Don't forget the fees: Devon pays £40m less than Stafforshire for the same pensions

When Keep it Simple, Stupid comes into its own.

The Financial Times looks into the murky world of public sector pension funds:

Neither Staffordshire nor Devon is exceptional; they are an interesting example because they appear similar. They are the same size: Devon had £2.68bn in March 2012, against £2.62bn for Staffordshire. They have a similar spread of assets in fixed income, equities and property, with a little money given to hedge fund managers. Both hold the same top three stocks (Royal Dutch Shell, Vodafone and HSBC) while three fund managers work for both counties. They follow the same public-sector procurement rules.

Yet Staffordshire paid £7.152m for fund management in 2011-12, while Devon paid £2.669m. And Staffordshire’s bill for administration came to £2.033m, while Devon paid £1.225m.

Over eight years, Staffordshire paid £38.2m more for an investment which returned 0.3 per cent less than Devon did. That's a pretty sizeable difference, and one which we'd ideally try to remove. Of course, the 0.3 per cent difference in returns isn't the sort of thing which you'd want to try and plan before-hand, because it could just as easily have been the other way round. But saving almost £40m for the same service is something which we generally want our local authorities to try to do.

The real point to all of this is that all too infrequently are management fees actually discussed in public. For many people – hopefully not the ones in charge of placing investments at councils, but certainly your average small investor – the only thing worth looking at is the annual rate of return. But management fees can alter that greatly, and unlike rate of return, they're something which can normally be known, and negotiated, in advance.

For pension funds, the lesson stops there. They're big enough, and competent enough, that so long as the client is negotiating well, they still offer the best chance of a good return. But for individual investors, putting a bit of money in an ISA for retirement, there's an even more basic piece of advice: you'll probably minimise your fees if you just get an index tracker. You might not get the best return (although you almost certainly won't get the worst), simplifying investments is an under-appreciated way to work.

Newton Abbot, Dorset, in 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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