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DAWN - Opinion; May 10, 2005

May 10, 2005

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State’s failure to educate

By Shahid Javed Burki


ANOTHER factor that contributed to the progressive deterioration of the system of education was the political confusion that prevailed in the country for more than a decade, from the death of President Ziaul Haq in August 1988 to the return of the military under General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999. In this period four elected governments and three interim administrations governed the country.

Preoccupied with prolonging their stay, the elected governments paid little attention to economic development in general and social development in particular. Under the watch of these administrations, public sector education deteriorated significantly.

To put the educational system back on track will need more than money; it will require a change in the way our society views education and in the way it is prepared to impart knowledge that would be useful in the market place. The education system must aim to change the general mindset so that all citizens begin to recognize that it is not right to declare your religion on the front page of the passport, or to stop women from participating in public supporting events.

The failure of Pakistan to educate its young is the result of the failure of the state to provide basic services to the people. As already noted in previous articles, the collapse of the public sector began in the mid-seventies when the administration of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalized some parts of the educational system while denying an expanded public sector the resources it needed. In the 30-year period since then, various governments, both military and civilian, continued to neglect public education while allowing it to be politicized. Politicization took the form of increased political activity on the part of student organizations representing various political parties. It was the Islamic parties that gained the most in the battle to influence the campuses.

The progressive failure of the public sector to provide reasonable education to the masses brought in two very different types of educational entrepreneurs into the sector. On one end of the spectrum were groups of entrepreneurs who filled the space for western-style liberal education. Since there was enough demand for this type of education on the part of the relatively well-to-do segments of society, a number of for-profit institutions were established. They have flourished over time, providing high quality education to the upper-end of the society.

At the other end of the social spectrum were the poor who needed institutions that could provide basic education to their children without placing an unbearable economic burden on the families. This is when the madressahs stepped in with the financial wherewithal to take in male students, provide them with board and lodging, and give them instruction in religion. Most of these institutions did not have qualified teachers who could give instruction in mathematics, sciences, and languages other than Urdu to their students.

The result of all this is that the Pakistani society today is split three ways when viewed from the perspective of education. At the top are the students who have received reasonably good education from western-style institutions that operate mostly for profit. They count for perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of the student body in the five to 18 year age group of some 70 million people. Another 10 per cent go to private schools that educate the poor. At the bottom are the religious schools that provide education to about one per cent of all students attending schools.

In between is 75 per cent of the student population dependent on a public system that is inefficient and corrupt. It is, in other words, dysfunctional. Before addressing the important subject of the remedies that are available to improve the educational system, we should take a look at the situation as it is today.

There are several ways of assessing the status of an educational system in the developing world. Among the more frequently used indicators are adult literacy rates for both men and women in various parts of the country; enrolment rates for both girls and boys at different levels of education and in different areas of the country; the drop out rates at different levels of education; the number of years boys and girls spend in schools; the amount of resources committed to education as a proportion of the gross domestic product, particularly by the public sector; the amount of money spent on items other than paying for teachers’ salaries; and, finally, some measure of the quality of education provided.

To these indicators, one should also add the quality of data and information available about education. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s record is relatively poor on all these counts, including the quality and reliability of the data which makes it difficult to provide a reasonably accurate description of the state of affairs in the sector.

The latest information available for Pakistan suggests an adult literacy rate of only 43.5 per cent for the entire population above the age of 15 years. The rates for Sri Lanka and India are considerably higher than for Pakistan; 92.1 per cent and 61.3 per cent respectively. Of the South Asian countries, only Bangladesh has a slightly lower rate, 41.1 per cent. Since the level of literacy has a profound impact on the quality of human development, Pakistan ranks 142 in terms of the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Sri Lanka ranks at 96, India at 127, and Bangladesh at 138.

There are noticeable differences in gender literacy and in the level of literacy in different parts of the country. Some 58 per cent of the male population qualifies as literate while the female literacy rate is estimated at only 32 per cent. In other words, two-thirds of the country’s women can’t read or write. There is not a significant amount of difference in the rates of literacy among different provinces. Sindh, on account of Karachi, has the highest rate at 60 per cent while Balochistan at 53 per cent has the lowest rate.

However, it is among women living in different parts of the country that literacy rates vary a great deal: in Balochistan the rate is as low as 15 per cent while it is 36 per cent for Punjab’s women. It is clear that the women of Balochistan must be targeted in any drive to educate the masses in the country.

There are wide discrepancies in the various estimates of enrolment provided by various sources of information. My own estimates are for the year 2003 when the number of children in the primary school age was 22 million of which 11.5 million were boys and 10.5 million girls. According to the Ministry of Education in Islamabad 9.6 million boys were in school — an enrolment rate of 83.4 per cent. The number of girls attending primary school was estimated at 6.6 million, an enrolment rate of nearly 63 per cent. There was in other words a gender gap of almost 20 percentage points.

Once again the policy implication of this information is the need to focus on the provision of education for girls. Another conclusion suggested by these numbers is that we should expect a fairly significant increase in the rate of literacy as the cohorts presently in school reach adulthood.

There is considerable disparity in the rates of enrolment among the richest 20 per cent of the population compared to the poorest 20 per cent. The gap is two and half times as large in the urban areas and even larger in the rural areas. Applying these number to overall literacy rates, it appears that while universal primary education has been achieved for the richest one-fifth of the population for both boys and girls, the enrolment rate for the poorest 20 one-fifth is only a shade above 45 per cent. Public policy aimed at increasing the level of education must, therefore, focus on the poor in both urban and rural areas. There is demand among the poor for education; if it is not satisfied by the public sector, it will be met by the deeni madressahs. As is to be expected, the well-to-do families tend to enrol their children in high performing privately managed schools while the poor are forced into the public sector system. According to a recent survey while only 27 per cent of the children from the richest 20 per cent of the households were enrolled in government schools; these schools catered to as many as 75 per cent of the children from the poorest 20 per cent of the families. This means that the rich have been able to bypass the part of the educational sector managed by the government while the poor have no recourse but to send their children to public schools. This process of selection, according to income levels, is reducing the quality of the student body in government schools.

There is a high drop-out rate in the public system with the rate increasing as we go higher up in the system. Barely 10 per cent of the school going age children complete 12 years of schooling; around 25 per cent leave after eight years of schooling and another 15 per cent by grade 10. Such a high level of drop-out has serious budgetary implications. At least 50 per cent of the educational budget is spent on the children who drop out early. This is a tremendous waste for a sector that is already short of resources.

A high drop-out rate has one other adverse consequence. Even if that of literacy increases in the country, the level of skill acquisition will not improve. For many years, a number of development institutions emphasized the provision of primary instruction without focusing attention on higher level education. It is only recently that there is recognition that human development means more than primary education. Some researchers maintain that universal education should mean more than five years of schooling; it takes a much longer stay in schools to be able to become functional in a modern economy.

In light of this, what are the options available to policymakers and to donors who are eager to help the country reform its educational system? The donor interest in the country’s educational system reflects the understandable fear that, unless the system is fundamentally reformed, it would create a large body of young alienated people who would be prepared to lend a helping hand to the radical Islamic forces not just in Pakistan but in all corners of the world.

Rise of mediocrity in Pakistan

By Tasneem Siddiqui


TO MOST analysts, political instability, a worsening law and order situation, dismal social indicators, rampant unemployment and rising inflation are some of the major problems Pakistan faces today. The causes of these problems can be debated ad infinitum, but almost everyone accepts that these challenges exist and have to be met one way or the other.

Political instability, even after 58 years of an independent existence, together with other problems, no doubt is cause for concern, but what is more worrying is the rise of mediocrity and the resultant incompetence at all levels of Pakistani society.

Whether it is the public or the private sector, a university or a primary school, journalism or law, civil service or politics, mediocrity remains the hallmark of Pakistani society. In the not too distant past we were a reasonably well-organized society run by competent people. Our university teachers, judges newspaper editors enjoyed a good reputation but no more.

Bureaucracy has now become a pejorative term. In spite of its arrogance, abrasiveness and inaccessibility, the civil service of Pakistan was one of the best in the region and could deliver the goods. Similarly, not very long ago our engineers could make barrages, dams and could run a very intricate canal system by themselves. Now, most of them do not know even the basics of their profession.

It is true that in developing countries, visionaries are few and the freshness of ideas rare but what distinguishes Pakistan from other societies is that we started off well. We gradually destroyed our institutions whereas most other countries did not have even the basic infrastructure but built on whatever little they had. Another distinction is that in other countries pivotal positions are generally occupied by bright people, who know their subject well. But here the situation is moving in the reverse direction. In the initial days, we gave the right people the right jobs, and rewarded new ideas, but today creativity is at a discount, while mediocrity is at high premium.

We have chief secretaries who can’t put up a cogent argument for 15 minutes, nor conduct themselves in a dignified manner. We have secretaries to the government who cannot prepare a well argued summary on an important issue. We have lower functionaries who can neither unite a small note nor organize an official meeting properly. Even at the highest level, meetings are held without proper papers and minutes are frequently not kept. What about the judiciary? What about the police? What about highly paid technocrats? It is the same story everywhere.

Mediocrity and incompetence in police ranks have assumed legendary proportions. The investigation and preparation of criminal cases is so poor that hardly 10 per cent of cases end in convictions. Intelligence gathering has also met the same fate. We have seen senior police officers of the rank of IG and DIG not knowing their job at all. To add insult to injury, they behave in the most undignified and obsequious way just to please their bosses.

This is also true of the private sector. Mediocrity reigns supreme here too. In some ways, it may be slightly better than the public sector but in most cases there too, is an absence of fresh ideas. This is the main reason why those working in this sector cannot go beyond a limit. If you compare the performance of our private sector with their counterparts belonging to countries of the Pacific Rim or even India, you will understand what we mean. Even apex institutions like the Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry, which have huge resources at their disposal, have very little to show as achievements.

The army is one institution which has maintained its colonial tradition of recruitment, training and promotions. There has hardly been any political interference in top appointments and postings. (Some people can say, and rightly so, that it is the army, which has interfered in almost everything and destroyed most of the national institutions). But can you say with confidence that today the officer corps of the army is any brighter than their predecessors? Aren’t top slots being manned by mediocre and lacklustre people?

What about political leaders? Civil and military bureaucrats and the middle class intelligentsia have always labelled them as rabble-rousers, bereft of all discipline and etiquette. This no doubt smacks of prejudice and contempt on the part of their detractors. But look at the people who are heading various political parties (mainstream and small) or the stature of our prime ministers, governors and chief ministers during the last 20 years, and one comes to the conclusion that mediocrity is the hallmark of our politics too. Not that the politicians of the last generation were any visionaries, but at least they commanded respect had above-average intelligence. It is another thing that most of them were spineless and didn’t have the courage to take a stand at critical moments of Pakistan history.

Look at the education scene. Three decades ago, our universities had vice chancellors and professors who were men f great learning and made contributions to their field of specialization. They were scholarly people greatly respected by both students and their peers. What do we see today? We have vice chancellors who have never been to any university. There are others who got their Ph.Ds through spurious means. With a few exceptions, the level of university and college teachers is so poor that it can put anyone to shame.

Pakistan is a nuclear power and we are proud of it. To an outsider, this status would mean that Pakistan is an advanced country in science and technology and has a very good base for research and its application to agriculture, industry and other fields. Is it not horrifying that apart from some exceptions, we have no scientist community worth the name? Scientific education at school, college and university level is extremely.

What about historians, philosophers and social scientists? Apart from half a dozen people, can one name any Pakistani historian or philosopher, who is internationally recognized and continues to make important contributions to their field? We have stopped teaching history and philosophy at school and college level. Very soon there will be no people left in this field Is it not unfortunate that in social sciences there is not a single university or institute in the country that is world class.

What about writers, poets, critics and researchers? Do we see any upsurge in this field? We can see that there are very few short story and fiction writers too the standard of Manto, Bedi, Krishan Chander and Ismat Chughtai. No doubt we have poets in abundance, but what is their standard? Apart from half a dozen of them with some originality the rest are below average repeat themselves ad nauseam. Similarly, how many people are there who have the capability and desire to carry out research on serious literacy issues?

Some people may say that things are not that bad and that we have our centres of excellence which produce world class professionals. Some of our young doctors, engineers, architects, finance managers, bankers and economists have made a name for themselves here and abroad. Certainly, but what about the general level of competence of people who form the bulk of the population? And more importantly, what about the calibre of the people occupying important positions in the public and private sectors?

In a country, where the state dominates almost everything, and its presence is all-pervasive, bureaucrats also play a leadership role. It, therefore, becomes all the more important that pivotal positions should be occupied by people of high calibre and intelligence who can perform their duties with dignity and commitment. This is what is lacking in Pakistan.

Readers may ask why this general deterioration exists and what can be done about it. The basic reason for the rise of mediocrity, most people would argue, is the poor standard of education. This is largely true. The conceived nationalization of private schools and colleges and the low priority accorded to education heave no doubt played havoc with the education system in Pakistan. But is this the only reason?

Is it not a fact that our feudals as well as most of our urban middle classes are the product of a darbari culture where success is largely achieved through sifarish, sycophancy, intrigue, duplicity and total obedience? It was the British who organized different services, and introduced the concept of open competition based on merit in public service. They codified all laws and also created strong institutions to run the affairs of state. Perhaps these things went against our ethos. We accepted the changes, but did not internalize them.

After independence, the momentum could have been sustained but on the one hand tribal, clannish, linguistic and regional affiliations returned with great vengeance, and on the other long periods of military rule weakened the existing institutions. The process of change was completely stifled. Non-representative governments need people who are loyal, obedient, spineless and do not raise awkward questions. Autocratic rule is antithetical to the culture of meritocracy where the most suitable persons are identified and given jobs they can do well.

One can conclude that the rise of mediocrity is directly proportional to the neglect of merit. No organization can work properly or make progress if it does not reward merit or put a proper person on to the job. Our problem is that we are rhetorical about merit but in practice do just the opposite. Mediocrity will keep on touching new heights unless we, as a nation decide that it is time that we evolved a new system of governance which is merit-based, accountable, transparent and responsive to peoples’ needs.

The writer is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award

Dynamics of the peace process

By Talat Masood


PRESIDENT Musharraf’s visit to India was indeed a landmark event, but not in the conventional sense. For those expecting that India would make a U-turn and show flexibility on Kashmir, or even yield to our just demands on the issue of Baglihar Dam, must have been disappointed and frustrated.

Surely, to expect that what we could not achieve through three wars, two major skirmishes and sustained support to indigenous insurgency could now be realized by President Musharraf’s pro-active diplomacy and personal charm, would be to say the least, presumptuous.

The visit’s profound implications lie elsewhere and in a more fundamental sense. The ruling power in the country and more particularly the army’s top brass is coming to grips with the reality that confrontation with India is no more a viable option if economic growth is to be maintained, political ties with the West, particularly the United States, have to be kept up, defence needs of the country are to be met, terrorism to be combated and, above all, the basic problems of the people are to be addressed.

Supporting militancy has proved to be highly counterproductive, indeed dangerous, as militants have invariably redirected their energies internally, destabilized the country and isolated it internationally. Indigenous militants also act as a magnet for international militants on which the government has even less control. Sectarian and ethnic conflicts and spread of lawlessness within the country are directly or indirectly linked with the activities of the militants, with serious implications for investment and major aspects of governance. Moreover, the rest of the world will not tolerate a nuclear-armed country to flirt with militants. As a middle power country, Pakistan is not free to do what it likes.

The surge of goodwill between India and Pakistan at the people’s level clearly demonstrated how great was the gap between the thinking of the people and policies of their governments. The people want peace but the establishments on both sides had developed an entrenched interest in perpetuating conflict. The governments could no longer ignore the rising sentiments of the broad masses of both countries. They could do so in the past but not any more as the powerful media and partial lifting of travel restrictions are exposing the fallacy of this approach.

Additionally, there is a realization that the rising economic and military power of China and India is fast changing the geo-strategic picture at the regional and global level. If Pakistan does not position itself to face these emerging realities, there is every possibility of its being marginalized. This would demand of Pakistan to give high priority to developing its human and physical infrastructure, focus on scientific and technological education, expand its industrial and technological base and prepare for a far more competitive world.

Equally important is that forces of religious orthodoxy and obscurantism have to be contained by socio- economic modernization. The fundamentally pessimistic view of India-Pakistan relations being engaged in an unending antagonism against each other either through proxy wars, reliance on a mere military build-up or pulling each other down in the international forums has no place in a changing world.

In this tectonic shift Pakistan is seeking a cooperative relationship with India in a number of fields and has committed itself to the formidable task of finding an ultimate solution to the Kashmir problem by peaceful means. In all fairness, the civilian political leadership since the early nineties had already sensed the winds of change and wanted to adjust its Kashmir and overall India policy, but then the military was unwilling to go along.

India too has major compulsions to seek peace with Pakistan. The situation in Kashmir is a stark reminder of India’s gross human rights abuses, its inability to apply the principles of democracy and secularism to the state when it expects the rest of the world to be the torchbearer of these principles. It is possible that Kashmir may also stand in the way of India’s aspirations to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Despite Pakistan’s discontinuation of support to the militants, the problem of Kashmir will not be easy to resolve unless the deep alienation of the people against Indian rule is removed. India will have to seek a political settlement that satisfies the majority of the Kashmiris in order to bring an end to the resistance. This is a great challenge for India. The prevailing sense of insecurity among the Kashmiri Muslim population is the result of decades of poor governance and atrocities committed by the Indian security forces. There is also widespread unemployment, particularly among the youth.

The opening of borders, resulting in increased travel, economic interaction and cultural exchanges accompanied by a reduction in security forces and, hopefully, involvement of APHC in the peace dialogue, is likely to ... run up a political dynamic of its own.

The question arises: will India allow this process to evolve or thwart it mid-stream for fear of being overtaken by events? In case it tries to again manipulate events in Kashmir, it could result in a more violent kind of insurgency. The role and attitude of the ruling party in Kashmir — People’s Democratic Party led by chief Minister Mufti Saeed — and the opposition’s National Conference headed by Omar Abdullah will also influence the peace process. If the divisions within the APHC leadership persist, their political power, regrettably, will diminish at a crucial phase in Kashmiris’ struggle for their right.

All pointers indicate that the majority of the Kashmiris, particularly the youth are for independence — a choice to which India and Pakistan would be very averse to concede because of its adverse implications. The oft-used slogan of “Azadi”, however, has a different connotation for different groups. For some it is political independence with strong economic links with India and Pakistan and for others it is maximum autonomy within India or joint Indo-Pak control. This only reaffirms the fact that Kashmir is a highly complex issue with multiple identities, differing loyalties and competing interests being at play.

Nonetheless, the onus of making the peace process a success in the context of Kashmir lies primarily on India, because it is in control of the part that is in turbulence. Until now, apart from the top leadership reaffirming that it is not prepared to redraw boundaries, India has not come out with any proposal for a reasonable settlement.

It cannot continue with its holding operation by sticking to the status quo and giving an illusion of flexibility and hoping that in the meantime Pakistan’s internal contradictions and also that of the Kashmiris will play out. This indeed would be a wrong response to Pakistan’s willingness to move away from its traditional position of insisting on the UN resolutions as a framework for resolving the conflict.

Any solution of Kashmir to be durable has to be juxtaposed with an overall settlement between India and Pakistan. Fortunately, both countries have already in place a process of composite dialogue and confidence-building measures, initiated in January 2004, that covers a wide range of issues. Progress has been made in easing of travel restrictions, holding the cease-fire across the Line of Control and in introducing bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.

The process in other areas has to be sustained in the long-term interest of Indo- Pakistan relations and for the final solution of the Kashmir dispute. The challenge lies in making progress on issues considered vital to each side and making sure that there are no serious hurdles in other areas of interest. Recent pronouncements by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hopefully will take the two countries along this course.

The writer is a retired lieutenant-general.

Pyongyang’s bomb

By David Ignatius


HERE’S a chilling scenario from the CIA’s former top Asia hand: Within a year, North Korea is likely to test a nuclear weapon, probably in a cave or mine shaft somewhere in the barren northeast of the country.

A small amount of radioactive fallout will leak from the test site and drift toward Japan. Financial markets in Tokyo and Seoul will be rocked by the news. Foreign companies in South Korea will weigh whether to pull out dependents or reduce their operations. And Washington will debate whether to impose a blockade or other tough measures to contain the North Korean nuclear breakout.

That’s the essence of a briefing being given to some major US companies by Arthur Brown, who retired in December as chief of the East Asia division of the CIA’s clandestine service. He’s now a senior vice-president for the consulting firm Control Risks Group. He says the briefing is based entirely on unclassified material. It mirrors concerns in intelligence circles.

Brown argues that the North Korean test is the next step in a nuclear weapons programme that has been underway for nearly 50 years. The country is already a “declared” nuclear state after announcing this year that it has weapons. It wants to become a “recognized” nuclear state, like China, India or Pakistan. But to achieve that status, it must first make itself a “demonstrated” power by conducting a nuclear test. Or so goes Brown’s analysis.

Pyongyang’s nuclear efforts began in 1956, just three years after the end of the Korean War, when the country signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to train nuclear scientists; the Soviets helped build North Korea’s first reactor in 1965. In 1974 the North Koreans added a nuclear training agreement with China.

They built a second small reactor in 1986 at Yongbyon, and the United States detected a third, larger reactor there in 1989; these reactors could enrich plutonium fuel rods to the levels necessary to make a bomb. The North Koreans agreed to freeze their plutonium programme in 1994, and they put 8,000 fuel rods at Yongbyon under seal. But they continued covertly along another bomb-making route, using highly enriched uranium created in special centrifuges apparently obtained from Pakistan.

What convinces Brown that North Korea will soon test a weapon is that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, has been increasingly open about his goal of joining the nuclear club. When the United States found evidence of the covert uranium enrichment programme in 2002, the North made no effort to deny it — and promptly resumed reprocessing the plutonium fuel rods as well. In October 2003 North Korea warned that it was “willing to physically display nuclear capability,” its code phrase for testing. Last year a senior official said his country “needs nuclear weapons for self-defence.” And in February the North Koreans announced that they “have manufactured nuclear weapons and will retain them under any circumstances.”

A model for the coming nuclear test, says Brown, was North Korea’s 1998 test-firing of a three-stage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific. That test was announced by the North Korean news agency, just as Brown expects the coming nuclear test will be. And North Korea hasn’t made any effort to deny last week’s statement by Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, that it now has the technology to produce an actual warhead that could fit atop missiles which, by U.S. intelligence estimates, could reach parts of the United States.

Kim Jong Il is often seen as a reckless madman, as in President Bush’s description of him last week as a “tyrant” and “dangerous person” who “starves his own people” and has “huge concentration camps.” But Brown argues that however brutal Kim’s policies are, he has pursued what in his context is a rational course. “Kim sees only two options — Baghdad or Islamabad,” says Brown. In other words, he can wait for an American attack or he can move quickly to show his nuclear cards — hoping he can then bargain for a deal that ensures his regime’s survival. In Brown’s view, “the chance that Kim Jong Il will negotiate away his nuclear option is close to zero.”

The only perverse benefit of a North Korean nuclear test is that it would force neighbouring states — such as China and South Korea — to end their denial and face reality. A nuclear North Korea poses a deadly and destabilizing threat for Asia. Dealing with that threat will require more active cooperation between the United States and its Asian friends. A nuclear test is one hell of a wake-up call, but in this case maybe it’s a necessary one. —Dawn/Washington Post Service

The task ahead for Labour

LABOUR’S majority over all other parties is by any standards a comfortable one. It is not a landslide, but it is, by traditional yardsticks, conclusive. Yet Labour’s claims to a mandate have to be set very severely in context.

In the 2005 election some 9.5 million people voted Labour — fewer than in any other postwar general election except 1983, an election that has gone down in Labour mythology as a never-again disaster.

Labour has been elected last week on just over 36 per cent of the votes cast, the lowest share of support for any Labour government other than Ramsay MacDonald’s 1924 minority administration. Fewer than one in four of those who were entitled to vote — 22 per cent of Britain’s 44 million registered voters — cast a vote for Labour.

The combination of a 61 per cent turnout (happily a small improvement on 2001), the growth of multi-party politics and the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system combine to mean that no government since 1929 has been elected by as few voters as the one that took office last week.

When Tony Blair talked in Sedgefield in the early hours of Friday morning, he said that the voters had shown that they wanted the return of a Labour government but with a reduced majority. That was a conclusion from the results of Thursday’s voting that will be widely shared. Yet a deeper analysis suggests that the voters did not even want that outcome all that much.

There are also many dimensions to Labour’s new political situation. It is true that Labour lost many public-sector middle-class voters to the Liberal Democrats over issues including Iraq, resulting in losses in university seats and places such as Hornsey or Manchester Withington.

But a large proportion of the one in eight Labour voters who went elsewhere went — more traditionally — to the Tories. Even here, though, the picture was anything but uniform. In many places, notably around the M25, votes swung back in textbook fashion across the middle ground.

Yet in other no less quintessential middle-ground places, such as Edgbaston, Selby, Tamworth or Worcester, there was no equivalent. Here Labour held on well. Labour Britain has rarely been more diffuse than today.

In Downing Streety, Mr Blair was therefore very prudent to talk about listening to the people and learning from what they had said. It is the lasting tragedy of Mr Blair’s career that he did not apply that principle earlier, not solely over Iraq.

—The Guardian, London