Friday, 4 December 2009

"Whose Price is Right in the Politics of Shopping?"

Published in the Scotsman, 24/11/09

"Forget the result of the Glasgow North-East by-election. As a predictor of UK general election voting intentions, it tells us precisely nothing. This result was meaningless, with only a third of those registered actually bothering to vote – about as much an indicator of what will happen next year as Jordan's performance in the I'm a Celebrity bush-tucker challenge tells us about progress towards gender equality in the UK workforce.

Similarly, by-elections flatter to deceive. Remember Dunfermline West? Did Willie Rennie's "famous" win allow the Liberal Democrats to go back to their constituencies and prepare for power? Did John Mason's "sensational" result in Glasgow East put the
SNP on a motorway to independence? And what about Glenrothes? Did Lindsay Roy's "show-stopping" victory kill Nationalism stone dead? No, no and no again.

To forecast the outcome of next year's UK general election, we should look to the town centres rather than the civic centres. The last four Scottish by-elections for Westminster seats have not presaged any general political trend whatsoever. As psephological experts such as Professor John Curtice keep telling us, by-elections are, at best, a barometer of public angst, a snap-shot rather than a long-term indicator of any electoral trend.

Activity in our town centres tells us much more about the Great British public. As a nation of shoppers, we demonstrate our level of economic confidence through retail, with early signs of a downturn or of an uplift in general economic activity appearing first on the high street. Isn't retail activity an accurate indicator of the state of the nation's mood, demonstrating how we feel about ourselves, our families and our communities?

And what is it that most influences how people vote in the self-interested privacy of the polling booth? The likely impact on their pocket. So, as we approach the final Christmas shopping spree before the general election, will Santa be good to Gordon or will that boy Dave get the toys that he's asked for? Will our collective economic behaviour in our town centres, shopping malls and online reveal our political thinking before the general election has even been called?

Will a Christmas sales boom indicate that the nation agrees with Labour's fiscal strategy of spending our way out of recession or will a tightening of the personal purse strings show that people are already taking their lead from an incoming Tory government expected to set about public spending cuts with real rigour?

Let's examine the evidence. As the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) reported last week, the Scottish high street witnessed a 1.5 per cent increase in like-for-like sales in October, matching the year-on-year rise the previous month, just ahead of the UK figures. The SRC said "Scottish customers are regaining the spending habit".

Set against the wider economic context of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report forecasting 0.2 per cent growth in the fourth quarter of this year, these retail sales figures will be toasted at the Downing Street Christmas party. But can the political temperature really be taken from our eagerness to shop till we drop?

It is instructional to look at the impact our obsession for retail therapy has had on the very fabric of our lives: whether it's the impact on the physical nature of our communities, with town centres and their ubiquitous shopping-mall satellites fashioned from our trends and tastes, with a liberal sprinkling of Americanism, or how the way our week is often organised around shop opening hours.

So much of our society is shaped by our consumerist mind-set that it is a source of great wonder why politicians haven't yet made more of an effort to get a share of that market, other than switching their constituency surgeries from draughty (and often embarrassing) community halls to the cosy comfort of a the local superstore's café. Whilst they're at it, how about politicians going the whole hog and using the National Lottery's superb IT network for voting?

So, if all the action is in the supermarket aisles, what can our politicians do to shape our political shopping choices? Well, to give credit where it's due, our MSPs are ahead of the game. The creation of the Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) this year was the first real recognition of the political importance of our town centres and the genuine sense of attachment that all communities have to theirs.

In a widely welcomed move, the Tories and Labour united with the SNP minority government in a budget-day exercise to support our town centres: new politics in action at last; a well-packaged tenth anniversary gift from the Scottish Parliament. The creation of the TCRF has also been described as Scotland's first real example of another Americanism; pork barrel spending, for our high streets. But, the cash committed to the mammoth task of dragging Scotland's town centres into the 21st century was a measly £60 million from a budget of more than £33 billion, which, on my shopping calculator, is about 0.002 per cent. This is more pork scratching than pork barrel, and it will be fascinating to see whether this initiative, designed and marketed as a one-off for capital spending projects, will see the kind of capital and revenue growth that our politicians would love to see in their economic forecasts.

This will be one of the topics at the second "Vital and Vibrant Town Centres" conference in Perth this week, along side other economic growth initiatives such as the Business Improvement District model. Appropriately enough, the event will hear from the other side of the pond, with Chuck Dalldorf, from the League of California Cities, talking about town-centre improvement mechanisms that have made a real difference across the US.

As for predicting the result of next year's election, what can our town centres tell us? Will a confidence-induced rush through the doors of Harvey Nicks save Gordon Brown or will an economic "dumbing down" to the bargain basement of Poundstretcher indicate a new austere alignment with David Cameron? Well, what's the common factor in consumer and political choices? As they say in America, it's the economy, stupid"

Ross Martin, Policy Director

"A prickly subject, but Russell's the man to tackle it"

This article was published in the Scotsman on Thursday 4 December. You can access it here.

"Scottish education is stuck at a crossroads. As school standards flatline, following a sustained period of unprecedented investment, the four main political parties at Holyrood don't show any signs of a clear direction of travel.

After ploughing in a cash injection of over £1 billion to fund the botched McCrone pay package, our putative political leaders sitting in the Scottish Parliament have very little to show for it. Little wonder they've resorted to those old political playground staples – name calling and the blame game.

Its just not good enough from our MSPs. Labour has been leading results-driven reform down south, but refuses to even contemplate education innovation in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats can't seem to convince themselves that their universal embrace of local democracy is at all appropriate for the most important, and expensive, public service – our school system.

The Tories have still not recovered from their humiliation over their utterly failed push towards opt-out and are blindly fumbling around at the bottom of their reform cupboard in search of a market mechanism that would pass any popular test.

As for the SNP government, their school report card has been well and truly marked – and the half-term picture is bleak. The ludicrous drive towards class size limits of 18 – a number plucked from the ether – was always going to end up down a classroom cul-de-sac.

A phased approach towards 25, the actual and practical limit in all small schools that run composite classes – would have generated almost universal support from parents, teachers and, perhaps as importantly in light of this week's events, also with their own local education authorities.

The Scottish Futures Trust is more than a few school site starts away from matching the much-maligned public-private partnership (PPP) programme "brick for brick".

The Curriculum for Excellence is under sustained bombardment from the very people upon whom the government must rely to implement it with energetic enthusiasm – Scotland's school leaders. And teacher numbers fell faster than the sector's confidence in the education secretary throughout these past few months.

Meanwhile, under the cover of the concordat, local councils have been getting on with the job of seeking "Scottish solutions to Scottish problems" – which was meant to be the motivating factor, even part justification, of the Scottish Parliament.

The balance of power, and more noticeably of action, has shifted – away from central government and towards an increasingly confident local government, with councils of all political colours beginning to show real signs of education reform.

Whether it's Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire, leading on the modernisation of the comprehensive secondary school, or the SNP-Lib Dem coalition in charge of East Lothian promoting a mature and reflective debate on how best to run the schools in its area, local councils are recognising the fact that budgetary constraints demand new thinking on the design and the delivery of Scotland's school system.

This shift of power, and with it the introduction of local flexibility, has been barely perceptible against the background of noise being generated in and around Holyrood, yet it may well be the clearest signal yet as to the future direction of Scottish schools.

At its heart lies the educational elephant that has been an ever present in our school classrooms these past few decades – parental involvement.

There have been many attempts – all failed – to encourage parents to actively engage with the education sector. We've had everything from the Tories' School Boards – that were exposed early as ideological vehicles for opting individual institutions out of the local education authority system rather than a mechanism for real engagement – to Labour's botched School Councils, that were neither one thing nor the other, introduced with practically zero preparation or parental support.

It is time to take stock of Scotland's school system, to stop reflecting on past glories and for our political class to realise that standards will not rise unless local people – be they councils enabled to act with more freedom or parents positively encouraged to directly engage – are allowed in on the closed-shop of school education policy making.

It is time to wrest control from the administrators and the other defenders of the tired old status quo and give real power to those who have an interest in improving performance.

Now, the new education secretary has form here. In his previous ministerial roles, Mike Russell has shaken up the way other parts of the public sector do business with their customers.

From "encouraging" Historic Scotland to change its image from old fuddy-duddy to trendy, accessible, welcoming host, to pressing Scottish Water to directly channel its resources into supporting the Scottish Government's central policy purpose of enabling the developments that drive sustainable economic growth.

Mike Russell certainly understands the fundamentals of good-quality, efficient public services, and that they involve the engagement and participation of the people with whom these services must be designed and delivered.

This is a very shrewd – and in some quarters at least, readily forecast – appointment, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with him when he grabs the education establishment by the scruff of its school collar and faces it firmly in the direction of pupils and their parents.

It is simply inconceivable under this new minister that every one of our schools will be run on the failed centralised model of Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Education, where bowler-hatted civil servants fan out across the country dispensing their detached verdict on teaching and learning standards after a few days' inspection.

But there must now be an acceleration of real reform, with an emphasis on improvement through the engagement of those with most at stake in raising performance levels.

And if that means upsetting the fractious teaching unions, then this minister has at least written the book on 'Grasping the Thistle'."

Ross Martin, Policy Dircetor