaluations starts to appear later this year, there will almost certainly be a mix of likely successes and failures although it will take longer to assess how far the changes have actually impacted on health outcomes. It is also the case that, as the Public Accounts Committee concluded recently, STPs are a mixed bag and of variable quality. In most places, engaging local government and the public should have assumed a much higher priority at an earlier stage.

But when all is said and done, the unprecedented transformation journey on which the NHS has embarked has given permission to local areas to chart their own destinies within a national framework providing support and development know-how. It is not perfect and tendencies for old-style, command-and control behaviour to surface have to be resisted. Nor is the overall financial climate helpful or sustainable although, if one is honest, resource pressures have been an important stimulus for change.

If the changes underway can be maintained post-election and the NHS becomes a genuine health service rather than a sickness one, which it has been since its inception, then that must be the goal of all those who want the NHS to survive and should be embraced enthusiastically.

Warts and all, we should not squander this opportunity to transform the NHS so it can meet the 21st century challenges confronting it. Surely that has to be a 70th birthday present to remember.

 

The health debate by David J. Hunter is currently available with 50% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £7.49.

Browse all the books in our 50% General Election promotion here.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post 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.

Election focus: The General Election and Brexit – diversion, divisions and tactics

In the next piece in our election focus series, Janice Morphet looks at the impact of the general Election’s delay to Brexit negotiations, questions that aren’t being answered, how each party are approaching Brexit in their campaigns and the significance of tactical voting.

Janice Morphet

As the General Election campaign moves on, it appears to be characterised more by pauses than progression.

We now have the EU ready to start negotiating in a serious manner while foghorn diplomacy is all they meet across the channel. Since the Prime Minister took office, there has been a wasted period when the electorate has been lulled into assuming that these negotiations will be easy while the EU has been consistent about its position and the issues.

The EU finds it hard to deal with shocks but thrives on process. Once it could appoint its negotiators and set out its red lines it became stronger and more confident and this would have occurred whoever it faced in number 10.

Continue reading ‘Election focus: The General Election and Brexit – diversion, divisions and tactics’

Celebrating 25 years of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice with a FREE anniversary article collection

In celebration of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice’s 25th anniversary, editors Rod Hick and Gill Main reflect on the achievements of the journal and release a selection of articles free to download for the remainder of 2017. 

Rod Hick

Gill Main

This April marked the 25th anniversary of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the academic, policy and practice communities have seen drastic changes – but the issues addressed by the journal have remained all too relevant.

Poverty and social justice remain at the forefront of academic and policy debate – both nationally and internationally.

Over the last decade, the global financial crisis has raised major debates about the nature of poverty and social justice. Many governments continue to pursue austerity agendas which have produced rising poverty rates, and to promote interpretations of social justice which are often in conflict with academic approaches.

Continue reading ‘Celebrating 25 years of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice with a FREE anniversary article collection’

The perversity in planning

Adam Sheppard, co-author of The essential guide to planning law, discusses planning policy and, in particular, the Prior Approval system and how this affects the delivery of homes in our communities. 

Adam Sheppard

“Planning is attempting to achieve things. It is trying to make things better.

Planning policy, from the national to the local to the neighbourhood is geared around enabling and realising improvement and forward progress. The regulatory decision making construct then provides the system to support the realisation and manifestation of these aspiration. Why then, is planning today steeped in perversity which serves to undermine it?

There is a specific example here that illustrates this point. This involves the Prior Approval approach – in brief, if something needs oversight because of a potential impact a full planning application is required and approval (hopefully) comes via a Planning Permission from the Local Planning Authority, whereas more minor matters can proceed with the benefit of ‘Permitted Development Rights’ and no such approval is required.

Continue reading ‘The perversity in planning’

Academic Work, Fast and Slow

Should academics strive to be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’? Helen Kara, author of Research and evaluation for busy students and practitioners, argues that there is not one, clear answer. 

Helen Kara

In recent years there has been an increasingly heated debate, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, about whether academia is – or should be – ‘fast’ or ‘slow’.

This is linked to other discourses about speed such as Slow Food and Slow Cities.

Some commentators aver that the pace of life in academia is speeding up because of managerialism, the REF and its equivalents in other countries, and the ensuing pressure to conduct and publish interesting research with significant results. All of this, in addition to the increasing casualisation of employment in academia, and the increasing speed of digital communication, has led to toxic working conditions that cause academics to have breakdowns and burn out.

This doesn’t only affect academics, but also non-academics doing academic work such as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Also, to some academics’ surprise, this doesn’t only apply in academia, but also in the public sector more widely, and parts of the private sector too. Perhaps this is because, as the saying goes, the speed of change is faster than it’s ever been before, yet it will never be this slow again.

Continue reading ‘Academic Work, Fast and Slow’


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