Selling the Royal Mail, and the country that banned fee-paying schools

Finland, where fee-paying schools are illegal and league tables don't exist, does consistently well in educational surveys and produces some of the cleverest children. Plus: a magic formula for regulation.

Even by the usual standards of Tory privatisations, the sell-off of Royal Mail is an outrage. Ministers have offered the shares at a maximum of £3.30 each, valuing the company at £3.3bn. As I write, analysts reckon that is at least £1bn below the true value and predict that shares will sell at £4 once they go on the market. Even if the analysts prove wrong in the short term, they are unlikely to be wrong about the medium-term prospects for Royal Mail. The shares are a bargain, offered at taxpayers’ expense.

How can a government be so generous when it is cutting benefits, supposedly to repair the public finances? Why is it giving City banks and hedge funds, for which most shares are reserved, a free lunch? Why is it, in effect, transferring money from poor folk who can’t meet weekly food, fuel and rent bills to people who have enough spare cash at least to buy the shares for a few days? Dare I suggest it’s a straightforward bribe to potential Tory donors and voters?

George Osborne fusses about the UK’s credit rating, arguing that he must reduce debt if the government is to continue borrowing cheaply. Someone should explain to him that governments can borrow because they hold assets such as Royal Mail. He accuses Labour of failing to repair the roof while the sun was shining. He’s dismantling it in the middle of a downpour.

Press charges

To break the interminable deadlock over press regulation – the Privy Council has rejected the newspapers’ proposal and is now trying to adapt the Royal Charter to its tastes – can we have a dummy run?

Let both sides set up their complaints commissions. Give them two cases: the Daily Mail and its treatment of Ralph Miliband; the Sun and its treatment of the mentally ill. (The latter, in case you missed it, headlined “1,200 people killed by mental patients” over a story that, according to a Telegraph blogger, was not only “irresponsible and dangerous” but also “nonsense from top to bottom”.) Let their commissioners pass judgement and recommend penalties, if any. The Mail should get a mild reprimand for the headline “The man who hated Britain”. The Sun should be required to publish a prominent correction and clarification, pointing out that the true figure should have been 738, not 1,200; that, in an average year, less than 0.005 per cent of the 1.2 million people in touch with hospital mental health services kill anyone; and that the danger of their doing so is falling, not rising.

The one that comes up with the above answers –which I believe most people would accept as the right ones – would be declared the winner.

For Pete’s sake

I welcome the promotion of the cerebral Tristram Hunt to shadow education secretary. But the idea that he’s part of an anti-Blairite coup, dictated by Unite’s Len McCluskey, is laughable. When I edited the NS, we published several pieces from Hunt, then unknown. I was told he had written to a friend saying “I owe so much to Peter”, which seemed a refreshing change from contributors who griped about our modest fees. Further inquiries, however, revealed that the reference was to Peter Mandelson, Hunt’s political mentor.

Great Finnish

“England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills,” scream the headlines, and that’s just the Guardian website. The source is an OECD survey of adult skills in industrialised countries. What stands out is that, while English adults as a whole are around average when tested on literacy and numeracy, those aged 16 to 24 are behind even their Polish, Estonian and Slovakian contemporaries. Tories blame the usual suspects: comprehensive schools, lack of academic rigour, Labour governments.

Many comparisons are made with South Korea, where young adults score far better than their elders, while here there’s hardly any difference. Fewer comparisons are made with Finland, which, as usual in educational surveys, comes at or near the top in everything. “Older Finns,” the OECD reports, “perform at around the average . . . while younger Finns are, together with young adults from Japan, Korea and the Netherlands, among today’s top performers.”

Finland has no selective schools, no feepaying schools (they’re illegal), no streaming within schools, no league tables, no external exams until the age of 18, no national curriculum beyond broad outlines. Before the 1970s, its schools were similar to ours, with grammar schools, private schools and so on. Finland also has one of the most equal income distributions among the 22 countries in the survey; we have the most unequal, next to the United States, which also does badly in the tests.

I leave you to draw conclusions.

Finnish children on their second day at school in Vaasa, Finland. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.