Monday, 20 April 2015

The Election Campaign is Completely Boring, and it's All the Fault of the Media

By the time we come to election day, we are usually sick of all that campaigning nonsense and just want to go and vote (or stay at home as the case may be). This year it may be different; not because there isn't a bunch of campaigning going on - walking down any street in the early evening shows you there most certainly is - but nobody is really following the election.

The TV debates, despite the endless coverage of who's going to turn up to them, have drawn barely half the audience of those in 2010. The supposed Mili-bounce, after the first outing on Sky and Channel 4, was in hindsight a coincidental blip in the Labour poll numbers, and any synthetic fire stoked up by the media was soon extinguished.

About 24 months ago, I remember the late night political chat being how Labour, despite being in opposition to a pretty unpopular government, and the economy yet to get going, were only 7 or 8 points ahead in the polls; how in mid-term they needed to be 10 or 15+ points ahead; and how they had no chance of winning the election. Fast forward to today, and the same commentators are puzzled on how the Conservatives aren't bounding away into the distance on the back of a growing economy and a supposedly weak leader of the opposition. As it is the main two parties remain deadlocked on around 34% of the vote each.

The thing is, the life has been drained out of Westminster politics because the media are looking for the gaffes, mishaps, and unrealistic announcements rather than attempting to get the public involved in the debate. The Conservatives had a pretty positive week with announcements on their retail offer coming out every day, and the week before was a winner for Labour - which to be honest was a bit of a surprise - which should have kicked started their campaign.

Ever since Gillian Duffy did for Gordon Brown in 2010 (although it could be said that Gordon had did himself), the parties have attempted to avoid unmanaged situations occurring with their party leaders, and the media - in their quest for the scoop of the next big cock up - have almost fallen into the UKIP trap of a plague on all your (mainstream parties) houses, with how they have nothing positive to say about anyone - but even that isn't pushing the public to Farage's party in their droves. UKIP have steadily lost ground by 3 or 4% in recent months, and if anything the public are finding their way back to their old haunts in Labour and the Conservatives.

In many ways, the Conservatives have won the argument. There's no reason why the country shouldn't vote for them - the economic figures are very good, living standards are rising, and the deficit is (kind of) being fixed. The thing is, those swing voters don't want to vote Conservative - but right now they don't want to vote Labour either. Labour will win marginal seats from the Tories in places like London, the West Midlands, and the North, but nowhere near easily enough for them to fully target those harder to reach wins.

There is no confidence in either campaign, no risks, no big ideas, no visions for the future of Britain, but until the media become more welcoming of the parties, and indeed less partisan in that respect, then we deserve the boring election campaigns, with their boring stage managed events, and boring core vote strategies - and the worst thing is, we won't even know who'll form the next government on 8 May!


Friday, 27 February 2015

Cutting Tuition Fees is a Stupid Idea

Did you know that the Labour Party has just proposed a £9,000+ tax cut to some of the most wealthy people in the country? Or at least they will be some of the most wealthy in 20 to 30 years time.

You see, Labour's plan to lower the cap on tuition fees to £6,000 will only help those students who will earn enough in the 30 years after graduation to pay off all of the £27,000 (plus whatever their maintenance loans came to and the interest) in tuition fee loans that they accrued on their 3 year university course.

In exactly the same way that NUS, students' unions, and even money saving expert Martin Lewis has said that, under the current system, if you're given a choice of a fee waiver or a cash bursary then you should always take the cash, then offering students - who's loans were going to be written off after 30 years - a discount on something they weren't going to pay anyway is completely bonkers!

Student loans are only paid back at a rate of 9% on earnings above £21,000 (for the new £9k/year system) and that threshold rises with average earnings each year, which means a graduate earning a modest £24,000 a year would pay back their loan at the rate of £8 a month. Let's call that £100 a year for sake of argument, so after 30 years they would have paid back a grand total of £3,000 (in today's prices). This graduate wouldn't get close to paying off their loan and it would be written off by the government.

If this graduate earns an average of £42,000 over the 30 years after graduation (the higher rate taxpayer threshold) they would pay back an average of £1890 a year. Assuming they went to a London university and took out the maximum maintenance loan (£7,750/year), they would pay back the loan (total of £50,250) and the interest accrued on it (around £10,000) just before the 30 year period was reached - with the last three years paying off the interest alone.

As you can see, the lower earning graduate doesn't benefit from the cut in fees whatsoever, whilst the well off graduate would get a discount of at least £9,000, plus around £2,000 less in interest payments. In any case, the better off graduate wouldn't benefit for around 22 to 23 years after graduation, so you can hardly say the government is helping them get on the property ladder or helping with their cash flow when just starting out in work.

The only thing that Labour will achieve with this policy is increasing government spending on higher education without actually giving more money to the universities. The plan is stupid and (as Martin Lewis said) financially illiterate. They're going to give a tax cut to some of the highest earners in society, whilst giving no benefit to those with modest earnings, putting billions on the national debt in the process.

This is the very definition of a gimmick to get votes, but it doesn't even work as a policy!


Monday, 22 December 2014

What Odds Would I Have Got On This?

So yesterday I found £20 on the ground with nobody else around. I phoned the police to report it and they asked me to take it to a station.

I've just been down to the police station in the town and there's a BBC crew filming about cuts to front line police services and I'm interviewed on camera about it. The station has no counter services any more, but I can use the phone and someone should come out to speak to me. The phone goes through to the control room (in Exeter), however all the officers based in the station are out on other duties at that time. The BBC film me doing this, and in many ways it's made the point perfectly. I'm going to be on TV (in the South West)!

I've never needed to attend a police station in my life before, so I understand why there's no counter services, especially in a small town. The police are going to send an officer around to my house when someone is free to do so.

What would I have got at William Hill for all that if I had asked for odds on Saturday?


Update: Look it's me ...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

NUS's Roadmap to Disaster

Hey, I like NUS. They are an organisation with great values, open discussion, and evidenced campaigns. However, their Roadmap to Free Education, published yesterday, is a big swerve back to January 2004 and the days of Tony Blair's so-called top up fees, which scraped through the commons with a majority of just 5!

Back then the hard left were strong in NUS, and conference votes on education policy were often on a knife-edge. Free education was a long held policy of the national union, and ever since Blair's Labour government introduced fees in 1998, NUS had been campaigning for their abolition. The thing is, fees were introduced in order to fund the expansion of Higher Education, and Labour had a target of getting 50% of young people going to university.

Towards the end of the decade, NUS changed tac and national conference in 2007 voted to drop the policy of free education. This was followed by the Blueprint for Higher Education which proposed a system of graduate contributions, similar to a graduate tax, and this system was fully costed out and utilised a trust for higher education funding (which the government paid into, and business could also add the fund, perhaps with tax breaks as an incentive) and the amount that a student paid was similar to the then fee level. This was adopted as policy of the national union at the 2008 NUS conference. The rationale was simple, free education was effectively a middle class tax cut and therefore some kind of graduate contribution was fair and progressive.

It was actually widely welcomed by both Labour and the Conservatives at the time as a well thought out, and affordable, policy. It was, ultimately, not adopted by government either side of the election. In monetary terms, there was little difference between the legacy system and the proposed graduate contributions, but a key difference (and perhaps why government never seriously considered it) is that students from other European Union countries would not pay anything without a price tag for the courses, but also never contribute as a graduate unless they remained in the country for work after they finished their course.

In Scotland, the parliament gained powers to set their own level of tuition fees at Scottish universities. The parliament voted to abolish up front fees in 2000 - however students were required to pay an endowment on graduation (students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland had to pay fees up front, but the UK government still provided loans for this purpose) meaning that EU students still had to pay for their education.

In 2008, just one year after NUS dropped its opposition to tuition fees, the Scottish parliament voted to abolish the graduate endowment, effectively abolishing fees at Scottish universities for both Scottish and EU students. Students from other parts of the UK still had to pay fees, which were set by the Scottish government at just under £3000, a rate very similar to the maximum fee in England (which was increased to £9000 shortly after the 2010 increase in fees in England).

As an aside, the EU rules allow member states to discriminate against their own citizens when it comes to setting tuition fees at different rates depending on where a student comes from, but students from another EU member state must be charged at the same rate as local students. Therefore, if Scotland had voted to become independent and rejoined the EU, students from the rest of the UK would've been able to study in Scotland for free - and almost certainly crippled the Scottish Higher Education budget if fees of some sort were not reintroduced.

So we come back around to this year, and NUS's "Roadmap". It seems to me that this new move back to supporting free education is because of a 2014 NUS Conference motion that was passed with this line in the believes section;

Higher education is a public good and should be free for everyone to access.

and, crucially, this in the resolves;

To oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’ which is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘student debt’.

which clearly flies in the face of the previous policy of a graduate contribution (not specifically referenced in the motion, but the mention of graduate tax alluding to it). So nobody can accuse the NUS elected officers of going against national policy.

The problem is that the roadmap hangs on two important concepts; the first one the British public will never swallow, and the second will drive away business from the UK; higher general taxation, and increased corporation tax, both just to give the middle classes a free education.

This next point is important, even if you don't agree that free education is a middle class tax cut then you should remember this - any tax raised can only be spent once - meaning that all those hospitals, schools, and emergency services that want extra funds would have to compete against increased public funding for higher education. Ed Balls has famously spent his proposed bankers bonus tax between five and ten times (depending on which figures you believe to be more accurate), so the idea put forward by the report that "only very wealthy" people and businesses would have to be taxed is not the whole story. The report concedes (after assumptions about the current level of government funding are taken into account) ...

... we are likely to be left with a gap of around £4billion. We believe that this money can and should be raised largely by increasing the level of tax on the richest in society.

£4billion! That's per year, by the way, and in addition to the current funding. It's around 5% of the current budget deficit - or 3 times more than the EU were asking for in that surcharge. Not only that, despite the 26 page report being detailed in the apparent benefit of higher education to the UK economy (which is at least evidenced well) there is no projection of what level of taxation would be required, and at what income level the tax would start. So as I said above, tax rises can only be spent once, and if other areas of public spending are to be increased then this tax would likely have to be raised on well over half the working population, or at a rate well above the current student loan repayment rate.

The current repayment rate is 9% on earnings above £21,000; so considering the government contribution would effectively double and the report wants only the richest in society to pay this additional tax, perhaps the rate would be 15% on higher rate taxpayers (currently those earning over £42,000), which is clearly political suicide for any government that introduces it. On top of that there's really bad news for current and former students, like me; graduates that took out tuition fee loans from 1998 to the present day would have to pay both the new tax, and their student loan repayments. The report actually concedes this;

Unfortunately it will be financially impossible for government to [...] fully compensate those who had to pay for their degree, or are in the process of repaying the cost.

This is fully 10% of the current working population!! This is ridiculous!! NUS, you're better than this. I've defended you so much in the past. Do your maths properly.

Additionally, EU students will also be paying nothing and possibly never pay tax in the UK either (yet another thing UKIP can complain about). Confusingly, the report admits the problem with EU students and then proposes something that wouldn't ever be agreed whist there's such animosity with the EU;  "greater tax cooperation between EU countries," which means EU countries would pay the UK some of tax they receive from those that studied in the UK, and "by operating a graduate tax on [UK] expatriates" (who emigrate outside the EU) which is completely impossible as you can't tax someone who has left the country ... the current arrangements mean contractually you still have to pay back your loan to the SLC, which at least could be enforced in the courts of the country an expat is domiciled.

The report goes on to say; "the student loan system decreases the productivity of the economy by lowering the disposable income of graduates", and then completely forgets that increased taxes do exactly the same thing, but for more people over a longer period, plus the 10% of the current working population would have more to pay. At best the comparative impact is neutral.

There are some other suggestions about how the government might raise the money though. There is the return of the idea of the trust for higher education, which is a good start, but then goes on to talk about the financial transaction tax (already spent by a future Labour government on the NHS), cracking down on tax evasion (already spent - schools), increasing inheritance tax by 5% (Labour have actually spent it 2 to 3 times over - ie, proposing 10% to 15% - to pay for additional care in old age).

The fact of the matter is, since the expansion of higher education under the last Labour government, university funding has risen exponentially. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. The NUS report clearly lays out the benefits higher education brings to a country's economy.

The problem is that free education is not free, and if you don't attempt to recoup the cost of university degrees directly from those who attended then you have to raise taxes by at least the same amount. If you don't have a graduate tax, then the tax is paid by people who never went to university. If you spend that tax on other things, it can't be spent on higher education. If you won't (or can't) cancel the debt/repayments of the legacy system, those people pay twice. If you have one set of people who never went to university paying for those who are now, another set of people who did go to university paying for both themselves and current students, and a third set of people being subsidised by the other two groups; how is that remotely fair, progressive, or ever likely to become government policy?

This report doesn't add up. Perhaps that's why nobody at NUS towers did the maths on who would get taxed.

This is a Roadmap to Disaster, not one to a free higher education system.


PS: If anyone at NUS can address my concerns, feel free to drop me a message (DM me on twitter for email).
PPS: Since I'm still an individual member of the national union until at least January, if you're a national officer responsible for this area of policy and you've read this - I expect a response.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Your New Opinion Polls Destination

Last week, my web development business was proud to launch UK Opinion Bee, an opinion polls data website and API.

UK Opinion Bee is aiming to be the country's premier opinion polling website and, uniquely, other developers will be able to use the data held by the site in their apps and statistics, with free access to an API set.

You can see all the Westminster polling data from this parliament, which you can split into each polling company's figures, and data from this year for the Scottish Parliament and EU in/out polling since the Euro elections. You can see all of this in graphical form with charts plotting the data over time. Also, you can add your thoughts and opinions, as you can leave comments on each poll on the site. We're not done yet as more features are in the pipeline.

Of course, you can also follow updates on UKOB's twitter feed.

In the run up to the 2015 General Election, 2016 Holyrood Election, and a possible EU Membership referendum in 2017, there's no better time for the launch of this website. This is SoRight's first major development contract and I hope this project is a great success.

If you're into politics and polls, put UK Opinion Bee in your bookmarks now!