Friday, 24 April 2009

The Return of politics.

This week Chancellor Alistair Darling used his budget to give a bleak picture of the economic situation. Government borrowing is set to top the £175 billion mark, creating a debt that will eat up 79% of Britain’s GDP by 2014.

He made a prediction that the economy would start growing again later this year which few people listening to his speech in the commons or watching it on the evening news believed. Even if he is proved right the message delivered this Wednesday was a stark one. The party’s over, the debts are being called in and the bad times are going to go on rolling for a lot longer than the good ones ever did.

Despite the best efforts of the junior ministers and tame economists bussed into the nation’s television studios to try and deny the obvious this is almost certainly a budget that will lose Labour the next general election.

It will do so not because of some high minded critique of fiscal policy or a reaction against the profligacy of the past quarter century, it will lose them the election because it sees Labour overturning, with good reason given the struggle Mr Darling is going to have balancing the books, the promise it gave way back in the nineties that it had given up forever on the idea of taxing the rich until the pips squeak.

You, I and just about everyone else know that the seriously rich people who will be hit hardest by the new 50% tax rate for anyone earning over £150,000 will simply move their money offshore, if fact most of their number have probably done so long ago. Who do you think will end up picking up the bill? You guessed it, Mr and Mrs Middle England, and they are not at all happy about it.

At the next election they will either switch their allegiance to the Conservatives or, more likely, stay away from the ballot box in sufficient numbers to let David Cameron sneak in via a hung parliament.

Whatever they do Mr and Mrs Middle England may find once the electoral dust has settled little has really changed, the incoming government will have to go on delivering what are, by modern standards, austerity budgets for most of the next decade. The alternative to borrowing money to prop up ailing banks, keep people in their homes and help the unemployed find work is the creation of another ‘lost generation’ of people with no hope of finding work or living independently of state support isn’t a cheap option or a way of cutting ‘big government’ down to size; it’s a recipe for economic disaster and political extremism.

Although the budget and its fallout could spell doom for Labour at the polls in the short term it could be good for politics in the longer term.

For the first time in a generation or more politicians will have to take tough decision rather than simply talking about doing so, the lack of money to be thrown at short term initiatives designed to distract voters means they will be brought face to face with the electoral consequences of their actions far sooner and will have to learn to be more responsive to public feeling.

Ideology, for a long time seen as an occasionally interesting add-on to the political process suddenly matters again and will only grow in importance as the long road to recovery starts. The left must find a way of squaring its belief the state has a role to play in taming the worst excesses of capitalism with a need to stimulate a moribund economy; the right will have to balance its fundamental belief in the power of the market with a proper compassion for the individuals and communities hit hardest by the downturn.

Most importantly the next government, whoever leads it, won’t enter office with a thumping majority and a tame electorate more interested in shopping than politics, the bursting of the credit bubble has knocked the scales from our eyes, years of scandals over MP’s expenses have killed off much of the trust we once placed in our politicians. It will take more than fine words, carefully crafted photo-opportunities and spin to win it back.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Never mind Starbucks we’re going to have a gallery on every street corner.

Communities are to be given the power to use empty shops as temporary art galleries and advice centres under plans announced by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears. The policy has been prompted by a warning issued by the Local Government Association earlier this week that Britain’s high streets are at risk of becoming ‘ghost towns’ as a result of the economic downturn.

Speaking to the BBC Ms Blears, the one bright spot of irrepressible optimism on an otherwise gloomy and exhausted government front bench said: ‘Town centres are the heartbeat of every community and businesses are the foundation so it is vital they remain vibrant places for the people to meet and shop throughout the downturn.’

The plan has met with criticism from Tory Shadow Communities Secretary Caroline Spellman, who attacked the government for scrapping rate relief on empty properties, a move, she said had ‘made maters much worse’ for small businesses, she also criticised new planning rules favouring out of town developments which, she said, ‘will soon make it even worse for high street shops.’

Caroline Spellman has a point more could and should be done to reduce the ruinous costs placed on small businesses, whether they trade on the high street or elsewhere. For decades it has been far too easy for developers to gobble up green field sites by building ugly retail parks and vast soulless estates with minimal service infrastructure and no real sense of community. It would be a mistake though to dismiss this latest initiative out of hand.

Hard though it may be to see it in a week when the sub sixth form silliness of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damian McBride aided and abetted by the perennially irritating Derek Draper fatally compromised the party’s integrity this plan shows that, in policy terms at least, Labour still has something worthwhile to say.

It makes infinitely more sense to use empty shops as community facilities than to leave them to rot and Hazel Blears, often mocked in the media for her Tiggerish optimism, deserves to be praised for consistently championing the need for the public to be involved in the decision making process.

Finding new uses for old buildings should not though be seen as all that needs to be done in order to revive Britain’s fading town centres. We need to return to the idea that living in town is an attractive option for families not just the ‘young professionals’ featured in the glossy brochures put out by speculative developers or the invisible underclass. Doing so requires public and private investment to be ploughed into building decant affordable housing, creating attractive public spaces and repairing the public transport system.

Another and perhaps the most vital ingredient in reviving our moribund inner cities is giving local government and through it communities a real say in how and where regeneration funds are spent. What we need in fact is the making into a reality one of the sound bites New Labour threw off during its salad days, joined up government.

It may be a little late for the current government to finish the project but it could do much to expiate the worst of its excesses over the past decade by getting the process started.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Scrap SATS in favour of a more rounded education.

After last year’s marking fiasco it is almost impossible to think of an argument in favour of continuing to have SATS tests in Primary schools.

The whole testing regime currently employed in schools in England, the Scots and the Welsh, wisely, have the freedom to make their own decisions on many education matters, is increasingly being questioned. A growing body of anecdotal and research based evidence suggests that much of the joy is being ground out of learning for students when teachers are obliged to ‘teach to the test.’

For example the sensible, in principle, idea of having a ‘literacy hour’ to improve student’s reading skills is being undermined in practice by a testing regime that requires students to be drilled in analyzing a particular passage from a novel, but which fails, due to time pressures, to introduce them to the idea of reading for pleasure.

There is a good case to be made for following the Welsh example and scrapping SATS tests altogether and trusting teachers to use their firsthand experience in the classroom to assess the abilities of their students.

As for the all important, since it underpins all the other skills needed to succeed in education, work and life, business of teaching students to be literate and to read for pleasure better results might be achieved by embedding literacy skills in a range of subjects rather than using an endless round of testing that for all its capacity to produce statistics does little to give students a love for learning that will be with them for life.