There are lies, damned lies and then there are the dubious findings of self selecting, whites only focus groups …

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A view from Hastings Pier looking west towards St Leonards

In doing some research into the background of Claire Ainsley, Keir Starmer’s Head of Policy, I came across this article in the i newspaper from 31st July 2019, “We asked people from deprived areas what matters to them after Brexit – this is what they told us“.

It begins …

“The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the UK in a Changing Europe asked people what mattered to them most after we leave the EU. We carried out 18 workshops in nine towns and cities – Hastings, Leeds, Workshop, Southampton, Newport, Dudley, Bolton, Glasgow, Middlesbrough. Given the number of references to the ‘left behind’ since June 2016, we felt it was important to listen to what people actually think. Crucially, we sought to find where there might be common ground to bridge the Brexit divide.”

“What do people want after Brexit? The debate has crudely placed people on one side of harsh dividing lines, whether Leave v Remain, or North v South, to name but a couple. But as with anything related to Brexit, it’s more complicated than that.”

Quite.

For starters, there are Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the English Midlands … that are not to be found Oop North or Dahn Sarf.

And the turnout in the 2016 referendum was not 100%, but 72%.

Thus in 2019, there were former Remain and former Leave voters alongside those who did not vote in the referendum or were ineligible to do so, for one reason or another.

And then there were those who had changed their minds since voting in the referendum.

All white are we?

In 2011, according to the Census of that year, 97.4% identified as being white in Bassetlaw; 81.9% in Bolton; 90.0% in Dudley in the West Midlands County; 93.8% in Hastings; 85.1% in Leeds; 88.2% in Middlesbrough and 85.9% in Southampton.

89.9% identified as being white in Newport, Wales.

88.4% identified as being white in Glasgow.

For the record, in other Leave voting areas of the West Midlands County, Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, 57.9%, 73.8%, 69.9%, 78.9% and 68.0% respectively, identified as white.

So why was Dudley singled out to take part in this exercise?

“… ethnic minorities voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU …”

Minority ethnic attitudes and the 2016 referendum

“The detailed testimonies of these 190 people revealed a thirst for change. Brexit highlighted – and not before time – the dissatisfaction percolating in the places which have been locked out of the country’s economic prosperity.”

190 people divided up between 18 workshops in nine towns and cities.

Let us be extremely generous and assume the figures break down reasonably evenly and that, if there were two workshops for an area that the same people from that locale attended each one.

That works out at 21 people per workshop.

How were they selected to take part in the workshops?

Did they, in fact, self select?

That does not, in itself, invalidate their opinions, but in my experience, self selectors may also be liggers and serial, professional meeting attenders.

They have strongly held opinions that they just love to share and will happily turn up for a free buffet and their travelling expenses, assuming they have not already got an event to get along to that day.

I once attended in an official capacity, a local neighbourhood meeting one evening and at its end, when they were deciding the date of the next get together, the resident next to me pulled out a pocket diary, only to announce, “I can’t make that evening, I am already going to X.” Almost every other evening was similarly booked.

I am not knocking the idea of keeping your heating bills down, your belly full and your mind alert, relatively speaking, by turning out for these events, but …

They may easily descend into farce.

Affluent liggers

I stood in for a senior manager at a public Centro meeting, about ten years or so ago, on transport problems in the West Midlands County. Where there are vacant jobs and jobseekers eager to fill them, you will invariably find transport as a barrier to bringing would be employers and employees, together.

It was an all day meeting and very well catered. I toured the room, schmoozed, exchanged words and greetings with colleagues and friends, whilst making one or two new contacts.

I was there, primarily, to listen and report back, by exception.

There were some well dressed, affluent elderly folk in our midst, known, clearly, only to themselves and each other.

The fun really started during the Question and Answer session after lunch. The meeting was open to the public, but clearly no one had expected people who were solely public transport users to attend. Like Q ships dropping their false bulkheads to unveil their guns, these residents of Sutton Coldfield, for that is who they were, now revealed their true natures.

To lig outrageously and ask very specific questions about the local bus services they regularly used (or may be did not).

And act like the world revolved around them.

I think I did say they were from Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham?

“Why was the X service no longer running after 15:00?”

“Why had the route of the Y service been shortened?”

One tried not to laugh, openly, because one had been ambushed in similar ways when addressing public meetings past.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer representative samples of a relevant population for focus groups and not a room full of cuckoos and serial, professional meeting attenders.

What was palpable was the anger and frustration at politics, and politicians, over the last three years to address the issues that mattered to them most: a failure to deliver the jobs, investment and opportunities needed so their families and local economies can thrive. These domestic issues are being crowded out by Brexit. People told us the way Brexit is being handled has only increased their feelings of being “let down, ignored and patronised” by a distant political establishment.”

How much of this comment came unbidden from those attending the workshops and how much are we hearing the views of Ainsley and Menon? Brexit was, is and remains a domestic issue, given how it affects the economy, jobs, businesses, inward investment and so on.

Was there no discussion about the inter-action between Brexit and the issues that mattered to those in the groups? That in leaving the EU some of those issues would be addressed, but not in the way Leave voters hoped they would be?

“Across our locations, both Leave and Remain voters expressed a sense they are overlooked by a London-centric government. They voiced a lack of faith in politicians both local and national: “I’m really just disappointed […] with the politicians,” declared one participant in Southampton. “They’re a disgrace.” Participants felt their areas were forgotten about and stripped of investment, talent, funding and attention. Within towns overshadowed by larger cities, there was a sense of losing out twice – first to London then again to their larger neighbour.”

There is an ongoing confusion amongst some voters about whether or not we live in a representative democracy as opposed to one where we are represented by delegates.

I am with Burke and not Benn on that one:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion … Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.”

Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 Nov. 1774.

I am unsure as to how the participant from Southampton, a Leave voter methinks, would react if one told him or her that by demanding that their Member of Parliament be a delegate on Brexit then they, as much as, if not more than the said MP, must bear the responsibility of all that flows from their decision to leave the EU, be it bad (or good).

Again, how much of what we are hearing, apart from the Southampton person’s comment are really the unfiltered, unprompted views of the focus group participants?

Unprompted, they focused on the aesthetics of their areas, describing boarded-up high streets, litter and disrepair. In Bolton, someone described their high street as “looking bereft, derelict and abandoned”. Someone in Worksop hadn’t been into their town centre for four years – “literally” – as there was no reason to go, while in Southampton: “There is nothing worse than actually having a town centre or a row of shops where there are lots of empty units.” “

The stuff of many a vox pop on the tv news.

Were the participants shopping more online in 2019 than in previous years?

Were they regularly shopping at out of town centres and/or at superstores with plentiful parking and good public transport links?

Had they, in fact, contributed to the demise of their local high street by not shopping there, themselves?

“They expressed discontent with the workings of the economy, with jobs that don’t pay enough to achieve a decent standard of living and a national economy they see as far too focused on London. And they bemoaned a lack of opportunities for themselves and their children: apprenticeships that paid too little and led nowhere, and a lack of access to training and good quality vocational education as an alternative to university.”

Prompted or unprompted views?

One would need to look at individual circumstances to consider whether there are a genuine lack of opportunities for those particular folk and their children.

Apprenticeships have never paid the going rate for the job. It is why they are called apprenticeships!

Most of the money spent on hard skills training outside of regular, paid employment is, alas, wasted. Heretic that I am, I believe that hard skills vocational training is best delivered in paid employment and funded, mostly, by employers.

A lot of higher education courses are vocational in nature, but many are also labelled mickey mouse degrees, because what they teach is common sense, is it not?

You may pick up being a leisure centre manager by sitting with Nelly, Mr Brittas?

A woman in Worksop described the kind of economy she would like to see: “They need more companies to be brought in that aren’t just distribution centres so we need incentives, like I talked about an engineering plant, to bring big businesses in that are willing to have their headquarters here, for example.” “

A job is a job and if the only job going, locally, is working in a distribution centre then take the job or move elsewhere for work. I am afraid that there is no third option.

I have an especial contempt for those who would exploit people such as these with promises of false hope, but then that was partly what the Leave Campaign was all about.

I would be interested to know what incentives that woman feels would attract any major company to Worksop and keep it there for the long term.

Do I detect a touch of prejudice in her comment? That a proper job is really only one on the shop floor of an engineering company?

“Despite their anger and frustration, people were brimming with ideas that would improve their lives and towns. From business incentives for those who train people locally, to open learning centres for training, to jobs that offer a chance to get on, and getting a ‘fair share’ of investment from government and business, people gave a clear way forward for our political leaders to address their concerns.”

Why should businesses not pay to train their own staff? Why do they need incentives to do what should be in their best interests? Businesses sought and got tax cuts. They told Government they could better spend the money they were paying in tax on their businesses than the Government could do, on their behalf.

They cannot have their cake and eat it.

Heaven knows how many learning centres have been opened and closed over the decades in Hastings, Leeds, Workshop, Southampton, Newport, Dudley, Bolton, Glasgow and Middlesbrough.

What is a job that offers a chance to get on? Are there no supervisory or managerial jobs in distribution centres?

A “… ‘fair share’ of investment from government and business …” invites plenty of opportunity for discussion.

We would have to look at this on a case by case basis. For example, Hastings has, again since May 2010, a particular issue with tourist accommodation in the town being used to house homeless folk from London on an essentially permanent basis.

Those poor souls deny the town tourism revenue; bring down, there is no easy way to put this, the tone of the place, mostly unintentionally; put increasing pressure on hard pressed public services and increase competition for jobs in a town with a significant degree of seasonal employment.

And that before we consider the impact of Brexit on the town’s tourism trade and its unique fishing industry (with its own entry in the Doomsday Book).

Given all that in the case of Hastings, what should a fair share of business investment look like there?

” “It shouldn’t be a minimum wage; it should be a living wage,” was a popular refrain to make sure people could make ends meet. Lifelong learning came up time and time again: people wanted free, flexible sessions to improve their skills in community centres and libraries. A man suggested flipping apprenticeships on their head: “Why should apprenticeships only be aimed around young kids? Why not aim them at adults that want to go back in work, that want to start again?” “

I am with the popular refrain.

There is no free, accessible lifelong learning where these 190 odd people live?

Lifelong learning is a bit of 20 year old or so jargon. It may mean learning a language or undertaking a course in basic car maintenance. It does not necessarily have anything to do with something as mundane as improving one’s employability.

Are apprenticeships solely targeted on young people these days?

It would seem not.

“Apprenticeships are available to anyone over the age of 16, living in England and have no upper age limit.”

“Incentivising firms to take on local workers with better skills was seen as the route to attracting investment and creating better jobs. A woman in Worksop told us: “You need to offer the incentives. One of them [is to offer] free training, so this company [don’t] have to pay to do any training, so that [is] their incentive to come to Worksop because they [get] free training compared to anywhere else in the country. So…they [keep] people in the local area and [eventually] in high-paid jobs.” “

So Worksop’s gain might be Hastings’ loss?

What if the company to which you are offering ‘free’ training is just going to open a distribution centre and so, if these folk are to be believed not provide proper, well paid jobs?

I refer you to my earlier point about funding, in full, the training expenses of businesses.

Local jobs for local people is a discriminatory employment practice and falls foul, rightly, of the Equality Act 2010.

Companies may sign up to voluntary agreements to focus recruitment efforts on a particular geographical area, but not to the complete exclusion of surrounding areas.

Such compacts have no legal standing.

Positive discrimination, except in certain tightly drawn instances, is illegal in the UK.

Time for a Sense Check, Anand and Claire …

I once had to respond to the report on a piece of professional survey work undertaken by Sutton Coldfield College of Further Education with residents of the Castle Vale estate.

One of the recommendations of the report, based on the discussions with the residents, was that there needed to be a significant upgrade in the provision of public transport around and on the estate.

Had the consultant who put the report together bothered to do her own research, she would have discovered that the bus network that the residents claimed they would use, if it existed, was already in existence.

Perhaps a bit of promotion on the estate about the bus services might have been a better recommendation?

And there was more, the consultant had interviewed Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants from the Castle Vale estate at five different Jobcentres, all easily accessible by public transport, starting from the estate.

“The message seems to be getting through. At the weekend, Boris Johnson pledged £3.6 billion to ‘forgotten’ towns. But this is an electorate which is weary of over-promising and consistent under-delivery. Remember David Cameron promised “an all-out assault on poverty”, yet we saw unacceptable rises in poverty. Theresa May made an electrifying speech on the ‘burning injustices’ blighting society, but there was no improvement and some even got worse.”

In Liz Truss’s recent speech on socio-economic regeneration she urinated all over the regional policy initiatives of Tory Prime Ministers from Stanley Baldwin to Margaret Thatcher, but not Cameron and May, because they had none over which to piddle.

The Coalition Government headed by David Cameron scrapped, amongst other things, Labour’s Regional Development Agencies. To add insult to injury, the land banks and plots assembled and built up by the RDAs were confiscated by central government.

Here in Birmingham, we were told that we might buy back from Whitehall, the development sites that the Council had been painstakingly assembling over the years in partnership with Advantage West Midlands, our RDA.

Each leader understood the challenge enough to make a speech. But neither translated their words into action. Until voters start to see a difference in their experience on the ground, with opportunities unlocked, high streets revitalised, and living standards improved, then don’t expect a weary electorate to take speeches seriously. As one woman in Middlesbrough put it: “We haven’t got the attention before Brexit; I don’t know if we’ll get it after.” If the Brexit vote taught us anything, this is a mistake political leaders can ill-afford to make again. Over to you, Mr Johnson.”

The first piece of recognisable regional policy to be enacted in the UK was Stanley Baldwin’s Industrial Transference Scheme of 1928, designed to assist the migration of workforces from depressed regions to more buoyant areas. That is 23 years before the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community that we know today as the European Union.

Despite what Ainsley, Cummings, Menon, Nandy, Truss et al would like you to believe, the issues identified by the likes of these focus groups are not, essentially, new; will not be eased by Brexit, arguably they will be worsened by it; have been on the radar of government since before radar was invented and are not susceptible to simple solutions.

They are almost invariably complex problems requiring sophisticated, informed responses, delivered by partnerships.

As an Employment Service colleague of mine once observed, “If it was easy, we wouldn’t be the ones doing it.”

I am all for community involvement in socio-economic regeneration.

It is undeliverable without it, but these focus groups are a good example of how not to go about it.

Their findings had no real value, Claire Ainsley, executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, except as anecdotes.

And we are not short of those.

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