Sunday, 27 March 2011

Looking for an alternative? So is the Labour Party.

There are times these days when it feels like you’re living in two different countries at the same time. In one people are marching in protest against cuts to government spending that will destroy jobs and devastate communities, in the other people are willing to sleep on the pavement all night to be the first in line to buy the next generation iPad. Truly these are strange times indeed.

The march took place in London yesterday and was organised by the Trades Union Council (TUC), in the words of Dave Prentis of UNISON it was going to be ‘an absolutely incredible demonstration of ordinary working people saying this coalition has got to stop cutting jobs and public services.’

These sentiments were echoed a day earlier by Labour leader Ed Milliband who said the ‘voices of the mainstream majority’ would be making themselves heard through what was billed as a ‘march for the alternative.’

Things didn’t quite turn out as planned, the TUC march was an exemplary display of dignified, reasoned protest; unfortunately it was hijacked along with much of the media coverage by witless anarchists for whom breaking the windows of a branch of Starbucks counts as a legitimate political comment. There was also the small fact that between the sound of breaking glass and that of righteous indignation nobody seemed clear about just what the alternative they were marching for might look like.

For Len Mc Cluskey of UNITE it means ‘economic growth through tax fairness, so for example, if the government were brave enough it could tackle the tax avoidance that robs the British tax payer of £25 billion a year.’

A fair point to make and an even better place to start sorting out our economic woes than closing libraries and old folks homes, the line about our ‘all being in this together’ might have worn so thin you could read the small print on a mobile phone contract through it, but the truth remains that if the government got the likes of Vodaphone to pay the tax they owe the cuts wouldn’t need to be so deep or so divisive.

The trouble with tax though is that neither this government nor its Labour predecessor has been honest about it, for New Labour it was something to be raised by stealth and for the Tories it is just plain wicked. Neither side had the guts to admit that even though tycoons, trades people and the rest of us might have to pay a little more up front a fair tax system is the best, probably the only in fact, way of creating a fair society.

Quite how you sell that concept in a culture where the tedious Madonna tribute act that is Lady Gaga has nine million followers on Twitter and sensible people are willing to queue all night to buy an iPad that is a little better than the one they’ve already got is another matter. As one of the people waiting in Oxford Street told the BBC’s Newsbeat programme ‘without marketing nothing is going to sell.’ Quite so, the iPad has brilliant marketing behind it; sadly the idea of paying a little more to live in a society that is fairer and safer for all doesn’t.

What it has behind it is a trade’s union movement that is still largely taken for granted by the Labour Party. Labour leader Ed Milliband makes all the right noises, on Friday he talked about the government practicing the sort of ‘politics of division’ that were a feature of the Thatcher years and the need to defend ‘common bonds’ such as those established through the NHS and Sure Start.

The party’s next manifesto would, he pledged, be ‘as good as the ideas that come from the public.’ Before your all rush to the barricades it might be worth noting that these brave words were spoken at a truly cringe worthy ‘policy forum’ at which ‘handpicked’ members of the public mouthed pre-scripted questions to which Milliband gave long winded non-answers.

The whole tacky performance complete with celebrity supporters on hand to help proceedings along and its general air of patronising blandness suggested that the shallow spin of the Blair years is alive and well with a dash of Milliband’s own awkward earnestness thrown in to leaven the lump. Baron Frankenstein might have been proud of the resulting monster, but anyone who cares about there being a voice in British politics for ordinary working people would have despaired as they recognised it as yet another attempt by the party to find a way of not talking about something they have been conditioned to think of as wicked and dangerous.

What they are trying so hard not to talk about is socialism. Not as an impenetrable theory, but as a living, breathing alternative to an economic model that sees that market as being our only hope. A means of creating a new political settlement that responds to the ideas of fairness that are intrinsic to the British character.

They might be dangerously wrong on the economic front but David Cameron’s Tories have got one thing right; they have realised that in times like this the centre no longer holds. When the going gets tough a party or a government has to stand by its core principles to survive, which is why George Osborne’s budget this week took them back to their roots as the party of capital.

The old Blairite methods of keeping the city sweet and triangulating like fury to win over floating voters no longer work. To survive let alone prosper Labour has to start talking about the alternative to leaving everything to the whims of the market, not in two years time once it has finished rooting around in its navel for fluff; but now and with more fire and urgency than it showed at Friday’s sorry policy event.

If he can’t do so Ed Milliband’s tenure as leader will be a short and unhappy one, the Blairites will take back control, the spin machine will be cranked up to full power again and the party that used to speak for the people will be condemned to perpetual opposition.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Odyssey Dawn must not be just another false dawn.

Yesterday morning along with, I suppose half the world; I gawped in amazement at the news footage of a Libyan jet fighter exploding in a sheet of flame over the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Later in the day I shuddered as ships and aircraft from Britain, the US, France and several other nations launched operation ‘Odyssey Dawn’ with the purpose of bringing the forty two year reign of Colonel Gadaffi to an end.

After a month or more of hand wringing the UN has issued a resolution authorising the use of ‘all necessary measures’, short of an invasion by ground forces, to protect Libyan citizens from attacks by forces loyal to Gadaffi.

Leading the charge for armed intervention has been British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking to the BBC on Friday he said ‘Any decision to put the men and women of our armed forces into harm’s way should be taken only when absolutely necessary’, but that Britain, the United States and other Western powers could not ‘stand back and let a dictator whose people have rejected him kill his people indiscriminately.’

MPs are to be given an opportunity to vote on the UK’s involvement in military intervention during a commons debate on Monday and Cameron has pledged that there will be ‘full parliamentary scrutiny’ on this issue; although how long that survives the fog of even limited warfare is anybody’s guess. Liberal Democrat leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg is expected to support the intervention, even though it will further drive a wedge between him and the grassroots membership of his party, such is the price of power in a coalition, and Labour leader Ed Milliband has also expressed support saying that Britain could not ‘stand by and do nothing’ when faced with the suffering of the Libyan people.

Even without the stirring speeches it would be hard to make a case for not intervening in a revolution that, sadly, never looked like following the, relatively, bloodless course of those in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world this year. There are though nagging questions that will have to be answered once the scream of the fighter jets has faded.

The first is why did it take the West so long to act? Gadaffi was a poster boy to some of the sillier people on the left and a buffoon in a dressing up box uniform to much of the media, and yet we knew all along that he was neither. What he was, and still is, is a bloodthirsty tyrant willing to kill to hold onto power.

Perhaps it was the fear that standing up to him would drag us into another Afghanistan that stayed the West’s hand for so long; that or an unwillingness to abandon our arrogant assumptions that he had changed his spots and turned into someone we could work with. Either way governments across the west will have to answer some awkward questions about their relationship with the Gadaffi regime.

Then there is the small matter of our own dear Prime Minister’s part in this latest conflict, maybe he really does believe in the noble sentiments he has expressed in public, but he can hardly fail to be aware that a little war on the other side of the world can do wonders for a troubled Tory government. The trouble is little wars tend to have big consequences, Margaret Thatcher may have revived her flagging premiership by going to war over the Falklands, but it was the ordinary soldiers, sailors and air crew who paid the price, some of whom have never recovered from the physical and mental wounds they incurred fighting for their country.

Most of all though every country that has sent its forces into action over the past day or so should remember that this action is being taken to free an oppressed people; not to bolster the faltering prestige of western powers who suddenly feel threatened by the new economies rising in Asia.

That means as much effort has to be put into the unglamorous business of building a free democracy in Libya as has been put into snatching fleeting glory from the mouth of a cannon. Power can’t be handed over the sort of ‘strong man’ who often arises in the wake of a revolution because such a person would be more amenable to allowing big corporations grab hold of the oil they crave.

Any other outcome would be a staggering betrayal of the men and women who are risking their lives in action and, more importantly of the Libyan people they are doing so to free.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

A housing policy fit for nobody.

Do you remember the hazy days of May 2010 when Dave and Nick joined hands to lead us all into a brave new world? The yoke of state control was going to be lifted off people’s shoulders, the books would be balanced but not at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society.

That was always just so much pie in the sky wasn’t it? If you needed proof of that look no further than the figures released by the Department of Work and Pensions this week which show that some 450,000 disabled people will be up to £13 a week worse off from April 2013 thanks to changes to housing benefits. It is all part of the government’s plan to force people out of social housing deemed to be too large for their needs into smaller but more expensive properties.

Combine this with the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance under Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms and a review of the statutory services councils are obliged to provide for disabled people and you have a perfect recipe for chaos, injustice and despair. Disability charities are already reporting clients contacting them who feel suicidal with anxiety and the ‘reforms’ are still a good two years away.

As Neil Coyle of the Disability Alliance told the BBC this week he had spoken to people who had told him ‘that if they lose the kind of support that helps them to work for example, they’ll lose the ability to be independent and they may take their own lives.’

Is that a price worth paying for making savings on the housing benefit budget? It hardly seems logical to try and cut welfare costs by making people more dependent; but then I didn’t do PPE at Oxford so what to I know?

Regarding the review of council’s statutory responsibilities a spokes person for the Department of Communities and Local Government said that ‘while some duties remain statutory others may no longer be required or may no longer be needed or may create unnecessary burdens or restrictions on local authorities.’

Nobody, on the government side anyway, seems to have spotted the flaw in this argument, that if given the chance many councils will see this as a golden opportunity to slough off a lot of difficult responsibilities. As a spokesperson for SCOPE told the BBC ‘under these proposals councils could decide not to provide any services for disabled people,’ creating ‘a very real threat to the lives, security and futures of disabled people.’

What of the golden couple on whose watch this farrago of injustice is taking place, surely such a thing can’t happen now that Dave has detoxified the Tories and Nick (helped by St Vince) is on hand to be the government’s conscience; but it has.

It’s happened because David Cameron has reverted to Tory type, rattling the nation’s sabre on the international stage whilst railing against the ‘enemies of enterprise’ at home. As for Nick Clegg; Jiminy Cricket has been pretty much squished and these days all he can do is prattle ineffectually about ‘alarm clock Britain’ and how hard it is to be unpopular.

Meanwhile the banks go on playing roulette with other people’s money and paying themselves obscene bonuses and conditions for the most vulnerable people in society continue getting worse. As if to make himself feel better Citizen Dave occasionally talks breezily about how he’s going to use the ‘big society’ to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony; all along knowing that the truth is the tune will be called by the banks that got our national finances into such a mess in the first place.


As a reformed smoker I should be in favour of the government’s proposals to ban cigarettes from being displayed openly in shops and to be sold in plain packaging; but I’m not.

This is, in part, because it seems that nothing makes a grubby habit like smoking seem more glamorous to foolish and impressionable people than making it subject to official censure. As for plain packaging, the marketing departments of the tobacco companies will soon turn that to their advantage, as they did with the restrictions placed on press and poster advertising.

What really sticks in my craw though is the rank hypocrisy of the government lecturing smokers about their wicked ways whilst eagerly accepting the tax rake off from the habit that is slowly killing them.


As part of his campaign to patronise the nation into submission David Cameron, in his ‘just call me Dave’ incarnation, pitched up on the BBC’s dreary The One Show this week, sharing the sofa with a rather startled looking Barn Owl and prattling about what he likes on his pancakes.

Politicians love this sort of soft soap because it makes them appear more ‘human’ and has the added benefit of meaning they don’t have to answer the sort of tough questions they might face on Newsnight.

Where will it all end? Probably with Citizen Dave landing a guest spot on Rastamouse so that he can explain how he’s going to use the ‘big society’ to make a bad ting good.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Poor quality vocational courses risk betraying a generation of young people

The time was when the advice given to any young person wanting to make his or her way in the world was to learn a trade. Sadly as young people swell the ever growing ranks of the unemployed that no longer seems to be true.

According to a report written by Professor Alison Wolf hundreds of thousands of young people have been misled into taking vocational courses that are of little or no real value, this, the report claims, is largely due to the ‘perverse incentives’ that encourage colleges to steer students into taking multiple courses with no guarantee they are gaining skills that employers are looking for.

The Wolf Report recommends that funding should be provided to colleges on the number of students they enrol, rather than as now on how many qualifications each student achieves; it also calls for the majority of students to continue studying a syllabus based largely on academic subjects up to the age of sixteen.

Speaking to the BBC on the day the report was published Professor Wolf said ‘We’ve got more than half our fifteen and sixteen year olds failing to get good Maths and English at GCSE’ and called for greater emphasis to be placed on improving that basic skills that underpin both academic and vocational learning.

Responding to the report Education Secretary Michael Gove said that access to high quality vocational courses was ‘immensely valuable’ for many young people, however ‘millions of children have been misled into courses which offer little hope’ as result of the education policies of the Labour years.

The coalition government would, he said, ‘reform league tables (seen as driving colleges to grind out meaningless qualifications to boost their position), the funding system and regulation to give children honest information and access to the right courses.’

The government also plans to introduce University Technical Colleges at which students will be able to study vocational subjects from the age of fourteen and to encourage employers to work with colleges to develop apprenticeship programmes.

Providing a decent standard of vocational education is something the UK has to get right if we are to maintain our current position never mind compete effectively against the emerging Asian economies; and yet it is something we consistently get wrong. Largely due to an antiquated mindset in which vocational education is seen as ‘second division’ learning.

The real rot set in during the Thatcher years when the old manufacturing industries went to the wall and in the new services sector training was something management saw as a cost rather than an investment. Apprenticeships all but vanished and were replaced by the unloved and all but useless YTS scheme, an institution that seemed to those of us who went through it (and I did) to exist primarily to massage the figures for youth unemployment; whilst teaching the youths it employed for two years little more than how to sweep up and make the tea.

The Wolf Report should be welcomed for highlighting the need to make sure another generation doesn’t have its potential wasted in the same cavalier fashion, however they cynic in me suspects that it will be shelved by the government.

Michael Gove for all his seeming understanding of the situation is also, as his comments over recent months testify, also wedded to a vision of the education system that has more to do with bringing back mortar boards and double Latin prep than meeting the needs of young people.

By far the biggest stumbling block to the recommendations made by the Wolf report being implemented are the employers who stand to benefit most if they are. For years they have complained vociferously about the poor skills shown by school leavers whilst at the same time refusing to invest in training the next generation of workers.

In a couple of weeks time George Osborne will lay out his budget, it is rumoured that he will focus on encouraging growth above everything else, a reasonable enough tactic as the economy struggles out of recession. However if he plans to cut red tape and simplify the tax and planning laws to encourage businesses to invest shouldn’t business be expected to pay something back in return, aren’t we all in it together after all?

Surely the most appropriate thing to do would be to tie any changes to the tax system that favour business, for example, to how many training opportunities the private sector creates. That would have the long term benefit of creating the skilled workers the country needs to prosper and cutting the welfare bill in the only morally acceptable way; by giving work and wages to those young people who currently have neither.