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.