Since the Autumn Statement last week there has been a lot of speculation that the General Election will be earlier than expected, and specifically that it will be on the same day as the local… More
When Angela Rayner was handed a new brief in 2021 as Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work it looked to many like a faddish attempt to placate her after a failed attempt to demote her in a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. But two years on, amid on-going speculation about what careers will look like post-pandemic, her ideas could well form an intriguing element in Labour’s offer to the electorate in 2024.
Her latest proposal was unveiled last week, in the form of a ‘right to switch off’. This was borrowed from a French law passed in 2017 which tries to limit the ability of managers to contact staff outside their contracted hours. The aim is to re-establish boundaries between work and home life, improving the morale of workers and reducing the risk of burnout. Ms Rayner told the Financial Times that “constant emails and calls outside of work should not be the norm and is harming work-life balance for many”.
This is an obviously attractive idea for any of us who find ourselves responding to emails at 10 o’clock at night, or when we wake up at 6.30am. It will apparently form part of a ‘new deal for working people’ in the next Labour manifesto, tackling zero hours contracts and firing and rehiring, and other things that make life miserable at work.
This feels like an area to watch. If Labour bases their election messaging around asking people if they feel better or worse after 14 years of the Tories, being able to point to concrete proposals to improve the workplace could be genuinely potent. And it would provide a strong platform for Ms Rayner, arguably one of Labour’s most effective, authentic and occasionally erratic communicators.
And I am personally hoping that the right to switch off will extend to breaking the habit developed during the pandemic of putting regular meetings in the diary before the start of the working day. An 8am video call was fine when everyone was dialling in from home and saving on commuting time, but not now. Sometimes things happen and an out-of hours call is required (and as a consultant I am of course always available for clients), but for regular employees routine catch ups outside contracted hours amount to an annexation of their personal time. If Angela Rayner clamps down on this she will definitely have my vote.
A couple of weeks ago the Economist printed an article about rates of absence from schools in the UK since the pandemic. It opened with a blizzard of depressing statistics: more than 20% of pupils are currently ‘persistently absent’ (not there more than 10% of the time); 140,000 kids enrolled in school are absent more than half the time; pupils who miss 15% of their lessons are half as likely to get five GCSEs; and almost 40% of the poorest pupils are absent more than 10% of the time.
This, then, is a huge problem that is storing up a sea of troubles for the future. It joins other difficulties that are known about but don’t dominate our national debates in the way they should, like the crisis in our courts, shortages of new recruits in the care system, our broken housing policy, and the fact that productivity in this country has stagnated for years. These are all difficult issues that defy quick fixes: they will require multi-year commitment for anything to change. And they join other complex challenges such as an ageing population, the impact of AI, and of course climate change in requiring deep thinking and a response that will only deliver outcomes over the course of decades.
Our politicians, though, seem utterly paralysed in the face of these developments. There is no credible response to any of these points. Lots of noise, posturing, criticism of the other side, yes, but no solutions. Parties seem determined to do the other side down, rather than showing the determination to develop a way forward and stick to it.
Some might say this is unfair. After all, the Government has published a multiplicity of papers on, say, climate change, and Labour has followed suit with its own Green Industrial Strategy. All of these express the right hopes and contain some good ideas, but they are simply not believable when they don’t address simple points: Where are we going to find the huge numbers of skilled people needed to do all the work? How will the grid cope with delivering all of the new connections needed to electrify the economy? When will we start to knock on the doors of homeowners and tell them they have to insulate better and stop using gas for heating?
How can we have confidence that the political classes have the stomach for the kind of long-term vision and leadership needed to deliver all this when we are still waiting for something that is relatively easy for the Government to deliver: a second big nuclear development and a plausible plan for rolling out SMRs? It is pure fantasy. We are kicking the can repeatedly down the road, and the same is happening in all of the other areas I’ve mentioned and many more besides.
Our politicians seem utterly incapable of making decisions unless they absolutely have to be made right this second. They seem to want to stagger through to the next election without rocking the boat. How else can you explain a Government with a huge majority that is doing little beyond dog-whistling to its base whilst repairing the damage done by the last two Prime Ministers? Or an Opposition that is 15 points ahead in the polls that refuses to say that they will deviate substantively from Conservative policies on tax and the economy, law and order, and almost every other area? Or a third party that won’t quite say that it wants us to rejoin the European Union? Where is the vision?
It wasn’t always like this. Whatever you might think of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair they entered office with ideas of things they wanted to do that might not be popular, and would certainly not lead to a political bonanza within five years. But they did them anyway. Transforming industrial relations (for better or worse), changing the shape of the state, devolution, Britain’s place in the world: there was a vision of where they wanted to go, and the leadership to go there even when the journey was rough. Even a casual observer of British politics can see that seems highly unlikely to happen now.
Some people would argue that Brexit was an example of vision and leadership. That might actually have been true with different leaders, people who could set out how the UK might flourish outside the EU and develop realistic policies to get us there. Instead we got chancers who could have jumped either way on the subject in the first place, primarily used the issue to secure a majority in 2019, and then proved unable to govern anyway. Above all, they failed ever to agree what they wanted post-Brexit Britain to be. So no. This was not visionary nor was there any leadership.
So why is it that we are more in thrall to short-termism than ever? There are a million answers to this, with academics and pundits churning out more and more analyses and theses every year. I want to cite what was said in 2013 by a professor at the LSE in a blog that said that contemporary politics was “trapped” in a “short term cage”. It blamed hollowed out parties, policy convergence, and more pluralised and differentiated public attitudes that have weakened ties to former occupation or class-based parties. This has in turn fuelled strategies based on “celebrity leadership, a relentless marketing orientation, focus-group driven policy and above all devotion to winning each twenty-four hour news cycle”.
The result? “Policy convergence and the demise of party organisations have destroyed the infrastructures that once provided a platform for longer term policy debates. Political leaders must sometimes confront their publics – but mostly they need to work with the grain of public opinion. The infrastructure and the platforms once that linked party elites and their publics around an emerging agenda has progressively dissolved”. This analysis might be 10 years old, but it seems to me to be spot on. It’s not just that the politicians of today are unable to address bigger, longer-term, issues; there is just no motivation for them to do so.
So we are locked in that short-term cage. Breaking out seems impossible. The thing that will break the sequence is if all of us, as voters, demand more from our politicians. Because unless they think longer-term, and make superficially unpopular decisions, those kids currently out of school – along with tens of thousands of victims of crime, older people in care homes, anyone trying to buy a house, and ultimately the whole of the natural world – are going to continue to suffer. It’s down to us: we need to start valuing and then rewarding visionary leadership.
Appointing Lee Anderson as the new Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party probably looks like smart politics to some in the Westminster bubble. Put a relatively high profile ‘controversial character’ into a job with no real power simply to demonstrate to a certain type of supporter that they have a home in the party and to enrage the opposition and make them dance to his tune. Great work. Let’s pop back to Kennington for a glass of fizz.
Let’s overlook for now the utter unsuitability of Mr Anderson for any position of authority. Let’s disregard the cynicism and disdain for the electorate of thinking you can throw red meat to the red wall and continue with politics as usual in SW1. Let’s not highlight the dodgy strategic thinking that seems to have overlooked that for every person he attracts there will almost certainly be at least one who stays at home. And let’s not think about how much of a gift to Labour he will be.
Let’s instead ask why so many politicians who revel in being described as ‘uncompromising’ appear in fact to believe meekly in followership and not leadership.
This week The Spectator found it had a scoop on its hands. Just as many on the left and the right realised how aghast they were about Mr Anderson’s new position the magazine pointed out that in a recent interview he had said that he supported the reintroduction of the death penalty. “Nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed. You know that, don’t you? 100 per cent success rate,” he said. Cue further outrage and headlines. Oh, how the Tory Svengalis must have rubbed their hands.
Rishi Sunak hurriedly distanced himself from Mr Anderson’s remarks (whilst keeping him in his job), but other MPs were much less squeamish. Brendan Clarke-Smith dismissed the “confected outrage” over what had been said, noting that a poll a year ago had found a small majority in favour of executing convicted terrorists. Scott Benton argued that we were seeing the “usual leftie hysteria following Lee Anderson’s comments on the death penalty”. He also claimed that “it’s supported by a majority of the public, and my constituents, in certain cases. Another example of the media, liberal elites and Twitter being detached from the public,” he proclaimed on, um, Twitter.
As even Mr Clarke-Smith acknowledged, it is highly unlikely that we will really have a debate over the death penalty. That’s because there are of course many reasons to oppose it: moral, religious and diplomatic considerations are just the start. When it comes to terrorists you’d have to question whether it makes sense to make martyrs out of people who often want to be just that. And more broadly, there are plenty of academic studies – and a gigantic real life experiment, known as the United States – to show that it has little impact on crime rates (and may in fact make things worse). But for many people the clinching argument is the very real risk of wrongful conviction.
To repurpose Mr Anderson’s comments, no-one innocent has ever cleared their name after being executed. 100% failure rate.
If they think really, really, hard about it I’m sure Mr Anderson and Mr Benton and their ilk believe that even one blameless person being killed – by their own government, to boot – is not okay. But they don’t seem to be thinking about it all that much. A majority of the public share their views, they say, and that’s enough for them.
This overlooks the whole point of having MPs. We don’t just go along with whatever people down the pub are saying at any one moment; the job of a Parliamentarian is to listen to all sides of an argument, weigh up what they’ve heard, consider the facts, and make difficult decisions. In this case they have to balance the outrage and fear caused by horrific murders and terrorist attacks with issues that attract less public attention, like the risk of miscarriages of justice, the impact on international treaties, and the effect on crime rates. This is not to say that the electorate is stupid, but rather that it is not their job to know as much and think as deeply about every single issue as our Parliamentarians. After all, why else do we elect them?
Real leadership involves making hard choices and then explaining them to the public, not just going along with the herd. It means having the bravery to challenge whatever prejudices currently hold sway. If some of the ‘hard men’ of British politics tried it they might actually deserve their tough reputations.
Yesterday morning saw Britain’s commentariat in its favourite, cynically mocking, mode. In this case it was because we had been promised a Big Speech by the Prime Minister, and told that it would focus on maths. The big announcement was going to be that pupils would be required to learn mathematics right up to the age of 18. Cue derision from across the political and media landscape.
Labour weighed in early, saying that this would be an “empty promise” without a lot more maths teachers (who are famously in short supply). Others decided it was a bad idea because of their own dislike of maths when they were at school. People shared arguably quite simple maths questions being tackled by their kids and claimed they were hard. Mostly questions were asked about whether this was the moment to talk about maths, when the economy is in meltdown, inflation is rampant and the NHS is in crisis. As Isabel Hardman asked, is now the time for a maths lesson?
In the event, of course, Rishi Sunak delivered a different speech. He made five pledges about the economy, public services and immigration against which he wants to be judged, and relegated his thoughts on maths to a few short paragraphs and a press release. And the pundits mainly moved on to discuss whether his broader promises would be easy or difficult to keep; all that is really left today is a few wags asking whether the Government really wants people to be better able to tell how much they are being impoverished by the cost of living crisis.
So that leaves the question: was this announcement about maths a good or a bad idea? The Prime Minister clearly thinks it is vitally important, noting that the UK is in a minority amongst OECD countries in not requiring children to study some form of mathematics up to the age of 18. Everyone knows that not enough people study the STEM subjects, leaving us with an ageing population of much-needed engineers and a much broader challenge given that “data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job“. And the UK has a persistent numeracy problem, with up to one in four people said to have low levels of skill when it comes to maths. So surely this is was a timely and worthwhile policy proposal?
Let’s deal with those in turn. Was it well-timed? It’s very hard to say that it was, particularly when the Government briefed out in advance that this was the main focus of the Prime Minister’s New Year message. Given the headlines over Christmas and into the start of 2023 he was bound to be laughed at for being wonky and out of touch with the real concerns of the public. You’d have to question too whether this would have been a vote-winner at any time. The timing of this and the way it was handled has done nothing to counter pre-existing claims that Rishi Sunak is bad at politics.
But is it worthwhile? On balance, I think the answer to that is a qualified ‘yes’. What he set out yesterday was vague both on the details and the timeline: the Government will “commit to starting the work of introducing maths to 18 in this Parliament and finishing it in the next”, meaning that potentially not much will change before 2029. No answer was given to the question of who will teach maths to 16-18 year olds; nor was enough attention given to addressing the problem of actual innumeracy amongst a quarter of the population, which will require better interventions at a much younger age. Nor is it entirely clear that it will encourage more people to go on to study STEM subjects in further and higher education (although it might); conversely, this requirement may put some people off sixth form completely. But I’d argue that the idea still makes sense.
Anyone who has been in the world of work in the last few years must surely have been struck by how unconfident a lot of folk are when it comes to some important maths skills. These are not people who are innumerate, nor are they people working in engineering or other professions where STEM qualifications are needed. These are people working in sectors like mine (PR and comms), who have perfectly serviceable GCSE maths. But ask them to discern trends in numbers, to use percentages and ratios, to know if their work is profitable or not, or to see at a glance if a change will have a big or a small impact, and too many of them panic, glaze over, laugh nervously, move on.
Once upon a time this would have been fine. In my industry we would have been much more concerned about whether new recruits can write well (and there’s a discussion to be had about this, too, but not now!), have good judgement, are team players, can be creative, understand the political or media landscape, and so on. The financials could be left to the bean counters. But not now. Today everyone needs a good grasp of numbers.
After all, it’s very hard to rise up through the ranks without being able to manage – and it is impossible to manage without figures. How can you know if your turnover of staff is too high if you can’t work out your churn rate? What about margin and profitability? Is that pay rise affordable? How much should we pay the new recruits? All of these requires a degree of comfort with maths. At the same time, how can anyone be a serious advisor to a client without being able to talk about their financial performance, or understand the metrics they rely on? In the PR industry – and right across professional services – we are constantly clamouring for a seat at the top table. Good luck with that if you can’t speak the language of most big organisations: numbers and data.
So anything that builds up familiarity and confidence with numbers is supremely helpful for the modern workplace and today’s world – provided what is taught is practical, giving people skills they can use at work and at home (think statistics not abstract algebra). So Rishi Sunak deserves some applause. Is it good politics? Not really. Will he be able to deliver it? Remains to be seen. But is it actually a good and potentially important idea? Yes, it is.
As we come to the end of the year I’ve been catching up on a small mail-strike-induced backlog of the Economist. It’s very noticeable that, like other media, its recent editions have been full of stories about the impact of the change of direction in China over Covid. In an article in the 17 December edition the newspaper notes that officials there may be reluctant to reinstate some of the public health measures that have just been removed, even if it should: “reversing course may be hard for the government to justify without admitting that it had made a mistake”
Whether or not the Economist is right to imply that the Chinese administration might decide not to impose lockdowns and other restrictions even if they are required, this made me think about whether things would be any different here. After all, a democratically-elected government does not need to rely on being seen as largely infallible for its legitimacy; it has a right to govern that has been bestowed via the ballot box. But does that mean it can be much more fleet of foot, ready to own up to errors and correct them quickly, than is the case in more authoritarian regimes?
In fact, when it comes to Covid, might all of the ‘weaknesses’ of the Western system identified by China over the past three years, our indiscipline, lack of singlemindedness and tolerance of debate and dissent, turn out to be strengths after all?
It is clear that the UK Government made grievous mistakes several times in its response to the pandemic. We started from the wrong place, without sufficient stocks of PPE and with fewer than half of the number of intensive care beds compared to the OECD average. Ministers repeatedly made decisions at the wrong time (lockdowns) and which delivered the wrong things (Nightingale Hospitals). Some of the errors made were pointlessly expensive (Eat Out To Help Out), whilst others had truly horrifying consequences (the treatment of nursing homes). The hurried procurement of equipment is alleged, at times, to have been corrupt rather than just botched. And so on.
I’m not here to pass judgement on all of these points, whether mistakes were made at all and if they were born out of malice or from people trying to do the right thing under enormous pressure. But what I would say is that for better or worse, decision-makers at least had the ability to make their choices decisively and quickly; it never felt like they were, as the Economist suggests about today’s China, completely paralysed by an unwillingness to admit to a previous error. Because democracy conveys legitimacy in advance and allows for a reckoning afterwards (such as at a public inquiry or the next General Election), it would appear that our politicians don’t feel like they always have to be right and so are liberated to make decisions in the moment.
Another benefit of democracy, of course, is that decisions can be informed and influenced by different points of view too, rather than constrained by groupthink and an unwillingness to lose face by listening to others. At times this can be frustrating and even dangerous, such as when lockdowns were delayed mainly because of ideological opposition that defied ‘the science’ (and commonsense). But in the end we seemed to get to a broad consensus that was accepted by most people; and our rules were largely obeyed voluntarily, rather than being enforced. And without those different perspectives and ideas being allowed their voice, would we have progressed so quickly to find vaccines and better treatments?
In short, our untidy democracy has got us to a point that China might end up envying: high vaccination rates and good levels of herd immunity, and with most (not all) people having been able to lead pretty much normal lives for the past several months. And this amplifies the point that whether we like or despise the government of the day we should be glad to live in a place where politicians can make mistakes, (sometimes) own up to them, and improve. Not just for abstract reasons of liking ‘freedom’ but because unruly, undisciplined and ‘degenerate’ democracy is in practice actually better for us all.