Monday, 19 October 2015

The lecture to go with the feedback

On Friday I posted an incredibly moving account from a student's feedback on my lecture of how they experienced poverty and how my lecture resonated with them. Well thanks to the wonders of modern technology, here's the lecture itself. I think it's the point from 40 minutes onwards when I end up shouting at how shameful our track record on poverty is that particularly resonates with students:

I don't think I do that much in the lecture - all I do is explain the income definition of poverty and then draw on some of the statistics. I end up making the point that the reality of poverty is humiliation, shame and hardship because that's what the evidence shows. I get emotive about it because it would require rather minimal levels of targeted investment in our economy to tackle the problem. 

Also, a BIG thank you should go to my former colleague Kirsten Besemer who did a poverty lecture for me at Heriot-Watt and was so good I borrowed her first slide and a lot of the structure of this lecture from her. Thank YOU Kirsten.

We can raise every household's income to two-thirds median. We choose not to.

(P.S. Frank Field's lawyers - I'm only joking...)

Friday, 16 October 2015

The best student feedback I've ever had

"I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your lecture today; it was amazing to see someone passionate about this topic.

In the last year and a bit, no one has put so much passion into a lecture/seminar/lab about poverty like you have today.

At the age of 4, my parents divorced and I became homeless. My mum struggled to pull money together for us, and for a while it was rough. We finally started to get into a more comfortable situation, but I'll never forget the way she worked for us, the amount of hardship she had to go through, the embarrassment she felt every day. I'll never forget how the care and love she gave us and how she wished she could give us more in life but couldn't because of our situation. My mum is my rock and she has put in so much love and care into my upbringing (which is hard to do with three children all under 4 who are homeless).

Things started to get better for us, but it fell apart a few years ago. We're currently classed as homeless again, and we are in temporary accommodation. My mum struggles to pay electricity bills and gas for heat.

Your lecture really hit a close place in my heart today because, after many lectures around this topic, you're the first to hit the nail on the head. Other lecturers just give facts and figures, or cast blame to parents. They make it sound like people in poverty are all walking around in ratty clothes, who are neglected and unloved, who go through so much pain in their lives and will never fight out of it. But today you showed that that's not the case.

My mum struggles with things most consider a luxury; people take granted they have heat and electricity. But many nights in my childhood we didn't have either - we'd go to bed curled up next to her for warmth and security when we didn't know what was going to happen to us.

My mum is an amazing human being, and you were a 100% right when you said that most lone parents dote on their children. My mum would give up her dinner to feed us, most nights we'd have boiled rice and gravy for dinner because it's all she could afford.

I just wanted to thank you for being so passionate about it, and for finally being the first to see it for what it is. For not clouding over details and making it sounds like either a worse case than it is or sweeping it under the rug. Whenever we've spoken about it before we mention how it's a taboo thing and we don't go into much detail. But today I had to hold back a clap because for once someone, someone outside our family, knows what we're going through. They understand what we've faced and how despite it we still had an amazing childhood. My mum struggled but she never let us see it. She always made a game out of it or would make it fun for us. We never knew we were struggling, and we never went unloved. She often would say "I wish I could give you more" and when we were older "I'm sorry I couldn't give you nearly as much as I wanted". But the way I see it she gave us more. She gave us unconditional love and she has helped us become the people we are today. We know the value of money now and we are a strong family unit. Yes, we're back in the same situation again, but we've done it before and came out strong, we can do it again.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much I valued your lecture today and how grateful I am you understand the situations of families out there, and don't sugar coat it or sweep it aside. You nearly had me in tears and screaming "FINALLY someone gets it!"

Thank you so so much for today's lecture, it was interesting to see someone else understanding poverty the way those who go through it do. I really enjoyed hearing you speak today."

Why Gideon Osborne is a genius

When Gideon Osborne became Chancellor of the Exchequer back in 2010 I thought the coalition were being stupid. Vince Cable had shone through in the general election campaign as being a sensible thinker on fiscal policy – don’t cut for ideological reasons, and invest to maintain growth. As far as I was concerned, Gideon was a posh, out-of-touch idiot who knew nothing about economics. The “Pasty Tax” seemed to be typical.

But since May I’ve come to realise Gideon is an incredibly intelligent politician. I shall use two examples: austerity and the fiscal charter (with the resulting political fun on Monday/Tuesday) and the austerity discourse; and the devolution of taxation powers to Scotland.


Now, Gideon is an austerity chancellor. He has cut public expenditure enormously, although I was interested to note a fortnight ago that Dennis Healey’s cuts in 1976 were greater. As I ruminated with Alex Marsh on teh Twitterz, we are seeing the results of this in the fraying civility of our urban landscapes – the vandalism left unrepaired, waste not collected or swept. And as Julian Le Grand showed in the 1980s, as this is a Tory government elected by people who use schools and hospitals, the cuts are mainly on services Labour voters (or non-voters) use: the benefits system and the nice fluffy extra stuff like urban regeneration and community development that local authorities used to be able to afford.

But he has, quite obviously, not cut the deficit. As many economic commentators and people on the left highlight, he spectacularly missed his own spending targets and has borrowed a quite staggering amount and continues to do so. This borrowing is paying for tax cuts for the rich – cutting the top rate of tax and inheritance tax. But as this excellent blog post highlights, these are just the sort of tax cuts floating voters like as they aspire to be higher-rate taxpayers and think they’ll die with a house worth a £1 million because they “work hard and do the right thing” (to quoth Gideon).

So, I want to suggest that “tackling the deficit” and “austerity” have become entirely symbolic. To throw myself into French post-structuralism, they are now empty signifiers. We all laughed at the “long term economic plan” nervous tick the Tories had during the election campaign, but over the many weeks it stuck like an earworm. If you listen to how David Cameron responded to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions from the British public at Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday, it’s a classic example. The attacks on tax credits were very powerful, but the response was “we have a long term economic plan to tackle the deficit and get Britain working”. It’s a sentence that, literally, has no meaning in reality. But it cannot be argued against.

Using all the powers of rational argument we have, we can fill-in that: the deficit has not been cut; that promising to always run a budget surplus will suck money out of the economy stymieing private enterprise; that tax credits cuts are hitting hard-working families the most. But no one will listen, because all they hear and know about is that the government has “a long term economic plan to tackle the deficit and get Britain working”. Unfortunately we have to play that game now. Whether Labour supports or doesn't support the Fiscal Charter doesn't matter. Gideon doesn't support the Fiscal Charter, as people have kept pointing out, he pilloried Labour's suggestion to do the same in 2010. But the Fiscal Charter is a "long term economic plan to tackle the deficit and get Britain working". It's symbolic policy can be used over-and-over again. 

Devolved taxation

At the SNP conference today, Finance Secretary John Swinney is announcing that local authorities will be able to reduce Non-Domestic Rates. This is almost exactly the same as the announcement from Gideon at the Conservative Party conference. As my colleague Paul Cairney points out, this is a classic example of the SNP Scottish Government being socially democratic in social policy, and fiscally neoliberal in financial policy.

However, John Swinney has also announced he’s not going to use the new tax-varying powers that the Scottish Parliament has from this year thanks to the Scotland Act 2012. I want to hark right back though, to the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax. Now, under the 2012 Scotland Act the Scottish Parliament had Stamp Duty devolved to it. The Scottish Government pointed out that the flat rate on transactions over £250,000 was stupid and regressive. They worked out a revenue-neutral, banded scheme instead. The Scottish Conservative in the Parliament realised that this would hammer home owners in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow who fell into the properties over £125,000 band who would suddenly have to pay.

Now, I’d be interested to know how much exchange went on between the Scottish Conservative and Gideon at the Treasury on this. Basically, five months after the LBTT was announced, Gideon announced he was reforming Stamp Duty to make it more progressive and banded, but that it would kick in at a higher level and overall it would reduce the amount of money raised by the tax. John Swinney was then forced to quickly change the LBTT bands to match the English ones, leaving a £50 million hole in the Scottish Government’s finances.

Now, why do I think this is an example of Gideon’s political acumen? Well, basically, it looks like with this, and the Non-Domestic Rates policies, Gideon is forcing the Scottish Government to match the UK’s taxation policies. Much as it might proclaim a distaste for austerity and a desire to increase public expenditure, ultimately the Scottish Government seems to end up being boxed into a corner. It will be interesting to see if Gideon reduces the basic rate of Income Tax to 19% and whether the Scottish Government would then follow.

There’s also a lot of political acumen from the Scottish Government here. At the moment they have the get-out-of-jail free card that a lot of these tax powers are unusable because the increased revenue is offset by decreased block grant. But, if the Scottish Government did ever start using them to lead to fiscal divergence from England, and it did result in economic success and increased revenues and better public services, then they would walk into the anti-independence argument of “well, it’s working ok for you now, why do you need any more powers?”

So, I utterly loathe Gideon. But over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to realise what a political genius he is. I should also add, the Non-Domestic Rates thing is particularly clever as everyone is clueless as it’s such as esoteric tax. It sounds brilliant, but it is horrendous for local authorities and will massively increase (listening to the leader of Nottingham Council utterly fail to explain this fairly simple fact on BBC PM). I really hope Gideon isn’t the next Conservative leader, because then we have definitely got a Tory government until 2025. That is, unless the long memories of those middling voters who have been hammered by the cuts to tax credits do come to haunt him. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Archers in fact and fiction

Call for Papers

The Archers in fact and fiction: Academic analyses of life in rural Borsetshire

Cara Courage, University of Brighton, Nicola Headlam, University of Liverpool and Peter Matthews University of Stirling invite the submission of abstracts to a seminar to take place on 17th February 2016 at University of Liverpool in London, Finsbury Square.

The seminar intends to take an academic perspective on life in Ambridge and Borsetshire, with papers from across academic disciplines. Papers might include:
  • A historical analysis of rural Britain as heard through Archers’ storylines
  • A cultural analysis of Archers’ fandom
  • A sociological analysis of class dynamics in rural Britain through the lives of Archers’
  • characters
  • A hydrology of the Am valley following the recent flooding events
  • Elderly care provision in the rural setting
  • Participatory and strategic planning in rural areas
  • Rural and village economics, from the village store to agribusiness
  • The statistical probability of no Ambridge residents listening to radio 4 at 2:00pm or 7:00pm

This list is not meant to be exclusive or exhaustive, but is meant to inspire you to think how your academic research can illuminate and explain life for the Archers and Ambridge. The day is intended to give academic fans of The Archers a platform to exercise their love of the programme and their subject area.

If you are a fellow Archers fan and academic please submit your abstract of 200 words to, and by 16th November 2015.