3 Oct 2013 08:54am

Figuring out lessons from the home front and abroad

Back to school time for children and politicians, and the new term has been punctuated by a row about school places

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, has accused the government of directing resources to areas which have surplus places – quite the opposite of what the “free schools revolution” set out to achieve.

Since 2003, our military expenditure as a share of GDP has remained unchanged at 2.5% - ranking us 57th in the world

The Swedish-style schools were intended to give parents the chance to fix a shortage of places or offer an alternative to poor-performing primaries or secondaries. Back in 2010, the education secretary Michael Gove declared that he’d received 700 “expressions of interest” from people wanting to set up free schools. That hasn’t translated into quite so many firm proposals, but still, there are 93 opening for the new school year, bringing the total to 174.

The Department for Education insists that the majority of primary free schools are located in areas of need. They’re right, as two thirds – 63 out of 91 – are in areas the National Audit Office said would face a shortage of places by next year. But that means a third – 28 schools – are setting up where there’s already a surplus. That fuels criticism that free schools will end up benefiting a handful of better-off pupils at the expense of their poorer neighbours.

Of course, MPs haven’t really been focusing on domestic policy at all because the last month has been dominated by controversy over Syria, and more specifically by Parliament’s decision to vote against Britain joining Western military intervention – a development so surprising that most of the MPs voting didn’t even see it coming.

Cue anguished commentary about Britain’s reduced standing internationally from the likes of former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, who was not alone in arguing that leaving the US to go it alone “diminishes our country hugely”. So how do we measure up on the world stage?

We spent $60.8bn on defence last year, up 4.9% since the Iraq war a decade ago. That puts us behind the US, China and Russia. Since 2003, our military expenditure as a share of GDP has remained unchanged at 2.5% – ranking us 57th in the world, but the number of active military personnel has sunk from 212,000 in 2003 to 165,650 in 2011, and further since then.

What’s interesting is how that compares to the leading members of the UN security council: America spends 10 times as much as Britain, and defence spending accounts for 4.6% of GDP. China’s defence might is also growing fast. Spending is up by 175% in a decade, to $166bn, but that’s only 2% of China’s GDP. And the number of military personnel is down 21% to 2,945,000 active personnel. The US, in fact, is the only one to have expanded its military in size.

Away from the political controversy over The Syrian civil war, there’s plenty to fight about back home. And Labour leader Ed Miliband has set his sights on pinning a “cost of living crisis” on the government.

A South London walkabout to make the point almost came unstuck when a member of the public pelted him with eggs, but Mr Miliband wiped the yolks from his lapels and soldiered on.

The Labour leader claims: “So many people are finding themselves out of pocket, with prices rising faster than wages.” Yet the chancellor, George Osborne, insists “disposable incomes grew by 1.4% above inflation last year despite the squeeze, the fastest for three years.” So who’s right?

There’s no doubt that inflation is rising faster than wages, but there’s a difference between wages and income. Real gross disposable income – the figure the chancellor’s seized upon – covers wages and other sources of income like benefits, interest on savings and so on. This measure is indeed up 1.4% during 2012, after taking into account price inflation.

So they’re both right. Perhaps what will count in the end, then, is how people feel about their economic fortunes. Although optimism about the economy is growing, opinion polls suggest people still feel pretty cash-strapped. That means this war around the cost of living is very unlikely to end with a truce any time soon.


Cathy Newman Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News and runs the FactCheck blog