Will Self on the end of champagne socialism

The Policy and Politics Annual Lecture this year was delivered by Will Self. The theme of the lecture was ‘the end of champagne socialism’ and was presented as a mixture of personal reflections, concerns and challenges, all seeking to highlight the mess that Will believes politics has seemingly descended into right now.

The lecture was at times depressing, confusing and uncomfortable, whilst at the same time managing to be amusing, engaging and thought provoking. Will has a style of delivery that captures the imagination whilst challenging the mind, often leaving the audience unsure and uncertain about their own thoughts, but also in no doubt about the central message he is trying to convey. That message was about how things have changed, about how there’s been a shift in the way people view politics and politicians, and about how we are now seeing change for change’s sake without any real concept of the consequences.

Will described 2016 as a momentous year in Britain and the world, where a significant proportion of the electorate woke up to the fact that no one knows what is going on, even our leaders don’t know what is going on, and for once enough people woke up to this fact and voted for change. The common theme of 2016 seemed to be that people just wanted things to change. They didn’t know what would happen as a result of that change, but they wanted change, a dangerous attitude to take to political events according to Will. In his words, what we are now seeing is ‘the rise of the idiots and the government of the stupid’.

He then went on to explain this desire for change as a break from the usual left-right dichotomy, exemplified by Brexit where the usual left versus right arguments couldn’t be applied. There were pro leave and remain campaigners on both sides of the political divide, the politics-as-usual approach no longer applied to the debate as the dualism deeply ingrained in British politics since the 1970s seemed to be unraveling.

On Corbyn, Will was conflicted. Whilst sharing many of the same beliefs as Corbyn he described how for some reason he was unable to feel pleased about his election as leader of the Labour Party. He went on to explain this using a series of examples about how Corbyn had failed to stick to his principles and wasn’t saying many of the things he should have on becoming leader. He appeared to feel let down by the failure of the new leadership to display honesty about what being a socialist party really means, about what a redistributive party would actually do, what they would change and what the impact of this would be. The disillusionment he clearly feels was apparent to all as he described the endless dilemma for politicians needing to ‘square the circle’ to retain votes meaning they generally lack any real ability to be honest about what they are trying to achieve.

He launched a scathing attack on the Labour Party and the British Left, who for over 40 years have sat back and done little whilst income disparities have grown consistently across the UK. He described them as sitting in their own bubble failing to acknowledge the changes that are needed. He was pretty damning about Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, about their role in changing the very foundations of the Labour Party during what he calls the Blair Witch Project, the New Labour movement, that moved Labour away from its traditional support whilst at the same time re-creating a new breed of champagne socialists. This he describes as unsustainable, and a nonsense that will never work based as it is on the wealthy middle class socialists’ idea that everyone should be raised to the same level and that redistribution will mean personal betterment and improvement, rather than a reduction in their own personal wealth. He pointed out that there was little evidence of the kind of large-scale voluntarism that would be needed to bring about a socialist society. For example, who among the audience would be willing to curtail their annual spending to live within median average income levels, redistributing any surplus to others earning less than us?

Will seemed to reflect the experience of many in the audience when he challenged us about our own feelings, when he described how those on the left are currently unhappy with things, but that we had done little to actually change anything over the last 20 years as income disparities have increased. As he put it, we knew the poor were getting poorer, we knew inclusiveness was largely cosmetic but we didn’t do much about it and now we are really upset, but still don’t do much about it.

He went on to explain the impact of this on young people and how we need to speak to young people about the state of the world today. He explained that we should think long and hard about what we say to the younger generation and made the point that we live in a time of democratic crisis, where older people have capital and younger people don’t’. He then asked the question about how this affects our politics when our homes make more money in a year than we do and how do we square that circle with young people.

Will’s final comments focused on the hollowness of political rhetoric and how collective action can no longer work as there is no socialist dawn waiting for us and no wheel to put our shoulder against. His description of a new socialism based not on collective action but on autonomy and individualism is a difficult one to grasp. It relies on individuals making changes – for example giving directly to the homeless, picking up litter in our communities – and taking action in an arena where there is more quietism, compassion and thought. In his words, we don’t need to organize to help people, we need to show more compassion and just do something.

This blogpost appeared originally on the Policy & Politics Blog

Doing a PhD – Year 2

Last year I was part of the Bristol Doctoral College, Year in the life of PhD blog, which involved providing one blog per term on what it is like to do a PhD. Whilst I’m not involved again this year, I thought I would carry on the practice of blogging about the PhD process and my progress. So here I am, just beginning the second year of my PhD and it seemed like a good time to reflect on my first year and look ahead to what this year will involve.

My first year started with taught courses and assignment writing, continuing my learning on research methods. These pretty much occupied me full time for 4 months and wasn’t quite how I’d wanted to begin my PhD! However, on reflection, I can certainly see the benefit of having to do them as I have used much of the knowledge gained during that time to help me develop my research further.

After completing (and passing) all the assignments it was onto some theory, well quite a lot of theory actually. In my usual logical, methodical manner I decided to start at the beginning and read my way through a logical sequence. Which basically meant starting with theories of the policy process (of which there are many), moving onto agenda setting theories (lots of those too) and eventually focusing in on Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework. This then took me on to theories about multiple levels of governance, models of governance, power theory, community power and local leadership. Which is quite a lot of theory to get to grips with, but kind of covers most of the issues I think I need to know about or at the very least it provides a good starting point.

Having buried myself in theory for a few months, I then needed to do more work on my research approach and the methods I wanted to use. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do but needed to build this into a coherent approach based on some recognisable ontology and epistemology. This took some serious thinking, as my practice based brain struggled to work through some of the more detailed philosophical arguments about methodology and approach. But I got there in the end, mostly thanks to the grounding in research methodology provided in my MSc course and the additional 3 units I took at the beginning of the year. This together with the work of Rod Rhodes, on interpretive political ethnography, was enough to convince me that I knew where my research would fit and how I should go about it.

My MSc Graduation

My MSc Graduation

Then came the point when I was finally ready to put together my progression review/upgrade documentation. This is a key point for any PhD student, where they are formally assessed to see if what they have done so far and plan to do is good enough to allow them to carry on with a PhD. For me this meant providing a total of 15,000 words on my research approach and on some key elements of theory, together with completing the progression review form. I could easily have written 30-40,000 words at this point, so my main challenge was narrowing it down and deciding what to submit for consideration. The next step was the Panel Review Meeting. I approached this as a great opportunity to discuss my research with some senior academics, who could help advise me on how I might improve what I was proposing and who could challenge and question elements of my research. Whilst potentially daunting, it was a really positive discussion, with two extremely helpful and supportive academics. I learnt a lot about my own understanding of some of the issues and about some of the assumptions I hadn’t realised I was making. I also learnt a little more about positioning my research, defending positively what I was proposing and discussing points of interest.

I came away from my review meeting with a lot of issues and ideas whirling round in my head and even more theory to consider (social practice theory in particular). But I did come  away feeling pretty positive, I’d had a good discussion, received some positive feedback and once I’d submitted a bit of additional information, was told I could continue with my PhD. Good news indeed!

During the year I also submitted my application for ethical approval of my research, another key point in any research project. My research will involve interviewing elite actors, potentially ‘shadowing’ them and using participant observation. It’s a form of interpretive political ethnography, that combines methods to try and understand things from the point of view of the participants of the study. It’s also based on a small case study in Bristol, where I was previously a local councillor and have been involved in various aspects of city life for many years. Thankfully, the response from the ethics committee was extremely quick and efficient, and only asked for a small amount of additional information which I was able to provide without too much extra work. I then receive the approval I needed, which was another key milestone for my PhD. Basically, that now means I am pretty much ready to go out and do my fieldwork.

This next year will mostly be about data collection, interviewing, observation, and document analysis. It’s going to be a busy year and the idea of starting my fieldwork is exciting but also daunting and a little scary. I’ve got a bit of work to do on developing my data collection and analysis strategy, making sure I am fully prepared (or as much as I can be) for my fieldwork, but I’m almost ready to go. This next stage involves not only collecting data but also thinking about how it works with the theory, about identifying the right people to speak to, the right events to attend and the right time to be involved. It means reading more theory, working out themes and issues, coding transcripts and analysing data as I go along. A pretty daunting set of tasks, but something I’m really looking forward to.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 10-12 months, burying myself in the Bristol Mayoral election process!

From methods to theory #phd

blog booksOver the last week or so I have been putting together a phd plan to identify what I need to do, and when, over the next 3 years. This is just the initial sketch and broad outline, but is a guide to setting more detailed objectives (a task I started today for year 1). The thing that struck me most is that 3 years isn’t very long. When you begin to break it down into small chunks of work to be done before you start the fieldwork, the first 12 months vanish very quickly under a myriad of literature, methods and planning. So it seems I’ve planned the next 3 years of my life in broad outline to fit my research requirements (note to self – must remember to plan in some holiday time!).

A couple of years ago, when I was out in the world of work, if you’d asked me what I would be doing next year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, there was no long term plan to work to. However, if you ask me that now, I can tell you I will hopefully be doing fieldwork, deeply involved in research, attending meetings, talking to people and observing processes – at least that’s the plan, assuming I get that far!

One of the things I realised when drawing up my plan, is that I don’t really quite know what my research is about. Well I know the broad area I’m interested in and I know what I want to study, but I’ve a long way to go before I am fully cognisant with the existing literature in my field and before I fully appreciate the complexities of specific methods of research. I’ve started that process, but the learning process has only just begun. I’ve so much more to learn and so much more to read and understand.

Four months into this phd and I have mostly been learning about methods. I have had the ‘pleasure’ of attending more taught courses and writing more assignments – not actually something I had fully anticipated I would be doing and I have to say that reading about methods and methodology is not my favourite past-time. I do, however, understand why it is necessary, it has provided me with a good grounding in methodology to hopefully be able to make the right decisions about my own research, even if I found much of the reading entirely tedious. So it’s been a somewhat painful introduction to doing a phd and not an entirely positive 4 months really, but a necessary evil it would seem. I’m now looking forward to extending my learning beyond methods based information, into topic based reading and literature – that’s where my interest is and why I embarked on this process to begin with.

So, to the issue of what my phd is about. When asked that question, we are told we should be able to respond in a couple of sentences, after all we don’t want to bore people too much by going into too much of the detail! My phd is about agenda setting and policy initiation and change. It’s about local election processes and how people influence agendas and policy at a time of political change. It’s also about Bristol and the Mayoral election in 2016, with a particular focus on housing policy. That’s what I’ll be spending the next 3 years learning all about and I’m both excited and daunted by the prospect. A phd is an individual learning process and one where I am in the driving seat – if it all goes wrong there’s only one person who can sort it out, and that’s me! It’s challenging, which is part of what makes it worth doing, and it’s interesting as my phd brings together in one study the things that I find fascinating – housing, policy, power and influence, politics, Bristol – what more could you want?

Back to work – blog summary!

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgSo, a cheeky little post here for those of you who managed to stay off twitter and other social media over the holiday period. I wrote four blogs over christmas and the new year, which you may have missed, so here’s a summary and list to make things easy for you as you ease your way back into work!

  1. Top of the blogs 2014 – a summary of my most popular posts throughout the year. They cover politics, housing, Bristol and economic growth issues, pretty much as you’d expect really. The most read, by a long way, is the one entitled “Time for grown up politics” a plea for a focus on issues rather than personalities!
  2. From practice to academia: a personal conundrum – where I discuss the challenge of trying to think like an academic after so many years out there in practice, using theory as the foundation of thought rather than experience. Not an easy balance to get right.
  3. Top of the blogs: my favourite reads – a collection of the blogs I read regularly, an eclectic mix that covers housing, politics, policy, planning and Bristol. I’d recommend all of them as a good read, informative and interesting.
  4. A housing wish list for 2015 – mischievously subtitled “what I’d do if I was in charge” this is a post about housing, in Bristol mostly, and what I would focus on as a priority if only I had the opportunity to influence things!

So that’s it, you are now up to date with my blog and ramblings over the holiday season. Now it’s back to work, which for me means writing another assignment!

Top of the Blogs – my favourite reads

As someone who writes the odd blog myself, I also read quite a few that other people write. These cover a range of topics but are mostly focused on politics, planning and housing, as well as a few about Bristol. I tend to use blogs to keep me up to date with what is going on, to find out what others are thinking and talking about and to challenge my own thinking.

So, here’s my top ten list of the ones I read regularly, in no particular order, the best of the best!

  1. Municipal Dreams – a blog about municipal reformers and a time when we used to build public housing, with grand visions and dreams;
  2. Jones the Planner – a blog about planning, architecture, cities and design, covering many of my areas of interest and always a challenging read;
  3. Guerrilla Policy – a great collection of blogs from lots of different bloggers (including me) on many different topics, always worth a look to catch up on what’s going on and who’s writing blogs;
  4. Alex’s Archives – a blog I’ve been reading for a couple of years now, covering housing, economics and policy process amongst other things and coincidently written by my PhD supervisor;
  5. Paul Cairney  – a blog about politics and public policy, and a valuable resource for any public policy student. I used his 1000 words blogs regularly during my MSc as a quick introduction to new topics;
  6. Jules Birch – a blog mostly about housing, from someone who seems to know a lot about housing and who I find myself agreeing with regularly;
  7. Red Brick – a housing policy forum, linked to the Labour Housing Group, but challenging to both left and right;
  8. Policy & Politics – a blog linked to Policy & Politics Journal, covering a whole load of policy issues (I may have written a couple on there myself);
  9. Joseph Rowntree Foundation – for regular commentary on social issues, poverty and housing backed up with research evidence and information;
  10. Bristol blogs – a compilation of blogs about Bristol (including mine) which cover a whole load of topics about what’s going on locally. I couldn’t leave a heading about Bristol blogs without a special mention for two of my favourites – The Bristolian, because well it really is different and so anti-establishedment; and Stockwood Pete, because it’s a good local blog that I enjoy.

 

Does Bristol needs its own think tank?

IMG_0594Over the last 6 months or so several people have approached me to talk about how we can create the right opportunities to generate and encourage debate about the key issues in Bristol and how this can be done in a collaborative, inclusive and positive way.Typically for a place like Bristol, there seem to be several groups of people discussing and considering this at the moment without necessarily talking to one another! The interests of the different groups do however seem to be focused on similar issues, that is, how we challenge decision makers and influencers, how we help to inform and raise awareness of issues and challenges and finally how solutions can be developed and discussed.

That’s not to say that these things don’t happen, just that maybe they don’t happen in a coordinated manner, sometimes the approach might be too challenging and negative, or simply that important issues get missed and are not discussed. Equally, there also seems to be a tendency for some decision makers (in our local Councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership) to get too defensive about criticism and challenge, to  actively discourage debate and discussion on key issues and to ask for the views of a select group of people and organisations rather than encourage wider engagement.

So it got me thinking about how you could approach this desire for involvement and engagement with the decision making process and decision makers in a different way, as clearly there is a gap that needs to be filled, as perceived by a range of people including politicians, professionals, partnership managers, community activists and academics. As part of some of the recent discussions the term “think tank” has cropped up regularly – one of those terms that often means very different things to different people: “universities without students”, “ideas factories” and “enclaves of excellence” are just 3 of the terms used to describe think tanks. I personally favour the definition used by McGann & Sabatini in their book on Global Think Tanks (2011), which in summary basically says they are about generating policy focused research and advice to enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.

So if we were to consider this for Bristol, what would it do and could a Bristol focused, independent and progressive think tank be part of the answer? Traditionally the main roles of think tanks can be grouped into 4 main areas all of which I believe are relevant to what is potentially needed in Bristol:

  • Think tanks as educators – informing debate, providing research and raising awareness of issues
  • Think tanks as influencers – acting as a clearing house for ideas and helping to develop policy
  • Think tanks as networkers – facilitating networks to support and develop the exchange of knowledge and policy transfer
  • Think tanks as translators – helping to make academic work more accessible to politicians, the media and policy makers

It is this kind of intervention and independent thinking that Bristol might well benefit from. As an important city region Bristol is clearly successful but equally faces many of the challenges that other cities in the UK face. Surely providing an arena for debate and discussion on  a regular basis, from a range of independent experts, academics, interested parties, communities and others will provide us with better solutions to these challenges than continuing to rely on the input of the same people and groups that have always had good access to decision makers? There is an opportunity here for Bristol, and the Mayor, to lead the way and respond to the Centre for Cities “Think Cities” campaign by creating the right environment for challenge, by being open to debate and criticism and by widening the networks for participation. The potential benefit for the Councils and the LEP is they get more constructive criticism focused on solutions and positive policy change rather than negative, angry criticism with few answers and they get a wealth of easy to understand information and research, focused on the needs of Bristol, with clear, simple messages and solutions. What’s not to like?

We already have some of the structures in place that this could sit under, it needn’t mean a big new organisation costing lots of money. A logical starting place could be with the work of Andrew Kelly and the Festival of Ideas/Economics, the main emphasis of which is to engage and encourage debate and discussion. It could be linked informally to the work of our excellent universities – for example at Bristol University we have the School for Policy Studies, which in its research and teaching covers many of the policy issues of importance to Bristol: city leadership and governance; housing policy; poverty and social inclusion; health inequalities; social justice; and economic development. The expertise is already here we just need to tap into it better and use it to help support creative and innovative thinking in a way that is welcomed by local decision makers and that can help us to make positive and real changes.

There may well be many of you out there that say you are already doing some of this, or who want to part of anything that might happen – I welcome comments so please let me know if you think this is an idea that could work in Bristol.

Would you support the development of an independent, progressive think tank focused on  the Bristol city region?

The Problem with Housing Policy: Part 2

DSCN0285What’s missing in UK housing policy and housing supply is clear and relatively simple – voice and choice. Those on the margins most affected by lack of delivery and supply rarely have a voice in decisions taken around housing policy and most of us have little choice in the form of supply available to us.

There are a whole host of statistics bandied around to illustrate the scale of the problem, but one that caught my attention was that the average time needed to save for a deposit is now 22 years compared to just 3 years back in 1997 – wow! now that is depressing!

Emma Reynolds, shadow Housing Minister, said in a recent speech that this is an “important moment for housing”, I would go further and argue that this is a critical moment for housing in the UK. Which, if we make the wrong choices now could see devastating long term social consequences for many. Now’s the time for politicians and policy makers to be bold, to plan long term and make those unpopular and difficult decisions – not something that comes naturally to many perhaps?

A good start, potentially, is the Labour Party decision to set up an Independent Housing Commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons. The remit of the Commission is to look at the changes needed to housing and planning policies and practice in order to deliver more homes, pretty wide ranging in many respects, but also quite narrow in others. What stops us building enough homes is not just about housing and planning policies; it’s about competition, land values and land markets, community resistance, lack of political will, inherent conservatism etc. the list goes on and at the heart of it maybe it’s also about deep-seated cultural and behavioural aspects. The need for housing has moved from a basic human need for shelter to one that sees housing as a commodity and an investment for the future. This in itself reinforces the need for house prices to rise or at least remain stable, so people can see a return on their investment, which in turn skews how we see the economics of the situation and the decisions we then make about housing policy.

So what’s the solution and what will come out of the Lyons Housing Commission? The questions/issues it sets out to address, do on the surface, to a non expert like  myself, seem pretty sensible and useful:

  • unlocking land for housing development
  • investment in housing and associated infrastructure
  • role of new towns and garden cities
  • the right to grow
  • share the benefits of development

For me, one of the biggest issues within this debate is the issue of the land value change created by the granting of planning permission – something successive governments have wrestled with ever since the introduction of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. I leave others far more qualified than I to talk about this in detail, but it seems to me that we never quite manage to get it right. We don’t seem capable of extracting enough value back to the community purse to enable us to provide appropriate and necessary infrastructure or to invest in enough affordable homes to meet demand, simple as that! So a state introduced form of regulation provides fantastic opportunities for private landowners to generate significant wealth for themselves, whilst putting little back into the communities and areas they are affecting, not exactly a philosophy I am comfortable with. But a massive issue for the Lyons Review to address if we are to crack this problem once and for all – although I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath on that one.

The issue of cities and their hinterlands is also an interesting one. The Lyons Review documentation talks about the relationship between neighbouring councils and a city’s right to grow, and how we provide the incentives for growth outside of tight city boundaries. This is a big issue, which plays out rather painfully in the Bristol area, with the city boundary currently drawn so that any space for real expansion to meet the growth demands of the city is only possible within neighbouring authorities who are consistently resistant to housing growth. There’s an obvious answer to this one, if cities are the centre of our growth strategy for the UK and play such an important role in producing GDP and GVA growth, then allow them the control over their own ability to grow. Redraw the boundaries and give places like Bristol space to grow, without the need to cajole, negotiate, liaise, discuss, persuade, and argue with other surrounding councils, who quite frankly are never going to agree! Give cities control over their own hinterland.

I like the idea of a new wave of garden cities and new towns, I’m a big fan of the concept personally. The issue here though, as with many aspects of the housing supply debate, is about location, location, location. As soon as you start talking about lines on maps, plots of land and possible locations, all the negatives start coming out, all the resistance begins. So we can talk about it in the abstract and many people will agree the concepts, politicians will sign up to the idea, as they are at the moment. But as soon as that first notion of where one might be built is in the public domain or even first mooted, everyone begins to have second thoughts, politicians get nervous, the anti-protest begins. If we rely on localism and community buy-in, we will never deliver a new town or garden city again, it just won’t happen. Politicians will need to be brave and risk upsetting a few people if they want to build bold new projects, HS2 is a prime example of that, if the need is there and there are clear benefits to more people then difficult and unpopular decisions will need to be taken.

Some would argue that actually what we need to solve the crisis is more of a bottom up approach rather than greater controls and imposition by government. That is, the people and communities most disadvantaged by the lack of affordable housing need to be encouraged and enabled to find solutions for themselves. They need to understand the full range of choices that could be available with the right encouragement and the right financial, land and legislative framework. That includes self build, custom build, co-housing schemes and  community land trusts as very real options for increasing our housing supply. We seem a world away from this at the moment.

It will be interesting to see just how much comment and feedback the Lyons Review gets from non-vested interests, people outside of the housing and planning professions or building industries. At the moment I’d be surprised if many people had actually heard about it, let alone considered responding to it.

I’d like to see both a top down and bottom up approach combined, that brings together the best of what’s happening elsewhere in Europe and the world, that provides both voice and choice to people in their housing decisions. Interesting times indeed for housing policy, but will we rise to the challenge?