Monday, 24 April 2017

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Why we need to move jobs from cities back into towns

"What London really has is an "all the jobs are here and nowhere else" crisis."

In London today, we have a housing crisis - that's the rhetoric at least. Well, we kind of do - there is certainly more demand than there is supply of housing in the capital; the price of rents is completely absurd with £900pm pretty much entry level even for somewhere in zone 3. This was pretty much the line I took until I moved back to the Medway and decided to do a job search from there. What London really has is an "all the jobs are here and nowhere else" crisis. I am not poorly skilled, I have a computer science degree and a number of years of experience in technology roles. However, when I came to find a job, it took me months to find anything - eventually I ended up taking a job in London with a hefty commute attached. The roles I came across in the Medway seemed to come in a few primary flavours:

The Myth: These are job adverts which are posted on a semi-permanent basis. These workplaces, usually retail stores, accept applications on a near permanent basis but are extremely unlikely to get back to you. You normally would find adverts for these jobs in shop windows. These tend to end up being zero hour contracts.

The Christmas Temp: There were a large number of christmas temp positions. This seems to be one of the primary ways of getting into a role in the area. Even office work in technical roles seems to work on this basis - you get into, for instance, a support role as a temp and then eventually get kept on as a permanent staff member. In the meantime, you basically have no job security.

The Recruitment Agency: They will attempt to tempt you in with reasonable sounding roles in the area - although in my experience you will only be given absolutely last notice sick cover work in the middle of nowhere to finish in the dead of night. You see some real gems in the shop windows of these recruiters - one stood out to me advertising a minimum wage position in a town located several miles away, doing a night shift.

The Really Specific Council Position: Pays reasonably well but you have to have a number of years of experience in some sub-specialism of something you've never heard of.

Drive To An Industrial Complex In The Middle of Nowhere: There are a number of roles in the area which are usually technical positions, however to get there you have to drive to work as they are based in rural locations (i.e. cheap rent).

There is some drive to create some new jobs in the area, but only around the well-off dockside area. In the less well off places of the area, you can expect to travel for an hour from some parts. This has a particularly worrying impact when you consider that those in the worse off areas are more likely to be unemployed - these people have far more considerable barriers to entering work not only in terms of the way that employers see them, but in terms of the effort they have to put in to get to work in the first place: They will ultimately end up receiving the same (most likely less) pay for much more time and energy spent.

"They will ultimately end up receiving the same (most likely less) pay for much more time and energy spent."

All but the last category of jobs would pay about the same as minimum wage, most likely lower if they thought they could get away with it.

It seems to be the case that even 40 miles out of London, Medway has been relegated to the position of a commuter town for London - and it would appear to be the same for many other locations in the South of England. In the towns it is the case that there tends to be enough housing but not enough jobs, and in London the other way around.

"In the towns it is the case that there tends to be enough housing but not enough jobs, and in London the other way around."

So why is this a problem? Time, primarily. For me, I spend approximately 3 hours (5 hours if I have to go to another office in Hertfordshire...) traveling to and from work each day. If my commute counted as a part of my work (which it might as well do, it's not exactly leisure time) then I would be working for a minimum of 11 hours a day up to about 13 hours a day. This is certainly not an uncommon reality, seeing as I share my train with many others making the exact same journey every day, with Southeastern failing to provision enough carriages to service many rush hour services.

We put so much emphasis on infrastructure and yet miss the point: Aren't we all so much better off if we can work near to where we live? There are many positives to this: A shorter commute, a tighter knit community, less spent on transport, alleviating some of the strain from the transport network in general and taking some of the pressure off of London to provide work for everyone.

However in the market based way in which we provision work, the best roles seem to be located in a central area where very few can practically afford to live but many can more or less get to through some often very convoluted commute (never mind just getting into London, many commuters have to traverse through the city which can be a stressful and time consuming process in itself). This of course is sort of a reasonable compromise, it seems - where most people can work at any company they are eligible, and the companies don't have to open many offices. However this all comes at the price of our time and energy.

There is also the integration problem.
So much of the rhetoric around anti-immigration, particularly from those who seek not to appear to explicitly support racism is the issue of integration of immigrants in local communities. The story usually goes as such: A group of immigrants are moved in, and they are all located near to one another. They all speak the same language and share similar cultural characteristics and as such form a kind of a clique. This clique gives them a kind of community which is parallel to the rest of society and as such gives rise to social tensions.

So we have to wonder, what is it about our communities that enables the isolation of such communities? In times gone by, if you moved into a particular area, you would not only live in that area, but you would work and socialise in that area as well - there were simply not the kinds of transport networks that we have in the 21st century.

If our society was set up in such a way that we not only lived near immigrants and refugees, but also worked and socialised with them, that they would not end up becoming so isolated.

Unfortunately in so many towns, the only work available is retail work or similar, with a very limited number of positions in total - with an exceptionally difficult process of getting a job when you consider that most people will have to apply to tens of positions to get one.

As such I feel that the way our towns and cities are set up is fundamentally broken for many people - particularly if they can't drive ( but even if they can, congested roads are common place). Expecting such a large amount of people to commute to work is untenable - expanding the public infrastructure to enable them to do that becomes increasingly more costly. We need to be looking at opening far more workplaces in our towns - where people can afford to live - and focusing less on simply on swelling London far beyond its point of diminishing returns.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

An angry rant on the state of housing in London (and most likely elsewhere in the UK)

This was in reply to a friend's facebook comment about salary requirements on rentals:

If your rent is much more than 50% of your income you're going to really struggle unless, at the very least, bills are also taken care of or you plan to overcrowd the flat.

The fact that rent is so high in the first place is the real problem. The government has repeatedly said that it was going to have the private sector build more - although most companies have simply opted to build very high value properties that also aren't going to work for those on low incomes. Social housing could help, but so much of it has been sold off - especially in London - that waiting lists are extremely long.

The Tories have been ideologically opposed to social housing so they're not likely to help the situation and instead seem content to build £450k "starter" homes. Even New Labour was at best luke warm about it. I think it's worth pointing out that Tony Blair made a personal fortune from the property market representing a blatant conflict of interest.

Which, incidentally, is one of the many reasons people have decided the Labour party needs to shift away from its previous status quo.

 The current government and their contractors still have yet to deliver their Ebbsfleet settlement and judging by the view when I go past there between London and Chatham progress is very slow - apparently their target is 300 homes to be completed this year out of 15,000 in total.

Gentrification is also a substantial issue, especially with welfare caps coming into force soon which will almost certainly displace poor sections of the population. In 2014 it was reported by the BBC that over 80,000 residential properties were left unoccupied (

All this while homelessness has doubled over the period of Tory government and mayor in the capital. Sadiq Khan seems to have become a bit quiet on trying to solve the issue and it may simply be that as mayor he doesn't have the power to resolve it.

I'm very disappointed that the Northern Powerhouse project appears to have been canned (although it did appear to be mindbogglingly incompetently managed) as a second strong city I believe is necessary to "take the load off" London for people who want to have the kinds of career prospects you often only find in London and other international capitals.

 The situation as it stands in my opinion represents decades of failure, an ideological obsession with increasing house prices and the frankly arbitrary privatisation of everything (also frustrating: when this happens in the context of a single-payer "market") - progressively making it harder and harder for people to get affordable housing. At best, the situation is incompetence - at worst it is a cynical attempt to keep artificially extracting value from the property market at the expense of ordinary people.

And breeeeaaaathe.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Thoughts on Labour Cardiff leadership competition hustings

While, unfortunately, not a lot of new information was presented in these hustings it rather sums up how the debate has gone in general thus far. It is telling that the hashtag "#IAgreeWithJeremy" has been trending for a couple of hours now as primarily that was the theme of the debate. To understand this, you have to understand the history of the competition  as it started out with a leadership coup - a deliberate attempt to force Jeremy Corbyn to resign through media smears and coordinated resignations. Smith's attempts to emulate Corbyn's policies in this light come across as a cynical attempt to convert Corbyn supporters as Corbyn is currently set to win the leadership contest by a landslide just as he did last year. So from this point on-wards I will focus on the differences between the two candidates:

The EU was a primary point on which the candidates disagreed. Corbyn is of the opinion that we should respect the outcome of the brexit referendum whereas Smith believes that we should hold a second referendum with the option of pulling out before triggering article 50. While many of us were pro-remain (including myself) there are a few issues with Smith's stance - primarily if he is talking about a snap election (which is highly speculatory in itself), it's worth noting that two thirds of constituencies across the UK voted  to leave. Unfortunately this means that in the context of a general election, the single most divisive subject in recent political history will be significantly stacked against Labour simply because of the first past the post electoral system. The other issue that I have with it is that I believe Smith must know this - he also knows that whether or not to respect the referendum is a divisive issue in the Labour party. This is a classic "wedge" strategy, designed to split the pro-Corbyn vote. In light of all this, I am strongly of the opinion that Labour is much better positioned, in the context of a snap election, to campaign on a platform of ensuring and even improving worker's rights and providing a substantial fiscal stimulus to offset the negative financial aspects of the referendum.

There are other points of contention over Brexit such as the controversial TTIP trade deal which, in a leaked draft which was published on the BBC website, indicated that certain public health services including hospitals, if they have been privatised, effectively cannot be brought back into public ownership. If a future government does move back to a single-payer system, then the private company would be allowed to sue the government on the basis of lost profits because of unfair competition. This is effectively a form of "ratchet mechanism" ensuring that public services are run more and more by the private sector. In 2014, David Cameron was very fond of the TTIP trade deal stating that he would put "rocket boosters" on it - so presumably it is the case that the Conservatives are in favour of this kind of ratchet mechanism which puts road up blocks to single-payer health systems. Labour should be putting across the point that they will negotiate trade deals which will not undermine our valuable public services.

A moral obligation of us all, I believe, is to ensure that EU citizens who have settled in the UK and UK citizens settled in the EU should have their rights protected. I believe Labour is much better positioned to do this if they make this a negotiating target rather than going into a general election with a promise to deliver an extremely unpopular referendum.

A problem I had with Smith in particular was that he is too willing to pay anti-immigration sentiments lip service. It came across as though he wanted to appeal to those on the right but does not seem to have any particular idea about what to propose simply saying that he "would not put a finite number on it" when speaking of immigration caps. This seems both at odds with his stance on the EU but this kind of rhetoric is also the kind of thing that has enabled the infamous post-Brexit racism. By contrast, Corbyn channeled Diane Abbot drawing attention to the issue that the immigration policies for those outside the EUs are so restrictive that they stop families from re-uniting.

Another point of significant disagreement was over the trident nuclear deterrent. It is of course not particularly clear how functional it actually is as a deterrent and does cost a large amount with estimates of around £205 billion in costs at a time when we're making massive spending cuts in other areas. Cynically I'd suggest that our biggest nuclear threat is most likely to be Donald Trump acting on his "first strike" nuclear policy and sparking a war - of course that doesn't help us so much as the dead reckoning system on the trident missiles relies on US satellites to calibrate, it is not a particularly independent weapon. The immediate callousness of politicians and their willingness to "push the button" comes across to me as oddly remorseless. It is also the case that primarily our national threats are greatly dispersed, our primary military involvement is in the Middle East and our war against ISIS for which nuclear weapons are grossly inappropriate.

On anti-Semitism within the Labour party, Smith said that he thinks the party should take a zero-tolerance approach and act immediately. Corbyn is of the stance that members should be allowed due process, under his leadership members have indeed been suspended rather swiftly. The socialist Jewish outlet Jewish Voice tweeted:
Fiscal stimulus is another area where they disagree somewhat - while they both agree  that spending packages are necessary, Corbyn proposes a £500bn package involving the creation of a national investment bank whereas Smith is slightly more conservative in suggesting a £300bn spending package.

In general I felt that the hustings largely just reflected the overall debate that we've had so far with fairly little deviance between. In my estimation the crowd seemed to respond more positively toward Corbyn than towards Smith. Some of the points Smith made, particularly on immigration, echoed back to a recent episode of newsnight where he considered "small-c conservatism" to be something he advocated.

Smith also advocated "good, old fashioned socialist policies" although I do not think "old fashioned socialism" is really something many want to get behind.

Smith has a long way to go to win this contest in my estimation, and this charade continues to do more damage to the Labour Party than it is ever likely to resolve.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A hybrid representative/direct democratic model

There are some problems with the way that we currently implement representative democracy in parliamentary democracies in many countries, including the UK. Part of the issue with this is that your representative is not always going to align with your viewpoint. For instance, I am currently in a constituency with a Conservative MP who is very loyal to the party line and who I am unlikely to change the views of by writing to them. For instance, in a previous post I made, I advocated for proportional representation - however, my MP has come out in favour of FPTP. In some sense, that means that my representative cannot effectively represent my views because of an ideological divide.

Now when you look at direct democracy, where voters can vote on propositions/bills directly, that has some benefits in the sense that it directly acts on a voter's viewpoint. Although it does have some problems such as tyranny of the majority and people who do not vote on particular bills or don't have the time to keep up to date on every little detail of every issue (i.e. most people) end up not having their views represented properly.

The idea that one of my colleagues suggested to me was this: For a particular bill, an MP would have as many votes as the amount of people in their constituency - when an MP votes, they cast all of those votes on their constituents' behalf. However, if a constituent wishes to, they have the option of voting a different way to their MP. So for instance if your MP is voting to cut welfare, then you would have the option of voting the opposite way to them. This also means that if you aren't interested in a particular issue, then you're still represented by your MP. This may also help to balance out "tyranny of the majority" since the representatives are still likely to cast most of the votes on most issues.

The main argument against such a system seems to be that historically it would have been difficult to administer. These days, however, setting up an electronic software system to do it is easily within the realms of possibility. It seems like it would be a good candidate for giving citizens more of a say in the way that their country is run without some of the drawbacks of direct democracy and to help give people power to counter other forms of democratic deficit.

I've had trouble finding any systems that work like this in practice, so if you know of any, let me know! This hybrid democratic model may well be worth voting for.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

People under Proportional Representation 11% happier than those under First Past the Post systems

Having recently come across the fact that Denmark had (although now it would appear to be Switzerland!) the highest happiness rating in the world and that it uses a proportional representation - and it certainly seems like having your voice heard could somehow correspond to happiness - I decided to investigate whether there was a link between proportional representation systems and happiness. To do this, I gathered data from the 2015 world happiness report, which countries use the List PR system (from IDEA, 10/03/2016) and which countries use FPTP (from IDEA, 10/03/2016).

Briefly, proportional representation is a system whereby the number of representatives selected for parliament is proportional to the amount of people who voted for that party. First past the post is a constituency based system whereby members of parliament are selected based on a vote taken in some geographical location; in this system a single MP runs for a particular area. If you live in the UK or USA then you are under first past the post.

Read more on FPTP vs PR

I made a reasonable attempt to make sure as much data as possible could be linked to either of these systems although a significant number of countries did not take part in the world happiness report and so were ignored. The means of the happiness scores were compared in this analysis.

Findings: PR had an 11.56% higher happiness rating than FPTP and 4.8% higher than all countries combined.

Happiness of different electoral systems (NOTE: Non-zeroed graph! Pay attention to scale - I can't figure out how to fix it and feel kind of sick anyway so...)
However, there is the caveat that the difference between the happiness given by the two systems does not exceed the standard deviation.

Countries with FPTP include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and India
Countries with PR include Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Austria and Russia

Other notable countries include Germany who have their own system

So what does this say? It seems to suggest that countries with proportional representation systems are more likely to be happy. Certainly this is a correlation and not a causation - although a plausible cause is that people who feel they are adequately represented in government are more likely to be happy although there are likely to be many confounding factors including the country's history. It seems to be the case that Proportional Representation tends towards creating coalition governments who tend to have to come to consensus based policies rather than guided by ideology or party bias.

Download the data