Saturday, 25 April 2015

The most boring time in the political cycle

I admit that I am a bit of a policy wonk. Questions about what to do with public money, who gets what and when, are infinitely fascinating to me. My suspicion is that I am not so much gripped by the mundane fights for resources, but more by an instinctive feel that most issues of public policy are ultimately unresolvable. Still, the debate about what's the best solution to a tricky problem is exciting stuff.

Yet, whilst I am glued to the BBC Parliament Channel as other people are to Wolf Hall or Game of Thrones, election times are an utter bore to me. It's not that this general election is one with the lowest stakes (what's the difference between Ed Ball's and George Osborne's budget plans? Answer: 0.6 per cent!). And one with the silliest drama: Will the Greens get one seat or two? Does Miliband have two kitchens? (who knows... who cares...) What really annoys me is that general elections are basically times of careful choreography and control, rather than genuine political debate.

Pundits called psephologists (is that a rude word?) tell us that most people switch on to party political broadcasts only in the last two weeks. By then I have well and truly switched off. Trotting out well rehearsed formulae about who means catastrophe or salvation in whose book are as exciting to me as watching a wrestling match between Ham the Clam and Chilly McFreeze (apologies to pro-wrestlers named such). So, there we are: as the electorate finally wakes up to political debate, the real debate about policy has long been had.

The final blow in the theatre called GE2015?

So, can somebody please let me know when this spectacle called general election is over and we can talk proper politics again?

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Inconvenient history

The BBC programme 'Who do you think you are' has been immensely popular with UK audiences and its US counterpart 'Finding your roots', whilst occasionally nodding to mind numbing US documentary formats, has also enjoyed good viewing figures on PBS. The editor of the US series, Prof Henry Louis Gates (of none other than Harvard University) has now walked into a minor media storm when an email exchange was revealed between himself and Sony in which he voiced his concerns that one of Sony's superstars Ben Affleck, who was a subject of one episode, asked Gates to suppress information about his ancestors that the research team unearthed. The information Affleck did not like to see in the public domain was that one of his forebears had been a slaveowner, presumably something that ran counter to the carefully crafted liberal (leftist) image of himself.

As the email exchange shows Gates was unhappy about the request and appeared to be minded to reject it, but then agreed to a version that left out the controversial finding. In a piquant detail, PBS warns Gates that if it became public that he sanitised the historical record of one of his subjects upon request, he would risk his scholarly reputation. Still, Gates obviously bowed to pressure from Affleck.

Ben Affleck - A liberal for good times only

Photograph: Startraks Photo/REX/Startraks Photo/REX
Gates is now engaged in a media battle to salvage his reputation, releasing a press statement pointing out that he retained complete editorial control over the episode. As Gates knows full well, keeping editorial control is key to his scholarly reputation. Yet the email exchange shows otherwise. He came under pressure from Affleck and yielded. To put this into perspective, imagine a pharmaceutical firm would run a trial and suppress findings about the deleterious side effects of the medication tested upon request from the firm's CEO.

Affleck does not come off much better in this story. Interestingly, the programme revealed that his mother was active in the civil rights movement. The information about slave owning ancestors could have shed some fascinating light on her personal motivation for political action yet, suppressing the inconvenient detail of slave owning clearly deprived her story of political engagement of any meaningful context.

It is hard not to see this as some sort of voluntary Orwellian cleansing of personal history based on the (mistaken) assumption that we are born of impeccable liberal convictions. What we should
celebrate instead is the ability of human beings to reflect, learn and change their ways. That fundamental point gleaned from history appears to have escaped bother Gates and Affleck.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Are we bothered by inequality?

One of the central electoral campaign themes of the Labour Party is inequality. Economic and social inequality has certainly figured prominently in the public debate over the last couple of years, spurred by discussions about bankers' salaries and bonuses for CEOs. The Miliband camp argue that attitudes of British people have fundamentally shifted from the Blairite cavalier approach ('Not bothered about the filthy rich') to significant levels of concerns about wage inequality. But is this true?

In the journal Political Insight, a team of authors published a summary of the research on British political culture. Their study investigated whether political culture fosters specific social attitudes over the long run. Whilst their results reveal some interesting correlations between longitudinal shifts in attitudes and potential changes in political culture, some findings from the British Social Attitudes Survey can also be read with Miliband's claim about shifting views on economic inequality in mind. The figure below shows the responses stratified by age of respondents and year of survey to the question: 'Thinking of income levels generally in the UK today, would you say the gap between those with high incomes and those with low incomes is (1) too large; (2) about right; or (3) too small?'

Is the gap between the rich and poor too large (high values agree) Britain 1983–2012, by age
From:The British Social Attitudes Survey, 1983–2012.
The diagram clearly shows that there has been widespread concern about income inequality across all age groups in the 1990s, then largely petering out during the Blair years. Interestingly, looking at the years 2010 and later, there is no reversal in the aggregated responses to the high levels of concern under Thatcher and Major. The survey results appear to indicate that, with the exception of the age group between 55 and 70, concern with income inequality remains low. Moreover, the younger generation registers the lowest levels of concern with the issue of income inequality compared to all other age groups, a finding that contrasts sharply with the anecdotal (ostensibly wrong) evidence of young people on barricades (and in occupy camps) in the UK protesting against income inequality.

This has also implications for the campaign of the Miliband camp. If income inequality does not appear to be a major concern of people in Britain, it is unlikely to be a major motivating factor to vote either.