Sunday, 30 August 2009

A light in our darkness- maybe.

If you’re willing to ignore the mutterings of the pessimists who say it will only turn out to be the headlamp of an oncoming train it seems the UK might be beginning to see a little light at the end of the long, dark recessionary tunnel we entered when Northern Rock collapsed in the Autumn of 2007.

This week the Institute of Chartered Accountants reported that its index of business confidence had risen to 4.8% and predicted that the UK economy would grow by 0.05% in the second quarter of 2009. Chief Executive Michael Izza said: ‘This quarter’s business confidence monitor suggests the UK recession is at an end,’ although he warned against ‘underestimating’ the challenges ahead it looks like the good times may be about to start rolling again.

An impression further confirmed by the announcement by Ben Bernake of the US Federal Reserve that the world’s largest economy looked set to join Germany, France and Japan in emerging from recession before the year is out.

So, I ask myself, why aren’t we all out dancing in the streets or at the very least dusting off our credit cards and heading for the shops? The answer is because it isn’t that simple.

Growing confidence amongst business professionals and the emergence of major economies from recession are good things but real people care about and are influenced by much more than just the economy stupid. A number of other factors mean that the good times aren’t going to start rolling any time soon for a large number of Britons.

If, like me you live in a town that has lost the industries that were its sole reason for existing over the past thirty years the recession didn’t begin in 2007, it began around the time Denis Healey went to the IMF with his cap in his hand.

You will also have received the figure released this week that 3.3 million homes in the UK have no adults in work not as an indictment of a too generous welfare state, but as a stark reminder of how many lives are blighted by poverty and a lack of purpose.

While it is good news that business leaders feel more confident and that Lord Turner has started the debate about tightening the way the city of London is regulated, although it would be a mistake to think said debate should end with his rather student union proposals for banning ‘socially useless’ banking activities, real steps will have to be taken to mend our fractured society before the man and woman in the street feel a similar boost in their confidence levels. As Churchill might have put it, this isn’t the beginning of the end of the recession so much as the end of the beginning of our journey along a long and difficult road.

Big Brother, we’re not watching you.

There is at least one thing about which the joy of all right thinking people can be unconfined this week, Big Brother the granddaddy of all reality television programmes has been axed. Makers Endemol said the 2010 series would be the last citing falling ratings and the dismal nature of the current crop of contestants.

Lets not be under any illusions Big Brother isn’t and never was any kind of social experiment; it was a tawdry freak show. A few of the freaks, the late Jade Goody being the most prominent example, made sizeable fortunes and achieved a larger than expected place in the nation’s affections, but they were freaks none the less and we all demeaned ourselves by taking an interest in their antics for so long.

One question remains though, what will all those self obsessed nonentities out there who want to enjoy the trappings of fame and fortune without having to trouble themselves with either working hard or having any discernable talent do now their prime outlet has disappeared? I hear there may be several hundred vacancies at an establishment very similar to the Big Brother house situated in Westminster up for grabs next May.

Poetic Justice.

The conference season will soon be upon us, made a little more interesting this year by the impending general election. Never mind fending off a challenge to his leadership from Foreign Secretary and part time Jerry Lewis impersonator David Milliband Gordon Brown looks certain to lose the election and with it the place at the top table of British politics he has dedicated his whole adult life to achieving.

A haiku published on the New Statesman’s reliably amusing competitions page summed up his predicament and that of his party perfectly, it reads as follows:

Sound of no music
Fills the upturned half-lit hall:
Yesterday’s party.

Talk about many a true word being spoken in jest.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tory education reforms are bottom of the common sense league.

Over the past week or so much has been made of the attitudes of David Cameron’s new model Tories to the dear old NHS. While he’s been at pains to distance himself from the comments made by publicity hungry MEP Daniel Hannan there is a lingering suspicion that outside its Notting Hill branch most of the party would happily see it consigned to the dustbin.

Naturally this is a cause for concern, however bureaucratic and wasteful it may be the NHS does at least ensure that people get medical treatment regardless of their ability to pay up front, not something that can be said for most of the alternatives on offer. Can the Tories be trusted with the NHS? Up to a point, if only for the reason that dismantling it would be a public relations disaster from which the party would be unlikely to recover.

Let’s ask ourselves another, equally important, question. Can the Tories be trusted with Britain’s education system? Based on their performance over the past week I doubt it.

The normally sensible Michael Gove this week announced that an incoming Conservative government would give schools extra league table points for steering students towards ‘hard’ A Level subjects such as maths and the sciences and knock points off for students enrolled to study ‘soft’ subjects such as media studies et al. Striking a resolutely populist note he told the BBC that the current A Level system had been ‘dumbed down’ and that league tables were largely to blame.

Too much pressure, he said, was being placed on students likely to get a C grade in hard subjects to take easier options in the hope of getting an A and thereby improving the school’s place in the league tables, as a result potential high achievers aren’t being stretched and students who are struggling were being pushed to one side.

This position is based on a report written by Richard Sykes, a former rector of Imperial College London and contains, as most muddled thinking does, a germ of common sense. League tables have gone from being a useful measure of a school’s performance to being an opaque public relations exercise that confuses parents, students and schools alike. A point highlighted in a report from the Teaching and Learning Programme this week, which called for school league tables to be published with a ‘health warning’ because they often have the potential to be so misleading

Handing out extra points to schools on the basis of pushing students into studying subjects that are perceived to be harder will do little to address the problems inherent within the system, and may even make things worse for schools if the drop out rate increases. The plan is also flawed because along with the government’s failed diplomas it ignores vocational courses altogether.

Unsurprisingly a group of Oxbridge educated conservative politicians has, yet again, made the mistake of believing the only test of educational success is whether or not a student makes it into university. While we do need more graduates we also need to educate the next generation of trades people, but if schools are actively discouraged from providing vocational courses because there are no ‘points’ to be gained from doing so that simply isn’t going to happen, much to our national cost.

Tinkering with league tables isn’t going to improve the life chances of the kids who won’t be amongst the 26.7% of students celebrating getting top marks at A Level; neither is downgrading the vocational training that offers them a chance to get ahead in a tough jobs market.

What might improve things is killing off the AS Level that has turned A Levels from a time when students can explore the world of learning and even read a few of those funny papery things called books that haven’t been cut into chunks to be regurgitated in an exam room into just another hurdle on the educational obstacle course, and having done so placing it on an equal footing with vocational courses so that the age old divide between academia and ‘trade’ is finally done away with.

So long as they continue to play to the gallery and perpetuate prejudices that should have been rejected long ago the Conservatives cannot do more that pretend to be equal to one of the greatest challenges that faces any government, educating the next generation of workers.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Is Britain really the land of the lazy?

Never mind swine flu Britain, it seems, is in the grip of a potentially more serious epidemic, of laziness.

According to a survey carried out for the Nuffield Trust a third of the people they spoke to said they were too lazy to run for an bus and half of the dog owners surveyed admitted to being too lazy to take their pet for a walk.

Dr Sarah Dauncey, medical director at the Nuffield Trust told the website this week that ‘ready meals, remote controls and even internet shopping’, have all been contributing factors in making the average Briton ‘dangerously lazy and idle.’

Doesn’t the good doctor sound like a bundle of fun, well she does if your idea is being told scolded by nanny before being given a large spoonful of cod liver oil and sent off to bed early.

Perhaps a little perspective is needed on whether or not we’re idler as a nation than we used to be a few years ago. Undoubtedly the rise of car ownership and the decline of heavy industry, never mind the fact that the nation’s couch potatoes no longer have to trek across the room to change channels on the TV, mean we are less active than we used to be, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

I’ll admit there is nothing worse than being trapped in unwanted idleness by unemployment, old age or serious illness; it is also scandalously wrong that we fret ourselves into convulsions about childhood obesity whist keeping school sports facilities locked up at weekends and during the long summer holidays so the nation’s children have nothing much to do in the way of entertainment apart from eating Pringles and playing on the X Box. As for the wilfully stupid practice of selling off school playing fields, well don’t even get me started.

There is though, even the energetic Dr Dauncey would probably have to admit, a difference between being active and just being busy, and that it is important to draw a clear distinction between the two.

Being active means moving about, be it on a sports field or just trotting between the sofa and your computer screen, with a definite purpose in mind, be that scoring the winning goal, taking five wickets in a single over or just writing a halfway decent sentence. Being busy, on the other hand, is entirely different and usually much less productive.

Consider, if you will, the case of our own dear Prime Minister, nobody could doubt Mr Brown’s work ethic, what with his early morning calls to cabinet members and the huge wad of memos and documents he seems to carry with him perpetually like some unfortunate cursed by the gods. The same work ethic can be seen in operation in the endless stream of policies, statements, initiatives and re launches of the policy we started off with in the first place that pour out of Whitehall on a daily basis.

All very worthy I don’t doubt, but how much of it is actually effective? In all probability very little, the awkward truth is that activity alone is neither healthy nor efficient, to do our best we occasionally have to take the time out to do nothing at all.

Are there clouds on the horizon for Little Miss Sunshine?

This week Hazel Blears, the one time Secretary for Communities and Local Government had the tyres of her car slashed by vandals whilst out campaigning in her Salford constituency.

Ms Blears, who earlier this year had to pay back £13,000 in capital gains tax during the scandal over MP’s expenses and came close to derailing the government when she resigned from the cabinet after the debacle of June’s European elections, is not, it seems, well loved by her constituents. In fact she only narrowly survived being ousted by local Labour Party members.

You would, in one sense, need a heart of stone not to laugh at her predicament, from parading around on the day it looked like the government might collapse wearing a badge reading ‘rocking the boat’ she has ended up in a position where her own boat looks like it might be holed below the water line, and yet the newspaper pictures of her sitting in her wrecked car with her head in her hands call for a different and more compassionate response.

Being a victim of crime is no less traumatic just because you happen to be a member of parliament, the same goes for experiencing the dawning realisation that your hopes have been dashed because you decided to back the wrong horse.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Quotas aren’t the answer to making politics more representative.

Almost one week on from the event and Labour Party Deputy Leader Harriet Harman’s claim that one of the two top jobs in the party should always be held by a woman still seems like an instance of a politician committing the cardinal sin of her trade, speaking without thinking first.

The logic behind the claim, as she explained to the Sunday Times that men ‘cannot be trusted to run things on their own’, seems, by turns patronising, poorly thought through and rather anachronistic. As for her assertion on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Britain needs a ‘team of women and men ministers’ on hand to help us through the current economic crisis takes stating the obvious to absurd lengths.

That isn’t, of course to say that Ms Harman doesn’t have a valid point, even if she did choose to express it in the terms of a 1970’s student activist rather than a seasoned professional politician. Parliament is indeed overloaded with mediocre middle aged white men, having more women MP’s, along with having more members from ethnic minorities and a generally wider mix of social backgrounds represented in the commons chamber would do much to revitalise a moribund institution.

The all important question is just how such a change should be brought about.

Not, I would suggest, by going down the route of imposing quotas for selecting prospective candidates from under represented groups for which many senior Labour figures seem to have such a misplaced enthusiasm for two very good reasons. First of all the suggestion they might have achieved their position by a process of positive discrimination saddles capable candidates with baggage they have no need to carry and second it can create a situation where fulfilling the quota starts to take precedence over selecting the right candidate for a particular seat or position, providing mediocre but ambitious time servers to access positions of power for which they are not at all suited.

If Harriet Harman or anyone else is truly keen to make politics more representative they must look beyond taking such a simplistic approach and address the way politics operates in this country.

The current system under which back bench MP’s are little more than crowd players in an ongoing drama of ministerial egotism and local government, traditionally a training ground for prospective parliamentarians, is treated as an irritating irrelevance does little to inspire talented people, whatever their gender, race or social background, to enter the political fray. To create a truly representative parliament MP’s must again feel empowered to hold the government of the day to account and local politicians must be able to bring real change and improvement to their communities.

Until that happens it might be a good idea to impose just one quota on senior politicians of all parties, one that would require them to think first and speak second.

Ban airbrushed pictures from magazines, say the Lib Dems.

The Liberal Democrats have also spent much of this week debating women’s issues and earlier this week, in a policy document overseen by Jo Swinson MP they called for air brushed pictures to be banned from magazines and advertisements, particularly where they might have a detrimental influence on young women.

Speaking to politics’ earlier this week Ms Swinson said ‘today’s unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure than they were even ten years ago’, she went on to say ‘airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no one can live up to in real life.’

It would be hard to argue against either point, the advertising industry does portray unattainable images, and not just to women either, because they create insecurity and insecurity is the most powerful sales tool of them all.

Sadly, as is so often the case with the Liberal Democrats, all the high minded effort put into addressing an important social issue has been overshadowed by the antics of one man; the eternally ludicrous Lembit Opik.

This week Mr Opik was pictured in the press with his latest paramour, Kate Green, a former underwear model who now ‘fronts’ the ‘say no to size zero’ campaign aimed. If you thought his antics didn’t overshadow the worthy statement made on the same issue by his party then you’re really going to be shocked when you hear what bears get up to in the woods.

Biggs has done his time- let him die in peace.

Ronnie Biggs, the most notorious of the great train robbers has been released from prison on compassionate grounds so that he can spend his last days with his family.

It’s an outrage, was the reaction of much of the tabloid press, after thirty years spent thumbing his nose at Britain from various exotic locations he deserved to die in prison; if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they chorused.

As ever the knee jerk reaction is both wrong and counter productive. Biggs was no hero and, so long as he had his health, deserved to be incarcerated for his part in a brutal crime. However, given that he has been turned into a broken husk by a series of strokes and may not live more than a few more weeks, keeping him in prison would be a denial of the one thing that truly separates honest people from criminals, the ability to show compassion to someone our basest instincts tell us is undeserving of it.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Barbecue summer- don’t make me laugh.

When is a barbecue summer not a barbecue summer? When it’s predicted by the Met Office of course.

As they’ve spent the past week pointing out with a Tour De France style display of back peddling of the sort usually put on by a junior government minister caught in an embarrassing situation, the Met Office didn’t actually say we we’re going to have a good summer. What they said, and you can probably hear the sound of a hair being split lengthways here, was that there was a 65% chance of it being a good summer.

After all we did have a couple of good weeks in early June and a rain free Wimbledon meant that Cliff Richard didn’t end up ‘entertaining’ the crowds on Centre Court. Anyway long range forecasting is jolly difficult and so we shouldn’t grouse when they get things a tad wrong.

As Brian Goulding, a spokesman for the Met Office told the BBC this week ‘seasonal forecasting is a difficult thing to do and this places some limitations on our forecast.’

Tell that to the marines Mr Goulding, actually, no, go tell it to all the families who in these environmentally conscious and recession haunted times opted for a staycation this year and as a result spent two weeks trapped in a caravan listening to the rain drum on the roof as their children wailed ‘we’re bored; there’s nothing to do.’

The British are a patient people, we’ll put up with just about anything from bent MP’s to trains that don’t even try to run on time, never mind customer service that is all but non existent; but having the weather forecast exposed as little more than so much over optimistic spin may well be too much.

You can be honest we don’t mind the rain, moaning about the weather is a national sport, tell it how it is and leave the spin and shifty evasions after the fact to the real experts; the politicians.

Oh David; you are a twit.

Its official, the silly season is well and truly upon us, noting else could explain the acres of newsprint devoted to David Cameron’s slip of the tongue during an interview broadcast on Absolute Radio last week.

He was talking about why he didn’t have any plans to join the growing number of MP’s who broadcast their thoughts to a breathless world via Twitter and said:

‘I think politician do have to think about what we say. And the trouble with Twitter is the instantness of it. Too many twits make a t**t.’

You got that right Dave, to his credit Mr Cameron issued an almost immediate apology saying ‘You always have to be careful what you say. If I’ve caused any offence I obviously regret that.’

As he enjoys a trashy novel on the beach this summer perhaps the Eton educated Mr Cameron might like to ponder a little maxim that was prominently displayed at my much less august alma mater ‘engage brain before opening mouth.’

Not such a nice guy Alan.

A few months ago I wrote an article on another site suggesting that Home Secretary Alan Johnson might make a future leader of the Labour Party. I was wrong.

A point proved this week by his shameful refusal to take action to ensure that Gary McKinnon, a rather sad young man suffering from Asberger’s Syndrome who hacked into the Pentagon’s computer system searching for information about UFO’s, would face trial in the UK rather than being extradited to the US.

Mr McKinnon’s guilt isn’t in question, rather whether a fragile man liable to self harm were he to be thrown into the bear pit of the US prison system wouldn’t be better served by being tried and punished on home soil.

The first duty of any leader is to protect the vulnerable; Alan Johnson has failed in that duty as has the government in which he serves; shame on him and on them.

Farewell Sir Bobby
On Friday the death of Sir Bobby Robson the former England football manager was announced and, for once, the tributes that followed from the great and the good of the game to dozens of ordinary fans were utterly genuine.

In the silly, self regarding world of professional football he was, despite filling his trophy cabinet with silverware over a fifty year career and later facing a horrific illness, a true original; a quiet and humble hero; a true gentleman of a type we may never see again.