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.)

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Arguments for Growth and Jobs

Cameron, Cable and Milliband are all addressing the CBI conference this week.

Milliband will make a well structured speech setting out his plan for attacking our deficit more slowly in order to be able to support growth - to safeguard employment. He’ll no doubt attack the ConDem policies. Milliband and his team must speak hard and loud against the idea that the deficit was Labour’s fault . . . world recession, need to sustain growth, work, jobs and so on. It’s important that this message (although, in a sense, historical) gets through to people. Recent polling suggests that nearly half the people questioned still think Labour is to blame for the deficit - note that the ConDems take EVERY opportunity to repeat this, driving the message home. Only about a third of that number blame the ConDems - who haven’t really been there long enough to blame . . . yet.

DC and VC have more difficult jobs, though. It may be that DC is just beginning to realise how jittery the country has become. Anyone in the workplace knows that jobs are already being shed. It’s not surprising that private companies say they’re going to mop up all the jobs that are lost in the public sector - they want to support the Tory policy which is good news for them. DC and VC are going to go for growth.

It’s hard to see how, in reality, all these jobs are going to be mopped up. But what is certain, is that the jobs that are mopped up will be people doing much the same work as they did in the public sector but at lower wages and with worse conditions - so the companies they will work for can make profits.

Where drastic slimming down is happening - in the NHS or LAs or Universities, for instance, many people may remain out of work. A few research centres won’t be able to employ them, Universities, for instance, are already working hard to make links with industry, and a few new small businesses certainly aren’t going to make much difference. We’ve heard that argument before.

What would have made a difference in Sheffield would have been the loan to Forge Masters.

Cable, this morning, on R4, not surprisingly refused to accept the word ‘gamble’ when applied to the policy of drastic cuts. But it is a gamble from Cameron and Osborne - neither of whom will really be affected.

Cable seemed to be burying his head in the sand about LibDem rumblings on housing benefit. In truth, poor old Cable sounded dreadful, no doubt disorientated by turning about face so fast and so frequently.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Cleggie loses it, as the Nasty Party bares its teeth

The dust begins to settle on the Government’s spending review and we see some interesting results - not necessarily where we would expect to. During Posh Boy George’s speech we shouldn’t lose sight of the ConDem MPs cheering welfare cuts; the Nasty Party is back - they never really changed.

We can see this in other details - the kinds of thing that slip out because their attention is fixed elsewhere. What is IDS thinking of when he says unemployed people should ‘get on a bus.’ First of all, doesn’t he realise people do that? But I suspect his knowledge of buses is small, I can’t see him on a bus to his office. Secondly, he’s pretty inept not to realise that he would be dragging up the recollection of Tebbit’s infamous ‘on your bike.‘ But then we’ve always known IDS is politically inept.

Have many people realised that millionaire Posh Boy is changing housing benefit so that people under 35 will no longer be able to get housing benefit for a small flat. They’ll have to live in a shared house - though he dresses this up in silver words (to match his spoons.) So one of his 500k public sector workers, who’s, say, 32 and living in a flat, will, when losing their job because of these cuts, will also have to move. Charming.

And Prefect Cleggie is losing it. Before the election Posh Boy and Cameron were identifying the Institute for Fiscal Studies as a respected organisation. The IFS has identified the ConDem cuts as ‘regressive.‘ So Cleggie is now stamping his little feet calling the IFS methodology ‘complete nonsense.‘ He’s also saying that their definition of ‘fairness‘ (one of the ConDem over-used sound bytes) goes back to a time of Gordon Brown.

Cleggie is rattled; no doubt about it. A hissy fit at a think tank that disagree with you shows you are not really mastering your job. But he’s every reason to be rattled; his own person polling is in free-fall and a recent YouGov poll puts the LibDems at a new low of 10 per cent (Conservatives at 41 and Labour at 40.)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The F word is now common in politics

This article is going to be liberally sprinkled with the F word . . . two of them actually.

The word ‘flexible’ is coming to the fore in Conservative policies. Today we gather they are going to slash the budget for social housing. I’ve been involved in many policy meetings over the past months and one of the most common calls is for more social housing - decent housing at a price people can afford.

Cameron wants to reduce tenancy rights for social housing tenants - he wants a more Flexible system. Part of his argument is that people shouldn’t be holding on to a tenancy if they can afford to buy. Doesn’t this mansion owner realise that if people in social housing can afford to buy, that’s just what they do. We can see what his policy is aimed at; privately built houses with private landlords . . . free market economy, based on maximum profits for the landlords and as little given to the tenants as possible.

Cast your mind back to Conservative employment policies before the Labour Government - the desire for a Flexible workforce. In real words, less rights for working people, easier for owners to hire and fire.

In the Conservative lexicon, Flexible = We’ll boot you out when we feel like it. Let us hope for a flexible ConDem government.

Prefect Cleggie was interviewed yesterday on cuts. Sounding more than ever like a Year Seven boy, Prefect Cleggie said: ‘It’s not Fair to expect our children to pick up this debt.’ Gold Star, Cleggie, for getting in the ConDem PR sound byte - now I think a bit overdone. But Clegg looked peevish and pathetic, no wonder the LibDem vote is falling and his personal support is in free fall.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Lulls, celebrity and gongs in the bank

The spending review is now being trailed like the opening of a new major film or television series. It has, in a way, lost its seriousness and gained an air of celebrity. The television, as ever, more concerned with viewing figures than they are with the serious reporting of news.

There is a strange lull in the UK. As if everything is on hold until Wednesday - as if on Wednesday there will be a seismic shift in the country’s finances and social well-being.

There won’t be. On Wednesday there will be a blueprint for bringing about that change. The change itself will happen incrementally. So we must remain vigilant and active - we need to remember that even nasty tasting medicine tastes less nasty fourth of fifth time round.

And in the lull, 35 top UK companies have come out in support of Posh Boy’s deficit cutting policy. Are we really surprised? Conservative cuts will drive up unemployment (anyone can see that), will drive down wages, will increase profits for (the top 35) companies. The leaders of which will then, no doubt, be able to give large sums to Posh Boy and his chums’ Party and get gongs into the bargain.

Roll on next Wednesday and lets take the fight to them!!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Government options for cuts; reaction on the march in the C of E

Who’d have thought anything as anorakish as a spending review could create so much interest? Much of this interest has been fuelled by the press; and for once I don’t criticise them. They have supplied much analysis and information to enable us to consider circumstances for ourselves.

And now (with the review due next week) they’ve gone into overdrive; in part, forcing the hands of ministers. Cleggie, anxious to pour honey over the bitterness of his many broken promises, announced a pupil premium to help poorer pupils. Quick as a flash the press started asking: ‘Will this money come from elsewhere in the schools budget?’ So (again quick as a flash) the government had to announce that the schools budget (not the education budget, by the way) will be protected.

Now this is interesting, isn’t it? Every time something contentious has come up, D Cameron has made a point of protecting it . . . police numbers, free bus passes, now schools, child benefit - well not child benefit, to protect that was just an election pledge.

Cameron has spent most of his premiership so far on PR; he doesn’t want bad news. But how’s he going to avoid it? The schools protection and pupil premium with the, as I understand it, proposed smaller defence cuts, could be reckoned to amount to some 18 bn gpb. This is quite a proportion of the targeted 83 bn gbp.

The options open to the government, now, are to make much bigger cuts elsewhere (and education as a whole has not been ring-fenced) or to go for a smaller figure of retrenchment. The latter option might be attractive; although Boy George would get a lot of stick, and it would be embarrassing for the Conservatives, that story would quickly disappear, massaged by lighter cuts. But I don’t think this will be palatable to them.

This means bigger cuts elsewhere. Even the Conservatives, who seem to have done little planning before the election, must be concerned about the effect of cuts on growth and unemployment. Unemployment is a major indicator and rising unemployment is always bad-news headlines; but let’s remember rising unemployment didn’t stop Margaret Thatcher. The attractive place (for the government) to cut is welfare; IDS has been sweetened already, so we could be in for some really bad news on welfare cuts. And this could be on other universal benefits.

On a completely different subject we see that the forces of reaction are on the march again in the C of E. Traditionalists (those who don’t approve of women bishops but can’t now get rid of them) reckon they have stitched up enough seats to take the reins of power in the Synod. This will mean restricting the role of women bishops for no other reason than that they are women.

Personally I don’t give a b****r about the C of E and its synod except for one reason. The Synod is a traditional powerbase; they have a powerful voice. And a powerful voice can effect change; this will not be change for the better. So I do give a b****r.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Pinocchio and a Poem

The Conservatives made much noise in their election campaign about how much money they were going to save by cutting out waste (have we ever heard that one before?) Their savings formed a significant part of their plans for deficit reduction. One of the major savings they were going to make was by getting rid of a large number of QUANGOs. Today they are going to announce the fate of many of them. So far so good . . .

However, we now learn that many of them will be subsumed into Whitehall civil service. Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, says that it was never about saving money but about accountability. Good job he’s not Pinocchio, I say. But then, if he were, we’d at least get a laugh out of this sick joke.

In the description of this blog I mention the importance of art and culture; I’m attaching, as part of today’s blog, a recent poem of mine. It may be too overtly political to be good poetry . . . I don’t know.

But here goes.

We Can’t Rhyme, David

You don’t speak to me.
However earnestly
you don your Honest-Dave face
(the one you had so exquisitely
bespoke in Saville Row)
it’s just for show.
No, we don’t inhabit the same space.

Your PR crafted creed
we’re all in this together doesn’t chime
with me, we don’t bleed
in the same way
you and I, we
can’t rhyme.

You tell me, media hype
cocooned (you recognise the political type?)
we live in a broken society;
from where I stand I see
it’s always been like this –
hard as nails, yes,
a son or daughter who careers
off the rails, a friend who fears
work, a neighbour who peers
into another’s business and who
tells tales. But, too,
the occasional helping hand,
a friend who’ll understand,
lines etched merely in sand.

You think you’ve jettisoned grand
but your eyes are your eyes
and the shoes you live in are your shoes;
you cannot help but patronise
us; I cannot excuse
you for the lives you’ll destroy
and for your smile while you do it.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Is Politics beginning to liven up?

Thank goodness we’re coming out of the quiet season; I think things are beginning to liven up. If I appear gleeful, it’s just that I sense the LP is up and running now; and we’ll be making our presence felt.

Ed scored a good media hit with the appointment of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor; I think the contrast with Poshboy George will work well; and to our advantage.

But what is of interest now is the arrival of the Brown report on the future of University funding. This is never going to be a huge issue like Health, Policing, or Schools. But it’s gained a great notoriety in recent months – perhaps because of all the media types who’ve been to university. Or because politically it’s become a Big One.

Ed M supported the idea of a graduate tax; recently I’ve written that I was leaning towards it but found it too flawed to support. Alan Johnson was against it. Andy Burnham (if I remember correctly supported a graduate tax.)

Vince Cable has now written to all his LibDem members saying that they will not be introducing a graduate tax – and we assume he knows what may be coming our way in the Brown review. But he does support a higher rate of tax for graduates in higher paid jobs – to support other graduates. Does this mean a tax until the loan is paid off? Interesting. Particularly in that big emphasis on no increase in student fees was given in their election manifestos . . . something else they’ve had to change now?

The atmosphere is feverish, indicated policies shifting by the minute, as, no doubt, ministers and others brief in order to steal a march on opponents . . . sorry, colleagues. The deal being floated now is for a more realistic interest rate on student loans. Are the LibDems really up to supporting this? How far from being against student loans and no increase in student fees can you get?

It’ll be interesting to watch Ed manoeuvre on this one, as well. Will there be enough of a crack in the ConDem ranks for him to get a hold on and widen? Clearly he's hoping so with his invitation for LibDems to work with him. But what is a 'progressive system' of funding? As both Milliband and Burham say a free market of different fees is highly undesirable, even worse than across universities is the certainty of different fees for courses within a university. It doesn't take too much to work out that the most popular courses will go up (which isn't the same as the most expensive courses . . . )

Whatever Ed does, he (and the team) must do it quickly, decisively and clearly. Knocking the other side is good - but not good enough, what are we going to do? It’ll be seen as a test of the new team.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Milliband demonstrates canny thinking

Ed Milliband has announced his shadow cabinet; and has demonstrated some canny thinking.

Most obviously Alan Johnson into the Shadow Chancellor’s job. Dangerous move, but a good one. If Ed had put either of the front-runners (Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper) into the post he’d have ever been faced with the media predilection for Soap Drama. Besides which, he couldn’t really have put Ed Balls there; Balls’ comments recently about deficit reduction would have sent out entirely the wrong messages. But best of all, Ed M has wrong-footed the journalist pundits, without raising their hackles.

Alan Johnson is an incredibly safe pair of hands. In government he headed up both Health and Home Office and steered sure courses, taking them both out of the highly anti-labour news. His joke about an ‘economics primer’ may have been funny (it was neatly wry and brilliantly self-deprecating) but may have been a tactical error. However, he could easily turn it back on the Government if they attack him with it. And distant, posh-boy George will find an excellent opponent in older, genuine, honest talking Johnson. Good move.

Good to see Caroline Flint making a return; she’s an excellent communicator. And the bossy women from Blair-Brown have gone.

Sorry not to see Diane Abbott somewhere; she has grown enormously over the leadership campaign. She may be tricky to handle within collective responsibility; but she now has far more positives than negatives. I have hopes . . .

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I'm not saying the nasty party is back . . .

In his final conference speech, David Cameron invoked the spirit of Kitchener (which is synonymous, in the circumstances, with the spirit of Churchill). ‘Your country needs you.’ What a cheek. ‘We’re all in this together,’ the millionaire says, ‘Go out and do your voluntary work - your country needs you.’ Interestingly, it didn’t get a warm response, perhaps even his delegates think they’re doing quite enough already, thank you.

I’ve argued before that if all his volunteers get going (civic gardens, volunteer libraries . . . ) it won’t be the well-healed that’ll suffer, nor the well paid managers, but the low-paid librarians, LA gardeners and the like.

Now put this alongside the welfare cap - around 500 gbp per family. There is some argument about the fairness of this; it runs along the lines of ‘If you’re on benefit you shouldn’t have so many children.’ This may be harsh, but, for some, there is a cruel logic behind it. Precisely the reason, of course, that the Tories use it. But it’s not the true picture.

The real problem is that people have their families (large or small), then, possibly out of the blue, are made redundant or lose their jobs. What are they supposed to do with their children then? Put them back?! The capped figure includes housing benefit, so what happens to a family in rented accommodation in central London or other areas of the South East? Let’s take our clue from one of the delegates at the Tory conference; she said, ‘They’ll have to move house.’

And the final, never mentioned, element of this . . . we can all see that the policy of cuts Cameron and Osborne are promoting will certainly raise levels of unemployment.

The Conservatives are going to force people on to benefits . . . and then punish them for being there.

I’m not saying the ‘nasty party’ is back; I’m saying it never really went away, just hidden by a bit of PR camouflage.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

What planet does Gove live on? (Or come from?)

Education secretary, Michael Gove, has announced an over-haul of the school curriculum. But the majority of what he says beggars belief.

If you want to control a population one of the things you do, first, is control their knowledge of history; many years ago Kenneth Baker did it - ‘they should know kings and queens’ philosophy. Gove wraps it up as Britain’s ‘island history’.

He makes a great deal about students needing to understand and practise correct sentence structure, spelling, grammar. Not surprisingly he used this statement to bash ‘left wing idealogues’.

Now I don’t know where Gove has been . . . certainly not into any primary school I’ve been into recently. Primary children study history in broad sweeps, getting an understanding or feeling for different periods. And if he bothered to open a Level 3 SATS English paper, I think he might find his language skills challenged.

Gove then has a list (don’t these Tories love them?) - Keats, Dryden, Byron . . . I can think of ways I could teach these in a secondary school, but I don’t think they’re appropriate for all groups - I don’t see the point. It’s much better to work with some of the brilliant contemporary writers. I could pick one or two Year 9 or 10 classes that Gove might like to prepare a lesson plan for and teach it.

Gove isn’t, of course, really considering education, much more to the fore is his desire to re-establish his position within the Tory front bench. The education secretary has proved once again his credentials - he’s a pompous prat.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Life isn't just PR, is the real world beginning to get to the Tories?

One of the things that’s marked the ConDem time in office is their cool, calm assurance; it’s reassuring, ‘they know what they’re doing, we’re safe in their hands.’

But it’s easy for them to be calm and cool; their time, so far, has mostly been PR with few policies being outlined in detail or implemented. One Minister who hasn’t seemed sure-footed is Education Secretary, Gove, Cameron’s right hand man; look how Gove has been shoved out of the media spotlight after his spectacular encounters with a number of banana skins.

But now do we begin to see more things wobble?

Osborne has broken the link of child benefit with universality; the wisdom of this is open to debate. But he has make the break point the higher rate tax - c 44k gbp per year. However, if one person in a family earns above this figure child benefit is lost; if two people in a family are working and they individually earn less than this figure but their joint income is more (even quite a lot more0 .......................then they don’t lose it - even if, say, both earn 40k gbp (ie 80k per year). Anyone can see this is unfair. But Osborne says to the effect: ‘It’s tough, but we have to put up with it.’

Osborne can put up with it - he’s a millionaire, so what will he feel?

Conservative Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, has already said the policy may need revising . . . It didn’t stand up to much scrutiny then.

Osborne has also capped a family’s benefits to the level of the average family income - around 500 gbp per week. This sounds quite a lot, but in London and areas of the SE housing costs alone could approach this. The policy effectively shoves people out of their homes in London and areas of the SE to areas with lower housing costs; sounds a bit like ghettos to me.

At the same time three local authorities are taking legal action against Gove cutting the funds for schools for rebuilding.

And now, Jim Gamble, Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, has resigned, following a disagreement with the Government over the Government’s future plans for the agency.

I hope the new Labour Leadership notes these cracks. But it’s not enough to attack them . . . we have to be much cleverer. We have to have better policies. Let’s get our skates on.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Interesting times, interesting polls, and Ed safe from Warsi

Two down, one to go. We wait to hear from Osborne and Cameron; in the meantime Ed M begins his work while he (and we) wait to hear about his shadow cabinet. And polls are interesting.

Recent polls show a big drop in LibDem support and Tories and Labour neck and neck. Some put Conservatives slightly ahead, others put Labour slightly ahead. There haven’t been dramatic Conference Bounces this year; we’ll have to see if the Conservative vote follows this pattern.

Ed must capture the goodwill in the Party and move onwards. He must quickly get some quick answers to some often repeated Tory claims. Many people in the country are failing to support Labour because they hold us responsible for the UK debt; it’s easy to understand why. The Tories keep telling them we’re responsible for it. ‘Say something often enough and it becomes true’ a cynical person might say.

The Tories have several add-ons too . . . ‘We have the biggest debt of the G20’, ‘We’re like Greece’, ‘Look at Spain and Ireland’, ‘Look how Canada got itself out of debt with budget cuts’. We must have media friendly answers to these, and use them loudly and often.

Speaking of loud . . . I caught part of Baroness Warsi’s Conservative address. At one of her climax points she finished with ‘Ed Milliband - you’re no friend of mine.’ He must be breathing a sigh of relief. And Ms Warsi, I don’t personally know anybody who’d want you and your squawking clap-trap as a friend.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Moving towards a graduate tax . . . but how far?

I’v been thinking about the Graduate Tax; is it fairer than the student loan process?

Ideally, it would be popular - and a good idea - if we could get rid of the student charging idea - back to the old system where higher education was paid for through general taxation and student grants were available as appropriate. But this was a system for a time when only about 2 per cent of the population went to higher education. If you want to increase that percentage (which has happened) then, the argument goes, the burden on the tax payer is too much. This cannot be a right/wrong answer - it’s a matter of choice or priorities when balancing the UK’s budget.

The next thing to add into the mix is the pressure universities feel on their own bank balances and the need for enough money to manage, effectively, their programmes. They are already making swingeing cuts to staffing and other areas, and must be nearing the level when student experience is affected. There is little doubt that the cap on student fees will be raised or removed in the near future. Universities will feel a great pressure to increase fees, or to vary fees according to courses in order to maximise income. So if a course is popular, the fees are likely to go up.

With variable course fees we are then in a difference set of circumstances. What will be the effect of variable fees on people’s choices relating to economic and social backgrounds? Under the student loan system, students will know what they have to pay back (it will be finite) so the effect of variable fees may be exacerbated. The big advantage of a graduate tax is that the notion of a debt is removed from the student - and that’s a big advantage. But the relationship between the graduate tax element and the student fee is now brought up front; so will the graduate tax be unfair in as much as students on lower cost courses will be subsidising students from higher feed courses?

Or will the graduate tax itself be variable - or capped at the point at which the student fees are paid off? Now this sounds very much like the student loan process, except the loan is not carried by the student but by the country.

The graduate tax is attractive at first view, but I’m yet to be convinced. We await more details.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Not part of a new generation

Ed gave a good speech yesterday; he carefully balanced his criticism of the Blair-Brown years with his praise for the many things that government achieved. His criticism of the Iraq war was measured and handled sensitively enough; it can have come as no surprise that he said it. But I sense that the Iraq war may be a sore that LP members can’t stop picking at. It was divisive at the time, the decision was some time ago. We must let that decision go - while learning important lessons from it.

There were a lot of broad brush aspirations in the speech; some of them will be hard to achieve. But I for one am happy to give Ed time to flesh out these aspirations.

But there is one thing he needs to drop. I think he mentioned the ‘new generation’ about 15 times. Frankly, it’s not a very good slogan - clearly one dreamt up by a set of young advisers who haven’t the skills to really work out what they’re saying and what the effect will be. If he keeps using the expression he’ll alienate many of us who have worked hard to sustain the party over many years - and an odd sentence saying it’s nothing to do with age doesn’t alter the fact.

In fairness to him, I don’t think he mentioned new generation in his R4 interview this morning . . . but I was feeding the dog, so I may have missed it.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ed's day . . .

So it’s Ed’s day today; and what a task he has. Showing how he can unite the LP and Trade Union movement into a group that has the will and ability to move forward and, in time (as short a time as possible) lead the country again. This may be challenging, but it’s nothing like the challenge, for instance, that faced Neil Kinnock when he took over - now there was a divided party!

Not unnaturally, Ed is being portrayed as too far this, or in hock to that . . . not elected by this group, out numbered by that one. I say this is not unnatural, because we must face the fact that the press and media are in this to make stories and for journalists to make their names. And if it’s at the expense of good government - so be it.

Ed must grip his helm and steer as steady a course as he can. He’s at present saying many of the right things - he’s already said he won’t be held hostage by the TUs and the TUs, in their turn, say they won’t hold him hostage. Stick to those statements - we trust you have made them in good faith. Ed realises (as must Party members and TU members) that we must reconnect with our traditional supporters . . . I think we never forgot them, but we lost contact with them, allowed a perception to grow that we’d forgotten them. But so, too, must we attract the better-off individuals - holding to the middle ground and, as David M pointed out, shifting it - which the Party, in government, did in several policy areas.

It won’t be possible for Ed to say much, today, but he can lay out some guiding principles. He must convince us that he can lead, and that he will lead. That he will say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’. He’s lucky; for the most part, unlike Kinnock, he addresses a party that has the will be be convinced and united.

As far as David goes . . . I do hope he stays on, stays on to give it a chance. We want (and need) his formidable skills. But the media wolves may have the final say . . . their self-created and self-centred soap opera makes good copy and they won’t give that up easily. If David goes, because he feels that on-going soap is just too damaging, that must be his call - and who can blame him?

Friday, 24 September 2010

Any Chance of Honesty on the Council Tax?

The ConDems have announced that they are not going to carry out the ‘rate review’ planned for this year – and they’re not going to do it before the next General Election.

Now I don’t want to be too fair to the ConDems, but Labour did exactly the same. Labour postponed a rate review until after the last General Election.

Pickles is arguing that a review isn’t particularly necessary because the differentials remain approximately the same – being a plain speaking Yorkshireman he didn’t use a word as complicated as ‘differentials’.

But, come on, let’s have a bit of honesty here (oh yes.) The reason all three parties have gone for postponing the re-evaluation is that many people will end up spending more on council tax. We can all see that – clear as day, so why pretend otherwise? The last review was in 91 – twenty years ago.

Can we draw any conclusion from this? (Other than that no politicians will face facts?) My take on it is that if a tax is so difficult to levy fairly that nobody will address the equity or otherwise of it, then the tax itself is unworkable and should immediately be replaced with one that’s better.

We’ll wait and see – but I’m not holding my breath.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

What's Clegg communicating?

There’s much talk about Nicko and his confidence. He appears confident, but I’ve been listening carefully to him.

I’m reminded of a theory Lewis Carroll puts in The Hunting of the Snark; the Bellman (who is hunting the snark) works on the principle that whatever you say three times must be true. Today Nicko was constantly talking of the complex tax system ‘left by Gordon Brown.’ Our tax system has always been complicated, but ‘what the hell’, Nicko must be thinking ‘we’ll just blame Gordon and if I repeat it often enough the public will believe me.’

‘Learned lines’ are always so obvious when politicians put them in; it’s disturbing they think we’re so daft.

It’s also informative to listen to Nicko’s voice. Far from giving us great confidence he speaks incredibly quickly sometimes . . . possibly worried that we’ll stop listening? And he gulps for air, a sign of his discomfort. And listen to him move into a high whining tone when answering tough questions.

He knows he’s made several U turns on election promises, and he senses many can see it. He’s not as confident as he seems.

On the Bellman principle (see above) I keep hearing the word ‘broken’. Again, if it’s repeated often enough we believe it. Cameron first introduced the term ‘broken’ to speak of society; it’s an incredibly insulting way to speak of whole groups of UK citizens. But no doubt it looks OK from where Cameron and his living-in-the-1950s colleagues reside. But now I hear from the LibDems ‘broken politics’ (referring to the old way, not the coalition I hasten to add.)

What next? Broken finances, broken taxes, broken NHS - I hear them coming. Hopefully, broken ConDem - we wait and see.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Are the Parties partying in a calm before a storm?

It’s that time of year, isn’t it? Party Conference time.

You’d think Nicko would have a tough little job on his hands - and the way the media have it, he has. But he hasn’t really. The LibDems will all fall into line supporting him. They may have a spat about, say, schools, but that’s all it is. And it won’t make a difference. Nicko says that the country wouldn’t have forgiven them if they had missed the opportunity to go into government; polls appear to be showing that many voters haven’t forgiven them . . . for going into government with the Conservatives.

So they’ll be a pretence of a difficulty; but that’s the media creating a shower in a tea-cup.

D Cameron will be rapturously received no doubt. His party calling his government a great success and completely ignoring the fact he didn’t win enough seats (even though Labour was bending over backwards to help him) to form a government of his own. Besides which, he can be popular now - he hasn’t actually done anything. But if, like me, you’re out in the world, you’ll be only too aware of the fear that’s around.

We all hope that our fears aren’t going to be realised.

And Labour, well, Labour’s holding its own - polling shows the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck. So, if we’re holding our own while waiting for the Leader to be announced - think what we can achieve when the leader is in place. Not long to go now . . . And the first task of the new Leader is to attack the lie perpetrated by both sides of the ConDems - that the Labour Government was responsible for our present financial position. (This, of course, should just be one of the many first tasks!!)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Why should I welcome the Pope?

We are told we should welcome the Pope on his visit. Why should we? Why should we even pay for this State visit?

In a recent statement, David Milliband spoke about the ‘middle ground’ of politics. He said that Labour could occupy the middle ground and could shift the middle ground; he gave examples of this. In moments of self-doubt (yes, I admit not too frequent!!) I come back to my passionate belief in equality of opportunity.

Despite the unfortunate, to say the least, of Cardinal Kasper’s comments that the UK is like a third world country, the Pope has spoken out against a number of issues. I’m an atheist, but I believe in equality of women; to speak against women priests is, therefore, against equality. Feeding the number of people on our planet is a major concern and yet the Pope refuses to move against family planning / birth control. In the early days of Christianity, survival of the belief - ie lots of children - would have been important, but times have moved on. Today, equal rights for lesbian and gay people are increasingly recognised, something the Labour Government can take great pride in. The Pope’s views are well known on this. Even the Catholic irrational hatred of gay people can be seen to be a belief rooted in the ancient need for a race (or belief group) to survive.

So the Pope is vigorous in his condemnation of the principle I and the Labour Party hold most dear, so why should I welcome him?

On another but related note, the very loud Lady Warsi (Conservative Minister), has said that Labour got its relationship with religion wrong; and the Conservative Government will give religion a greater role. Religions are self-interest groupings and, while putting decently paid people out of work, will also work in furthering their own beliefs.

I have long argued (and shall continue to do so) for a separation of Church (faith) and State. Warsi has let us know the Conservatives intend to push in the opposite direction. To use (or perhaps misuse?) a Christian line, I shall carry on and ‘fight the good fight’ for the separation.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Puerile management and bullying beaurocrats

Since writing about H and S regulations and the too-frequent dumbo implementation of them, more stories have come to my attention.

The first of them concerns a farmer and his wife in Lincolnshire. Actually this isn’t H and S but so close I’ll include it. A farmer and his wife have an eldest daughter of seven; she likes to be independent. Outside their house they have a lane which sees ‘about 20 or 30 vehicles a day.’ The chid likes to go on her own to the bus stop for the school bus (one house away) and likes to come home on her own. When it’s dark or if the bus is late the mother ensures that she is there waiting for the daughter. No doubt, living on a farm, the little girl has learned a lot about life, safety and safe risk-taking.

Anyone listening to the mother can hear how sensible the mother is. Not the local authority, though. They wrote to the parents and told them they would make it a child protection issue if the parents continued this practice.

There’s been a furore about this; eventually the local authority have said they won’t take any action. But sadly, these pompous, purile-ocrats have won. There has been so much publicity that the parents no longer think it’s safe to let the girl wait for the bus. Worse than being puerile, the County Council officials are also faceless bullies.

Remember on Sunday I mentioned the FE college photography students? I am led to understand from a source I am not at liberty to disclose that the puerile-ocrat management have come up with another hurdle. Now the students (16 and over) can no longer be taken to art and photography galleries unless the gallery provides the college with a copy of their own H and S policies. So now not one, but two, policies needed to take these young people (many of whom at the weekends will go clubbing till two or three in the morning et al) out on valuable visits. (I’m saying nothing of the all the letters home and back.) I suppose, sadly, it’s too much to ask for the management to get real!

Another story. I have a friend who is one of the very best primary teachers I’ve ever met - and I’ve met a lot. She was studying the Victorians with a class and wanted to take the children to the local park (a couple of streets away) to further their understanding of the Victorians. The demands of form-filling and letter-writing were so burdensome that the teacher didn’t take the youngsters out.

Yes, yes, yes we must make every effort to keep our young people safe when they’re in our care. But we can’t take as our starting position that the world around us is evil, dangerous, out to get us, and filled with psychotic paedophiles. Or worse, that we live in a world where potty managers can shackle sensible people with policies as a means of justifying their own grey existences.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Is Burnham right to raise unfairness in the leadership campaign?

Andy Burnham says that the system supporting the Leadership Election is flawed - by Union support favouring some candidates and that MPs have their votes publicly available. He’s right to raise these concerns.

The Labour Party believes in fairness and transparency, and goes out of its way to be fair and transparent. But its attempts are often means by which it shackles itself to overburdensome bureaucracy and systems with are at best transluscent and at worst opaque.

Burnham is right, for instance, about MPs voting. I would have thought the idea of secret ballots should be sacrosanct. But by making MPs’ votes public, MPs will vote for the person they think will win, rather that according to their conscience. This may be wrong, but it’s human.

Selection meetings are meant to be fair; but I have seen meetings packed with groupings of members that make the system unfair. Candidates are not chosen by their ability but by the number of friends they have. Systems to ensure fairness to get on to selection panels can be so burdensome that good candidates cannot reach the set down standards (and haven’t the time to fulfil requirements - or even fill out the forms.)

AV as a voting system is another example. The process of allocating second and third choices (and so on) can result in a candidate winning that’s best for some and OK for more, rather than the one who’s best for the largest number. A sort of British compromise. I have written about AV earlier in my Blog.

I’m not putting forward an argument for lack of transparency, or for favouritism, but for ways to be found to ensure we get the best people in the elected positions.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Help! I'm agreeing with Govey

I may need to go into therapy; I find myself agreeing with Govey. He’s announced that he wants to reform H and S legislation so that schools are more able to introduce ‘Boys’ Own Adventure’ type projects and that parents find it harder to sue if there are accidents. Actually, I only agree a bit, because there’s another gender than boys (in case Govey hadn’t noticed) and they like a bit of adventure too.

Nobody would want young people put into danger, but sensible risk taking is important in growing up and developing. Risks must be managed, but we have become far too risk averse. But Govey needs to go further. I know of a group of FE photography students who were not to be allowed into the streets of a city to take photos because it was too dangerous. FE STUDENTS for goodness sake! So it’s not just schools it’s FE too.

Most H and S legislation is important and sensible. Too often it’s a dumbo application of H and S that brings it into disrepute. I don’t know if we need to reform the legislation, but we may certainly need to reform its application. And in terms of schools and colleges, get people into the management of them who understand a bit about teaching - that these establishments exist for the teaching, not for the management. It’s a tails and dogs issue.

And Govey . . . remember girls as well as boys need to learn how to manage risk.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Pastor Jones, burning books and freedom of speech

How is it that a potty, self engrandising little pastor (I speak of Terry Jones) can have the world running around in a spin? Pastor Jones has a flock of under 30 - and that’s on a good day; his flock are dedicated to worshipping Christianity in its purest forms. And that includes, we understand, the belief that the Qur’an is a hateful book.

One reason is, of course, that the Pastor is a fundamentalist with little or no concern about the impact of his beliefs on others. A mark of fundamentalism.

Another reason is that the people in a spin are right in assessing that his demonstration is likely to cause death and injury; mostly likely to armed forces personnel. And why are they right? Because there is another group of fundamentalists who’ll go out and kill and maim people because they think the book-burning is wrong. However sacred a book, can the murder of others ever be a just reaction. Of course not.

What we have here are two minorities within larger groups prepared to insult and kill each other in the name of a Saviour and a life beyond this one.

If the irony of this weren’t so very, very serious it would be laughable.

Of course the Pastor shouldn’t be burning the Qur’ans; but look at all the publicity his statement has won him.

On a wider note, burning books can never be justified. It’s suppressing knowledge and learning. Hitler did it. In the 80s I was shocked to find Labour politicians supporting the burning of SATANIC VERSES - what a great novel that is. Causing offence is a poor defence. It was no defence when Jack Straw supported the banning of the Cartoons and Labour Ministers condemned the BRASS TACKS satire on media sensationalising of paedophilia.

In the UK we believe in free speech and artistic freedom. Artists will sometimes shock and offend - it’s a weapon in our armoury.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Nicko's too cocky for his own good

Nick Clegg speaks with great confidence - today explaining that we’ve all got ourselves in a state about cuts because we think they’re all going to happen the moment the financial review is announced. He goes on to explain that they’re going to be spread over two years, implying that that’s not so bad then.

So he’s doing what he’s always done; speaking with great confidence about not very much of real substance. He fails to understand, too, the atmosphere of fear that’s being created; an atmosphere that will seriously damage the UK’s wellbeing. There used to be an expression ‘motor mouth’ - does that still exist I wonder?

He took Prime Minister’s Questions this week. And he’s gaining a reputation for the vitriol he throws at the Labour benches. This tactic may gain him some friends in the media and the Conservatives (and of course, his own parliamentary party). But he’s already put many Lib Dem members and voters under pressure with his coalition; he may find his vitriol increasing this pressure beyond breaking point. (Lib Dem support is seriously down at the moment.)

Nick Clegg’s attitude is that of a cocky senior boy at school, newly made a prefect. Watch out Nicko, you know what pride always comes before . . .

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Could there be a break-out of altruism is politics?

The automatic life sentence given to people found guilty of murder is once more under discussion; DPP Keir Starmer has said he favours change. Quite right.

The automatic life sentence was brought in as a political act at a time when it was fashionable to attack judges. Like much legislation, it was knee-jerk and badly throught through; but never mind, the public liked it. Almost never is there a ‘one size fits all’ within the justice system. Clearly, though it’s not necessarily comfortable to recognise it, there are different types of murder.

However, although it may be right to look at it and a number of significant people (politicians and lawyers) may think it important, is there any political advantage?

Part of the present argument is that it may affect the way joint liability can be used in the context of gangs where, say, a person dies from a stab wound. It can be the case that no one person can be found guilty of wielding the knife. Whether or not a ‘graded’ system of murder charges and sentences will help in this situation is far from clear; but it does need thinking about.

What is clear is that the sorts of decisions needed hear should not be made for political gain or advantage - a vain hope no doubt. And, sadly, I see no real political will to instigate discussion and change . . . because there’s no political advantage.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Little Brown Jug - alcohol and taxation

The Scottish Parliament is to vote on a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks; this policy is put forward by the SNP but, it appears, unlikely it will be passed. The UK government is looking at legislating for some kind of minimum price. The targets in both these cases are binge drinking and targeting cheap strong drinks that fuel it.

There is no doubt that alcohol can be dangerous; that it is dangerous in some hands. So are cars, so are social networking, gaming and computers. Rock climbing and rugby can be dangerous. However, rock climbing and rugby are exciting and can be healthy. Social networking et al are fun. Alcohol can contribute to relaxation and good company.

Recent figures show that consumption of alcohol is falling in this country and that, in fact, we drink below the EU average. If our consumption is falling and our population is growing then the consumption per head must be falling even more. Why? It may be the recession, it may be that messages about safe limits are getting through.

It’s also clear that the number of pubs (mostly decent, friendly places to get together) are closing at an enormous rate. I live in the middle of Birmingham and it’s happening in the city; I often visit small towns and villages and it’s happening there, too.

Increasingly politicians legislate on what seems to be a good idea, policies based with one eye on the media reporting and another on a superficial and inadequate understanding of the complexities of a situation. Well meaning policies aren’t good enough.

Let’s go for legislation in the round.

On a more promising note, the UK ale market is increasing with the number of breweries now at its highest sicne 1940. As a beer drinker I can recommend the product of many (not all) of the new micro-breweries. Real ale is delicious; I remember once hearing a French wine expert contemplating the number of experts on wine in the UK. ‘Why do the British want to spend so much time considering wine’ he asked, ‘when they have so many wonderful beers?’

I agree with that.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Not New Labour, not Old Labour - Now Labour

I’ve not read Tony Blair’s account of his time as Prime Minister - I shall read it though, and look forward to it. I listened to his BBC interview with interest. Much of what he says is true - he’s no liar, after all. Working with others, and following on from John Smith, then Neil Kinnock, he brought the party into government and led a government achieving many things to be proud of.

But even Tony Blair is still using old arguments on which to build his way forward. That we must build on New Labour and continue to develop in a New Labour way.

He’s wrong. So are people in the other camp; that we need to return to our old ways.

What we need is to develop a new way forward, considering our strategies and policies afresh and in the light of life in 2010 and beyond.

We must reinvigorate our relationship with traditional labour voters and members; and we must attract like-minded people who are entrepreneurs or in higher-paid jobs. We must look at the cost of Trident. I’ve been into many successful (highly successful) academy schools, LA schools and grammar schools; how can we build and spread upon best practice and rescue education from Gove’s free-market education system? How can we ensure education and training that is appropriate for post 16s? The NHS is transformed, our GPs practices are transformed within this; how can we improve and work with (assuming it happens) the sweeping change that is about to take place? How do we sustain a vigorous and exciting arts policy - importing a system from the US won’t work. And so on . . .

This is not New Labour, nor Old Labour, it’s Now Labour. The leadership debate shows what fine people we have in Parliament - and of course we have many not in Parliament, too.

Let’s live in today and get on with it.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Ed Balls' Warning Against Soap is Timely

Ed Balls has made another telling intervention into the Labour Leadership debate; he has warned against the campaign descending into a Milliband Soap. I warned against this in an earlier piece; however the Soapishness cannot be laid at the Millibands’ feet. (I avoid any temptation to go down a road of feet-washing analogies.) Only today I heard their discussion of policy described as ‘increasingly acrimonious’. The media’s own meddlesome contribution to a leadership debate that continues to be dignified - at least from the contestants.

Let’s look at the recent reality - rather than the media take on it. Ed M talks about reconnecting with traditional voters and members - many of whose support we have lost, according to him. David B warns that we must not lose support of the wealthier voters and members, who were crucial to the Labour victories.

They’re both, of course, correct. Not only do we need the support of traditional Labour voters and members; these are the very people the Labour party is dedicated to support. We believe in equality of opportunity, decent living and working conditions, mutual respect. But it’s also true that without the support of many votes from elsewhere we cannot take office - and we are powerless when out of office. But the people David M speaks about are people who solidly, slightly or fleetingly share our beliefs. The two brothers, while focusing their arguments differently would both want the same thing; we can’t afford to have one without the other.

So Mandelson made an intervention. So what? He was only saying something that needed to be said - and it was spoken moderately; and he is entitled to his view and to express it in this debate. Now Kinnock has intervened; fair enough. I’m sorry that he has personalised his argument in the way he has but so what? He stated a long time ago he was supporting Ed M.

The leadership debate teeters on the brink of losing its dignity. And the fault is in the reporting . . . but that’s what the media wants, I suppose. Since the ConDem love-in continues through August - but how far into September, I wonder? - they need to pursue their self-seeking agenda somehow. So I’m glad the leadership campaign moves towards a conclusion, for it has been far too long. And my phones and SMS may be just a little less busy!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Ed Balls' Interesting Spanner

Make You Mind Up Time is moving ever closer . . . for Labour Party members, that is. And Ed Balls has now put an interesting spanner into the works; he’s voiced something many of us instinctively feel is right but nobody has yet really voiced till now. He has spoken against the current, almost universal, thinking that the budget deficit must be cleared quickly. He voices the view that we must continue to support the economy until growth is more established. Rather than saying the deficit must be cleared as quickly as possible, he’s saying it must be cleared as quickly as is appropriate.

There is nobody I’ve met recently who believes that the savage ConDem cuts will lead to growth. In fact the evidence is in front of us; I’ve never known so many people taking voluntary redundancies or early retirements - some even involuntary redundancies. Many of these people may not register as unemployed or jobless, although some will. But, nevertheless, there is a serious danger of unemployment going up, the number of people not working going even more up, and tax revenues falling. In addition the amount of money spent of welfare will not fall - unless the ConDems put through draconian cuts.

Drastic cuts, cuts at a level never attempted before, are a grave danger, and Ed Balls‘ warning is right.

Will Ed Balls win this leadership contest? It seems unlikely. Will he be part of a shadow front bench team? That seems very likely. Will his arguments be heard and taken on board? The country may be ready to give him a proper hearing.

Casting our vote is a serious matter; and it’s just become even more complicated.

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Gove that Dare not Speak Its Name

Gove’s at it again . . . his favourite hobby of obfuscation.

I was just thinking, this morning, that we’ve been free of Mr Gove for some time - and then up he popped.

It’s to do with a debate about whether young people from poorer backgrounds are being excluded from successful schools because of application processes that are too complicated. There is some evidence from the free school meals indicator (a broad brush) that this is true. One strategy to overcome this, it is being suggested, is that successful schools should be required to band pupil entry - in other words, take a fair percentage of students from each attainment band.

Gove answered this by pointing out that when failing schools become successful academies, more higher attaining pupils wish to attend. Yes, you can spot it; he answers the question by turning the question into the answer and thus avoiding the question. He also stated that the government are to introduce the ‘pupil premium‘ - a strategy whereby schools in more deprived areas receive a higher sum of money for lower attaining students - he stated that it is the government’s job to hand out the money ‘but the Headteachers’ job to spend it as they see fit.‘ (Free market coming in here.)

But here’s the killer . . .

He also states that ‘England has one of the most unequal education systems in the world.‘ But, as ever, Gove will not mention the private (in the UK called ‘public’) school system; he dare not speak its name, although it’s the element that skews our system more than any other.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

A hopeless plea for the media to stop turning the LP leadership contest into a Soap

The press and broadcasters are at their games again - trying to make news rather than report it. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say continuing their relentless work in turning serious politics into Soap.

The Milliband brothers, of course, are made for Soap. Two good-looking brothers, battling it out to be on the higher step towards a country’s premiership. (Can’t you hear the score working through its chord sequence towards a trumpeting climax?)

According to the press there are growing signs of tension between the Milliband brothers. Translating this into real-speak, we might say, policy difference. But where have commentators been living? Right from the start there has been a difference of policy between the brothers; not a difference on what to achieve but on the strategy by which to achieve it. Ed argues that we must connect with grass root membership and voters, whom, he argues we ignored in the Blair years. David argues that we must continue to attract the better-off middle classes but must also not ignore our grass roots.

That many ‘traditional’ Labour voters felt alienated is without doubt; that Labour must attract middle-class voters if its to regain power is equally without doubt. How best to resolve these issues is the Millibands’ nuanced arguments - not family feud.

When they’re not stoking the flames of imagined tension, the media like to define this difference as Brownite v Blairite . . . nothing like fighting old battles, is there? And stories of Brownite v Blairite or family feuds are simple to understand . . . and simple to tell. Headlines and soundbites.

The two brothers (with the other candidates) are arguing their cases with great dignity and poise. Let’s understand how galling this must be for commentators, greedy to expose some split, in their own self-centred interest. Let’s also take on board the arguments that are being made and make our own minds up.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Cutting Brighton Rock

A slightly different tone for the blog today - away from politics and towards art.

I’m working on an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel BRIGHTON ROCK. This is going to be performed in Brighton in September as the culmination of a week’s celebration of the centenary of Graham Greene’s birth. It’s a multi-media performance.

The performances should be quite exciting. They’re taking place in the Duke of York’s - and old, still working, cinema. A group of actors will read the adaptation into microphones while images from the Attenborough film (scripted by Greene) will be projected on the cinema screen. A live jazz group will be part of the performance, too. The whole is being called BRIGHTON ROCK UNSEEN.

These days we’re all used to the idea of psychological profiling (I’m a great fan of CRIMINAL MINDS.) So Greene’s study of Pinkie Brown, the psychopathic anti-hero of BRIGHTON ROCK can readily be seen for the triumph it is. A serious and founded psychological study written in a popular form. I think you can already see Greene’s cinematic skills developing too.

Of great interest to me, personally, is that, not only does Greene explore in intriguing ways the effect of Catholicism on Pinkie, but Greene also sets Catholicism (retributive religion) against love of life (in the character of Ida.) I’m hoping to bring this debate really to the fore in the adaptation. And also we (the team) want to ensure our Pinkie is around 17 and our Ida in her 30s . . . and very sexy, which is the way Greene portrays her.

My adaptation at the moment is 140 pages long and I’m endeavouring to prune some 20 pages from it. A task I have to succeed at! It’s an absorbing process, but a slow one. If only I had Joe Orton’s editing skills.

I’ve an automatic bias against ‘famous’ books - which is stupid really. From Pride and Prejudice to The Hobbit, I’ve always enjoyed them when I’ve read them. Brighton Rock is no exception . . . it’s an easy read, but a brilliant one.

And if you’re in Brighton in September, BRIGHTON ROCK UNSEEN is having two performance on Sunday 26 September.

Now back to the script . . .

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

I'm coming out . . . of the Blair closet

Tony Blair has recently been in the news again - and most of the comment unfavourable. Unfavourable because he’s donating his auto-biog royalty to the Royal British Legion. And now I’m about to make myself really unpopular in some sections . . .

Labour Party members and supporters should remember that TB led the Labour Party to an unprecedented number of election Labour victories - three. His leadership was not without controversy - a leader of the energy of Tony Blair will never be without controversy. And there were, indeed, some prats in the government . . . as there will be in any government that runs for thirteen years.

Concerns about these are legitimate; and we should try to learn from them.

But when I hear people say (as I do from time to time) ‘What did the Labour government do for me?’ I wonder what planet they’re living on. Here is a short list . . . Sure Start, minimum wage, vast reduction in waiting times for hospital appointments, Human Rights Act, freedom of information, Civil Partnerships.

For many, the decision to invade Iraq was unforgivable; but we should keep in mind that the ‘againsts’ will all be more vocal than the ‘fors’ - that is how life is. And I doubt if the present enquiry, whatever its result, will silence critics.

However, concerns - specially about lack of post-conflict planning - are legitimate - and we should try to learn from them.

But the constant attacks on Tony Blair remind me of the unrelenting attacks against Bill Clinton from Republican lawyers. Like Clinton, Blair’s success is his weak point.

At this time it appears that the effects of the recession may not be as bad as feared; the Labour administration (latterly, of course, under Gordon Brown) can claim much of the credit - but is unlikely to get it.

Brown built on Blair’s foundations . . . As Blair acknowledges he, himself, did on John Smith’s and JS on Neil Kinnock’s. So, as a kind of unreconstructed Kinnockite, I’m still supporting Blair for what he did - I’m standing up and being counted. And I look forward to the LP new leader . . . and for the chance to work towards a new Labour government sooner rather than later.

Monday, 23 August 2010

More Post-It Note ConDem government

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Local Government has big feet - at least we can assume he has the way he goes around trampling all over people. We can also assume he has an equally large mouth - since his feet frequently fit into it.

He’s done it again; this time accusing the Audit Commission of wasting thousands of pounds at Newmarket Racecourse. It turns out that they had a conference there, and Newmarket was the most cost effective choice of venue (no races running, but the way). Pickles isn’t around to apologise for his wrongful accusation; instead they put up minister Bob Neill to take the flack . . . this frequently being the job of ministers.

This is the first time I’ve come across Neill; my impression was that either he was appallingly under-prepared or that he’s defending an unthought-through position. Full of loud bluster, he sounded mighty uncomfortable.

He had no defence of Pickles’s statement . . . there may well be none. He focused only on the proposed abolition of the Audit Commission. One of the things that’s marked out this ConDem administration is their lack of thinking beyond the ‘scrapping’ policy. Neill had no facts nor figures to support this AC abolition other than being certain it would save money. Nobody mentioned the free-market word; but his entire policy is based on this. That is, that we put the audit commission roles into the private sector and competition will drive down prices.

That Neill was speaking under-prepared or unthought-through was further substantiated when, towards the end of his interview, he put forward the idea, out of the blue, that Audit Commission staff might want to try a staff buy-out.

More post-it note government.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

When are we going to see an honest debate about drug use and abuse?

Drugs are in the news again; always a good topic for a few headlines - and that’s really the problem.

The ConDems make it into the news because they want to consider the possibility of removing welfare benefits from people who refuse treatment. Excuse me, but my understanding is that there aren’t enough places on treatment programmes for those wanting them. But we should live safe in the knowledge that the ConDems are going to ask people their views. Once again, we see the ConDem PR machine in action. More talk and (not yet) any action. Hypocrisy.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sir Ian Gilmore, retiring President of the College of Physicians, has suggested that drugs should be legalised. The problem for Sir IG is that he knows what he’s talking about; and the one thing politicians don’t want on drugs is informed debate . . . though they like to say they want it.

Labour is no better; one of the most stupid decisions the Labour Government made was to reclassify cannabis - C to B. Other than a couple of days’ good headlines what use did this do? A rhetorical questions . . . but I’ll answer it. None.

I wonder, sometimes, what land politicians live in. How many of us can honestly say we don’t know anybody who uses them? Like most of us, I have many friends who smoke cannabis; other classified drugs, I don’t know. I’d like to say I’m fiercely opposed to drug use and that I never take them. In terms of classified drugs I can say I don’t take them - but I drink alcohol and coffee. I gave up cigarettes years ago for health reasons.

The UK has an ambivalent attitude to drug use . . . look at the dope-smoking, pill popping lead character in SHAMELESS, a popular anti-hero. And comedy (however broad) reflects society - see the name of this blog.

Drug use is common at all levels of society - even at political levels. Drug use is complex - in judicial, medical, financial and social terms. The sooner politicians realise this and enter into an informed, serious and above all honest debate the better. Politicians can lead . . . are there any brave enough to lead on this?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The ConDem Hollow Men

While Slasher Cameron is on holiday George Osborne and Nick Clegg are on the charm offensive.

The cartoonists are having a field day with Clegg - a short-trousered school-boy sitting at his Daddie’s big desk, a budgie in a cage . . . Aren’t you reminded of the Spitting Image puppets of David Steele and David Owen . . . (If you haven’t seen them - look them up, it’ll be time well spent.) Self-serving Clegg deserves all the vitriolic ridicule that comes his way.

The joint ConDem messages from Clegg and Osborne are interesting in as much as they have so little substance.

Clegg is desperate to convince us that Society will be so much better after the ConDem financial butchery. He offers us the comfort that the cuts in the economic review aren’t just for this year but for five years . . . The fear that I find around me in many different sectors is not just short term then? To shift the metaphor - the sword of Damocles will be there, but swinging for at least five years. Some comfort!

Osborne’s arguments are just as hollow. He is following Cameron’s lead and still uttering promises with no back up, and policies which face both ways. He says that a fairer society will come from their health and education reforms; but omits to say how this will come about. He wants all young people to be given equal access to education - but seems unaware that the number of young people with good grades unable to get into university is rising.

He states that their welfare reforms with get people out of the trap of poverty and into work; but he declines to explain how the changes are to be afforded or how these people will get into work when employment starts to rise. Osborne hopes that the private sector will pick up many of the public sector jobs being lost; they’ll do this by reducing wages and increasing profits. Does Mr We’re-All-In-This-Together Osborne realise who’ll suffer in this one?

But then, I suppose, the ConDems can change the meanings of Equal and Fair; to change the language to fit the policies may be a cost effective way of being radical.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A different world, a true community.

I’ve been away for a week, hence the absence of blogs. I was cruising along the River Nene from Northampton in a narrowboat. Hence a slightly different tone for today’s blog; partly to ease back in gently, partly because I’ve been removed from politics and all news for a week!

There is a real community among boaters, specially among narrowboaters and even more specially among those who do it regularly. I don’t want to sound sentimental - and I know I’m definitely going to sound old-fashioned - but it’s a community based on shared help, mutual interest and, well, kindness. You meet it all the time; and a wide range of characters, too.

The River Nene runs from Northampton eastwards and eventually you can travel to the Ouse and East Anglia. It’s a gentle river, with regular, often electrically operated, locks. So there are many chances to pass the time of day with people. Like the older people on a boat named Numquam Sine Stimulo (Never a Dull Moment.) These had travelled from Napton (on the Oxford Canal) to Cambridge and were on their way back. I’ve made an assumption (from the name of the boat) that they may have been connected with university education; but, retired, they had been out for six weeks. What a great way to spend some retirement time.

We found cows most interested in us on many of our moorings, but can you imagine the pleasure of coming across some shire horses around one of the locks. All of them happy to be spoken to and stroked. A rare pleasure for a townie like me.

Then there was the old chap we partnered up with (through the locks) coming back to Northampton. He was on his own on his boat, with his dog: ‘He’s very brave when he’s on the boat.’ Our helmsman learned his story as they travelled along. His wife had died a couple of years ago; but he decided, rather than sit around in his house moping, he sold up and bought his boat. He has sons and daughters (so a family); but he’d travelled along the Nene to the cuts in East Anglia, cruised the Ouse and was on his way back.

What a spirit - it gives us all hope.

At Irthingborough we hoped to moor up for the night; but there wasn’t really a mooring - and the next chance was miles along the river. A lively group offered us the chance to ‘breast up’ (ie moor alongside them); but eventually they got together and three boats were nudged along which gave us a perfect mooring on the end. The day before, a passer-by had borrowed a boat hook to rescue a swan that had got it’s neck stuck in a lock gate.

The Inland Waterways offer a chance to participate in a community where you can talk to anyone without fear of abuse nor rebuff and where offering help and receiving it are par for the course. Among the rough and tumble of politics we should never allow ourselves to forget such communities exist.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Slasher Cameron's now pinching policy ideas from The Archers

Did you catch the latest Big Society big idea from Slasher Cameron?

He wants community groups to take over the civic gardens from local authorities. Another cosy idea for Cameron supporters. But this one appears to be plucked from The Archers. In one storyline, Linda Snell, headmistress of Ambridge, and Elizabeth Pargetter (Archer), went out secretly at night to sort out the flower beds around the village green.

But Cameron’s Archer’s policy isn’t quite so cosy. What will happen here is that low paid gardeners from wealthy LAs will be sacked so that middle-class amateur gardeners, with time on their hands, can take over their jobs unpaid (because they can afford to work unpaid.)

This is a specific example of what I was outlining in a previous blog about the Volunteer Society.

Nothing cosy, clandestine nor fictional about this, is there?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Can you afford to volunteer?

David Cameron wants a lot of the slack created in his new Big Society taken up by volunteers – he wants to create a volunteer culture. Sounds OK in front of a nice audience or when you hear it on the television; it sounds wholesome, doesn’t it.. But let’s unpick it just a little bit.

One concern (although not really the one I’m going to follow up, here) is that he wants to remove many jobs from the public sector – we know this. ‘Public sector, bad; private sector, good (presumably with worse terms and conditions)’ is an Old Tory mantra and one well rehearsed. But Cameron appears to be going further than this; he seems to want the jobs to be taken up by volunteers. In other words, get the work done for nothing. Fine policy when you’re a millionaire, I suppose.

But the aspect I’d like to follow up is ‘Who is going to do the volunteering?’ To be a volunteer you need the time to be a volunteer. When trying to answer this it’s easy to pick out people who run a scout group or a youth group. Valuable people, doing valuable work.

But I’m thinking about running schools, or managing big projects ‘in my community’ – whatever that means. Big complex projects take up lots of time; and only certain groups of people have the time to do it.

I’m not knocking the idea of volunteering – I’m a member of a Board of two regional arts organisations as a volunteer, one of the Boards meets at 3 o’clock. I’m a self-employed worker, so I can organise my diary to be free when needed. But only certain types of worker can be free in the middle of the afternoon.

I used to be on the Independent Monitoring Board of a prison near me; in many ways one of the most important things I’ve done. I felt it was important, anyway. But it required almost the equivalent of one day a week, and every now and again a duty week came up. On your duty week you needed to be in the prison a lot, as near to each day as you could; and you were also on call. If there were any sort of emergency you had to drop whatever you were doing and speed to the prison.

Only a certain type of person (retired, senior managerial, non-working partner) can commit to this. Eventually I had to give it up; as a self-employed person, I simply couldn’t afford to give the time, free. The spirit was willing the but mortgage and utility bills weren’t.

Hence, the aspect of our Big Society Volunteer Culture is that we shall be increasingly run by a small group of volunteers taken from an increasingly small section (social, financial, racial) of society. This is not healthy.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Huntley is in our duty of care; but shouldn't receive any money

That Ian Huntley, in prison for the murder of two children, may successfully sue the Prison Service for being attacked and be paid thousands of pounds of our money, cannot be right. However the arguments run, natural instincts, our gut reactions, say this cannot be right.

However, an hysterical reaction - ‘No way’ - is not helpful; nor does it look at the complexity of the situation.

I have had a long involvement one way and another with prisons and prison policy. I will defend to my last breath the principle that prisons must be humane. Whatever terrible crimes a prisoner has committed, our treatment of that prisoner reflects on us as a society. If we want to judge the humanity of a society, one way is to judge the society’s prisons and prison policy.

We lock people away for two reasons; one is to keep us safe and the other is to punish the criminal. ‘What is the correct balance?’ is a hard question.

Prisons are potentially violent places. Prison Officers and other workers in prisons have an extremely difficult job, and often a pretty thankless one. Yes, we have a duty of care within this system. Most Prison Officers understand this and take it seriously. That having been said, there are things that are wrong with the way our prisons work; but improvements are being made. The system is quite different than it was, say twenty years ago. But we cannot be complacent; we must strive for better conditions. It may be that a prisoner has behaved inhumanely (and there may be complex reasons contributing to this behaviour) but there is no excuse for us behaving inhumanely.

Prison Officers have greater difficulty keeping people like Ian Huntley safe than they do keeping general prisoners safe. That he was attacked and harmed, never the less, shows a failing. This failing must be appropriately investigated and all possible steps
genuinely be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again - as I suspect they already have been.

But money being paid out cannot be right.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Another referendum

Democracy is an easy concept to understand, but a difficult one to implement.

The present coalition government still appears to be making policy on the hoof and the latest one from Eric Pickles purports to extend democracy. He wants there to be referendums in Local Authority areas where LAs exceed a certain figure of Council Tax increase; the figure will be set by government - presumably Eric Pickles.

It sounds fine superficially as a sound bite, but the scheme’s half-baked. Council’s set their budgets around February for the next year. Now the referendum (which EP says will be binding) will be held at the same time as Local Elections - these are in May. If the increase in Council Tax is turned down by the local electorate is Pickles’s idea that the LA will have to go back into the budget making process - even though they’ll be into the second month of their financial year?

And what happens in LA areas like Birmingham, where, every fourth year there aren’t local elections? Will the councils have the increased burden of carrying out a referendum just on this issue - a financial cost, of course.

Local elections have turn-outs around 40 - 50 percent. It’s human nature that those against things have a greater impetus to turn out and vote than those that aren’t against things - or feel a bit OK or a bit not OK about them. The scheme is weighted therefore in favour of overturning LA budgets. This isn’t good for prudent running of councils. But it does sound good, doesn’t it?

The most effective referendum, in fact, is the election of council members themselves, and high Council Tax rises would inevitably figure significantly in Local Elections. Councillors have to stand up and be counted . . .

We should be concerned, too, about the election of Local Police Chiefs. How are we going to know who these people are? (Other than by reading small biogs of them.) The most obvious way to recognise who we’d want in the police jobs will be by political badging. So the police force will become politicised in an unwelcome way. But, heigh-ho, we’ll have been given another vote on it.

Here’s a potential scenario . . . . I enter a booth to vote in a local election, but it’s a General Election too - another vote, under AV so I have to rank. I have a referendum, on LA budgets, and another vote on who should run the police force . . . Any more on the way, Davey?

Big Society? Big nonsense (I’ve Bowdlerised this last sentence.)

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Right Deed, but missing the Right Reason?

The Shadow Cabinet has decided to vote against the AV referendum bill. Does this mean that the bill can be defeated?

What comes into my mind is a quote from Thomas Beckett in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. ‘The last temptation was the greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.’

Actually the quote (while a wonderful quote) isn’t quite apposite. The Shadow Cabinet’s thinking is focused on the inclusion of constituency changes - a kind of gerrymandering on Cameron’s behalf. Another concern is the date of the proposed referendum when local and Scottish and Welsh national elections are also being held. These concerns are totally valid - and well argued this morning on R4 by Jack Straw.

However, the AV system itself is not part of their concerns. So if the referendum bill falls by quote is at least useful in part.

If the bill falls it will allow time for a fuller debate on a fairer voting system and one which will allow many of us to express our opposition to AV. An opportunity we haven’t had, so far.

Monday, 26 July 2010

It's the Count that Counts

There are moans in the air that the LP - strictly the Parliamentary Labour Party in this instance - should get its act together and become a proper opposition. An unfair criticism.

The PLP is behaving itself very well indeed over the leadership period. Besides which any new government has a honeymoon period - sometimes long, sometimes short. The LP announced quite clearly its leadership timetable. In the meantime, portfolio holders make intelligent and effective responses as issues arise. If they are measured . . . then an element of treading water is appropriate.

And the political silly season’s coming up.

Those feeling understandably impatient, just wait until the new team is in place in October.

I’ve said before the leadership campaign is edifying. What is going to be unedifying is the halting dawdle to a decision at the count. The count for the leadership is held under the AV system. Anyone following the count for the deputy leadership will remember how protracted the process is.

On the topic of AV, I have now worked out how I should vote in the projected referendum. I’d have to vote NO. Not on the basis that I think FPTP is fairer; just that I think it fairer to vote for the status quo rather than shift to a system that’s equally as poor.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Simon Hughes takes double-speak to new heights

Many of us are wondering what Lib Dem members and voters are making of the decisions and policies of the coalition Government. Stephen Hughes has made an astonishing statement in an attempt to smooth away their worries.

He said in a radio interview that, of course, Lib Dems would never have supported a policy like those that form the Academies Bill. ‘But now, we support the Academies Bill, because it’s part of the deal.’ This is the most bald statement of ‘we are supporting things we don’t believe in so we can stay in power’ that’s been admitted to, yet. How is this going to smooth concerns . . .

Interestingly, the Leader of the Labour Group on Birmingham City, Albert Bore, mentioned such behaviour more than a year ago to me . . . (Conservatives and Lib Dems control the City Council.) He said the Lib Dems would never join with Labour in the council; ‘They refuse to vote with us even when they agree with us, preferring to vote with the Conservatives even when they don’t agree with them.’

At least their dishonesty (or shameless opportunism) is consistent!

Stephen Hughes went on to explain why Lib Dem voting support is falling. ‘Labour keeps attacking us instead of the Conservatives.’ Oh dear, I do feel sorry for you, Simon.