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.