5 things about this week (5 March 2019)

by Stephen Tall on March 5, 2019

We’ve all had a week off Brexit, courtesy the scuttle-diplomacy of Theresa May and her attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who are both doing their best to look busy in the hope that their blatant attempts to run down the clock to 29th March can retain a mere shimmer of credibility. He has, reports say, given up the hope of persuading the EU to annul the Irish backstop by ensuring the UK can renege on its agreement whenever the fancy takes it (grrr, rotten foreigners, eh?!)… or not, if you believe his partial denial of those reports.

I sometimes struggle to recall I’m one of those Remainers who actually at least half-supports Theresa May’s deal, such has been the mess she’s made of selling it (afraid as she is, as every Tory leaders appears doomed to be, of her feral backbench Brexiters). Her’s is, I suspect, probably about the best that could be made of a bad job: a far, far worse deal than our current privileged Euro membership, but a bespokely realistic means to square the circle of respecting the referendum result while not tanking the British economy.

That I – a happily self-confessed centrist – thinks that probably spells trouble for the Prime Minister. Like many who thought Brexit, Trump and both Corbyn surges were all infinetisimally unlikley because, surely, common sense would kick in, I wonder if I’m continuing to under-estimate the chances of a no-deal Brexit happening. I keep on looking for straws in the wind — chatter of an ERG climbdown, the DUP sounding not impossibly unreasonable — and caught myself confidently tweeting the other day that her deal has >35% chance of passing based on nothing more than my gut instinct that surely, common sense will kick in. I mean, it has to, right? Right, guys?

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Reacting to the creation of The Independent Group, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, says she “would rather die than join any other party”. It’s a statement best read as (1) metaphorical (I hope), and (2) her latest OTT pitch to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. But it does sum up rather neatly the tribalism of our party system.

To an extent, I understand it. Back in my most Lib Demmy days (when a councillor and editing LibDemVoice) I could be pretty partisan; maybe it’s a necessary pre-condition, if you’re going to (as I did) volunteer 20+ hours a week on top of your day-job, in order to justify such eccentric behaviour. Though I never went as far as making a legacy to the party — I’ve never had quite enough confidence the party’s beliefs and mine will always align — so I’m certainly not signing my life away to it.

But, for all my reservations about the party’s current breadth of vision (lack thereof) and strategic direction (ditto), and the occasional dottiness of its priorities, policies and processes, I do still believe that the country will be better for having more people support the Lib Dems and more Lib Dems elected to positions of responsibility.

So, when the email came through from my party asking if I’d be willing to be a candidate (again) in this year’s local elections, I knew I had to say yes. That’s, I reckon, a sensible level of commitment.

PS: Mark Pack and I discuss the new Independent Group — what we make of it and whether it’s a threat to the Lib Dems — in the latest episode of our podcast, now officially named Never Mind the Barcharts. Listen to it here.

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[Please admire the following segue, I don’t just throw this stuff together y’know…] ‘Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology’ begins the second paragraph of The Independent Group’s statement of values. You might expect me — a fully signed-up evidence junkie — to cheer and I do.

But with two cautions.

First, there’s nearly always some evidence somewhere to justify pretty much any policy if you look hard enough. What matters, therefore, is (1) finding high-quality evidence, and (2) synthesising it to understand the consistent messages. That’s a lot easier in my area of semi-expertise, education, than it is in many other areas of public policy, where good evidence is thin on the ground.

Secondly, even when you have good evidence, ideology (or, to use a different, softer, term ‘values’) still matters. As I wrote here, in A liberal approach to evidence-based policy-making, if I wanted to boost voter turn-out at elections, simply following the evidence would lead me to recommend making voting compulsory; after all, in Australia turn-out is consistently over 90%. However, as I believe voting is a right, not an obligation, it’s not something I’d support.

Evidence is important, yes, absolutely, but don’t out-source your ideology to it.

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Evidence works best when you’ve agreed a policy aim and you want to find out how to implement it in line with your values, effectively and cost-effectively. Let’s take a practical example, a bugbear of mine I’ve written about before — that universities are scandalously incurious about how best to spend the £800 million a year they currently plough into ‘widening participation’ schemes which aim to improve entry and reduce drop-out rates for students from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds:

Financial aid for students is undoubtedly a good thing. However, the evidence is clear that scholarships and bursaries do very little to address the biggest issue I think faces higher education: how can you get more young people from low-income backgrounds with the talent to succeed into university in the first place. Universities are focusing too much effort on (very expensive) financial aid in the name of widening participation when in reality it’s often a marketing/positioning exercise. British universities are appalling bad at evaluating the impact of their widening participation activities. If they’re serious about tackling the social divide they need to get a lot smarter and a lot more rigorous about finding out what actually works so they can invest their money effectively in widening participation strategies that truly make a difference.

Congratulations, then, to the Office for Students which, absent any leadership from the higher education sector itself, has stepped up to the plate. It will be funding a new, independent centre ‘providing evidence on the impact of different approaches to widening access and improving outcomes and progression for disadvantaged students’. Long overdue, but very welcome

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I’ve been listening to Brit-ish, Afua Hirsch’s thoughtful and through-provoking reflection on growing up as a mixed-race person in Britain. She totally persuaded me that our education systems need to de-colonise the curriculum (or, more to the point, give an accurate and rounded account of this country’s people and its history which doesn’t erase/gloss the problematic bits). I was less persuaded by her arguments on cultural appropriation. I would have been interested in some international comparisons – eg, is our race problem peculiarly British, or could a similar book have been written called French-ish? But it’s well worth a read/listen, particular for its central thesis that progressives claiming “I don’t see colour” are part of the problem.

I’ve been reading Caroline Criado Perez’s essay in The Guardian, The deadly truth about a world built for men, excerpted from her new book, Invisible Women. Lots of everyday examples, from air-con to toilets in theatres to the size of phones, which exemplify how patriarchy unthinkingly discriminates against those born female (yes, it turns out — who knew? — biology matters!).

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Usual quiet Sunday

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