Monday, 8 November 2010

Turkey, Cyprus and the EU

Important talks are coming up, trying to resolve the tricky situation of a divided Cyprus. And the division of Cyprus is one of the reasons blocking Turkey’s entry into the EU. For years now Turkey has been an enthusiastic supporter of the EU and has brought about many changes (including abolishing the death penalty) to try to move its application forward.

Jack Straw, from the comfort of opposition and holding now no official portfolio, but with the authority of his years as Foreign Secretary, has said that if the upcoming talks don’t get anywhere, then we should consider the position of a divided Cyprus. His lack of position has enabled him to speak the ‘unspeakable’; and he’s right to do so.

Turkey is facing opposition on other fronts to its EU membership, one of which is that it’s a Muslim country; the majority of its citizens are Muslim but Turkey is, officially, a secular state. It’s an important country, in an important position and full of wonderful people.

Jack Straw is right to say what he did, to raise the issue, and, hopefully, add a bit of vigour to talks moving with an unacceptable snail’s pace.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

If I weren't laughing, I'd be crying

There must still be an element if innocence left in my bones - that I can still be shocked by the bare-faced effrontery of a politician like Danny Alexander, LibDem Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I’m still honestly shocked as he advocates (as a Liberal Democrat - the party they say that is the radical progressive party) forcing long-term unemployed people to pick up litter, paint schools or do public gardening. And then trying to argue these aren’t punishments - but ‘sanctions.’ No, no, no Mr Alexander - you can’t get away with that. The long-term unemployed will see these as punishments. And most of the public will too; the only difference here is that the public will divide into two groups - those that approve of the punishments and those that don’t. But punishments they are.

But it’s about teaching the work habit (they say). Then let’s find people work which teaches skills and knowledge. No doubt it’s easy jumping out of bed when you’re Chief Secretary to the Treasury (or a millionaire like most of his colleagues); what does he know about getting out of bed to get his hands dirty? (Being a press officer for Tourism doesn’t count.)

And there’s another aspect equally worrying. Don’t we have people who are paid to do these jobs? What is to happen to these workers - are they to lose their work because of the forced work-parties? Alexander couldn’t guarantee, in an interview, that none of enforced labour would be replacing paid workers . . . and he and his cronies won’t be able to either. They’ll see the headlines now when the scheme falls apart, so best make no guarantees.

What a shabby mob. We’d expect this from some of the hard-line Tories, but from the LibDems we don’t. Or at least we wouldn’t have; but we’re fast coming to know better. A recent poll had the LibDems as low as 9 per cent; bit of a blip, but here’s hoping it becomes more the norm.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Another piece of the Uni funding jigsaw

Michael Gove has at last announced the amount universities will be able to charge in fees - there is a cap of 9k per year. This is almost three times the tuition fees at present. Now we must look at the wrapping. There is a cap of 6k per year with the extra 3k per year chargeable if universities make efforts to attract students from poorer backgrounds. They’ll be no quota levels, but the Office of Fair Access (a QUANGO still in existence) will monitor universities and, apparently, will be able to force them to mend their ways.

Under the new plans students won’t start paying back their fees until they earn over 21k per year (a raising of that threshold) and will pay 9 per cent of their income; interest will be at an above inflation rate. We’re led to understand that students who pay back loans quicker will pay a penalty in lieu of the interest they won’t be paying. But, we also understand, students from well-healed backgrounds who can borrow from family and thus pay their fees in advance (no loan therefore) will be able to do so.

That’s most of the public school pupils, no doubt. (Have you noticed that Gove, in his quest for fairness in education, never mentions public schools? Oxford graduate in English, Gove, was, apparently, educated in a private school in Aberdeen, on a scholarship. His estimated wealth is around 1 million pounds.)

This increase in student fees is to cover the vast removal of funds by the ConDem government (no subsidy for arts and humanities teaching.) What will universities do now? Increase fees for arts and humanities courses? Or increase all their fees and cross subsidise? If this is the case the public subsidy issue becomes something of an accounting red-herring.

The system is, like so many of this government’s half-baked policies, going to be a mess left for others to sort out.

One thing that is certain is that some high-up university personnel will cosy up to Gove (ghastly thought.) Like Michael Arthur, vice chancellor of the University of Leeds; he’s chair of the Russell Group of universities. He told the BBC: ‘What this does is send a very loud signal that the government recognises the importance of higher education to the future of our country, its economy and our ability as universities to help the country out of recession.’ Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s to be hoped Leeds Uni students see this and let him know what they think.

All students need to keep fairly and squarely in mind that each LibDem MP, as part of their election campaign, signed a pledge against an increase in tuition fees. I say no more (until the next time.)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Lessons we can learn from Obama's circumstances

You can’t have failed to note that the US is at their polls today - half term voting and Obama (personally - though not in the election) and his Democrats likely to take something of a drubbing. You may well have noticed, too, that the TEA Party (a loose knit right wing grouping) is making headway and shoe-horning in its own candidates into the Republican movement. Quite how far the TEA party candidates will be able to shift Republicans to the right remains to be seen; and in the full-term elections (including the Presidential) nobody knows if the TEA Party will attract moderate voters or put them off.

It would seem that the US elected Obama with his left-of-centre policies on a wave of unseeing (or unthinking?) enthusiasm. Then, seeing what he is trying to do, run away from him. TEA Party members to a man and women (and lots of women in the movement) speak of his move to make America socialist (based to a great extent on his moderate Health Reforms). In the UK many of us would see this Socialist accusation as laughable - it is, but it’s mighty serious too.

Serious because in the UK we are different only in degree. Tony Blair created the Labour victories by rebranding Labour from Socialist to New Labour; Tony Blair introduced many socialist leaning policies (despite accusations to the contrary). But to do this ‘Socialism’ was something not to be spoken of - Christian Democrat became an unnatractive euphemism. The UK population is as deeply conservative in essentials as the US.

For the majority of the populations Socialism strikes them as inherently unfair. ‘Why should I let someone else have what I’ve worked hard to get?’ You have only to listen to the TEA Party members and supporters to hear this time and time again.

Is this question so far removed from the way the Housing Benefit and Welfare Reforms are being argued. Last week I suggested that Labour has to be very clever in handling this issue because it has popular support; I’ve seen a recent YouGov poll which suggests more than 70 per cent of UK people support the Housing Benefit policy of Cameron. Let’s not fool ourselves here! Cameron is totally confident in sticking to this policy despite adverse publicity. Why? - Because his private polling must have been giving him this 70 per cent information.

This doesn’t make this policy right. But we must acknowledge the truth - the realty if you like - and them create and appropriate strategy to overcome it.

Obama has shown himself inept (because too inexperienced) of handling the presentation of politics and the reality of working within party politics. In exactly the same way that Cleggie has - and he is inexperienced to the extent of naivete. Ed Milliband must ensure he doesn’t fall into this trap too. Intellectual cleverness doesn’t equate to political nous. Nearly all LP members and supporters I meet are complaining about Ed Milliband’s lacklustre performance - by which they mean he’s not in the news. ‘Give him time,’ I say. But he must be aware, time will soon be running out.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

ConDem mess in the Universities

It’s been pointed out in this space before that the present ConDem government seem not to have thought through any of their policies. And it goes on.

To give IDS the benefit of the doubt, I accept that he thought long and hard about his reforms. However the way Cameron has implemented some aspects of them has more to do with news capture than anything else. Housing benefit and child benefit policies are both slowly unravelling to the point of fudging and tweaking.

But it’s the mess of university funding I would like to approach today. Universities have already found their way through one major cut in income and now face a second - the removal of all subsidy for teaching in arts and humanities subjects - which is to say virtually all subsidy in these disciplines.

The Government’s idea was that this should be replaced by increasing student fees; and here the current mess. The ConDems can’t even manage this process; I have, to date, heard three fee-levels floated; 12k, 9k, 7k per year. These figures leave out the ‘no cap’ possibility. It all sounds as if reporters are picking figures out of the air. Does the Government have no awareness of the effect on universities of this situation? Or don’t they care?

They certainly haven’t got their act together. They appear to be arguing that Universities will have to ensure entry across the social and economic range. But these are little more than weasel words when you’re busy erecting barriers against this.

I hear another option being raised; privatised universities or parts of universities. That would suit a Conservative philosophy very well; a true free market in which fees and teaching can find their own levels according to what the market can sustain. Perhaps they would like to see faculties hived off into private ownership and leasing, say, space and other support services from a university - what a nightmare.

In addition, why attack the arts and humanities like this? People with these qualifications go into the world and make valuable contributions too. Yes, we must encourage science and engineering, but we must support and value these other areas too; if not we shall quickly become a philistine nation. And arts subjects will become the preserve of the well-off . . . and there, perhaps, is the point.

There are some universities (like schools) that aren’t performing as well as they should. These must be pulled up to scratch or close. There are students (a few) who it would appear shouldn’t be at university - though it’s more likely they are not yet ready to be there. It would seem inevitable at this time that some universities will, rightly, close. But we don’t want to go back to is a time when a university education was only for a comfortably off tiny minority.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Milliband must argue housing benefit policy in the round

Ed Milliband and his team are right to home in on the housing benefit policy Cameron is promoting. Of course he is; it’s terrible that thousands of people are in danger of being moved out to goodness knows where. And if anyone should think that’s scaremongering, note that some London LA are already booking the bed and breakfast accommodation far from their own London Borough.

But the arguments must be put with care and in-the-round.

Labour had tried to address the welfare bill, but with only limited success. We must be prepared with some solutions of our own, lest we be seen as simply attacking for the sake of attacking.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact, either, that the reason rents are so high is because landlords are making them high. A side-effect, if you like, of the free market . . . ‘benefit will pay the rents so let’s see what rents we can get away with.’

In addition, the public have to a huge extent taken on board the idea that people on benefit are scroungers living in large houses most of us couldn’t afford to live in. Milliband and his team must have a strategy to overcome this, to education the pubic to the truth (and not shy away from the fact that some people are milking the system.)

Cameron’s policy has popular support - almost certainly the main reason he won’t budge from it (Tory polling will indicate this.)

For us to win the argument will be hard to do - we don’t own newspapers. But unless this issue is taken on in the round we’re in danger of scoring a home-goal. We have to be smart.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Stop this nonsense of changing clocks

Not surprisingly the topic of whether we should adjust our clocks twice a year is again in the news. There’s not a person I speak to who thinks this twice-yearly practice is a good one. It’s daft, inconvenient and a throw-back to the past. More than that, research consistently shows that sticking with BST (ie GMT + 1) would save lives - though estimates vary; I’ve seen 400 mentioned and 100.

Two myths for changing clocks are currently put forward.

Farmers. The argument is they would lose daylight working time and livestock feeding and milking would have to be adjusted. To my knowledge livestock don’t have watches so won’t really know the difference; moreover as daylight slowly shifts, so would milking and feeding ‘memory’ for livestock. Animals won’t know the difference. As for losing time, the farmers must not have learned to tell the time; they have the same amount of daylight, just in slightly different places.

Scotland is the second issue. I understand that the Scottish Executive has now accepted that not changing the clocks will save lives. So there shouldn’t be a block here. Anyway, why should the rest of the UK fall into line with Scotland in the light of research? If Scotland wants to retain its changing clocks, let it.

In 1968 - 71 there was an experiment in the UK and clocks weren’t changed. There were less deaths on the road but this result was seen as inconclusive since tough drink-drive laws had just been enacted.

Not to change our clocks won’t necessarily bring us into line with Europe, who continue to change clocks. But then, perhaps where the UK leads, the rest of Europe might follow.

There are regular attempts to change the UK practice, all have failed. But pressure doesn’t go away and I feel is mounting. Perhaps its time has come (and apologies for that inevitable pun.)