Thursday, 30 December 2010

Petitions to the people

Plans set out in the Conservative manifesto at the last election to allow popular online petitions to be debated in parliament are to be put into action by the coalition government.

Under the proposals, which have yet to be approved by the House of Commons procedural committee and the Speaker John Bercow, petitions that attract more than 100,000 signatures could be debated in parliament and may even be used to form private members bills. If the plans go ahead the current e-petitions link on the Downing Street website will be moved to the Directgov site where contributions can be more closely monitored.

Labour MP Paul Flynn, a member of the commons public administration committee attacked the government’s proposals, saying on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the idea seemed attractive ‘to those who haven’t seen how useless this has been when tried in other parts of the world.’

There was, he said, a risk the new petitions system would be ‘dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical’ and that it would result in ‘crazy ideas’ being put forward and parliament’s time being wasted.

He has a point, even though advocates to the scheme will point to the 1.8million people who signed an e-petition against road pricing and managed to change government policy; although it should be pointed out that the policy in question was something of a mess and the government of the day was glad to be rid of it, there is a real risk that this could become a ‘crank’s charter.’ After all a petition calling for Jeremy Clarkson to be made PM attracted 70,000 signatures, just 30,000 more and the mother of all parliaments would have had to take the proposal seriously, or at least be ridiculed over the possibility that it might.

You can see the attraction the idea must have exerted on Cameron and co when the sat down to write the party’s manifesto as a stocking filler not to be taken seriously after the election, that it has been resurrected now is surprising. Maybe it’s a sop to the Liberal Democrats, although the mess they’ve got themselves into over tuition fees mean they need to Tories as much if not more now than the Tories need them; maybe its just something that has been thrown up by the government’s enthusiasm for a ‘big society’ that grown more nebulous by the hour.

The one thing it isn’t is a useful way of empowering the voting public. At best petitions are a clumsy tool, capable of telling government what the public doesn’t like, but totally ineffective when it comes to suggesting solutions or practical alternatives. To devolve real power to the people, through councils and community groups, is to loosen the grip of central government on the purse strings.

Do you thing that’s going to happen any time soon? Me neither; perhaps we should get up a petition.


Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and all round good egg has been appointed ‘advocate for access to education’ by the coalition government. His remit will be to encourage people from low income families to enter further and higher education and to travel the country explaining the government’s policies on tuition fees.

Speaking to he said ‘I will work with every person of good will to ensure that from 2011 we have the best system of advice and guidance in place, designed to ensure that disadvantaged young people increasingly gain access to further and higher education.’

I don’t doubt that curate like Mr Hughes believed every word he said; where the doubt doesn’t so much creep in a bash the door down and storm the building, is over the rational behind the appointment. A cynic would say he has been given this job to salve the troubled conscience of a Lib Dem party that has sold its principles for a mess of pottage, and most of the voting public would agree.


The government, in what passes for its infinite wisdom, plans to use cash machines and official forms to prompt us to donate money to charity. Unsurprisingly this has come from the big society’s big bag of duff ideas.

People in this country are, for the most part, generous to a fault, but they like to decide when and to whom they donate their hard earned money. The moment that process becomes associated with the wagging finger of government then their finger will invariably move to the part of the touch screen saying NO!

Monday, 27 December 2010

Can the government be trusted to protect Booktrust?

If you look out of the window you might just be able to spot on the frosty roads the strip of smoking rubber that is always a sign of a government that has made a rapid u-turn in the face of public protest.

The u-turn in question came about following the announcement by the UK government on 22nd December that it planned to withdraw the £13million grant given to Booktrust, a charity that provides free books and help with learning to read for children across England.

Within hours of the announcement being made leading voices from the literary world had rallied to the cause of protecting Booktrust from the dead hand of government cuts. Philip Pullman called plans to cut its funding ‘an unforgivable disgrace’; former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion called the plans ‘an act of gross cultural vandalism.’ There might have been more than a touch of hyperbole in their denunciations, but when the literary elite speak government listens, within days the plans had been put on hold, or at least it seems like they have.

In a statement released yesterday the Department for Education said that it would ‘continue to Booktrust’ and its book giving programmes. Although the funding for the current scheme runs out in April 2011 a spokesperson said they were working closely with Booktrust to ‘ensure every child can enjoy the gift of books’ and to develop an ‘even more effective way of supporting disadvantaged families to read together.’

It is hard not to agree with Philip Pullman when he says he is ‘relieved’ that the light of common sense seems to have penetrated the murky depths of government policy on this issue. As he so rightly says making sure children have access to books is an ‘important national responsibility’ easily equal to making sure they have adequate health care and enough to eat.

The problems arise when you stop feeling relieved and start asking practical questions about what happens next. Warm words, something the current government has a knack for producing, do not equate to useful action.

The first problem is the lack of a definite figure for how much funding will be available to Booktrust from April onwards. Chief Executive Viv Bird told the BBC that the charity has made ‘every possible saving’ and through support from the publishing industry has been able to generate £4 for every £1 provided by the government.

Sensible management is a bonus but the nagging question remains, just how much will the government hand over in cold hard cash? Less than the £13million previously given to Booktrust for certain, meaning painful cuts may still have to be made. Can a publishing industry being squeezed by shrinking profit margins make up the shortfall? Maybe; but I wouldn’t bet the bookshop on it.

There is also the small matter of what this tells you about the government’s approach to making cuts to public spending. Equating the abortive scrapping of the funding for Booktrust with the plans to stop funding school sports that caused a similar u-turn before Christmas Labour leader Ed Milliband called the plans a ‘mean minded decision made without consultation or regard for the consequences.’

There lies the rub, on this issue and so many others the government seems to have put a short term desire to balance the books and a misguided faith in change for its own sake ahead of the reasoned and long term approach that is the only sure foundation of good governance.

At a time when Britain is falling behind in educational terms many of its competitors in Europe and Asia giving the next generation the best quality education we can afford could well be the difference between prosperity and disaster. Developing literacy and then learning to value reading, not always the same thing as some of the outcomes from the last government’s troublesome literacy hour demonstrate, is the foundation of all educational achievement.

Letting an inexperienced government imperil the chances of our young people learning to read because they themselves only ever read the bottom line of a balance sheet isn’t just an act of ‘cultural vandalism’; it could be economic suicide.
Wikinut, Monday 27th December 2010.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Live from Santa’s Grotto

The poet Philip Larkin called Christmas ‘a slathering Niagara of nonsense’ and I know just what he means. However since this is the season of giving I’ll slip on my Santa suit and hand out a few presents to the neither great or particularly good; here they are then live from Santa’s grotto.

For Nick Clegg:

Some friends, the balmy days of summer when we all agreed with Nick are a fast fading memory. Failing that at least the cabinet could stop playing the game where they start every meeting by singing out in unison, ‘Who is the least important person in the room? It must be YOU!’ before pointing at the poor booby.

For Vince Cable:

A mirror so that he too can watch his remarkable transformation from Britain’s most trusted politician into Professor Yaffle’s angry older brother.

For Ed Milliband:

A personality, at the moment he could play a game of ‘Guess Who’ with himself and still lose.

For Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson:

A brain, a heart and some courage; along with anything else that might stop them squabbling, plotting and messing around when they should be helping Dorothy; I mean Ed sorry, scamper along the yellow brick road to making Labour electable again.

For Eric Pickles:

A photograph of his feet, he probably hasn’t seen them for ages.

For David Milliband:

A promise that he can have the top bunk in perpetuity to make up for not winning the race to be leader of the Labour Party last autumn.

For the Liberal Democrat Party:

A life support machine; after the local elections next May they’re going to need one.

For the BBC:

The courage to stop hiding anything remotely intelligent away on BBC4, if we wanted to watch witless reality rubbish we’d switch over to ITV.

For the winners of Strictly, X Factor etc:

Blessed obscurity; blessed for the rest of us that is, really we’re all bored to distraction with your endless droning on about how you’re ‘living the dream.’

For the Met Office:

Enough common sense not to keep predicting BBQ summers and mild winters, it only encourages the weather, which by the way we all know is a vast conspiracy to mess us all about, to do its worst.

For the English and Australian cricket teams:

For England the Ashes; for the Aussies a big slice of humble pie, well we can all dream can’t we?

For Julian Assange:

A Plan B for when his halo slips and those angry men from the CIA turn up on the doorstep of his secret hideaway.

For Jemima Khan, John Pilger, Bianca Jagger et al:

Please see above.

For Stephen Fry, Sally Bercow and all the other celebrity Twitter addicts:

A lifetimes subscription to SHHH, a new social networking site that allows the famous but dull NOT to bore the rest of us with whatever happens to be on their tiny minds.

And finally for everyone who has read this blog over the past year:

All my very best wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year; if we’re all in it together we might as well have a laugh about it.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Supporting AV is a good start Ed; but it’s only a start.

After a stumbling start it looks like Ed Milliband’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party might at last be finding something close to a purpose. On Wednesday of the week just gone he added his support to the campaign to change Britain’s voting system.

He signed a letter supporting the yes campaign in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum due to be held at the same time as next year’s local elections published in the Guardian that read ‘First past the post isn’t working. When just a few thousand people determine every election result in a few swing seats, the interests of the Labour Party and the people we represent go unheard.’ Other signatories include Hilary Benn, Tessa Jowell and Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor and Red Ed’s main rival for the party leadership.

Supporting reform of the voting system has been a long term project for Ed Milliand, he wrote a referendum on AV into the party’s 2010 manifesto and taking up the cause again now might just save his leadership, which has been flat lining following a run of poor performances at PMQ’s. It unites some of his most vociferous rivals behind him and gives him an opportunity to take on figures from the New Labour past such as John Prescott, David Blunket and Margaret Beckett, in the process showing that with him at the helm the party is going to take a new direction.

The most important thing he has got right is to give make the vote on AV a free vote, distancing his leadership from the paranoid conformism of the Blair and Brown years. In doing so he recognises that allowing MPs to follow their consciences on important issues doesn’t automatically signify weakness on the part of the leadership; people with differing views can work towards a common aim all it takes is a little maturity.

There are, of course, some distinct political advantages to taking up the cause of voting reform. If the AV referendum is lost the Liberal Democrats will be seriously damaged, the chance to change the voting system was one of the deals struck to from the coalition and if that fails to come to pass some of the more disaffected Lib Dems might be persuaded to come over to Labour.

If the AV campaign wins the referendum the pressure will be on David Cameron in a way it hasn’t been to date. The Tory back benches aren’t exactly packed to bursting point with supporters of constitutional reform; in fact there are more than a few Tory trolls who would welcome a return to feudalism and would see a victory for AV as a perfect opportunity to rid themselves of a leader they don’t much like.

Short term political advantage can only ever though be part of the reason why Labour should support electoral reform and AV can only ever be seen as a first step in a much longer process. The current coalition is a monument to the fact that the old way of doing political business no longer works.

Our democratic system needs new people, now voices and most important of all new ideas to make it relevant to people’s concerns and aspirations, it will only find them when we embrace proportional representation. If Labour really wants to find a new direction then they must be one of the parties leading the campaign for PR.


For a while it looked like the defining image of the student protests was going to be that of a young woman who had drawn a cat’s whiskers on her balaclava, not so much the angry brigade as the cute corps. The came last Thursday’s riots in central London and the photograph of Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, swinging on the flags decorating the cenotaph like a drug addled ape.

Any protest movement succeeds or fails on how well it can contain the anarchist element, so far the campaign against higher education funding cuts has failed to do so. Their case, however just, can only be made effectively as part of a wider opposition to aggressive cuts to public spending backed by a workable alternative vision of how we fund vital services.

Urinating on national monuments, disrespecting the flag and the war dead can only ever alienate the vital support base they need to build in what the rioters no doubt sneeringly think of as ‘middle England’. For supposedly clever people the leaders of the newly minted ‘student movement’ are behaving like they’re dumber than mud.


I don’t usually feel much sympathy for Premiership footballers, but in the case of those on the payroll of Manchester United I’m willing to make an exception because manager Alex Fergusson has banned them from wearing snoods on the pitch during the cold snap. Between now and March the only thing warming them up will be the famous ‘hairdryer’ treatment he gives is teams at half time.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Breaking News: It snows in winter.

On Tuesday morning I woke up early to find that it had snowed in the night. A perfect white blanket had rounded the outlines of the familiar suburban landscape, the only marks spoiling its surface were the footprints left by a fox following a track its ancestors had laid down long before mine had stopped painting themselves blue.

Snow has a strange effect on the British psyche, for the first day or so we wander around like starry eyed toddlers wondering at how it makes even the most mundane view resemble something out of Narnia; then the magic wears off and the problems start.

If you had played a game of bingo with the week’s news coverage the words, ‘snow’, ‘tailback’, ‘closures’ and ‘chaos’ would have been certain to get you a high score. Egged on by a 24 hour news media that loves a ‘big freeze’ almost as much as it loves a good war you could have been forgiven for thinking the country was on the verge of collapse.

The same media also spent much of the week recycling the tired myths about the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and ‘Dunkirk’ that are staples of the commenting classes whenever Britain experiences a ‘crisis’. Actually the crisis turned out to be something of a damp squib, people living in remoter areas experienced genuine hardship and deserved more help than they received, for everyone else it was either a minor inconvenience or an excuse for a good skive.

Take the school closures, more than four thousand at the height of the cold snap; some schools I’ll admit, those in the highlands of Scotland or on the Yorkshire moors for example, had no option but to close. Others though, meaning any school in an urban area could and should have stayed open, partly because of the problems sending children home will cause for parents who can’t stay away from work without losing pay whatever the weather, but mostly because education is too important to be interrupted by bad weather that hardly came out of the blue so to speak.

There lies the real reason why so many people felt a mounting tide of frustration at the way a medium sized nuclear power appeared to be rendered helpless by a handful of snowflakes was the way the weather seemed to catch the authorities by surprise. The endless news footage featured a parade of major and minor figures in local and national government queuing up to say they hadn’t been expecting snow before Christmas. These are, of course, the same people who earlier in the year told the same journalists they hadn’t been expecting snow after Christmas either; just when did they expect it?

I don’t doubt that there were shady deals done behind closed doors when FIFA met in Zurich this week to decide that they wouldn’t give the 2018 World Cup to England after all, despite millions being spent on a the bid and the ‘three lions’, aka David Beckham, David Cameron and Prince William being flown out to seal the deal, but our inability to deal with four inches of can hardly have worked in our favour. A nation floored by a few inches of snow hardly shows the organisational acumen needed to take on a major project and make it work.

Things might be different when the 2012 Olympics come to London, but the evidence of the Millennium Dome and the way we have handled the last three cold snaps means I’m not getting my hopes up. Until we get out act together to the point where a few inches of snow don’t bring the nation to a halt I’d advise everyone else to do the same.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Project Re-launch.

Speaking at his party’s national policy forum in Gillingham this weekend Ed Milliband said that it was time for Labour to ‘take back the term Big Society’ from the Conservatives and to become again the ‘people’s party.’

His comments came at the launch of a major review of party policy headed by former Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne that in many respects mirrors David Cameron’s mostly successful attempt to ‘detoxify’ the image of the Tories. The review will cover the party’s stance of troublesome issues such as tax, immigration and welfare and will see shadow ministers leading policy discussions with party members.

Speaking to assembled delegates Mr Milliband said the party needed to be ‘reconnected to the hopes and aspirations of the people of Britain’ and had to prove that the policy review was a genuinely open minded exercise not one run by ‘a bunch of experts gathered in a room in London’ and determined to prove their own opinions correct.

He also admitted that in government Labour had ‘got some things wrong’; try almost everything wrong from 2005 onwards Ed, and that the party had been guilty of ‘losing its way.’ Most tellingly of all he admitted that they had too often seen problems in communities and thought the answer was ‘a programme or a policy,’ sometimes the policy was right; often it wasn’t and Labour was equally often too insular to notice until it was too late.

There were more admissions from shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who will chair the policy review, the party had, he said, to be ‘a changed Labour party for the next general election’, the public had grown tired of and cynical about the New Labour project and as a result the party had ‘got a hammering’ in May and needed to learn the lessons of that experience.

All this mea culpa stuff is very nice and cathartic in its way, but it needs more than well meaning navel gazing to turn around a party that doesn’t know what its for or who it represents. The policy review and the party as a whole will stand or fall on whether or not it can turn talk into action.

It will also stand or fall on what sort of figure Ed Milliband cuts as an opposition leader, perhaps the most thankless job in British politics. Every day is a struggle not to trip on one banana thrown in your path by the media or the government, so far, I’m afraid Red Ed’s report card would read ‘could do better.’

He appears awkward and earnest in public, making him a poor foil for Citizen Dave with his easy charm and has allowed the media to drag him into silly controversies about whether he plans to marry his long term partner or whether or not he has been recorded as the father on the birth certificate of his oldest child. When he comes into contact with ‘ordinary’ voters Milliband looks uncomfortable as evidenced by his bemused response to TESCO workers this week who told him they didn’t think the welfare system gave people an incentive to work.

There is also the small problem of having a shadow cabinet that seems to be pulling in two directions at once. For example shadow chancellor Alan Johnson wants to loosen the party’s ties with the unions, his leader knows only too well that he owes his position to the unions and that without their cash the party would be bankrupt.

The good news though is that despite a shaky start Ed Milliband is starting to sound like his own man at last. He cut several large donors out of the honours list and has admitted publicly that his in ‘unashamed’ about being a socialist; thank heavens for that for far too long socialism has been a naughty word in a party that would have no reason to exist without it.

Taking socialism out of mothballs and putting it at the centre of party policy might just be the saving of the Labour Party, however much their leader talks about replacing GDP with a ‘happiness index’ as a measure of national progress the spending cuts will drag the Tories and their Lib Dem accomplices to the right; that movement needs to be counterbalanced by an opposition that leans to the left, clinging to the middle ground is no longer an option.

Labour has, though, to pick the right kind of socialism, the insular, sectarian and often silly incarnation practiced by the so called ‘loony left’ is a non starter because it frightens voters because its adherents seem to rejoice in not connecting with the public mood. Ed Milliband needs to go out and talk to party members and public alike about a form of socialism that is based on the fairness deeply engrained in the British character that doesn’t hold back personal ambition only requires it to be tempered with a responsibility towards the society we all share.

It won’t be easy, the media will pillory him as being out of touch because they, as all cynics do, instinctively fear anyone with a ‘vision’; his political opponents will try to shout him down, he must ignore all this and keep on talking about what he believes is right.

If Ed Milliband really wants to make Labour the ‘people’s party’ again and to be ‘back on people’s side, back in power making the fairer, the more equal, the more just country we believe in,’ as he claimed in his speech at Gillingham he has no other choice.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Never had it so good; are you sure about that?

Here’s a little quiz for you, who said that people in Britain have never had it so good? If your answer was Harold Macmillan you’d be wrong, it was Lord Young, David Cameron’s enterprise advisor and it cost him his job this week.

What the no so noble lord said, over lunch whilst being secretly recorded by the sneaky journalists from the Daily Telegraph, was that ‘the vast majority of people in the country today, they have never had it so good ever since this recession, this so called recession, started.’

Then, just to add a insensitive cherry on top of an already pretty nasty cake he went on to say that the 100,000 public sector jobs set to be lost in each of the next four years thanks to the spending cuts were ‘within the margin of error;’ well that’s ok then, no need to worry our fluffy little heads about vanishing services then; what a relief.

Lord Young (78) is a former businessman turned life peer who served in the Thatcher government of the 1980’s and seems to have kept much of its attitudes ever since. He might have been praised by David Cameron for writing a report that advanced the claim that most health and safety legislation was nonsense, always a theme guaranteed to play well with the Tory grassroots, but he seems to have failed realize that the only sort of conservative who gets ahead these days is a compassionate one.

Within hours of his comments being made public lord Young was castigated by labour leader Ed Milliband for being insensitive and out of touch with the public mood. The job of the government in these austere times was he said to ‘demonstrate they do understand the consequences of the decisions they are making and the way people are struggling every day in our economy.’ Lord Young’s comments were, he said, indicative of ‘a government that doesn’t understand’ the day to day lives of voters.

Ever quick off the mark David Cameron told the press that from now on Lord Young would be doing ‘a bit less speaking’ for the government, making it plain that like a football manager who has been given the full backing of the board he would soon be on his way out of the door, which he duly was, pausing only to mumble something about his comments being ‘insensitive and inaccurate’ on his way back to the comfortable obscurity of life in the lords.

It was all too late though, the awkward truth that almost everyone has been trying to ignore was out in the open. Not that the Eton and Oxbridge educated types around the cabinet table were, in most cases, born to privilege, but that they don’t have much interest in the lives of the majority of people who weren’t.

David Cameron, George Osborne et al may be more circumspect about how they express it but they are still in thrall to the, as a spokesperson for UNITE described it this week, the ‘Thatcherite claptrap’ spouted by Lord Young. When the more unreconstructed Tory backbenchers cheered as George Osborne announced swingeing welfare cute their hard little hearts sang along like a chorus welcoming a particularly bleak new dawn; its just they knew how to do it without moving their lips.

Interest rates fixed at 0.5% do mean that a sizeable number of people have paid less on their mortgages in recent years, but that good news is blanked out by the fear of not having a job this time next month. There is also the small matter of the countless small businesses, people for whom Lord Young had been hired to speak, that have gone to the wall because the banks can’t, or won’t, lend them the money they need to survive.

None of those people feel that they have never had it so good, for them the bad times just keep on rolling. In fact the only people who can look to the future without fear are the lucky few living within the Westminster bubble, and when those same people tell us that we are ‘all in it together’ their words ring insultingly hollow.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A comeback for the student radicals

It must seem like pretty small beer in a week when Aung San Suu Kyi finally walked free after twenty years under house arrest, but the opposition to higher tuition fees is showing signs of turning into the sort of student movement not seen in Britain since the sixties. Some people, buoyed up perhaps by utopian memories of the ‘summer of love’ see this as something to be welcomed, I’m not so sure.

One Wednesday the number of people who took to the streets of London to march in protest against the cuts took both the police and the National Union of Students (NUS) by surprise, the prediction was for 5000, on the day 50,000 turned up armed with placards. That might have been good news for the NUS had a small minority not grabbed the headlines by invading the headquarters of the Conservative Party located in Milbank Tower.

The ‘radicals’ behind this then gave their more reasonable fellow campaigners a further headache by attacking any criticism of the incident as ‘unrepresentative’ of their movement. They went on to say, in a statement given to the press and not endorsed by the NUS that they were willing to ‘fight to win’ and if that meant more broken windows and scuffles with the police so be it.

During the week students at Manchester University occupied a building on campus in protest at rising tuition fees and cuts to higher education funding and the science and technology fair at Cambridge was interrupted by angry protestors.

The official NUS position was to say that the rioting outside Milbank Tower was ‘shameful, disgraceful and counter productive’ and in doing so they were quite correct and almost certain to be ignored. A media keen to make its audience’s flesh crawl concentrated instead on the, again unofficial, statement made by lecturers at Goldsmith’s College praising the ‘magnificent anti-cuts demo’ and saying that the real violence being done was the ‘destructive impact of the cuts and privatization that will follow if tuition fees are increased.’

The authorities at Goldsmith’s distanced themselves from the comments saying they ‘in no way reflected’ the official view taken by the college. It was though too little said way too late, the media machine has started to spin and will only end its cycle when the overreaction is complete.

There is no question that if tuition fees rise in line with government’s plans the thought of being in debt for decades will put many people from less affluent backgrounds from going to university, in the process depriving our country of much needed engineers, doctors and other professionals. In a world where the balance of economic and political power is shifting eastwards turning the university system into a playground for Sebastian Flyte and his chums is the last thing we need to do.

The thing is though direct action of the sort that took place on Wednesday only makes that outcome all the more likely. Protest has its place in a democracy, but it has to be peaceful and backed by a set of coherent alternative policies.

That, alas, is something the campaign against higher tuition fees conspicuously lacks. They’re long on outrage, as is the Labour Party which, in the shape of Harriet Harman standing in for Ed Milliband at PMQ’s this week, sought to pin Nick Clegg to the wall over his pre election opposition to putting fees up; but they constantly duck the difficult questions.

If raising tuition fees is wrong should taxes be put up instead? It’s a legitimate position, to invest in tomorrow you have to go without today, but a tough one to sell to the public. Maybe tuition fees are the lesser evil and more should be done to encourage companies and wealthy individuals to set up bursaries to help the less fortunate pay for their education?

I don’t have the answer to the questions asked above, but I do know how we might go about finding it and its got nothing to do with throwing rocks at police officers. It involves reasoned argument and a willingness to make compromises for the greater good; the nuts and bolts of effective democracy.

That will, undoubtedly, seem rather timid to the student radicals high on adrenaline and self righteousness, but without policies tested by reason the student movement, if that is what we saw born on Wednesday, will grind to a halt.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Dick Dastardly flies again.

Nigel Farage, one of the most colourful men in British politics has been re-elected as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Farage beat fellow MEP David Campbell Bannerman, ex boxer Winston McKenzie and the economist Tim Congdon with 60% of the vote and replaces Lord Pearson who resigned after less than a year in office.

Ever one for the snappy line Mr Farage told the press on Friday, the day the result was announced, ‘I note with delight that today is November 5th, a symbolic day of an attempt to overthrow the political class, although I promise our methods will be peaceful.’

Farage previously led UKIP for three years during which time the party shocked its larger rivals by coming a respectable third in the elections to the European Parliament and stood down to challenge commons speaker John Bercow in the general election. He failed in that particular endeavour, but a Dick Dastardly style plane crash on Election Day gained him both headlines and much public sympathy.

Lord Pearson, the outgoing leader who despite his self described image as ‘the toff who didn’t bother to read his own manifesto’ added a respectable 3% to the party’s share of the vote said that the UKIP crown had ‘returned to its rightful owner’, before adding ‘What sort of crown it is I leave up to you.’

Before we go any further I had better make it clear that I am in no way a supporter of UKIP. Their policies, such as they are, seem to be an uncomfortable blend of thinly disguised prejudice and the sort of things red faced men moan about in golf club bars. That said it is hard not to warm to a man like Nigel Farage.

In an age when vanilla is always the political flavour of the month he is that rarest of things a genuine eccentric. In a week when it was revealed that David Cameron has put his publicity photographer on the public payroll, along with his stylist and his PR guru, this matters more than ever.

Let’s compare the two men; Cameron is an old school aristocrat who pretends to be a metropolitan liberal, a man of the people or a disciple of the Iron Lady depending on the day of the week. It’s an act he pulls off with consummate skill, but, at the end of the day it is still just that; an act. What he thinks or feels on a personal level is a mystery, to him as much as us I imagine after five years of frantic posturing for the cameras.

Nigel Farage, by contrast, is, or seems to be anyway, a genuine rebel. A man who says what he thinks and worries about who it might offend afterwards, consider, for example, the comments he made about EU President, the unrecognizable Herman Von Rumpoy, saying that he looked like a ‘low grade bank clerk’ and has all the charisma of ‘a damp rag.’ That isn’t the sort of thing politicians usually say, but it is the sort of thing the people they’re having an ever harder time persuading to go out and vote for them often think.

It is a truth so obvious to have become a cliché to say that all political careers end in failure sooner or later, but it is still possible to speculate just what form that failure will take.

For David Cameron it will probably come about when the public fall out of love with the image his ‘brand team’ are carefully constructing for him. Then, like Tony Blair, he’ll probably spend the twilight of his career making lucrative, though utterly inconsequential, speeches to the trade organisation for people who make toilet rolls.

We will know Nigel Farage has reached this unhappy point when, like Tony Benn, he becomes a sort of living history exhibit to be politely ignored by an establishment to which he is no longer a threat. Along the way though he might just give said establishment a more than a few shocks and scares by doing in his own eccentric way something they find increasingly difficult; communication with a public that more and more wishes its politicians would shut up and go away.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Housing: the cruellest lottery of them all.

We all love a flutter on the lottery, at least we do unless the stake is the roof over our heads. The government’s plans to reform housing benefit and rents for social housing could, campaign groups say, create just such a lottery.

Under plans announced as part of the comprehensive spending review housing benefits will be capped at £ 400 per week and the government has announced plans to allow landlords providing social housing to charge tenants rent at 80% of the market rate. A move that could see people on low incomes, pensioners and benefits claimants priced out of London and many other major cities.

A spokesperson for one London borough told the press on Friday that he welcomed the plans because, ‘Anything that introduces more flexibility is a good thing.’ Charities that campaign on housing issues have been, with good reason, rather less sanguine. The homelessness charity Shelter has raised concerns that landlords will raise rents for tenants in social housing without having given proper consideration to their ability to pay.

The National Housing Federation has also expressed concern that many families on low incomes in London and other major cities will struggle to meet higher rental costs, their calls is backed by a survey carried out by the TUC and the Fabian Society, which found that 49% of people living in private rented accommodation and 66% of people in social housing would struggle if benefits were to be cut in line with government plans. As a result they could be forced to move to the outer suburbs of large cities or smaller towns in cheaper parts of the country, fracturing families and putting extra pressure on councils at a time when they are being obliged to cut spending by up to 30%.

Brendan Barber of the TUC attacked the thinking behind the government’s plans saying ‘ministers want us to believe that housing benefit is going to what they would call work-shy scroungers, yet in reality only one claimant in eight is unemployed. The rest are mainly low income working households, pensioners and the disables.’

London Mayor Boris Johnson, never knowingly under exposed, captured the headlines by making a similar point in more colourful language by claiming the plans would amount to a ‘Kosovo style social cleansing’ of London. A storm of protest led by Liberal Democrat Employment Minister Ed Vasey forced him to retract his comments, but however silly the way it was expressed the Blonde Bombshell has a point.

Cutting housing benefits and raising the rents on what little social housing exists will cause untold suffering for many people, people by the way that the new model Conservative Party pledged to care for during the downturn, it will change the nature of our cities and do much to further entrench social inequalities.

What is Her Majesty’s loyal opposition planning to do about this? Labour leader Ed Milliband told the Scottish Labour Party conference this week that he would force a vote in parliament on the issue and called on disgruntled Lib Dem backbenchers to ‘join us, vote against these unfair and unworkable changes and force the government to think again.’

Fighting talk of the sort you would expect from an opposition leader, although he seems a little naive to be making an appeal to the conscience of the Liberal Democrats or expecting the Tory half of their arranged marriage to think again, they did precious little of that to start with. It is certainly a more productive activity that reading memos such as the one he, allegedly, received this week advising him to pepper his performances at PMQ’s with more jokes.

Actually given Harriet Harman’s unfortunate comparison between Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and a ‘ginger rodent’ it might be a good idea for the Labour front bench team to avoid the funnies for a while.

Elsewhere in his speech to the party faithful in Scotland Ed Milliband said that Labour must ‘stand up for the truth’; quite so, but some of the truths might not be particularly palatable. The largest and most uncomfortable such truth is that during their thirteen years in power Labour did little or nothing about social housing.

Why could that be? Maybe they felt talking about such things smacked a little too much of socialism, a naughty word in New Labour circles because it is linked to awkward ideas such as there being better motivations than self interest. Perhaps they feared making the same mistakes as other governments had over social housing, building estates that all too quickly attracted the ‘sink’ tag from the tabloid press.

Whatever the reason they fiddled while more and more Britons lost the ability to pay for the roof over their heads, fighting these ill thought out and potentially disastrous plans will only be the start of what they must do to make amends for not acting when they had the chance.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The ugly face of ‘Greedy Britain.’

In 2007, just before Northern Rock crashed and Gordon Brown ‘bottled’ calling the election that could have saved his party from disaster the artist Damian Hirst unveiled one of his most controversial works. Entitled ‘For the Love of God’ it consisted of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds and had a price tag of £50 million.

At the time critical opinion was divided over whether it represented a comment on mortality or the excesses of a society that seemed to be living on an inexhaustible supply of credit. I recall joking to a friend that it was only a matter of time before a Premiership footballer had a similar process carried out on his own skull pre-mortem as the ultimate statement of ‘because I’m worth it’ bling.

That joke came back to haunt me this week as I read about the ever more absurd capering of Wayne Rooney as he squabbled with his club, Manchester United, over whether or not he would sign a new contract. For a long time it looked like he wouldn’t sign on the dotted line, despite having hidden the light of his at best limited talents under a bushel of tabloid headlines for most of the past year Mr Rooney was too big for the club, football in general and his own golden boots.

Then on Friday afternoon the news came out, disaster had been averted at the last second Rooney had graciously agreed to sign a contract worth some £200,000 a week plus bonuses and endorsements. Speaking to the press he proclaimed himself to have ‘absolute faith in the management, coaching staff, board and owners’ were ‘totally committed to making sure United maintains its proud winning tradition- which is the reason I joined the club in the first place.’ And there we were thinking it was all to do with the money; shame on us eh.

Showing something close to self awareness Rooney said he recognised supporters ‘might not take too quickly’ to his newly rediscovered loyalty to the club with out which he would be stacking shelves, if he was lucky, but promised to give ‘100% on the pitch’, if only so that his ‘people’ can keep creaming off their 10% off it.

The carnival of greed, self absorption and pure tedium surrounding Wayne Rooney and his money would have been just another episode in football’s ongoing attempt to turn itself from a sport into a soap opera, if it hadn’t coincided with the comprehensive spending review we’ve all been looking forward to in the way dental patients look forward to root canal surgery.

On Wednesday the nice Mr Osborne announced that 500,000 public sector employees will soon not have to worry about the morning commute because they won’t have a job to commute to along with savage cuts to benefits and public services. The Office for Budget Responsibility, set up by the government, says the cuts are regressive and will hit the poorest people hardest; Boy George replies that if the poor can’t afford bread they’ll have to eat cake or something like that.

At the same time he claims that paying the equivalent of 0.01% of their balance sheet as a levy is a ‘fair contribution’ to dealing with the crisis that was largely created by their irresponsible lending. He has also invited them to sign up to a voluntary charter on tax avoidance, so far four out of fifteen major banks have signed up, in the interests of health and safety I wouldn’t advise anyone to hold their breath while you wait for the rest to follow suit.

What has any of this got to do with whether or not Wayne Rooney signs a new contract? Quite a lot; let me explain.

The argument used by Rooney, or his management anyway, was that Manchester united either paid what he demanded or faced the prospect of his upping sticks and moving to rivals Manchester City isn’t so dissimilar from that employed by banks, hedge funds and the like who threaten to relocate to the US, China or elsewhere if the government tries to regulate their activities. That we cave in every time says much that is unflattering about the courage of our regulators and the strength of our society.

Cuts to spending and a rebalancing of the economy away from services and the public sector in favour of manufacturing would have been inevitable whichever party won the election last May, but the speed with which this government is entering into them is ill advised and driven by ideology rather than economic good sense. Growth is being imperilled and there is a serious risk of whole communities being pitched into depths of poverty so deep as to make escape impossible.

This isn’t just a call for a return to the Punch and Judy round of politics where the left takes money away from the rich only for the right to give it back to them a few years later, what we need is a reasoned debate about the sort of society we want to live in. Do we want to inhabit a jungle where it is every man and woman for themselves and the poor and vulnerable are trampled underfoot, or do we want to create a situation where enterprise flourished but recognises the need to protect the vulnerable?

That debate can’t begin until the rich, be they footballers seeking a new contract or bankers seeking to protect their turf stop holding the rest of us to ransom.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Britain’s big experiment begins.

This week Britain embarks on the biggest experiment in its post war political history. An experiment that will see Chancellor George Osborne attempt to cut the debt burden from 11% to 2% of GDP in the next five years, along the way making the biggest cuts in public spending seen since the war.

The gamble behind the experiment is that the private sector backed by the Bank of England will step in to rescue an economy that has become too dependant on government and that the ‘big society’ will do the same for communities across the county who have dependency issues of their own.

Gamblers, it should be remembered, tend more towards optimism than practicality, with a rise in VAT looming and the effect of mass redundancies in the public sector to be considered the outlook looks stormy to say the least. As shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson told the BBC on Sunday morning there is a risk of Britain experiencing something similar to Japan’s ‘lost decade’.

The situation is not improved by the emergence over the weekend as snippets of information about the negotiations between the Treasury and individual government departments that there is a distinct set of winners and losers when it comes to where the axe falls. Although ‘winning’ in this context is something of a relative concept.

The defence budget, it is believed, will only be cut by 8%, a significant victory for Defence Secretary Liam Fox who has pleased the military top brass by ‘going native’ more quickly and completely than most ministers. Even so the cuts that the military faces will still be severe and to some extent seem to lack common sense.

Reuters and other news agencies report that the Royal Navy will get the two new aircraft carriers they were promised by the last government, but it is by no means clear what planes will fly from their decks since the joint RAF/Fleet Air Arm Harrier jump jets look certain to be scrapped and funding for any replacement will be cut to the bone. The Army stands to lose 7,000 soldiers and its bases in Germany along with a large percentage of its artillery and armour.

A small morsel has been thrown to the wavering MP’s on the Liberal Democrat benches in the shape of a promise to save £750million on the cost of maintaining Trident, but nobody seems quite certain how this is to be done. The option of cancelling the country’s unusable nuclear deterrent altogether was whisked off the table before it could upset too many Tory backwoodsmen.

Whatever happens the cuts along with the ongoing pressures of the war in Afghanistan and other global commitments cannot help create, as Colonel Richard Kemp told the BBC over the weekend a sense of ‘corrosive’ uncertainty amongst members of the armed forces with the potential to cause ‘a real morale problem.’

Education or spending on schools anyway, also looks likely to escape a severe cut, although the wider education budget will not. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced in a speech in Derbyshire last week the creation of a ‘pupil premium’ to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds from pre-school to university saying that it is ‘the right thing to do to invest in the future, even if it makes things harder today.’

Labour’s Andy Burnham, along, I imagine, with many parents remains unconvinced by the virtues of the ‘pupil premium’, telling the BBC that ‘beyond the smoke and mirrors’ it is was a distinct possibility the plan would involve money that was ‘not additional to the schools budget but recycled from within it’ and, if the Institute for Fiscal Studies is correct could ‘widen inequalities in funding for deprived pupils.’

Welfare looks set to be the biggest loser of all when the axe falls with George Osborne threatening a new range of punishments for people who make fraudulent, or simply mistaken, benefits claims. This is to be backed up by the hiring of 200 Gangbusters type inspectors to roam the country seeking out cheats in a plan, he said, to show once and for all that ‘benefit fraud is a crime that just doesn’t pay.’ Boy George, it would seem fancies himself as a latter day Eliot Ness.

During the election and the protracted build up to the spending review ‘fairness’ was the buzz word of the moment, so much so that it seems to have lost any real meaning now the cuts are about to become a reality. In its place we have a sort of bizarre auction in which whoever shouts loudest wins and the people who were silenced by disadvantage are certain to lose.

As a result defence wins because a lot of Tory voters in the shires would be upset if Britannia admitted to no longer being in a position to rule the waves, even though the problems relation to accommodation, overwork and poor support when they get injured on active service that have plagued the services for years remain unaddressed.

Protection spending on schools and bringing in a ‘pupil premium’ might quiet the troublesome consciences of a few Liberal Democrats, but is, as looks likely, unrestricted tuition fees price poor students out of going to university our historic problems relating to social mobility will get worse instead of better.

The big experiment is, in reality, little more than a gamble and one with high stakes too. As Peter Dixon of Commerzbank told Reuters last week if the gamble doesn’t work ‘it isn’t the rating agencies the government has to fear; it’s the electorate.’

Monday, 11 October 2010

Choosing a team.

Despite the bright promises being made by the Met Office about the possibility of an Indian Summer Autumn is upon us. The conference season has blown itself out and all across the country the trees in public parks and suburban streets are taking on the colours of a sunset painted by Turner.

Next week newly elected leader of the opposition Ed Milliband will take part in his first Prime Minister’s Questions and in honour of the even has spent the weekend choosing the members of his shadow cabinet. An activity the media has attempted to liken to picking them members of, say, a football team.

As analogies go this is pretty much of a dud. Unlike even the lowliest of Sunday league managers Ed Milliband doesn’t get to pick his players, the shadow cabinet is chosen on the votes of MP’s, just where they play on the pitch.

Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper both make the cut, but not, much to the disappointment of the press pack, in the role of Shadow Chancellor. Harriet Harman holds onto her job as deputy leader of the party, Andy Burnham gets the health brief and Sidiq Khan, former campaign manager to David Milliband gets to shadow the Justice Secretary.

Peter Hain and Shaun Woodward, big beasts in the last government, miss out on seats in the shadow cabinet but keep the briefs for, respectively, Northern Ireland and the Welsh Office. A list of eager young MP’s will bag junior appointments between now and mid-week and somewhere along the line scores will be settled and egos salved after the shocks and scares of the leadership election.

The BBC helpfully produced a chart comparing the new shadow cabinet to the real thing. Now we know that 44% of the shadow cabinet are women compared to 17% in the cabinet, 56% of the members are under fifty and only 37% went to Oxford or Cambridge. Fascinating stuff I ‘m sure, but the public interest will focus rather more on the fact that only a handful of the shadow cabinet voted for Ed Milliband to be party leader.

The surprise appointment is that of former Home Secretary Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor, ever modest he joked to the BBC that his first act in his new post would be to ‘pick up an economics primer for beginners.’ For a man who claimed not to be up to the job of being party leader Mr Johnson has a strange knack for landing plum roles. A cynic might say that he has plans to come at the leadership by a roundabout route when public feeling towards Labour is a little less toxic; the cynic might well have a point.

Speaking about his new team Ed Milliband told the press they were ‘united in one central mission for the future, to win back the British people and take Labour back into power.’ They were committed, he said, to rejection the ‘pessimism’ of the coalition as they set out their ‘vision of what Britain can achieve.’

Brave talk I’m sure, but it is hard not to feel some agreement with the assessment of Liberal Democrat Tim Farron when he says ‘Ed Milliband claimed to represent a new generation, but his shadow cabinet looks very much like the New Labour establishment that came before it.’

This matters because it isn’t just Ed Milliband who will be choosing a team this autumn, we the voting public will be doing something similar.

When the times were good and the job of government was to keep things jogging along in the usual way politicians could settle comfortably on the centre ground and the public could retreat into the false comfort of thinking ‘they’re all the same.’ Now times are harder, and with the government poised to make the deepest cuts to public spending ever known in peacetime things are going to get a lot worse, positions will have to be taken if either the bitter medicine of spending cuts is to work or a viable alternative treatment be found.

However warm it may be outside, however much we would like it to be otherwise, you only have to look at the political meteorology of our present situation to see this is going to be a stormy autumn.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Cameron’s call to arms.

It was never going to be an easy conference for a party that has won an election, but failed to win a majority. The backlash to the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne of a drastic cut to Child Benefit came close to turning it into a disastrous one.

What was needed when David Cameron took to the stage of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall to say that it was an ‘honour and a privilege to stand here, in front of the party I lead, in front of the country I love, as the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, was something special in the way of a leader’s speech. A touch of Harry to strengthen the sinews of the troops for the coming battle, and by and large the party faithful got their wish.

After paying tribute to his predecessors, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard for, respectively, getting the party ‘back on its feet’, giving it back its ‘heart’ and its ‘confidence’ he launched into a spirited defence of the coalition. On May 7th he had, he said, woken up knowing that what the country needed was ‘leadership not partisanship’, leading him to join with a Liberal Democrat party that had proved to be ‘proper partners’ in the brave political experiment currently being played out and were ‘getting stuck in, making big decisions, shaping what we do and taking responsibility.’

He also launched into the attack on the legacy left by thirteen years of Labour rule, listing spin, attacks of civil liberties and irresponsible borrowing amongst their crimes. Labour were, he said, ‘still in denial’ over the deficit and ‘must never, ever be allowed near our economy again.’

On the benefits that had come close to derailing what should have been a victory parade he said they, and the deeper cuts to come, were based on an understanding of fairness as meaning ‘supporting people out of poverty, not trapping them in dependency,’ for too long action to help the poor had been measured by ‘the size of the cheque we give to people.’

The new style Conservative Party would, now that it was in government would ‘invest in early years care, help put troubled families back on track, use a pupil premium to make sure the kids from the poorest homes go to the best schools not the worst and make sure that work really pays for every single person in our country.’ All that and cut the deficit in time for the next election, big ambitions to match the big society.

On the subject of this pet project he said ‘the old way of doing things; the high spending, all controlling, heavy handed state,’ had been defeated and people power was about to win the day. The age of ‘unchecked individualism’ was over and the age of ‘national unity and purpose’ is about to begin; along with a new age of austerity.

Britain will, on his watch he said become, ‘a nation of go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better’, and through tough times in the short term would in the longer term create ‘a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone.’

Government would, Mr Cameron said, play its part in this process but it was up to individuals and communities to pitch in to ‘start those businesses that will take us to growth’ and to ‘step forward and seize’ the opportunities provided by the devolution of power from the centre.

In the tough times to come it was time he said for people to ‘pull together. Let’s come together. Let’s work together in the national interest.’

In what has been a rather muted conference season this was by a long way the most effective speech given by a party leader, although the karaoke statesmanship of Nick Clegg and the pantomime surrounding the Labour leadership contest didn’t set the bar so high.

David Cameron ticked all the right boxes, bashing Labour and the ‘big state’, praising self reliance and playing on the seductive theme of Britain being a country uniquely equipped to cope with hard times due to innate resilience and resourcefulness of its people. That sort of thins always plays well with the Tory grassroots and a large section of the tabloid press, what floating voters made of it isn’t quite so clear.

At the time of the election I wondered which Mr Cameron would govern if he won, Dave the metropolitan liberal or David the rather old fashioned Tory, now we know. Dave has been banished and David has grabbed the crown.

That doesn’t make the cuts his government is about to unleash on the country any less ill advised or the damage they risk doing to the economy any less severe. It does mark him out though as a more formidable opponent that the Labour Party, the trades unions and his opponents within the Conservative Party might have thought.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The families we aren’t all talking about this conference season, but should be.

David Cameron says on the eve of his party’s first conference since returning to power that we should all stop worrying and learn to love the spending cuts, or at least put them ‘into perspective.’

The comments were made in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, as the government confirmed big changes to the benefits system. Changes that Mr Cameron called ‘refreshingly radical’ and which he promised would always make people better off to be in work than claiming benefits.

Welfare reform is at the heart of Conservative plans for cutting the deficit and will see most current benefits combined into a ‘universal credit’ that will be more responsive to changes in the circumstances of claimants. Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the reforms promised they would ‘break the cycle of dependency and poverty that has become so entrenched in poor communities.’

Who could disagree with that? It should pay people to work; benefits should be a short term support not a life sentence. The trouble is reality tends to play havoc with the best laid plans of politicians.

For a start the economic outlook is far from promising, Ireland is tottering on the brink of bankruptcy again and may drag other European economies into the abyss. At least one Tory ‘big beast’ has expressed reservations about the future and since it is Ken Clarke, Chancellor during the recession of the Major years, it might be a good idea to listen to what he has to say.

Speaking to the Observer on the eve of the party conference he said he was ‘at the more pessimistic end’ of opinions about the economic future and was not ‘sunnily optimistic about where the Western economy is going.’

He expressed support for the cuts to public spending and said there was a below 50% chance of a double-dip recession hitting Britain, but refused to rule out the possibility of one being caused by ‘some fresh wave of global fear and crisis’ in the near future.

Last week’s Labour conference was all about families, or rather the feuds within a particular family; it was, if you like, Eastenders with policy documents.

This week’s should be too, but this time about families who live in the world outside the Westminster bubble. Not the families claiming universal benefits when they’re rich enough to do without or the ‘feckless scroungers’ who normally surface whenever welfare reform is discussed.

The families in question are those of people working in threatened public sector jobs or struggling to get by on benefits. They aren’t ‘public sector fat cats’ of the sort pilloried in some sections of the tabloid press or guilty of making a ‘lifestyle choice’ to be on benefits; they’re just doing their best to get by.

Later this month they’re going to be dealt a body blow by the cuts to public spending from which many may never fully recover. It is by no means, despite all their talk about ‘sharing the pain’ and all being ‘in it together’ whether a government composed largely of people with first rate educations and little idea about life as lived by ordinary voters, fully grasp the extent of the suffering they are about to unleash.

They will have to learn quickly though, this goes as much for the Labour Party as it struggles to come up with a credible alternative as the Tories making the cuts in the first place, because vague talk about the ‘blitz spirit’ from politicians will cut little ice with people who didn’t have much to start with and now risk losing the lot.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Labour- the next generation.

New Labour is dead actually it died in May, but the death certificate didn’t arrive until this week. It was delivered by new party leader Ed Milliband in his first major speech.

Speaking from the platform at the party conference in Manchester on Tuesday he praised Labour’s achievements in power, but said the party had ‘painful truths’ to learn about why it had lost the election and with it the trust of the public.

These truths included failing to regulate the banks, sabotaging civil liberties in the fight against terrorism and, most of all, taking the country to war in Iraq. Mr Milliband said ‘we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that, a statement that didn’t meet with the unquestioning support of older brother David, who was caught by the TV cameras whispering something less than complementary to deputy leader Harriet Harman.

Mr Milliband the younger also hit out at claims that he was in the pocket of the unions, saying he would have ‘no truck with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes’, cue footage of Tony Woodley looking less than delighted. Ed Milliband, went the implied message, isn’t ‘their’ man, he isn’t anybody’s man apart from his own.

He also joked about the ‘Red Ed’ tag attached to him over the weekend by the right wing media, calling for cheap jibes to be replaced by a ‘grown up debate’ on political issues. Labour on his watch, he said would have ‘different attitudes, different ideas, different ways of doing politics.’ It would be diametrically opposed to the ‘miserable, pessimistic view of what we can do’ to combat the deficit being propagated by the Coalition. Labour were, he said, ‘the optimists and together we will change Britain.’

The delivery was a million miles away from the showmanship used by Tony Blair in years gone by, or his surprising heir Nick Clegg only last week come to that. At times it tipped over into the sort of earnestness you might expect from the captain of a sixth form debating society, but it took courage to admit that Iraq was a mistake and he showed a touch of humour that was a welcome change from the neurotic gloom of the Brown years.

It would, perhaps, be unkind to be too critical of what was a rather underpowered keynote speech, great political speeches, unlike say great pop songs aren’t written on the hoof. Ed Milliband had just seventy two hours in which to prepare for his big moment and it showed.

That said he did strike the right note by saying that Labour has to learn hard lessons and find a new direction if the party ever hopes to return to power. The question is what should that direction be?

It would be dangerously comforting for Ed Milliband to listen too closely to the siren voices telling him that what the party needs is more of the same, a newer New Labour if you like. The spin and cynicism of the Blair/Brown years has proved itself to be anathema to party members and public alike.

There is little call for Labour to return to the inward looking squabbles over arcane points of dogma that were a feature of their failure to engage in discourse with the wider voting public during the 1980’s. Ed can though afford to be redder than he thinks, at least he can if he can persuade the voters that Labour is committed to fairness and has a viable alternative to cutting services to the bone.

As first conferences in opposition go fortune has looked more kindly on the Labour Party than it might have done. It was certainly an improvement on last year’s awful train wreck which saw the Sun abandon its support for the party.

Despite the embarrassment of having the former Foreign Secretary David Milliband bow out of front line politics, for now at least, only hours after he made his first big speech having a new leader in place should give Labour a much needed fillip in the polls and, maybe, a renewed sense of purpose. How long either will last once the frivolity of the conference season is over and the hard work of being in opposition starts in earnest is anyone’s guess.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Ed has beaten David to win the party leadership; now he must win over the country.

After a race that felt like it would go on forever Ed Milliband has beaten his brother David to take the role of leading the Labour Party.

The result, announced on the eve of the party’s annual conference in Manchester yesterday, saw Ed Milliband win with 50.65% of the votes cast by MP’s, MEP’s, party members and members of affiliated organisations, David Milliband polled 49.35% with Ed Balls coming third.

David Milliband attracted the largest number of votes from MP’s, MEP’s and party members, but backing from the big unions swung things in favour of his brother by a small majority, prompting some sections of the UK press to dub him ‘Red Ed’ and accuse him of being in the pocket of his union backers. A charge the new leader refutes claiming to be very much his ‘own man’ and pledging to unify the party in the name of a ‘new generation’ that had brought to an end the New Labour project.

Just now everything in the tight bubble of the party conference will be sweetness and light, the defeated challengers have rallied behind him and it is safe to predict that his first speech as leader will be hailed as a triumph. The real hard work will begin when parliament sits again in October and the comprehensive spending review stops being an alarming rumour and becomes a painful reality.

It is then and only then that Ed Milliband will discover the problems and opportunities that face him in his new role.

The problems are clear; the small majority with which he won the leadership means that his position will be vulnerable for the foreseeable future. He might not face a challenge from his brother, the bonds of filial love are stronger than the demands of political ambition, but there is no guarantee that his colleagues will have such strong scruples. There is also the small matter of finding a distinctive identity for a party that has spent too long on the sterile centre ground. Neither problem will be overcome quickly or easily.

If the problems that face Ed Milliband seem to loom large, so do the opportunities. Opposition leaders have the opportunity to travel the country meeting party members and ordinary voter, something that the pressures of business and security concerns prevent members of the government from doing easily. He must take full advantage of this, even if it means initially taking a considerable amount of flack from a core vote that feels it has been taken for granted.

On the subject of the budget cuts it is not enough to simply oppose the government; Labour must go beyond protest politics to provide a credible alternative. In doing so he must not be distracted by the siren voices within his party calling for consolidation on the centre ground or the ‘Red Ed’ jibes thrown about by the media. Many of the ideas once attributed to the ‘loony left’, concern for the environment or fair treatment for minority groups for example, have been accepted by the political mainstream; if a strong enough case is made for an economic system that strikes a fairer balance between growth and equality it too could be accepted by the electorate.

Whatever happened once the euphoria of the conference season has dissipated Ed Milliband will need a thick skin and the stomach for a fight that will be long and in all likelihood dirty. The same goes for the ‘new generation’ of Labour politicians for whom he claims to be the standard bearer.

Friday, 24 September 2010

All hail the hollowed out party.

This week’s Liberal Democrat conference was, you’d imagine, the moment leader Nick Clegg’s political career had been building towards from day one.

Taking to the platform in Liverpool on Tuesday as Deputy Prime Minister he said that since May his party had ‘changed British politics for good’ and promised that if the membership held their nerve and stuck out the full term the Liberal Democrats would have ‘changed Britain for good.’

Just look at what they’ve done in just a few short months, as Mr Clegg put it they had already ‘ended the injustice of the richest paying less tax on their investments than the poorest do on their wages’; the forthcoming Freedom Bill promised to ‘roll back a generation of illiberal and intrusive legislation’ and from April next year 900,000 of the lowest earning people will be freed from paying tax.

Joy it was to be a Liberal Democrat on that afternoon, despite being derided and dismissed by snippy op-ed writers the party that ‘had always been the face of change’ had now become the ‘agent of change.’ Being in power might have changed their status but their liberal ‘soul’ was and would forever remain intact.

He also took a swipe at the Labour government, likening their management of the economy to a family earning £26,000 and spending £32,000 whilst having a debt of £40,000 to service. This family, lets call them the Joneses, would have to set itself a new and tougher budget, which is what kindly Uncle Nick is helping us all to do. Along the way he was also recycling some of his favourite lines about losing the job that pays your mortgage or the services you depend on making for hard times, but not so hard at in the 1930’s; so we’re all going to be spared rickets at least.

At times it was hard to remember just who did win the election, the delivery was strikingly confident for the junior partner in a coalition government. When he spoke about Britain in 2015 being a very different country, a place that will be ‘strong, fair, free and full of hope again, a country we can be proud to hand on to our children. That is the prize.’, it was easy to forget that it was Nick Clegg, the man we all agreed with back in May, delivering the speech at all. He sounded like a different man; the man he sounded like was Tony Blair.

Many things about this year’s Liberal Democrat conference seemed like every other such event. Vince Cable had a foot in mouth moment, this time it involved making some sub student politics comments about the evils of capitalism, Lembit Opik made a fool of himself and the delegates gave the party hierarchy a bloody nose by refusing to support ‘free schools.’

Other things were very different though, like the rest of Britain the Liberal Democrats are going to be unrecognisable by 2015, and the changes are starting now. The conference seemed slicker and the media more engaged with what was going on, good news, I’m sure if you’re a long time Lib Dem supporter used to being treated with polite disdain, but there was no hiding the fact that the ‘soul’ Nick Clegg promised the party would never lose is definitely in peril.

The delegates who trooped up onto the platform to denounce the likely consequences of cutting public services too quickly should enjoy their freedom to do so; they won’t have it at the conference after next. It may not be apparent to the delegates making their way home from Liverpool this week end yet, but their party is slowly being hollowed out, turned into something quieter that is easier for the leadership to manage.

That is, perhaps, inevitable, once in government even the most determinedly flower strewing liberal become a little more conservative when given the job of looking after the garden. The trouble is though when a party jettisons too many of its principles it inevitable loses its way and, ultimately, much of its support. As happened to Labour under the man to whom Nick Clegg emerged this week as a rather surprising heir.

Friday, 17 September 2010

What we should REALLY fear this winter.

This week the Trades Union Congress (TUC) held its annual conference in Manchester, for the first time in decades it seemed more like a living breathing political event than a historical curiosity.

In his keynote speech General Secretary Brendan Barber savaged the massive budget cuts planned in the spending review due to be unveiled this autumn saying they ‘will not only decimate the services we rely on but do untold damage to our economic prospects.’

As a result a post cuts Britain would, he said be ‘a darker, brutish; more frightening place.’ Unashamedly apocalyptic stuff that captured the very real fears of union members in the public sector and beyond that jobs and services are about to be slashed to the bone.

RMT leader Bob Crow was, as ever less modulated and more straightforwardly passionate in his call for union members to engage in ‘civil disobedience’ such as strike action timed to disrupt the party conferences and even sit down protests on the motorways. Needless to say the audience lapped it up, for the first time in years the trade union movement had rediscovered its roar.

Concerns were also expressed at their conference by Derek Barnett of the Police Superintendents Association that ‘in an environment of cuts across the wider public sector, we face a period where disaffection, social and industrial tensions may well rise.’ He called for police budgets to be protected from the harshest cuts to allow them to respond effectively to any rise in public disorder.

It should come as a surprise to nobody that the media responded to this with varying shades of alarm. All week we were treated to lurid tales of a return to the industrial unrest of the seventies and eighties designed to make our flesh crawl and, from the right field at least, to accept the line that only a return to the policies followed by Mrs Thatcher could save us from disaster.

I’m afraid I don’t buy it and I don’t think anyone else should either. Moral panic may sell papers but it does little or nothing to address the real dangers we face this autumn.

It is based, in part, on a faulty understanding of the way the unions operate in the modern world. Bob Crow’s threats of civil disobedience and something close to a general strike play well to the membership, they put a little fire into bellies and steel into the collective backbone for the fight ahead. That fight though, as Brendan Barber and many other union leaders know only too well will have to be fought using the tactics of the twenty first century not those of the 1970’s.

That means making a reasoned case for protecting growth for the long term over cutting the deficit now and not worrying about the long term consequences for individuals and communities. The trouble is that said case must be made to a government that is signally lacking in reason. A point amply demonstrated by Chancellor George Osborne’s conviction that £4 billion can be cut from the welfare budget without worrying about the consequences because the only people likely to be harmed are those who make a ‘lifestyle choice’ to live on benefits. His language and attitudes alike seem frozen somewhere in 1986.

The awful truth is that as it faces its worst economic crisis since the war Britain is led by a government that seems determined to do to the country’s economy what Godzilla regularly did to the Tokyo skyline at the prompting of an outmoded ideology. This development skilfully combines tragedy with pure farce because the driving force behind it comes from Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club rather than the TUC, the RMT and the outer fringes of socialism.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The cuts won’t hurt? Go tell that to the battered North East Mr Clegg.

Just now political autobiographies are all the rage, Tony Blair’s rather turgid tome ‘A Journey’ has raced to the top of the best seller list and provoked at least one riot. If Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg decides to cash in on the trend he might be advised to call his own book ‘Why do I say these things?’

At least he would on the strength of the comments he made this week about the likely impact of the coming budget cuts. He told the BBC that he ‘understood people’s anxieties’ about the prospect of spending cuts of 25% and admitted that ‘tough decisions’ would have to be made, but said that talk of billions of pounds being taken out of the economy overnight were misleading and only added to people’s fears.

The spending review would, he said, be ‘tough’, but was an essential part of a five year plan ‘to put the UK back in the black.’ To which the only response is go tell it to the marines Mr Clegg; better still go tell it to the people living in towns in the North East that are about to be dealt a knockout by the coming cuts.

Research carried out by Experian for the BBC this week revealed that towns in the North East are likely to be least resilient when it comes to coping with the budget cuts, hardest hit will be Middlesbrough, Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent.

Nick Clegg admitted, big of him don’t you think?, that the research shows there really is such a thing as a north south divide in England, but retreats from the idea that the policies followed by the government of which he is part may well exacerbate existing problems by recycling cheerless bromides about not being able to build a strong economy on ‘shifting sands of debt.’

While it is self evident that public spending will have to contract the speed with which the current government is swinging the axe risks doing more harm that good. As Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesbrough puts it people in his constituency who lose their jobs in the public sector won’t necessarily go into jobs in the private sector; they’ll go on the dole!

You also have to agree with shadow business secretary Pat McFadden when he accuses the government of gambling with ‘growth and jobs.’ The trouble is ‘nice guy Nick’ fails to see the extent of the fear felt by people in areas that have been reeling from one economic blow after another since the 1970’s, in most cases they aren’t living high on the public service hog, they’re just about getting by and lose sleep over the prospect of losing their jobs and homes.

The pact the public entered into, probably unconsciously, by voting for a coalition government in May was based on an understanding that the traditionally Tory imperative to balance the national books would be tempered by a liberal understanding that it must be done with compassion and common sense. Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal Democrats have failed to come through on that promise; to all our cost.

If you need evidence of this look no further than their willingness to countenance Chancellor George Osborne’s planned cut of £4billion from the welfare budget. This has nothing to do with getting people off welfare and into work, as his colleague Iain Duncan Smith awkwardly pointed out ending poverty requires welfare spending to rise in the short term, and everything to do with playing to the more unthinking elements of the Tory grassroots ahead of the party conference.

The new politics Nick Clegg, Vince Cable et al were supposed to represent has started to look very much like business as usual, largely because in the fine tradition of their party the first Liberal Democrats to achieve positions of power in almost a century have let the chance to bring about real change slip through their fingers.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Dear David, Ed, Andy, Ed and Diane- An open letter to the Labour leadership candidates.

Haven’t you all been busy since May, what with the debates, the back peddling from the decisions made under Tony Blair and writing all those emails to potential supporters you can hardly have had a moment to yourselves.

Ok so your ‘people’ wrote the emails, but you all expressed an interest in hearing my views along with gaining my vote. I can’t promise you the latter, not all of you anyway, politics is a game for grown ups with winners and losers; as you’ve discovered over the past few months, but I can spare you a few ideas about what you might do with the job when or if you get it.

The first thing you will have to recognise, and you won’t like it much, is that Labour lost the election because it lost its way as a party its core support for granted for far too long. You might point to the thirty thousand members the party has gained since the election as proof that things are improving, it is nothing of the sort; the membership gains of recent months are dwarfed by the net losses made since 1994.

The good news is that you can start to really turn things around by following a few simple steps, none of which, I admit, will help you to win the next election, but they will, hopefully mean there is a party in existence to fight it and be an effective opposition afterwards.

First of all you should apologise for the multiple mistakes of the Blair/Brown years; issues like Iraq, civil liberties and the slow dismantling of internal party democracy that have alienated so many people who would naturally turn towards the Labour Party. This won’t be easy, no politician likes to admit to being wrong and in the short term the media will give you a hard time, but in the longer term it will detoxify some truly poisonous issues and allow the party to move on.

At every opportunity you should get out of the Westminster bubble and meet real voters and party members. In the nine years for which I was a member of a constituency Labour party we did not receive a single visit from even a junior minister, it was hard not to draw the conclusion that this was because the party largely took our votes for granted. There is also the impression that needs to be corrected that politicians feel awkward around and are out of tune with the feelings of ‘ordinary’ voters. Politics is about people, real ones not tame focus groups, you might not like what the man and woman in the street says to you, but in many cases it will be worth listening to.

Embrace, don’t fight against the Big Society, it might be a Tory invention but the ideas behind it are ones with which the Labour Party should feel an affinity. Yours is a party built on a desire to empower individuals and communities and much of the anger directed towards Labour in recent years has focussed, rightly, on the leadership’s attempts to gather ever more power in towards the centre.

A good way to start this process would be to revive grassroots democracy within the party. Ask any group of former party members what they left and the majority will tell you they were pushed over the edge by the feeling that their concerns relation to policy, often based on an understanding of local conditions unavailable to party mandarins, were being sidelined by a cabal of officials who put advancing their own careers first and everything else second.

I don’t usually make predictions but my guess would be that the winning candidate will be related to one of the losing ones; whoever wins will be taking on a tough job in even tougher times. The only thing they can be certain of is an onslaught of media criticism between now and the next election, at which it looks unlikely they will dislodge a coalition that appears to be stronger than anybody expected.

It is also an important job, for much of its history the Labour Party was the voice of the people who are obliged to live at the mercy of the markets. During the Blair years that voice became muted in the rush to the centre ground, for the good of the people who will be hurt most by the impending cuts the new leader will need to make it heard again. To do so whoever wins the leadership race will need courage and luck, I wish them both; they’ll need it.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Pickles talks bollards.

The government, in the shape of portly Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, has declared war on the ‘clutter’ infecting Britain’s high streets, together with Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond he has written to councils across the country asking them to remove unnecessary signs and bollards from their streets.

Speaking to the BBC this week Mr Pickles said ‘too many overly cautious town hall officials are citing health and safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets.’ As a result, he said, Britain’s town centres are being ‘overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards and railed off roads. Common sense tells us, he said that ‘uncluttered streets are freer, safer and easier to maintain.’

Phillip Hammond also said that a clutter of signs in town centres ‘aren’t just ugly- it’s expensive and distracts drivers.’

Eric Pickles and Phillip Hammond have a point, the mad gallery of signs and road markings that turn the average town centre into the sort of maze that would give nightmares to a lab rat drive the public mad; and with good reason. Not least the lack of logic behind their presence, for example one Sainsbury’s car park highlighted in the BBC report had spaces for sixty three cars surrounded by fifty three bollards; madness.

It is, though, perhaps, a problem of perception, as Richard Kemp the Vice Chair of the Local Government Association points out ‘one man’s clutter is another’s simple signing.’ He also drew attention to the fine line councils have to walk balancing needs of ‘residents, businesses and those of motorists.’ He also makes the rather more important point that many of the signs, bollards and the like for which councils are being criticised for erecting by central government have been placed their following orders handed down from, you guessed it, central government. Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t eh.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth in the case against signs, losing a few would make life simpler and our streets tidier, but it is hard to disagree with Richard Kemp when he says this is ‘largely a local decision, not something a secretary of state should be involving himself in.’

There is about all this a distinct whiff of populism, like its opposition to speed cameras a government that is about to make itself really unpopular when the spending cuts come on stream is banking a few Brownie points by squaring up to an issue that features regularly in the letters pages of the Daily Mail. All of this is par for the political course, but still rather disappointing coming from Eric Pickles.

Pickles, aka the Tory who doesn’t look or sound like a Tory is one of the least spun members of the government and far too sharp to believe his brief is really about fiddling around with road signs and bus lanes. When the cuts, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week said would hit the poorest people hardest, come on stream in the autumn local councils will need a clear set of priorities and the courage to fight central government to protect local services from the axe. They have a right to expect the same from the minister tasked with representing them in the corridors of power.

If anybody tells you that fiddling about with road signs is something more than a displacement activity designed to distract attention from the planned dismantling of local services; they’re talking bollards.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

It’s the end of the line for nice guy Nick.

If they hadn’t entered into a coalition government with the Conservative Party back in May people would not be taking ‘any notice’ of the Liberal Democrats, says party leader Nick Clegg in a BBC interview due to be broadcast this weekend.

His comments come as the Lib Dems see their support slump from 27% at the time of the general election, back then it seemed like we all agreed with Nick, to 14% now; a sharp contrast to Labour who lost the election but have since seen a ‘surge’ in support, despite the deadly dull race for the party leadership. Needless to say there are more than a few Liberal Democrat back benchers looking at the polls and starting to worry.

Their leader though remains determinedly bullish airily telling the BBC that it is ‘one of the oldest rules in politics that parties in government see a dip in their popularity. Once upon a time a lot of otherwise sensible people thought that the charming Mr Clegg represented a new kind of politics; how wrong they were.

When he says that it would be highly unlikely for his party to be ‘able to defy the rules of gravity at a time when we are taking very difficult decisions of deficit reduction’ he is speaking with the voice of the old politics and setting the teeth of most of his listeners painfully on edge. It is a truism that being in government inevitably means being unpopular, but it does not necessarily follow that it also requires a fire sale of long held principles of the sort undertaken by the Lib Dems over the past hundred days.

In his party’s defence Clegg, who this week stood in as David Cameron went away on holiday, cites the promised referendum on voting reform and says that entering a coalition with Labour would have caused the party an even more serious identity crisis than the one Simon Hughes diagnosed it as suffering from this week. Neither of these fig leaves do much to preserve the modesty of a party that has gained power but very much lost its way in the process.

The referendum on voting reform, if it isn’t torpedoed by the Tory back benches, will present voters with a choice between keeping the system they know or embracing the confusing alternative vote system, meaning the status quo has a better than average chance of winning the day, something David Cameron understood from the start but which seems to have totally eluded nice guy Nick.

As for the possibility of forming a coalition with Labour at some unspecified date in the future, the chances of that happening were shot down by Ed Milliband who ruled the idea out were Clegg to still be party leader at the next election. He also wrote to him to attack Clegg’s policy on tax avoidance following a report in the Financial Times this week that the government planned to take a ‘softer’ line on the issue, even though the Liberal Democrats pledged to get tough with tax cheats during the election.

In truth Nick Clegg has little to fear from Ed Milliband or Labour in general, not least because it will be David rather than Ed who wins the party leadership. Once that happens the ‘surge’ in support for the party will rapidly dissipate, partly due to the grinding drudgery of opposition politics, but mostly because the election of David Milliband, who this week issued a list of daft instructions to activists planning to hold events supporting his campaign, as party leader will prompt the media to drown his tenure in ridicule.

What should concern Nick Clegg is the ‘identity crisis’ identified by Simon Hughes within his own party. The surge in popularity he experienced during the election was based on a belief that he represented a new and more progressive style of politics, in power though he has suffered from a failure of courage and a surfeit of naivety.

For all that he resembles a sit com clergyman the determinedly other worldly Simon Hughes is a good egg and as such has a keen nose for smelling out when one of the others in the basket is rotten. My guess would be that the egg in question has Nick Clegg’s face painted on it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Cool Britannia is dead; or is it?

Cool Britannia is the latest legacy of the New Labour years to bite the dust with David Cameron reading its eulogy at a meeting of tourism industry experts this week, at which he told them to concentrate on celebrating Britain’s heritage rather than trying to make the country look ‘cool.’

The British tourist industry was, he said, ‘not doing enough’ to break into the top five visitor destinations. As speeches go it was fairly bland but he does have a point, the contribution made to the economy by tourism could grow by as much as 60% by 2020.

Among the plans announced to get the tourists flocking to our shores announced by the prime minister was speeding up the process by which visitors from China can get visas to come to the UK. Currently Britain is the twenty second most popular destination for visitors from the world’s fastest growing economy, Germany is the fifth most popular and that, Mr Cameron said, just wasn’t good enough.

‘If we can’t always beat the Germans at football, then we can beat them at tourism.’ We shall fight them on the beaches, probably for the last sunbed.

The prime minister also turned his fire, predictably, on the legacy of the last government criticizing them for appointing eight tourism ministers in thirteen years and said: ‘They just didn’t get our heritage. They raided the lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn’t fit with their image of cool Britannia.’

Up to a point I agree with him, by the end of their tenure Labour didn’t get anything about British life past or present and much of the cool Britannia project was silliness incarnate. That said beneath all the foolishness there was a kernel of truth, you can’t have a reasoned debate about where the country is heading if you spend all your time looking back at an imperial past that will have slipped out of the reach of living memory within a generation.

The thing is though I’m not at all sure Sir David has slain the dragon of cool Britannia, or even much wants to.

By talking about ‘heritage’ David Cameron is playing to the Tory crowd, the more traditional of whom like thinking about ‘heritage Britain’ with its thatched cottages and country churches because it distracts them from the mess the coarser elements of their own party made of the country in the eighties. It’s another way of tipping a wink to the turnip Taliban that says ‘I’m really like you, all that modernisation guff is just put on for the press.’

Look a little closer and you will see that the spirit of cool Britannia is very much alive and well. Take that dig about beating the Germans at tourism even if we can’t beat them at football, Alistair Campbell could have written that for Tony Blair in his salad days.

Look closer still and you will see a trick involving smoke and mirrors being worked on the public that would leave even Peter Mandelson gasping at its cynical audacity.

When David Cameron says ‘We should be proud of our potential because we are proud of our country’ and that he ‘loves going on holiday in Britain’ he has in mind the report being compiled by John Penrose into the possibility of encouraging more Britons to holiday at home. In the process raising the amount they spend doing so from £16billion to £36billion.

Where is the problem with that you might ask? After all Britain is a country to be proud of and a great place to visit; so long as you have a choice. As the budget cuts bite over the next two years more and more people aren’t going to have a choice, they’re going to be luck if they’ve got enough money to afford a holiday at all.

At least way back in the long ago when Tony Blair invited the Gallagher brothers, Damian Hurst et al round to Downing Street to proclaim the new cool Britain had been born he had the grace to suspend his cynicism while they were taking the photographs.