Biased Or Not, The BBC’s Political Coverage Is Shockingly Bad

BBC Daily Politics Political Journalism SPS

 

The BBC – our national treasure or money and creativity-sapping black hole (depending on your viewpoint) has been given due notice by Sajid Javid, the new Culture Secretary, that every aspect of its future funding and existence is under review.

The Huffington Post reports:

All aspects of how the BBC is run and paid for will be reviewed when its charter comes up for renewal, the Culture Secretary has said. Sajid Javid said “everything” would be looked at, including licence fees and governance structures, when negotiations get under way … Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps warned the corporation last year it could lose its exclusive right to the £3.6 billion raised by the licence fee if it failed to tackle what he believes is a culture of secrecy, waste and unbalanced reporting in the organisation.

For those who believe that on balance the BBC is currently doing more harm than good, this is welcome news. Indeed, this kind of root-and-branch re-evaluation of public services is precisely what many people who voted Conservative in 2010 expected but have not seen thus far under the coalition government.

Re-evaluation and reform is sorely needed. The BBC has recently struggled to defend itself against allegations of incompetence and institutional corruption following the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, excessive remuneration of top talent and high level executives, and catastrophically poor editing of it’s flagship nightly news programme. And only last week the corporation defiantly kept the editor of the BBC News Channel in her post despite the fact that she posted highly partisan and derogatory comments about a political party on her Twitter account, in flagrant violation of BBC rules.

This blog is not alone in noting the gradual fall in the quality of the BBC’s political output in particular. The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges rightly lambasted the corporation’s recent election results coverage for being both lightweight and unresponsive to complex, dynamic situations. Hodges notes that despite token efforts by the legacy broadcasters to acknowledge the existence of social media, the BBC’s election results programme (for the recent local council and European elections) was way off the mark in its analysis, seizing upon the first narrative that emerged and stubbornly sticking with it throughout the evening even as Twitter started to better reflect the more nuanced results which later emerged.

It is worth quoting Hodges at length, because he makes a vital point:

I’m usually quite sceptical about the whole “social media is taking over the world” meme. But on Sunday night it became very obvious. Twitter and the other social media outlets are making the big election night programs utterly redundant.

It wasn’t apparent when they were the only outlet for results and analysis. But last week both main broadcasters were horribly exposed. What was amazing was the way it was clear neither Sky nor the BBC were taking the slightest bit of notice of their own output. They were engaged in a logistical exercise – “Let’s make sure we don’t miss the returning officer from Torquay” – rather than an analytical one.

What I also couldn’t understand was who they thought their audience was. The same headline mantra was chanted – “Ukip earthquake, Ukip earthquake” – over and over again, but no serious effort was made to deconstruct it. Surely the only people watching local election results at one in the morning are political geeks like me. And what we’re looking for is serious analysis.

Watching the difference between the discussion in the election studios and the discussion on Twitter was like the difference between watching Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer on Match of the Day and Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. The former talk blandly about great attacking or terrible defending. The latter explain in granular detail precisely why it’s great attacking or terrible defending.

Sadly, that just about sums up the BBC’s approach to political programming today. There is a heavy focus on the personality-based politics (epitomised by the need to muckrake, sensationalise and have a “gotcha” moment in every interview) and the logistics of electioneering, but a rapidly fading focus on the comparative assessment and scrutiny of opposing policies. These days, the BBC’s political coverage is all about The Game – who’s up and who’s down at any given moment. Who’s wrong and who’s right barely gets a look-in any more.

What’s worse, the increasingly lightweight personalities – journalists and contributors – deployed by the BBC to cover the political beats are often incapable of the latter, more serious type of reporting, able only to offer superficial ‘analysis’ of the ups and downs of parties and personalities as measured by the twenty-four hour news cycle. Over time, the BBC divested itself of much of the expensive, skilled talent needed for good quality political coverage, either reshuffling them, demoting them or letting them go – and with them, their vital knowledge.

Before the BBC apologists leap to their feat in protest, no it does not have to be this way. High quality, penetrating analysis is not thwarted by the need to remain impartial (an imperative that the BBC fails to achieve anyway), but the BBC is in danger of succumbing to the worst current instincts of political coverage on American network television – giving each ‘side’ of an argument equal weight and validity out of desperation to appear non-partisan, even when the truth is quite clear-cut and largely occupied by one particular party.

The liberal comic Bill Maher perfectly skewers this unnecessary impulse, increasingly seen in BBC political broadcasting, as it pertains to the non-existent flat-Earth debate:

 

In other respects, though, Americans enjoy far better political coverage than their British cousins. America benefits from the existence of C-SPAN, a private but nonprofit cable network set up by the US cable television industry, who pooled their resources to establish a one-stop shop that they could all draw on for in-depth political coverage.

The BBC’s own effort, BBC Parliament, does not compare favourably with C-SPAN. BBC Parliament occupies one channel, while C-SPAN has three. C-SPAN provides much more extensive and flexible coverage of both houses of Congress, while BBC Parliament is bound by the ludicrous and archaic rules governing the televising of Parliament. C-SPAN offers a much wider range of other programming such as book talks, public debates and call-in shows, while BBC Parliament has to fit its own meagre offerings of this type in the periods when Parliament is not sitting. C-SPAN’s online presence vastly outstrips that of BBC Parliament in terms of depth of analysis and availability of archive footage.

But most importantly of all, C-SPAN has a reputation for balanced programming and is well-regarded by both liberals and conservatives. British conservatives, by contrast, have long since given up trying to get a fair shake from the BBC – though this article makes a persuasive case for the BBC’s innate small-C conservatism.

It is impossible to properly compare the entire outputs of two news networks in this short space, but a lot can be learned by watching the following excerpts of political output from the BBC and C-SPAN respectively.

First the C-SPAN show, a typical and broadly representative example of their output; in this case a call-in show featuring the national security journalist Glenn Greenwald as special guest:

 

And here is a C-SPAN StudentCam short film, also on the topic of national security. Such segments form a regular part of C-SPAN programming, filling the time slots between regular programming and encouraging young people to take an active interest in civic issues:

 

Contrast these with the BBC’s recent efforts, this exerpt taken from the flagship Daily Politics show:

 

The difference in focus, tone and overall quality could not be more striking. Even the student effort on C-SPAN outmatched the quality and seriousness of the BBC’s political output – and again, these examples are fairly representative of each network’s normal output, not chosen to unduly embarrass the BBC.

The obvious question that must be asked is this: Why the grave disparity in service, given the deep pockets and institutional clout of the BBC compared to its upstart American counterpart?

(In the interest of fairness, it must be mentioned that much of the BBC’s radio coverage is of significantly higher quality, particularly Radio 4’s Today in Parliament).

It’s not that there are necessarily more smart people with a burning interest in politics and public policy in America than there are in Britain. But because the BBC’s omnipresent dumbed-down approach crowds out all other offerings in the marketplace, politically interested citizens are much better catered to in the United States than they are in Britain, where the Daily Politics-style cartoonification of politics insults those with real knowledge and interest.

The truth is that the quality gap between C-SPAN and BBC Parliament has not always existed – it was brought about fairly recently by people who should be ashamed of their decisions, and whose CVs should carry indelible black marks as a consequence.

Before the Daily Politics came along and ruined everything, the BBC’s flagship political programming consisted of shows such as On The Record, Despatch Box and Westminster Live. Much like C-SPAN’s offerings in the United States, the budgets were small and the production values cheap; but this had the beneficial effect of making it all about the programming – the quality expertise and the analysis shared with the viewer.

This all changed when former BBC Director General Greg Dyke commissioned a review of the BBC’s political output, leading to a wholesale relaunch and rebranding. By 2003, out had gone the old shows with their dull but informative content, and in came the quirky, zany future where everything is a joke, everything is accompanied by a jaunty animation and theme tune, and everything is lightly mocked from the couch by host Andrew Neil and his unglamorous assistants.

Viewers can discern everything they need to know about the Daily Politics from the opening title sequence, without sticking around to suffer the show itself:

 

Portraying the British political system as some kind of sputtering, wheezing steam engine perpetually on the verge of breakdown may sometimes be uncomfortably close to the truth, but the BBC’s flagship daily political programme should not lead with this suggestion. Disillusionment with politics is high enough as it is without making jocular reference to all the reasons why in the opening credits.

To be clear, this is not to say that the politician themselves should be necessarily be treated with respect, reverence or deference, particularly when their actions have merited the opposite – but there should be a baseline of respect for the political process itself that now seems entirely absent from the BBC’s output. And all for what? What grand prize is the BBC seeking that is worth so much debasement?

The BBC is chasing a pipe dream if they believe their new dumbed down approach will result in more people tuning in and engaging with politics. Tacky, irreverent output better suited to satirical comedy shows will not draw in viewers who currently favour watching repeat episodes of Top Gear on Dave – it only serves to patronise and alienate those viewers who are interested in political coverage anyway, without the added allure of bright colours and jaunty theme tunes.

This isn't helping
This isn’t helping.

 

The point is not that the BBC should be disbanded entirely, or that the license fee should necessarily be scrapped (although it certainly should), or any one other prescription. The point of shaming the BBC with the woeful quality gap in its political programming is to point out that there are other delivery models out there in the world that work and which could produce good results back here in Britain, if only we would allow ourselves to consider them without feeling that we are somehow “cheating” on Auntie.

Those who become overly sentimental about the BBC in its current form suffer from the same forgiving and idealistic delusion as people who create Twitter hashtags or found political parties to “save the NHS”. Just as some NHS activists prize the survival and continuity of that organisation over the outcomes it was created to deliver (the best possible healthcare for British citizens), so BBC defenders cling to nostalgia rather than acknowledge the fact that the beeb can learn a lot from other broadcasters, at home and abroad.

There are many ways in which the BBC must prove its continued legitimacy other than in the field of news and political reporting. Why, for example, does a state-owned broadcaster need to operate eight national television channels, sixteen national radio stations and forty local stations when there is a thriving commercial sector?  But the BBC also gets many things right when it comes to news coverage – no one else in the world can match its depth and breadth, while British audiences tend to trust it above commercial rivals at times of crisis or when major incidents are unfolding.

The BBC’s political coverage, however, goes from bad to worse; and if left unaddressed for much longer it not only runs the risk of negatively colouring Sajid Javid’s upcoming review, but it will start to undermine British democracy itself.

As a first step in the right direction, the BBC News Channel’s editor, Jasmine Lawrence, needs to be reassigned to another role where her toxic anti-UKIP beliefs are in no danger of bringing the corporation’s impartiality into further question. But above all, the BBC needs to stop dumbing down in the one key area where dumbing down offers no benefits at all in terms of audience engagement or viewing figures.

The BBC’s Royal Charter – a delightfully worded document whose preamble would not be out of place in a Shakespeare play – defines the corporation’s public services (in part) as follows:

(a) sustaining citizenship and civil society;
(b) promoting education and learning;

Unless our national broadcaster is happy to continue fostering a state of cultural apartheid, where radio listeners receive tolerably decent political news output while television viewers are talked down to and belittled at every turn, the BBC must acknowledge that it is currently failing to meet these public service requirements.

And as it goes for anyone finding themselves on the wrong path in life, the first step toward the BBC’s redemption will be admitting that they have a problem.

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The Alex Salmond Backlash Continues

When the cornerstones of your argument are based on wishful thinking, whimsy and straight-up denial, they are quickly eroded in direct proportion to the level of attention and scrutiny they receive. And so it goes for Alex Salmond, his Scottish Nationalist Party and the rest of the pro-Scottish independence movement.

What started as a seemingly serious and passionate argument in favour of localism and self-determination has – with only the first stirrings of an intervention from serious business leaders and Westminster politicians – been revealed as an illogical and fundamentally unserious argument put forward by people who lacked either the courtesy or capacity to construct a real one.

Saltires, shortbread and scotch - an appealing combination but not a convincing basis for independence
Saltires, shortbread and scotch – an appealing combination but not a convincing basis for independence

 

Alan Cochrane, the Telegraph’s Scotland editor, sums it all up:

In the parallel universe inhabited by the First Minister of Scotland and his separatist supporters, their campaign to break up Britain is sailing towards victory. The reality, however, is somewhat different. On Sunday, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, fired what was but the latest in a series of well-aimed torpedoes at the SNP’s attempt to win September’s referendum on Scottish independence.

And so it is, inside the SNP’s alternate reality. To look at Alex Salmond and the rest of the pro-independence group campaign, you would scarely notice that their argument has been comprehensively derailed or even encountered the slightest bit of turbulence. Aside from the now familiar petulant accusations of bullying or intimidation, they remain all smiles, convinced that the opposition of UK political parties to sharing the pound or of the EU to admitting an independent Scotland are minor obstacles that will quickly be overcome in the aftermath of a Yes vote.

Such is the power of denial.

Salmond’s second-in-command, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is no better. Her response to indications that the European Union would look very dimly on the membership application of an independent Scotland? The assertion that to deny membership to the Scots would be ‘un-European’ – as though the EU were some kind of principled organisation that always dutifully followed its founding documents and operating guidelines to the letter.

She insisted the EU would not deny Scotland its right to be members of the EU since this would run counter to the principle of national self-determination – a founding principle of the EU.

Her remarks came after all three parties at Westminster said they would not allow an independent Scotland to remain in a currency union with the rest of the UK and the European commission president José Manuel Barroso said it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Scotland to join the European Union.

In pressing their ever-weakening case for separation from the United Kingdom, the nationalists are very good at putting words into the mouths of others – of course business leaders would demand that the UK government allow Scotland to continue using the pound, of course the European Union would stop everything that it’s doing to expedite Scottish accession – but ultimately find themselves being contradicted or slapped down nearly every time when those people ultimately speak for themselves.

It would be unrealistic to expect this denial to dissipate in the near future. Though the Saltires, shortbread and scotch whiskey postcard image of an independent Scotland endlessly promoted by Alex Salmond is increasingly being exposed as a farce, a tour-de-force in wishful thinking, intoxicating beliefs such as this are long-held and self-reinforcing, and do not vanish in a puff of smoke at their first exposure to reality.

But it must be disheartening for the nationalists that in response to firm UK positions on sharing the pound and strengthening EU rhetoric on Scottish accession, all Alex Salmond has in response is bluster and outrage. As Cochrane rightly notes:

But just as Mr Salmond dismissed [George Osborne and the shadow chancellor] for indulging in “bluff, bluster and bullying” over sterling, the best the nationalists could come up with yesterday in response to the head of the EU was that he was being “preposterous”.

Sound bites of this nature have become the stock-in-trade of the SNP leader, with his speech in Aberdeen yesterday littered with well-worn smart-Alex phrases about how those opposed to him had been indulging in, variously, “a destructive campaign” and were “undermining the democratic process”, “dictating from on high” and indulging in “caricatures”.

We can only expect to see more and more of this as the independence debate lurches toward its September conclusion. If Alex Salmond is not willing to articulate his Plan B, a detailed plan for how a newly independent Scotland would sustain itself and relate to the rest of the UK, to Europe and to the world – and all evidence thus far suggests that he is not able to do so – then playing the victim card is really the only option left open to him.

A pivot towards the argument/caricature of the plucky pro-independence Scotsman being bullied and browbeaten by the forces of British imperialism and big business would be entirely understandable in the waning days of the campaign, when the SNP high command finally acknowledges that all hope is lost. But to see this take place so early in the campaign is quite shocking. The nationalists can talk for Britain (or rather, for Scotland), but now they seem to be lost for words.

There are 211 days until the referendum on Scottish independence, and already it sounds as though the Yes campaign is giving voters a sneak preview of their post-defeat blame game. This is worrying for the nationalists, but should gladden the hearts of everyone who values the strength and integrity of our United Kingdom.

Alex Salmond’s Delusions of Grandeur

The referendum has not yet taken place, but already Alex Salmond seeks to dictate terms to the United Kingdom.
The referendum has not yet taken place, but already Alex Salmond seeks to dictate terms to the United Kingdom

 

The nationalist separatist cause espoused by the SNP and Alex Salmond has always had more basis in fairy tale and wishful thinking than in any kind of reality, and Salmond has always been among the most deluded of its proponents.

Leaving the United Kingdom yet sharing a Head of State. Leaving the United Kingdom and yet sharing the UK’s currency. Leaving the United Kingdom and expecting a warm and swift embrace from the European Union. The leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party has asserted all of these risible ideas at one time or another, and many more besides. And yet not content with already living very publicly in cloud cuckoo land, Salmond felt the need to go further still.

In the latest story to be filed away with his other preposterous ideas, Alex Salmond now imagines himself the leader of a newly independent Scotland, and deigns to dictate to the remainder of the United Kingdom the terms on which Scotland would assume a portion of the UK’s current national debt on secession.

The FT reports:

In his first major speech on independence in weeks Mr Salmond accused London-based ministers of “lecturing” the Scottish people.

Offering a “deconstruction” of Mr Osborne’s argument, Mr Salmond said: “If there is no legal basis for Scotland having a share of the public asset of the Bank of England, then there is equally no legal basis for Scotland accepting a share of the public liability of the national debt.”

One thing needs to be made absolutely clear, not just to Alex Salmond but to all supporters of Scottish independence, so that they are able to make an informed decision at the ballot box when the time comes: assuming a proportionate amount of the United Kingdom’s sovereign debt upon secession from the UK is not negotiable, and is not something that can be opted out of. Neither, crucially, is it dependent on the UK agreeing to share its currency with the newly independent country.

The Scots may choose to leave the United Kingdom, and if they are foolish enough to do so then that is now their right, to be exercised in the referendum this September. But whether an independent Scotland keeps the pound, joins the euro or – as one commentator suggests, inaugurating a new currency, the Salmond – they must assume their fair proportion of the national debt. Scotland may choose to flounce out of the United Kingdom, but it cannot walk away from sovereign debt.

Whether the Scottish people end up using euros, doubloons or monopoly money in the event of independence, they will be required to make payment to the United Kingdom for their share of the debt. George Osborne and his counterparts in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties need to make this absolutely clear to Salmond, just as they unequivocally stood together to make clear that an independent Scotland will not share a currency with the UK.

Salmond and his allies in the “Yes to Independence” campaign may continue to throw accusations of bullying and intimidation when well-meaning people point out the impossibility of their public stances, but this should not dissuade anyone from doing so.

The goal of these continued rebuttals, of course, is not to change the mind of Salmond – he is far too gone, far beyond help. But when he makes blatantly false assertions about an independent Scotland’s ability to choose a currency other than its own, or to walk away from sovereign debt obligations, he is misleading his supporters and ensuring that the votes they may cast for Scottish independence are for a very different kind of independence than that which he promises and they have in mind.

For that reason alone – to maintain the integrity of the referendum campaign in the face of sleazy salesmanship, sleight of hand and craven dishonesty from Alex Salmond and the SNP – the media’s truth and plausibility-o-meter must remain firmly pointed at the nationalists.

Gordon Brown To The Rescue

He's back.
He’s back.

 

Just as the momentum behind the Scottish independence campaign well and truly faltered and we all started to rest easier in our expectation that the Kingdom will remain United after the people of Scotland hold their referendum later this year, Gordon Brown felt the need to re-emerge from the shadows and weigh into the debate.

I’m sure that in his mind, a person of his “stature” breaking their self-imposed political silence to speak in favour of Scotland’s continued participation in the Union would only ever be a good thing, a final coup de grâce drawing a line under the debate. Unfortunately, Brown could not resist digressing from his original point and sharing his thoughts on the purpose and ideal future structure of our United Kingdom, and in so doing he managed, in his own inimitable way, to muddy the waters and raise more questions than he resolved.

The Telegraph reports:

The Scottish Parliament should be made more powerful, Gordon Brown will say on Saturday as he urges people not to break up the Union.

In his most significant policy intervention since leaving Downing Street, the former prime minister will call for major constitutional changes which he believes could keep Scotland in the Union.

The confusion begins right away. According to the most recent polling, two thirds of Scottish people want Scotland to remain a part of the UK as we currently stand under the terms of the referendum questions. When the unionist side is already making such a convincing case and steadily holding a majority of public opinion, why come out proposing “major constitutional changes” as a deal-sweetener? Not only does it reek of panic and desperation, it is a cast-iron certainty that the constitutional changes being proposed will be of a narrow, specific and non-universal nature, designed to bribe voters but carrying with them the unintended consequence of making the architecture of the UK’s political governance even more complex and inequitable than it is today. But more on that later.

Brown rightly criticises some of the wishful thinking underpinning the SNP’s economic forecasts and predictions for a hypothetical independent Scotland:

He will say: “First, they calculate oil and gas revenues as at least £6.8  billion in 2016-2017 when all formal and independent forecasts suggest the correct figure is likely to be around £3.5 billion, leaving a £3.3 billion shortfall. To make this up requires a rise in income tax of 10p.

“Second, they have failed to calculate the cost of European Union membership without the British rebate, which Scotland would not benefit from. In consequence, Scotland’s net membership costs could be as high as £500  million that the SNP have not budgeted for.

However, it is in The Guardian’s reporting where Brown’s higher aspirations for the future of the UK are fully revealed:

Brown said Scotland would be strengthened by his proposed constitutional changes while remaining within the union. The Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP wants the Scottish parliament to be made irreversible, with “maximum devolution of powers in training, transport, health, the Crown Estates Commission and the running of elections”.

This is all well and good. As an instinctive conservative with a strong libertarian and small government streak, I strongly support devolving power to the lowest and most sensible level possible. To my mind, having Scotland make its own policy in terms of education, transport (to the degree which it can reasonably differ from the rest of the UK), healthcare and other matters is perfectly sensible. Some will doubtless bleat about the iniquities of the overly-discussed “postcode lottery”, but to me such an approach is the only right thing to do.

The problem is that Gordon Brown proposes this devolution of power only for Scotland, and only as a means of persuading reluctant Scots to swing their support behind continued membership of the UK. One gets the strong feeling that in an ideal world, Gordon Brown would like nothing more to centralise each and every one of these areas of policy and governance, and run them all from Whitehall, and that it is only through urgent necessity and the pursuit of an even more important objective (maintaining the Union) that he is willing to permit these giveaways.

But what of the other nations of the United Kingdom? Why should Scotland be free to attune her education and transport policy more closely to the needs of her citizens, but not Wales, Northern Ireland or England?

I cannot repeat often enough my firm belief that this piecemeal devolving of powers on an on-demand basis whenever one of the home nations becomes a bit restless or we have a referendum to win is damaging to the integrity of the UK, and ensures that as a country we limp on, united still (just about) but burdened ever more heavily by arcane and inexplicable rules determining which decisions get made at what level in each constituent part of the country.

I call once again for a proper constitutional convention in the UK, to decide once and for all the powers and functions that we the people should rightly and properly give to Westminster, and those which should be devolved to the four individual home nations to be exercised equally by each.

Such a convention would also allow us to determine what should be the “shared purpose of our union”, which apparently if left unaddressed, will be defined by Gordon Brown along the specious and redistributionist lines of “social justice”. The Guardian makes explicit Brown’s view of our common purpose:

He has proposed UK legislation to state the shared purpose of the union, “namely the pooling and sharing of resources for social justice”.

I’m all for having a debate about the purpose of the country, but I would much rather frame it around providing liberty and freedom for the United Kingdom’s citizens than Gordon Brown’s vision of us coming together to to pool and share our national resources. Human beings are inclined to do this anyway of their own accord, and don’t need prompting from government to get them started. And now, for some reason, I cannot purge from my mind the image of Gordon Brown sitting at a desk in front of a huge warehouse, assigning barrels of North Sea oil to each man, woman and child in the UK – every barrel filled equally to the last drop, of course.

It is kind of Gordon Brown to re-emerge from semi-retirement and deign to give a speech on the future of our country. But his long-awaited contribution is not, unfortunately, of great use to anyone. The last thing that the United Kingdom needs is more piecemeal constitutional reform while the bigger picture goes unaddressed. And I am certainly not about to sign up to a national mission statement based on all of us coming together to enact his distinctly New Labour vision of a “just” society.

Until next time, Gordon.

Edumacation, Edumacation, Edumacation

Higher education, solved.
Higher education, solved.

 

The Guardian trails a new Labour proposal for “debt-free degrees” for up to 50,000 students per year, an idea which may well end up in the Labour party’s 2015 general election manifesto. The Guardian’s political editor, cheerleading the idea, claims that this scheme will “tailor university education more closely to the needs of business and young people”. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the enquiring mind to begin picking holes in the concept.

From the top:

Under the scheme, people in employment will be able to study for a degree relevant to their existing and future work, with the costs being paid jointly by government and their employers. The degrees would carry no fees and the in-work students would receive a wage or training allowance from their employer during their period of study.

There is a world of difference between a short course designed to brush up an employee’s computing skills, or even a slightly longer and more involved course in a field such as project management, and the rigorous demands of a university degree. Whilst an employer may see the immediate short-medium term benefit in paying for their staff to undertake the former on company time, it would be a generous boss indeed who would take the dual hit of lost working time and course fees to fund a whole degree.

The costings for the proposal are worked out with the astonishing level of detail and realism that we have all come to expect from Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership:

Denham, who will outline the plans in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts on 16 January, says the government’s financial contribution will be found by redirecting money currently spent on writing off unpayable student debt from fees and maintenance loans, and on student grants.

I have read this sentence through several times, and if it makes any more sense to a reader than it does to me, I would love to have the translation in plain English. You don’t “spend money” writing off debts from unrepayable student loans. And if John Denham, the policy’s champion, is suggesting that the £3bn shortfall between expected and actual repayments on student loans over the course of the next parliament can be easily resolved by tracking down students who have moved abroad and shaking them down for money, or by waving a magic wand and making graduates suddenly earn income above the £21,000 threshold so as to become eligible to make repayments, then I will take this as just another sad sign that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has no grip on economic reality or the way that public finances work. Whenever we are told that the money for some policy “will be found by redirecting money currently spent on…”, I take it as seriously as I would if Denham told me that he would fund his policy through “efficiency savings”.

There is then, of course, the question of the nature and value of these new degrees, were they to be taught in the classroom. If, as the Guardian claims, they are to be closely “tailor[ed] … more closely to the needs of business”, the degrees are likely to be highly specialised, with much less transferability to other fields of work than more generalist degrees. Indeed, any sensible employer acting in their own interests would be almost certain to demand this – if you are going to pay for someone to get a degree, it is in your interests as an employer to make sure that that degree will be of maximum use to the employee whilst they are working for you, and as little use to them as possible when they come to take that degree and use it elsewhere – so as to act as a deterrent to leaving.

But seeing only the positives, Denham imagines that business will embrace the idea of paying for their employees’ qualifications:

Denham says the proposals will prove attractive to many businesses as they will save money on recruitment and retention, having trained handpicked staff. They will also save on in-house training costs. Employers and students will also be able to shape the courses to ensure they are relevant.

But apparently under the precursor to this policy, employers were expected to contribute £3000 towards tuition costs, and would also be expected to pay a wage or training allowance to their employees as they studied “intensively over two years” or longer. I find it hard to imagine that any savings on recruitment, retention or in-house training will be sufficient to make incurring these expenses an attractive option.

The Guardian further joins the Labour Party in proclaiming that the new policy proposal is in direct response to demand from industry and the private sector, as the article continues:

The ideas are likely to be welcomed by business groups. Last July the CBI said both universities and businesses needed to be more imaginative in the way they provided high-quality education that was relevant to the country’s economic needs, and affordable for young people.

The accompanying link in the Guardian article in support of this assertion does not work, which is probably no accident. Although the CBI and others are right to acknowledge that the standard A-levels and three-year degree route is not sufficient to meet the recruitment needs of the British economy in 2014, this is a long way from a plaintive call for the kind of policy that John Denham wants to enact, and it is sneaky in the extreme for the Guardian to shoehorn in this unrelated quote from the CBI’s policy director:

Katja Hall, CBI policy director, said: “The UK needs to vastly increase the stock of workers with higher-level skills to drive long-term growth and stop us falling behind our competitors. We need to tackle the perception that the A-levels and three-year degree model is the only route to a good career.

Acknowledgement of this simple fact by the CBI is a good and obvious thing. Of course rewarding and well-paid careers can be achieved through many routes, and alternatives to the standard path should always be sought and encouraged where they could be of greater benefit to people. But to take this broad and nonspecific statement made by the CBI last year and try to bend it in support of a specific (and particularly ill-thought out Labour policy) is manipulative and disingenuous.

It does not bring me great joy to pick apart a policy supposedly intended to address a real problem – a significant and growing skills gap between the demands of industry and the abilities of those entering the workforce. But this proposal appears completely unworkable to me. In order to get business to embrace it in any large number, it seems to me that the the conditions would have to be so onerous – in terms of the narrowness of  the degree (more akin to a vocational qualification) and the period of time to which the employee is beholden to work for the employer following graduation – that no student in their right mind would sign up. And if Labour do get into government in 2015 and enact the policy in a way that is remotely appealing to potential students, the cost to the employer would be such that very few firms (aside from those wishing to curry special favour with the government in order to achieve other ends) would be likely to subscribe.

If anyone finds my thinking to be flawed, or can argue that this Labour proposal is anything other than an empty, unworkable vessel designed to launch the phrase “debt-free degree” into the public consciousness ahead of the next election, I would be very keen to hear from you.

Use the comments section, as usual.