26 February 2014

Carry on clinging on

A post earlier this month followed up a story in the Financial Times on 15 February about the division of the British middle-class into the 'über-middle' and the 'cling-ons'. Subsequently an article in The Times (£), Super-rich professions squeeze out traditional middle class, went over the same ground, quoting a little more data:

and the FT has returned to the subject, particularly the housing implications which I touched on in the last post. On 22 February (again a Saturday) the FT lead was High earners face London lockout, ‘Cling-ons’ priced out of homes by ‘uber-middle’, Camden and Hammersmith now unattainable. To help those who had missed the previous week’s story, it explained:
The purchasing power of a wealthy "über middle" is increasingly pushing the most desirable neighbourhoods out of the reach of "cling-ons" - the architects, engineers and academics whose salaries have failed to keep pace over the past 40 years. … People who could once have afforded Richmond, Wandsworth or Islington, are now buying homes in Barnet, Lambeth and Haringey, the data show.
“the data” came from Savills estate agency, as in my post. They were also one of the sources for a map on page 2 of the FT titled “Britain’s middle class has been forced out of “prime” neighbourhoods” showing how for various districts the percentage of electoral wards where average housing costs for a household with a net income of £58,000 are unaffordable (ie need more than 35%):

The accompanying article focussed on Oxford, quoting Savills’ man on the spot:
A lot of the families who lived in north Oxford up until the time that I started (in 1961) were academic families. A lot of those have sold and gone out. And the people coming in might have an academic background, in so far as they were undergraduates here, but they have gone off and made their fortune either in industry or in the City or as senior consultants or accountants and so on.
Another article described the difficulties faced by the cling-ons in affording private education, one of the attractions Oxford offers the übermenschen.  An FT video is available, British middle class splits in two, featuring St Albans as the context.

The FT offered an interesting point about London from Chris Hamnett, professor of geography at King's College, London, who has charted its "gentrification" over 50 years. He said that the capital was now "a global centre for the international rich whose desire to secure a home in the capital amounted to "a process of global asset diversification". Next month Evan Davies has a two-part series on BBC2, Mind The Gap: London Vs The Rest, which hopefully won’t be just a eulogy of Bojoburg and will be prepared to look at the strains the capital is starting to impose on the rest of the country.

Some interesting issues may emerge from this fission of the middle class into über and cling-on.

Firstly, the political implications. If the Conservatives start to be perceived as the party for of the über-middle and above in London and the south east, can they ever win a national election? The foreign owners of London properties don't even vote. Worse, many of the under-60 middle class, whose support the Tories need, will be increasingly aware of their precarious cling-on situation and may find Labour's concern for the squeezed middle appealing.

Secondly, for how much longer will the NHS be able to pay its medical staff über-middle rates of pay? 

Thirdly, are these stories underlain by an internal debate at the FT as to whether it should remain a national newspaper with declining print sales? Could it decide to push away the UK cling-ons? The FT could then concentrate its efforts on physical distribution only at the weekend and on-line subscription all week for the über middle and richer catchments, the dark bits in the map above and their equivalent across the Anglosphere? Much of the content of the FT’s How to Spend It supplements (see its “website of worldly pleasures”) concerns goods and services already clearly unaffordable by mere cling-ons. The weekend House and Home section is in a similar vein, Cheap as pommes frites*, being the headline of an article describing the cheapness of the French property market – from €4.5 million upwards.
*UK chips, US French fries.


Tyler Brülé is the editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine and he also writes a weekly column, The Fast Lane, for the Weekend Financial Times. On 1 March, a few days after this post appeared with its concluding bit of speculation, Brülé chose to write about a new Australian newspaper appearing for the first time that day, The Saturday Paper:
It comes at a time when many of the world's big news groups are considering what to do with their print editions from Monday to Friday (go exclusively on-line? Drop home delivery? Limit distribution to big cities only?) while placing more emphasis on their weekend editions (The FT, for example, has a big global campaign to bolster its weekend offering).  
The Saturday Paper cuts out the cost that comes with running a newspaper throughout the week and is building on a readership base from an established sister magazine, The Monthly. Publisher Morry Schwartz's move to shake up weekend reading should be monitored closely by press barons, both established and emerging.
The FT on 1 March seemed to be giving the über-middle/cling-on thing a bit of a rest.

24 February 2014

The Royal William Yard, Plymouth

Plymouth, in Devon SW England, is an historic coastal city which was badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War. Many of its significant buildings were originally constructed  for the Royal Navy. Plymouth would now like to be seen as an “Ocean City” rather than naval town. 

Last September I posted about the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich in London. Originally the Royal Hospital for Seamen, the magnificent buildings by Wren and Hawksmoor next to the Thames date back to 1700. The interior of the baroque Painted Hall by Thornhill portrays the supremacy of British seapower, something which would endure for two centuries. King William IV, who reigned from 1830 to 1937, had joined the Royal Navy in 1778 at the age of 13 and was known as the “Sailor King”, so it was fitting that when a new victualling yard was built in Stonehouse (map left) next to Devonport dockyard between 1825 and 1833, it would be named after him.

The Royal William Yard was designed by Sir John Rennie, engineer to the Admiralty, who is probably best known for his version of London Bridge, now in Arizona. Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England Devon (2nd edition) describe the Yard as “by far the most impressive single architectural group in Plymouth” and “the most grandiloquent of the monumental compositions created by the Victualling Board of the Navy after the Napoleonic wars [and] among the most remarkable examples of an early C19 planned layout of industrial buildings anywhere in England”.

The Yard closed in 1992 and after restoration, conservation and modernisation was converted by Urban Splash to provide a basin for visiting boats and restaurants, cafés, and shops as well as flats. Visitors enter through an impressive gateway with King William’s statue.

The Gateway and the substantial buildings inside the Yard: Bakery, Slaughterhouse, Cooperage, Brewery etc, are made of local stone in an imposing late Georgian classical style.

All the buildings are Grade 1 listed and, being next to the harbour and Tamar river, provide photogenic subjects.

These plaques reminding visitors of the contributions made to the restoration by the EC and the now defunct local RDA could do with some restoration themselves:

23 February 2014

John Wells’ ‘August: Osage County’

At the opening of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, he describes a journey into the interior of Louisiana:
You’ll go past the little white metal squares set on metal rods, with the skull and crossbones on them to mark the spot. For this is the country where the age of the internal combustion engine has come into its own. Where every boy is Barney Oldfield, and the-girls wear organdy and batiste and eyelet embroidery and no panties on account of the climate and have smooth little faces to break your heart and when the wind of the car’s speed lifts up their hair at the temples you see the sweet little beads of perspiration nestling there, and they sit low in the seat with their little spines crooked and their bent knees high toward the dashboard and not too close together for the cool, if you could .call it that, from the hood ventilator.
August: Osage County is set in Oklahoma, less than 100 miles north west of Louisiana and even sultrier. As for the film’s plot, imagine that Edward Albee had written an alternative to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Harold would have had a professorship in Tulsa, Martha would have had three daughters and the fun and games would arise when a Big Chill brings them and other relations back to the family home. Only being a lot further south than New England, there’s some Tennessee Williams spice added. Meryl Streep is, as always, stunning, this time as a monster matriarch, Violet Weston. Julia Roberts, as Violet’s oldest daughter, Barbara, is a true chip off her mother’s block, although in this story the women are all “strong” and the men are limp. Benedict Cumberbatch, Violet’s nephew, does well with his accent, particularly when singing, although his Harrovian sibilants break through at times. Why he and Ewan McGregor (Barbara’s separated husband) were cast is a bit of a mystery – the US isn’t short of acting talent.

This is a film which was originally a play. Sometimes that translation works well, as in The Ides of March, sometimes it shows a little, as in In the House. In this case, it showed a lot, not only in the “exit stage left” comings and goings of the characters in the Westons’ house (how did a couple born so dirt poor acquire so much stuff?), but in the amount of melodramatic speechifying which probably works on the stage but seemed overwrought on the screen. Lloyd Evans, writing in the Spectator, liked the 2008 production in the National Theatre’s Lyttleton and concluded:
At 210 minutes this blisteringly acute, wonderfully funny and deeply heartfelt comedy requires stamina from its audience, but don’t sit back and wait for a revival. This is the production to see. Under Anna D. Shapiro’s direction it runs like a vintage car with every performance tuned to perfection. Look out for Todd Rosenthal’s gracefully soaring set, whose three rickety floors function as a marvellously pragmatic space and as a visual symbol of the family’s psychological fragility. Before last week I’d never heard of Tracy Letts. Now I want a Tracy Letts festival. I can’t be the only one.
So it’s probably worth pointing out that the film is only 121 minutes and also that Letts’ profile in the UK must be higher now, at least as an actor, after playing Senator Andrew Lockhart who became CIA Director during Homeland Season 3. Letts, who was born in Tulsa, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play and a Tony Award in 2013 for his portrayal of George in the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? John Wells’ directing work has been in TV series - ER and The West Wing - rather than cinema. Streep and Roberts have both been nominated for 2014 Oscars and Golden Globes (Leading and Supporting Actress).

18 February 2014

The view from the unter-middle*

On 15 February the Financial Times lead was one of those designed to sell copies of Saturday’s paper: Über-middle' pulls ahead' on pay:
In this tale of two middle classes, doctors, barristers and London's financial services workers emerge as the big winners. But this "über-middle" is dwarfed by a much larger group of "cling-ons" who have seen their relative position dramatically worsen even during the years of economic boom. The data, prepared for the FT by two of the nation's foremost labour market economists, Professors Brian Bell and Stephen Machin, shines a light on the shifting fortunes of the professional middle class.
Actually, there wasn’t that much data. From page 1 and supplementary material on page 2 under the heading The fractured middle, the reader can pull together the following:

There was also a graphic, Winners and losers: how professional salaries have changed over the decades, adding data for 1994 and for more occupations but using the somewhat opaque statistic of ‘Ratio of mean earnings for each profession compared with the top 10% of earners’:

The only two occupations which have pulled ahead are London finance and Medical practitioners. I was not surprised to read that:
Underpinning this shake-up in the top tier of society is a severing of the bond that for decades tied the top 1 per cent of earners to the 1 per cent below them. Since 1979, the very highest earners have increased their share of total earnings by almost nine percentage points while the rest of the top 10 per cent have captured only an extra four percentage points.
- hardly a revelation. In 2011 Will Hutton’s final report of the Review of Fair Pay in the public sector was published and it showed that the top 1% had been moving ahead since 1980:

in the UK and US that is. And from everybody else in the UK:

But I was surprised to read in the FT:
Doctors, Prof Bell pointed out, were the only group of public sector workers to have done well" "Public sector workers have almost disappeared from the top of the income distribution,"…
because Hutton’s Review had stated that
… public sector employees represent around seven per cent of the highest one per cent of earners [although] those seven per cent only receive one per cent of top earnings. Approximately one in 85 workers in the private sector earn over £150,000 a year, compared to just one in 280 public sector workers. (pages 17/18, 2009 figures)
Top civil servants had certainly done less well than local authority chief executives who, in turn, had failed to keep up with private sector chief executives:

 Hutton thought that when comparing budgets in the public sector and turnover in the private, together with “analyses of job size and complexity [it was still consistently found] that public sector roles pay considerably less than equivalent roles in the private sector” and produced a chart to back that up:

Hutton admitted that:
Simple comparisons of organisation size of course mask very real differences in the size of the role of the leader in what are very different types of organisation; and it may be objected that any private sector CEO can only be paid if his or her organisation is profitable - a crucial test that does not apply to the public sector.
Not the only objection I would have thought. Take the position of university vice-chancellors as reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement last year:
The vice-chancellor with the highest salary in 2011-12 was the University of Birmingham’s David Eastwood, who took home £372,000 in basic pay; he also collected £34,000 in pension contributions. (However, the highest remuneration package overall went to the University of Oxford’s Andrew Hamilton – [£371,000 salary, unknown expenses, £53,000 pension]. That is dwarfed by the remuneration awarded to Mark Allan, chief executive of student housing company Unite Group. According to Unite’s accounts, he received not only £393,000 in basic pay but also a £428,370 performance- related bonus and £78,600 in pension contributions for the year ended February 2012 - a total package of almost £900,000, not including long-term share options. The FTSE 250 company’s annual income of £219.5 million is less than half of Birmingham’s £472 million income in 2011-12 and only about a fifth of the University of Oxford’s £1 billion income over the same period. Oxford’s Hamilton received £371,000 in basic pay and £53,000 in pension contributions in 2011-12, less than half Allan’s income. 
But is the comparison with the private sector reasonable? While vice-chancellors might increasingly need to act like CEOs, captains of industry would surely claim that their business models - and levels of risk - are nothing like the work of politically protected institutions largely reliant on public funds (regardless of whether that money flows through research and teaching grants or state-subsidised student loans).
To appreciate what might be meant by "levels of risk", consider the Bath/Bristol area of SW England where there are four universities within a 12km radius:

and whose vice-chancellors were rewarded as in the table below in 2011-2012:

In similar geographical circumstances in the private sector, one can’t help thinking that the vice-chancellor equivalents would be under pressure from institutional shareholders and, more scarily, private equity to rationalise to reduce overheads in what are very similar areas of business and increase profitability. This table certainly brings out the FT’s point that the average academic is now what they charmingly describe as a cling-on. Professors are hardly in the über-middle. The FT also pointed out the concentration of the best paid jobs of all kinds in London and the southeast. The further the cling-ons are from that region, the better off they probably feel. However, housing costs across a large part of southern England are driven by a London effect extending into the South West , as shown by this map produced by Neil Hudson of Savills Research last year:

*Why the FT chose “cling-on”, as opposed to “unter-middle” (or unter-Mitte even), wasn’t explained – perhaps too close to Untermenschen. Anyway that’s where I put myself, for sure!


Some data from Bell and Machin here.

11 February 2014


Last month Tim Whitemore headed a post on his Daily Telegraph blog How many Ukippers will be dead when the referendum happens? Sorry, but it matters.
He asked the question because of … a new YouGov poll [which] shows, while the old loathe the EU the young still think that we're better off remaining in it. While those over 60 would vote two-to-one to leave the EU if there was a referendum tomorrow, those under 25 would vote two-to-one to stay in, as this [chart] shows:

Something similar is true of immigration: those with degrees think it has been economically beneficial by a margin of almost three-to-one, and younger people are much more inclined to support taking refugees from Syria.
He went on to point out that:
While the population is ageing, the number of people who have been to university, lived abroad and weren't born until after Britain joined the EU is increasing – and these people, even as they get older, are more inclined to stick with Britain's membership.
and concluded:
The good news for Ukip, and Eurosceptics more generally, is that the ageing voters more inclined to support them are much more likely to vote. But ultimately both have the same problem: how can they address their lack of appeal with the young? If they do not find some compelling answers, changing demographics could destroy their ambitions at the ballot box.
I covered similar ground in a post here in 2011 which looked at the effect of age on views about Europe, international aid and the death penalty. I wondered:
Whether older people’s attitudes reflect biologically-driven changes in psychological outlook due to ageing, or past levels of formal education [is] something that will become clearer over the next few decades. Perhaps by the time people reach 60 it is the experience gained in the ‘University of Life’ which counts.
Whitemore didn’t actually answer the question he posed, perhaps out of deference to the elderly demographics of the Telegraph’s readership (the paper if not the website, though the majority of those who provide comments on the latter “below the line” seem to be either senile or deranged). However, Peter Kellner has gone a long way towards answering it on the Guardian Comment Network in an interesting analysis of how voters seem to have switched between parties since 2010. He made “a rough estimate of the number of supporters of each party who are likely to have died since the last election” as can be seen in the table below:

Kellner’s estimate is for the period between May 2010 and January 2014, 44 months, which is also the duration from now to September 2017, as good a guess as any for the date of the referendum. So, if there are currently 3.3 million Ukippers and the same proportion of them expire as Kellner estimated in the contingent who voted UKIP in 2010 (0.1 million in 0.9 million ie 11%), we could expect about 370, 000 of them to have popped their clogs by then. Assuming that most of the 2.4 million who have rallied to UKIP since 2010 have the same age profile as Ukippers in 2010, this answers the question as posed, but does not address the more interesting one as to how many people will be both alive and still supporting UKIP by then.

There is a problem with Whitemore’s chart in that there are not equal numbers in each of the age groups. If the areas are adjusted to correspond to the sizes of the four groups it looks like this:

and the preponderance of the older groups is brought out. However, a recent YouGov poll shows a smaller level of support for leaving, overall -3% as opposed to -10% here. In this recent poll the 40-59 age group seems markedly less opposed to the EU (-2% as opposed to -16% here).

6 February 2014

Lib Dem prospects in the South West

Next week London’s LBC radio will be going national on DAB, something that will almost certainly raise the profile of its weekday evening presenter, Iain Dale. Anyone who hasn’t heard of him should read his Wikipedia profile. I used to like going to his Politico's Bookstore and Coffee House until it closed and I have a few books from Biteback Publishing. A former Tory candidate, he used to blog as Iain Dale's Diary, later revived as Dale & Co where he recently posted Why The Libdems Will Win 30-35 Seats in 2015. In 2010 he thought they would get more than 59 – it turned out to be 57. He now reckons:
Of the 57 seats, I predict 35 will remain LibDem, 14 will fall to the Conservatives and 8 to Labour. But of the 35 LibDem Holds, I reckon only 13 are dead certs, 9 are hot bets, 8 are probable and 5 are rated as possible, but by no means definite. 
In the predictions … I have assumed that Labour will be the beneficiaries of most of the decline in LibDem votes across the country but that the Conservatives might benefit a little in the south and south west. The big unknown factor here is how the size of the UKIP vote might affect existing Conservative vote levels in many of these seats. I have tried not to make these predictions through blue tinted spectacles, but it maybe that I will have underestimated the impact of UKIP. I have also assumed that the LibDems will not win a single one of their top 20 target seats.

The last time I posted here about the Lib Dem prospects in the South West (2010 outcome above), I concluded:
If the Conservatives are to form a majority government after the 2015 election, as well as taking Labour seats in the North West and North East, they will have to take many of the 15 Lib Dem seats in the South West. My feeling is that the Tories will find that difficult …
So I was interested to see Dale’s opinions for the South West 15 extracted in the table and ordered by the size of the majority in 2010: The spectrum of his opinions from ‘DEAD CERT LIBDEM HOLD’ to ‘CONSERVATIVE GAIN’ match the size of the majority with two exceptions, as shown, Bath and St Ives. The first presumably would be ‘DEAD CERT’ if the present incumbent weren’t stepping down. Dale thinks that the Tories may not win the second because of their voters turning to UKIP.

I thought it might be interesting to use Electoral Calculus’s “make your own predictions” facility, (as featured in a recent post here about the main parties tying) which identifies which individual seats will change hands. The next table shows the Electoral Calculus (EC) predictions for the seats under three different scenarios. A is the EC Current Prediction on 6 February 2014, B is the state of the parties as assessed by the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham blog, Ballots and Bullets, on 13 January, and C is a guess at what a Lib Dem recovery and UKIP doing well, both at the expense of the main parties, might produce.

It’s interesting to see that at the highest level of support (37.6%) Labour gains Bristol West from the Lib Dems. It would also, according to EC, be able to take Conservative seats: Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Kingswood, Stroud and Somerset North East. The last of these is Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat.

Unless the Lib Dems retain more supporters in the South West than they have been able to do so far nationally, it looks as though they will be losing more seats than I thought.

3 February 2014

Joel & Ethan Coen’s ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Maybe it was the 1960s setting, maybe it was the folk music, but as I watched Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis the words of a rugby song I last heard years ago as a student came into my mind: “Why was he born so beautiful, Why was he born at all? …” (which then descends into something else). Was it the Davis character? The film is a circular account of a few days in the life of a folk singer in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1962. Llewyn is a ne’er-do-well – “… everything you touch turns to shit, you're like king Midas's idiot brother”, he is told, understandably, at one point, by Jean (Carey Mulligan), who may be pregnant by him rather than by her partner and Llewyn's friend, Jim.  But the artistic world is full of people like Llewyn who want in, and the separation of an individual’s success and failure seems to be a matter of luck as much as talent.

Perhaps it was not the main character but the feeling that so much film-making skill had been directed at so slight a product. The 1960s New York settings were very convincing (the subway a real work of art) as was Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago and back. Similarly all the casting was excellent with heavyweight, if brief, contributions from John Goodman and F Murray Abraham, as well as Isaac’s flawless portrayal of a flawed young man, artfully contrasted with Stark Sands’ Troy, a soldier with a promising career as a singer. It could be that I just don’t like folk music that much (a soft spot for Joan Baez apart), but having said that, the Please Mr Kennedy session is a joy.

If you find this review shallow, then read Francine Prose’s for Prospect Magazine:
Llewyn’s passion for that music, and his inability to create, for himself, a career—or a life—remind us of a current that runs through many of the Coen brothers’ films: you can have talent, promise, a moderate amount of decency and luck, and things might still not work out. This may be the least American aspect of the Coen’s work, the least characteristic of a culture that (openly and privately) believes that hard work and good intentions will pay off, and of a country in which, to quote Julian Barnes, “emotional optimism is a constitutional duty.”
It will also take you to Please Mr Kennedy on YouTube.

2 February 2014

Wright of Derby at the Holburne Bath

Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797), often known as Wright of Derby, ought to be the techies’ favourite painter, if only because of one of the masterpieces of British painting, his An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1778 (below left), now in the National Gallery in London. In the 40 years or so of Wright’s life as an artist, a mere 18 months was spent in the city of Bath. It is this brief period which the exhibition, Joseph Wright of Derby, Bath and Beyond, at the Holburne Museum in Bath seeks to illuminate.

Wright had spent nearly 20 years in Liverpool and two years in Europe before arriving in Bath at the start of the season in the winter of 1775. His intention was to take advantage of the fashionable spa’s demand for portraiture after the departure for London of Gainsborough, whose landscape work around Bath was the subject of an exhibition at the Holburne in 2011. It has to be said that many of the exhibits in this show provide context for Wright’s time in Bath rather than stem directly from it. So on entry we see the The Alchymist 1771/1795 (above right) and later Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples 1776/80 (poster) and the fine The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome 1775–1776 (below).

The Italian pictures were finished in Bath and put on view for a fee before Wright left for good in June 1777, but obviously had no direct local connection. The exhibition does, however, include some portraits of prominent locals like the Rev Dr Wilson and Miss Catherine Macaulay 1776, “painted for reputation” (left) and Agnes Witts, nee Travell, 1776 (below right), but Wright, who produced many portraits of Derbyshire’s pioneers of the industrial revolution, seemed to have found his Bath clients difficult: “fantastical and whimmy”. The oval grisailles of William Hayley and Eliza Hayley 1776 (below left) are well worth seeing and overall the exhibition provides an opportunity to view a body of Wright’s work, something normally only possible at Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

The Holburne has two Wrights of its own, which a visitor might miss on the landings: The Dead Soldier, 1789 (below left) and a recent gift, Elizabeth Balguy née Gould c1783 (below right).

Joseph Wright of Derby, Bath and Beyond will be at the Holburne until 5 May and at Derby Museum and Art Gallery later in the year.