Monday, 15 October 2018

Is South Korea as leftist as it gets?

Soon‐Mee Kwon and Ijin Hong


Considering its conservative past, South Korea is undergoing an unprecedented turn to the left, led by President Moon Jae‐in. Since priority was given to economic growth from the 1960s until the beginning of the 1990s, a close alliance between big business and government has characterised the country's labour market. Economic growth under the auspices of state‐led authoritarian industrialisation in South Korea has been accompanied by a deep‐rooted anti‐communism meant to serve as an ideological and military bulwark against the communist North Korea.

So how could this new inclination toward social democracy in policymaking have been possible? What is the social‐democratic character of these reforms and what are the constraints in implementing them?

South Korea underwent economic development and democratisation without the working class developing a common identity and a resolve to organise collectively. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 inflicted a devastating blow to the labour market and caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose their jobs. When liberal President Kim Dae‐jung took office in 1998, he immediately faced the necessity of opening up the hitherto highly protected labour market to flexibilisation and globalisation, a mandatory condition that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed on its bailout.

This resulted in growing inequality in a dualised labour market that left the trade unions in a marginal role, and citizens feeling bitter towards the neoliberal conditions attached to the bailout. Precarious working contracts are typically accompanied by lower wages and social protection, unsafe working conditions, limited access to work training, and poorer organisational representation for workers.

The candlelight protests


Following a rapid turn of events that led to the impeachment of conservative president Park Geun‐hye, left‐leaning President Moon Jae‐in seems determined to roll back this legacy of labour oppression with the strong support of trade unions and young voters.

This decision – the first of its kind in Korean history – was made possible by a public outcry about the state of affairs. The public expressed its desire for change through protests that took the form of candlelight vigils, which were held throughout winter 2016.

The newly elected government relied on young people in their teens and twenties, who were a remarkable presence at the candlelight protests, but had not appeared particularly interested in political matters up to that point. Moon also benefitted from strong support from labour organisations, another major player in the 2017 candlelight protests. Under the triple promises of promoting income‐led growth, tackling labour market inequalities and fostering a people‐centred economy, the Moon government committed itself to job creation and welfare expansionary policies.

The need for labour market reform was predicated on two structural weaknesses of the South Korean labour market: volatile employment, and the fact that South Korea's public social expenditure only amounts to 10 per cent of its GDP. Its rates of elderly poverty (47.7 per cent) and suicide are the highest and its public expenditure for active labour market policies the lowest among OECD countries. In the face of such an insufficient safety net, getting fired is naturally viewed as a matter of life and death.

Moon rising


The new administration has demonstrated its commitment to bringing about change with a raft of such measures, including: improving atypical work conditions; engineering a major increase of the minimum wage (+16.4 per cent) from 6,470 to 7,530 won; creating 35,000 jobs in the public sector (for firemen and police officers, for example); converting atypical contracts into regular ones for 110,000 workers in the public sector; and other policies.

As this administration concludes its first year of activity, however, several shortcomings remain. Relying on tax and spend policies and expansionary job creation do not directly address the structural problems of low productivity, low wages and dire working conditions. Could Moon be part of a familiar cycle of ‘high hopes and high disappointments’ that is typical of South Korean politics?

On the bright side, the Moon government is well positioned to venture into expansionary, Keynesian public job creation policies, since the country's public debt is still modest by international standards. South Korea's core debt stands at 40.4 per cent of the national GDP according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which is half the average level of G20 countries. Moon also enjoyed considerable popular support (75 per cent) at the end of his first year in office, which was much higher than previous presidents.

But reform also faces several stumbling blocks at the structural level. The recent minimum wage hike represented a structural blow to a labour market dominated by SMEs, which make up 90 per cent of the total. The government has been squeezed between demands for higher wages by low‐income workers and protests against higher payroll costs by the self‐employed and SMEs. The conflict between regular and irregular workers is also emerging as a bitterly divisive factor in the public sector. In general, well‐meaning Keynesian inspired reform does not seem adequate for a weakening economy.

These developments in South Korea imply that there is still considerable cause for concern about the future of social democracy and the way it should adapt to the challenges of a globalised economy.

Soon-Mee Kwon is Professor at the Employment and Labor Training Institute, Gwangju-si (Kyeonggi-do), South Korea

Ijin Hong is Research Professor at the Institute for Welfare State Research, Seoul, South Korea 


Image by Shawn Ang

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Too many bodies

Deborah Mabbett


Recent years have not been good to independent committees and policy advisory bodies. Last December, the entire Social Mobility Commission, headed by Alan Milburn, resigned, citing a lack of political progress towards a fairer Britain. Andrew Adonis left the National Infrastructure Commission having accumulated multiple grievances with the government. The Office for Budget Responsibility has found itself the object of repeated sniping for its Brexit pessimism, as has the Governor of the Bank of England.

Despite this, the IPPR’s blockbuster report on Prosperity and Justice advocates the creation of yet more independent expert commissions and regulators. There should be more ‘social partnership’, exemplified, according to the report, by the Low Pay Commission. There should be an industrial strategy, overseen by an independent Industrial Strategy Committee. There should be a new regulator for corporate governance and an ‘Ofdigi’ to promote the digital commonwealth. The Bank of England should have an extended mandate; among other things it would work closely with a development bank, the National Investment Bank, which will have a politically independent management. Economic devolution should be promoted by new regional executives, overseen by regional councils indirectly elected by constituent local authorities. And, as a final flourish at the end of the report, there should be a National Economic Council.

Can bodies work?


It is worth going back to first principles to ask what these various bodies might be expected to achieve. A number of the bodies recommended in the IPPR report would have consultative and advisory functions. These are not to be sniffed at. For example, the Low Pay Commission has only ever had the power to make recommendations, but for governments seeking to avoid an argument, it was very attractive to accept recommendations backed unanimously by the Commissioners. Labour embraced the Commission because it steered a path between the Blairites and the union wing. But in 2015, when the Conservatives found themselves with an outright majority and no significant internal divisions over minimum wage policy, George Osborne took his own decision without waiting for the Commission. It was effective for as long as it would solve a decision-making problem for the government, and no longer.

Expert commissions have the role of finding proposals that are acceptable to the parties in the weak sense that they prefer the commission’s proposals to the alternatives. Those alternatives are either the status quo – stasis and non-decision – or decisions made in other ways. In the UK context, this generally means decisions by ministers, pushed through cabinet and Parliament. This latter option is often attractive and rarely blocked.

Ill-fated commissions


But blockage does besiege British governments in infrastructure decision-making, with Heathrow the most notorious example, as Steven Griggs and David Howarth have documented. The Davies Commission was meant to cut through the problems by making a recommendation that all parties would commit in advance to accept. But British political parties never tie their hands. By the time Davies reported, the Cameron government had an outright majority that it was not prepared to jeopardise by accepting Davies’ recommendations. Cameron ‘welcomed’ the report but indicated that it was ‘yet to decide’ its preferred scheme. It took a weak minority government to give up the possibility of political gain, accept cross-party support, and proceed with Heathrow expansion.

In 2013, Labour commissioned Sir John Armitt, now successor to Lord Adonis at the National Infrastructure Commission, to review the way that infrastructure decisions were planned and made. He recommended changes to decision-making procedures. The Commission would produce a ten-year package of infrastructure plans, which Parliament would vote on as a package, with limited powers of amendment and creating a restricted timetable for review. But ministers have no reason to accept such constraints. They can make decisions if they want to, obfuscate and postpone if they don’t. The chances that infrastructure recommendations will be as influential as those of the Low Pay Commission in its heyday are slight. There is too much at stake, especially when long-term plans are in the throes of turning into short-term realities.

In search of consensus and partnership


The fate of the advisory bodies proposed in the IPPR report is likely to be similar. Despite the current divisions in Cabinet and gridlock in government, there is little sign that ministers feel at all inclined to seek solutions from such bodies, at least not in economic areas where decisions have salient political consequences. Social partnership may be a lovely idea, but it has only taken root in countries where the political system presents governments with major barriers to making decisions, where coalitions of support have to be assembled. A National Economic Council could be valuable to a Chancellor who faced serious obstacles to implementing his programme, but this is rarely the case. The IPPR report castigates the ‘rabbit out of a hat’ policy-making of the Budget, but these rabbits usually run, and the Chancellor gets the credit.

Writing in the Financial Times, Jesse Norman criticised the IPPR Commission for paying attention to market failure but not government failure. This criticism is unfair. Recognition that the political system prevents the necessary decisions being taken permeates the report, which is why it repeatedly proposes new mechanisms for economic governance. But the report is evasive in its steadfast focus on the economic, averting its eyes from the awfulness of the country’s politics. Unfortunately, prosperity and justice need political revitalisation as well as economic ideas.

Deborah Mabbett is Professor of Public Policy at Birkbeck, University of London. 

This blog is adapted from Deborah Mabbett’s editorial commentary in The Political Quarterly journal. 

Image by Heidi Sandstrom

Monday, 8 October 2018

What kind of Brexit do voters actually want? We held a Citizens’ Assembly and asked them (clue: it's not a no-deal)

Alan Renwick, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russell and Graham Smith


The Brexit vote told us that a majority of voters wanted to leave the EU, but it said little about their preferences for the form that Brexit should take. Public opinion surveys offer some insights, but often encourage respondents to provide simple answers to complex questions.

To gain insights into what kind of Brexit voters want, we held a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit in Autumn 2017. It brought together fifty randomly selected members of the public for two carefully structured weekends of listening, learning, reflecting and discussing. Assembly members considered what post‐Brexit arrangements the UK should pursue, focusing on trade and migration. The events gave them a chance to learn about the options, arguments and potential trade-offs and discuss them with a wide range of their peers.

The Citizens’ Assembly was modelled on previous citizens’ assemblies in Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland, which led to referendums on electoral reform in two Canadian provinces and on same‐sex marriage and abortion in Ireland. Citizens’ assemblies embody a deliberative conception of democracy, where all perspectives are heard and considered carefully in light of evidence.

The intention was to feed into current government policy‐making. A narrow focus was essential to allow considered discussion within the time available.

Considered public opinion was hostile to a no deal Brexit


A crucial aspect of the future relationship between the UK and the EU will involve how we trade with each other. At the moment, that is largely determined by the rules of the Single Market.

Given a range of options on a Brexit trade deal, most Citizens’ Assembly members wanted the UK to pursue a bespoke arrangement with the EU rather than take either the off‐the‐peg option of continuing Single Market membership (should the EU allow it) or the option of no deal. This is striking. If in late 2018 or 2019, public opinion is similarly hostile to leaving the EU with no deal, it will be hard for any government to push such a Brexit through.

Figure 1

We asked Assembly members to rank different options primarily because it may be that the UK cannot get everything it wants. While the UK government’s Chequers plan proposes a bespoke trading relationship between the UK and the Single Market, whether any agreement on this basis will be acceptable either to remaining EU member states or to the UK parliament is far from clear. The voting in the Assembly also allows us to see members’ preferences if such a deal turns out to be unavailable. The graph below shows preferences if no bespoke trade deal at all can be done. If the choice comes down to one between Single Market membership and no deal, most members preferred the UK to stay in the Single Market.

Figure 2

Most people wanted to maintain free movement of labour, but reduce immigration

Migration between the UK and the EU is currently governed by the EU principle of free movement, which applies to people in employment or self‐employment, as well as to students and anyone who can sustain themselves financially. The Assembly considered five options for post‐Brexit policy.


Figure 3

Most members wanted the UK to maintain free movement of labour while using already available policy levers to reduce immigration numbers. This was despite the fact that we presented evidence indicating that the impact of exercising the available controls on total immigrant numbers would be small: likely in the low thousands.

Members were clearly concerned that policy‐makers should not focus just on the rules about who can or cannot stay in the UK. They also wanted the government to attend to domestic policies that might affect migration patterns – such as training for UK nationals – and to outcomes that are affected by migration such as the quality of public services. And some at least were open to delaying recent immigrants’ access to benefits, even if that might exclude some UK nationals too.

Thus, the members’ support for continuing free movement does not mean that most opposed a reduction in overall immigration numbers: most did want total immigration to fall. But they wanted this to be done in a targeted and fair way that would minimise harm to the UK economy.

Further thoughts


The evidence from the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is that most voters want a pragmatic Brexit: if the UK is leaving the EU, they want it to strike the best deal possible. They want politicians to be concerned, above all, with protecting the economy, public services, and living standards across all parts of the UK. Their optimal outcome is a bespoke deal between the UK and the EU, such as the UK government is currently pursuing. But if that proves unattainable, they would prefer the UK to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union than to leave the EU with no deal. They want to contain immigration while maintaining a substantial level of free movement.

These are the conclusions of a diverse sample of the UK electorate who engaged intensively and deeply with the issues over two weekends. They deserve to be taken seriously by policy‐makers.

Finally, the use of a Citizens’ Assembly to address the complexities of Brexit illustrates the valuable role that such deliberative exercises could play in UK democracy. They could be particularly helpful for unlocking progress on issues that are often felt to be ‘too difficult’ for politicians to handle. One such issue is the future funding of social care, so it is very welcome that two parliamentary committees established a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care earlier this year.

Alan Renwick, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russell and Graham Smith.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.

Image by Timon Studler.

Friday, 5 October 2018

'People will have to reconceptualise their ideas of gender': Why reform of the Gender Recognition Act could be life-changing

Vic Parsons



On April 4, 2005, the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – which allows people who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria to change their legal gender – came into force in the UK, having received royal assent in July the previous year. It was heralded as a “groundbreaking” and progressive move for transgender rights.

However, since it was introduced, fewer than 5,000 people have used the process to legally change their gender. Noting the low uptake – especially given the fact that there were more trans respondents than this to its National LGBT Survey last year – the government has launched a consultation on how to best reform the GRA to make it a better service for those who want to use it to change their legal gender and obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). The consultation opened on July 3 and closes on October 19.

The Gender Recognition Act is inadequate


Common complaints levelled against the GRA process are that it is expensive, bureaucratic, time consuming and intrusive. The medical evidence that trans people are obliged to provide also puts a strain on the already stretched NHS. The panel who decide if the applicants’ legal gender can be changed never actually meet them.

Other problems include that trans people under the age of 18 are excluded from the process, a person’s spouse currently has the right to “veto” their change in legal gender, and non binary identities are not recognised. As Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, among other Scottish feminist organisations, succinctly put it in a statement: “The complexity, restrictions and expense of the current gender recognition process particularly discriminates against trans people who are disabled, migrant, minority ethnic, unemployed, homeless, experiencing domestic abuse, young or non binary.”

Getting a GRC means that trans people can change the gender on their birth certificate. While this may sound like a technical issue, Laura Russell, head of policy at Stonewall, explains: “Being able to get a Gender Recognition Certificate matters. It’s important trans people are able to be recognised in the eyes of the law. Not only does it help to protect people’s privacy, it means a lot to a trans person to know that the state believes who they are.”

Why reform would be life-changing


Reform of the GRA includes the possibility of legally recognising non binary people for the first time. In the UK government’s National LGBT Survey last year, 13 per cent of respondents were trans. More than half of these – 6.9 per cent – were non binary. While the current narrative around trans rights has tended to focus on trans women, and bathrooms, many non binary people feel our voices are not being heard and our rights not considered.

Reform would mean that non binary people could have their gender accurately reflected on ID documents, and would be offered the same protections under employment and discrimination legislation as those people, cis and trans, whose gender is binary. At the moment, the only options for gender in the UK are man or woman – on passports, marriage applications, pension papers, driving licenses, and so on. A person who is non binary is continuously reminded that, legally, their gender does not exist – and is forced to choose something that they are not.

Russell adds: “There is no need for it to be this way. That is why we are calling for the government's reform of the Gender Recognition Act to include legal recognition of non binary identities. This move would be life-changing for many trans people in Britain and a crucial step toward ensuring that the UK's gender recognition laws are in line with international best practice.

The UK has fallen behind other countries


In this respect, the UK has fallen behind other European countries, like Malta, Norway and Denmark, when it comes to gender recognition. Further afield, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan all have legal recognition of, and protections for, non binary people – countries that, in our Western-centric view of human rights, we may have imagined as being more traditionalist and less accepting. But that is not the case. Non binary and transgender identities were historically commonplace and celebrated in many countries around the world, before the arrival of the colonialist British enforced a rigid gender binary and criminalised homosexuality.

“Colonialism has definitely had an impact on global understands of gender, enforcing Western concepts onto other cultures,” Lee-Anne Lawrance, deputy chair for the LGBTIQA+ Greens, told me. “Recognition of non-binary people will mean that people in our culture will have to reconceptualise their ideas of gender.”

But they acknowledge that this shift in thinking, which will be accompanied by increasing visibility of non binary people and their experiences, can be hard for those directly affected by the changes.

“The larger visibility of non-binary people was definitely a key factor in my own realisations about my gender. It has enabled me to find myself and some comfort that I am not alone. The visibility has also meant that I've been able to find a community of people who understand me and support me, as well as a community that comes together to enact change.

“Of course, this visibility has brought with it a swell of anti-trans and anti-non-binary activism. I have definitely faced a lot of that in my political work. It is hard trying to get on with life when so many people are acting to specifically target you and your rights. Some of the personal impact is that I've seen lies and misinformation spread about me on social media, and people speculating about my private life, and so have my friends. However, I think this kind of explosivity is what happens before rights are won, and I am hopeful for the future.”

Breaking down the gender binary is positive for non binary individuals, as it allows us the freedom to live authentically. It is also positive from a feminist viewpoint, which has long fought against gender stereotyping. Sadly, not all people who consider themselves feminists would agree.

Dr Katharine Jenkins, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, says, “I think some of the hostility towards the idea of gender identity and towards legal recognition for trans people (including non binary people) comes from the idea that this shift necessarily means that we have to completely stop talking about the effects of sexism and about bodily differences connected to reproduction.”

“This simply isn’t true – recognising gender identity and supporting trans rights doesn’t mean that we have to stop talking about those other things. But I do think that we need to think more about how we do this, and probably come up with some new language, so that we can talk about the effects of sexism and about bodily difference, where these things are relevant, whilst respecting people’s gender identities.”

Legally recognising non binary people, Jenkins says, “would enable systematic, legally obligatory reviews of services to make sure that they offer equal provision for non binary people. This would be really important in terms of things like access to healthcare and provision of appropriate facilities, so I think it would make a very concrete difference to people’s lives, although I think it would still require a lot of sustained pressure and probably some legal cases.”

Of course, reform of the GRA is just that: reform of the current system. It is one potential way forward; my personal preference would be radical dismantlement of the current binary gender system and the building of a world where people are not categorised by gender.

But reform is what is on offer at present. This consultation could lead to the demedicalisation of the process of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate, open it up to non binary people and legally recognise that not all people fit into the binary boxes of men and women. And that really could be groundbreaking.

Vic Parsons is a sub-editor at The Pool.

Image by Mercedes Mehling.


Thursday, 4 October 2018

As doctors, improving children’s mental health should be a national priority. Here is how to do it

Kailash Chand and Sandeep Ranote


With one in four adults now affected by mental illness, mental health problems are the largest single cause of disability in the UK. It is time for mental health to be our nation's priority, and where better to shine the spotlight than on our children?

Never before has the voice of young people been so important. Instead of being ‘seen and not heard’, they have become ‘visible with a voice’. Now we need to make sure that they are ‘partners that participate’.

One in 10 young people have a diagnosable mental health condition – that's roughly three young people in every classroom in England. But with the NHS chronically underfunded, only a quarter of these young people are able to access the treatment and care that they so vitally need. We know that 75 per cent of all adult mental illness begins before the age of 18 years, so early intervention is not only vital, but could prevent conditions from becoming chronic, long term and disabling into adulthood.

The government has a vision, but where are the resources?


Theresa May announced plans last year to transform the way mental illness is dealt with not in our hospitals but in classrooms, at work and in our communities. The initiative has been largely welcomed, although there is concern that this is yet another governmental policy that hinges on goodwill rather than identifiable resource.

As part of this announcement, a £300m mental health plan for schools was also launched. This included incentivising every school and college in England to have a senior lead for mental health, creating new mental health support teams to liaise between schools and the NHS, and piloting a maximum four-week waiting time for children’s mental health services in some areas. The ideas are laudable but not much progress in this incentive is visible.

May should be under no illusions: she can no longer rely on the overstretched goodwill of healthcare practitioners and teachers. The landscape is not changing quickly enough – it’s time resources followed the rhetoric, or her announcements are little more than motherhood and apple pie.

Ways forward


‘Future in Mind’ (2015) and supported by ‘The 5 year Forward View for Mental Health’ (2016), provides us with an excellent blueprint for possible ways forward. It suggests ways to reconnect a disconnected system and redesign our mental health and emotional wellbeing services for young people and families through local transformation plans (LTPs) across each clinical commissioning group area in the country.

Supported by additional government investment, we must shift away from a tiered model of care to one where the whole system can meet the needs of the whole person and the whole family. We need an emphasis on building resilient communities by utilising the assets within them and the milieu of young people to develop a truly integrated service.

Moving forward, we must encourage a culture of whole system contribution to the local transformation plans. Research demonstrates that better clinical engagement means improved service quality, safety and outcomes for young people. We continue to support the importance of shared decision making with our patients in treatment and we must now support shared decision making with our clinicians in developing and delivering care. This will place value in the clinical voice alongside the skills and knowledge of our commissioners, and the views of young people and families.

Manchester devolution and the mental health revolution


Greater Manchester pioneered the industrial revolution and we believe it could pioneer our mental health revolution. With a £134 million mental health investment proposal and 60 per cent of this to support children and young people, the Greater Manchester health and social care partnership has a unique opportunity to radically transform the way we deliver and develop children and young people's mental health services. This has already been demonstrated in its first year by the success of a young people's community eating disorder network of services working in partnership with the charity BEAT.

From a 2017 green paper, Greater Manchester have also delivered a pilot schools programme to train mental health leads, and mental health first aid training to teachers and youth champions. Through the power of social prescribing and mentorship, they deliver targeted group sessions around emotional health and wellbeing whilst also connecting specialist child and adolescent mental health teams to schools to offer advice and support. Although many have challenged the ambition of this green paper, it is still a positive step forward.

For the first time, we have the opportunity work together as a whole system to build a conurbation where our children do not just survive – they thrive. After all, they are one third of our population, but all of our future.

Kailash Chand is honorary vice president of the BMA, but writes in a personal capacity.

Sandeep Ranote is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist.