Robin McAlpine: Recover forward – how to use crisis for good

“It is pretty clear the Scottish establishment is starting to mobilise to see if it can limited reform as much as possible. They’re already saying ‘first get me my neoliberal utopia back at great public expense – then and only then am I willing to offer you a couple of minor nods towards reform’.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when it’s over. Today – some examples of rebuilding

IN THE LAST FEW WEEKS, I have been trying to set out a framework for understanding what has been happening to the economy and our society as a result of the virus, and to draw out from that a path forward. But I understand that a fair bit of it has been abstract or theoretical. So what does it all look like?

What I want to do in this column is pick two policy areas which are going to need action and show how rather than ‘repair backwards’ we can ‘recover forward’. I really do think this is going to be the difference between Scotland making a better job of the post-lockdown period than we have been making of the lockdown period.

Because we can’t fix what was, and if we try we will waste time and money. We have to get to something else.

What is ‘recover forward’?

This idea is really easy. Think of someone who has broken their leg in part because of obesity. What should a doctor do? Plaster them up and tell them to crack on as was? Or make a healthier diet part of the recovery process so the patient ends up in a better place than they started?

Well, Scotland’s society and its economy are the patient here and strapping us up and telling us to get back on the pitch playing the same old game is foolish. Where change must happen recovery must propel us towards it, not slow down progress.

If you take that mindset, that as you fix an acute problem you try at the same time to fix a chronic one, you achieve massively more. Just like an earlier plan for a post-lockdown virus control system would have saved a lot of harm, so early intervention on things that must change must not be pushed back but brought forward.

And even more than this, there are things that people have kind of known should be fixed but weren’t because it looked like more trouble than it is worth. But now that there is a need for massive reconstruction it clearly makes no sense to rebuild something again in a way that means you can’t fix it.

So let’s look at some examples.

Recover forward beyond school exams

Please do not mistake what the school exam system has become, in part because of Daily Mailism; it is effectively middle class Hunger Games. You provide a fixed number university places knowing that those who get in will earn more for life, be healthier, fitter, live longer, be less likely to be convicted of a crime, and so on.

Then you make children compete with each other in a ‘devil tak the hindmost’ race to get into those university places – or suffer the consequences for the remainder of their lives. In the Hunger Games they use knives, swords and bows; in the Exam Games, it’s private tutors.

This has utterly distorted the entire education system and everyone knows it. The ‘top’ schools only measure success in terms of how many kids they get to university so they are made complicit. Less affluent schools are simply dragged around behind. Then the whole curriculum becomes about something other than learning, it becomes about the Exam Games.

And make no mistake, they are a game. I worked for the representative body of the university sector for over a decade. We know categorically that school exam performance is a bad indicator of future university performance, because children grow up at different rates and gain different advantages early in life.

The real lesson is that if you have two kids with the same exam results, pick the one from the less privileged background – they almost always get better results.

Everyone is in crisis just now because it’s annual Hunger Games time again – but there can be no games. For this year, how on earth are we going to condemn kids to a life of sub-par earning (largely based on social class)?

The plan being hatched is to rely on teacher assessment. That is a worry – since the evidence is that poorer kids outperform teacher expectations in real exams we must conclude that teachers tend to underestimate the academic performance of poorer kids.

The view is there is no option. Nonsense – it’s the perfect moment to ditch the whole bloody system. Education should be about learning, not creating an educational caste system before children are old enough to go to the pub.

How? Don’t repair backwards, recover forwards. The universities are back for their usual handouts, naturally. But this is because the universities decided that they didn’t like being public servants and all wanted to be Big Business like the important Big Business People on their governing bodies.

So they ditched a financial model based on domestic education and built one based on overpriced commercial education for Chinese students.

There were more people than me warning internally at the time that this was a dangerous road to go down because demand was always going to decline (China has been building a lot of new universities). Now it has collapsed to virtually nothing, the universities are no longer viable.

I would say ‘hell mend them’ if it wasn’t for their crucial public role. So they’ll need a bailout, but there must be conditions. Management salaries have to be brought under control, universities must be democratised (they are run as gift-and-favour organisations by the Senior Management Teams) and they must refocus on public service.

But they must also be told to devise an entrance exam system for domestic students (based on aptitude, not ability to memorise facts). It should be for them to build the system to manage their allocation of places, not the schools. And they must be told that the system they devise must reduce educational inequality or they will be fined.

I would then end schools exams altogether and make schools about real personal development. Pupils would only get a completion certificate to indicate how many years they completed.

With the universities handling their own candidate assessment, only employers need any kind of aptitude testing. But that’s what it should be; the SQA should produce a suite of standardised aptitude tests. If an employer needs someone with numeracy they should get a numeracy test to use in the recruitment process and so on.

I don’t know how many hundreds of CVs I’ve recruited from in my life, but I promise you no-one ever got a job based on exam results rather than the interview. The exams do nothing more than demonstrate basic competence, and no-one gives a monkeys by your second job (where all they are interested in is your work experience).

People are trying to work out right now how to rebuild an emergency exam system. The same people would tell you in private that the exam system is now inherently damaging. Let’s put two and two together and move rapidly to something better.

Recover forward to affordable housing

Here’s an example of another ‘untouchable’ political subject – house prices. Everyone (other than property speculators) knows that house prices are out of control. The ratio of average salary to average house price is miles out of whack and there is now much liberal hand-wringing about a generation being locked out of housing.

As a general rule that’s because the same liberals made out big as the generation who pocketed the benefits of rising house prices. But because they’re the affluent middle classes it is not politically possible to mess with those house prices.

Well, until now. Unless I’m reading this wrong there is going to be a very serious risk of a plague of house repossessions after this virus. Britain has such expensive housing that to own a house you probably need to over-mortgage yourself. Many people in big houses have surprisingly little disposable money.

And these families often rely on two earners. It is only going to take a comparatively small rise in unemployment to tip household finances deep into the red. This is for an unusual reason – usually unemployment only hits the economically vulnerable. But I don’t think that is going to be the case this time. Home owners will become unemployed.

At the same time, many renters will be in trouble, a flood of AirBnB flats may flood the market and I suspect few sales will be going through for a while. All this will push house prices down.

Repair backwards policies are easy – reinflate the market with more subsidies to big developers (i.e. ‘help to buy’ schemes which mainly help house builders). But it would be beyond irresponsible to do this and it is very doubtful it would work.

Instead let’s use this moment to manage house prices down, but in a way that keeps people in their homes. First, just say it out loud – ‘reducing housing costs for everyone is government policy’. People would start to behave accordingly.

Then start the process with a big economic stimulus – build lots of high-quality public rental housing, not just for the poor but attractive enough to gain interest from anyone. This will change the market.

Then finally side with tenants over landlords and introduce rent controls. Indicate that (this time) you’re actually going to replace the Council Tax with something that better reflects real house prices (a Property Tax).

And finally, people who are at risk of losing their houses should be offered a mortgage-to-rent scheme. The Scottish National Investment Bank should negotiate a buy-out of mortgages from the banks for people who want it – and they should negotiate a very substantial discount (yes, banks need to take a hit given much of this is their fault).

The occupier would then be guaranteed lifelong tenancy at a manageable level of rent (reflecting amount of mortgage paid). It means a house won’t be the cash cow it has been, but it also means people can stay in their homes and communities.

Recover forward to a housing system that serves social needs and not financial ones. It’ll be less painful that trying to prop up a price crash that is probably inevitable.

This is the principle, now apply it to everything

Both of these examples take the case of a public policy area in which we are going to deal with major problems in the near future. In each case it asks not ‘where were we?’ but ‘where should we be?’. And they then manage the process of dealing with the crisis in a way that reforms pre-existing problems rather than reinstates them.

You don’t even need to agree with these examples to get the picture (I know, I know, lots of you want housing justice for the next generation so long as it doesn’t affect your nest-egg house price).

In fact the real example is the climate crisis (though always remember that climate is only one of the seven environmental crises). Already the bad guys (big business) thinks this is their opportunity to escape regulation and all that talk of decarbonisation – at least for a while.

But there simply couldn’t be a worse possible version of ‘repair back to failure’. Suddenly we’re all wishing we’d listened to the epidemiologists from the beginning – but we act like there is plenty of time before we have to listen to the climate scientists.

What the work Common Weal is getting close to completing does is apply this principle – recover forward – to our entire economy (and wider society). If we need to recover, recover forward to being a zero-carbon nation. We can live up to our responsibility and rescue the economy. At The Same Time.

I capitalised that last sentence so you don’t miss it. This is the battle ground. It is pretty clear the Scottish establishment is starting to mobilise to see if it can limited reform as much as possible. They’re already saying ‘first get me my neoliberal utopia back at great public expense – then and only then am I willing to offer you a couple of minor nods towards reform’.

They want you to believe that stability is best served by the thing that just fell over. What they really mean is their stability is best served by massive handouts of public money to put their world back together.

But they are the failure. Let’s recover forward and leave them behind.

Next up: Covid and Scottish unionism