Friday, 29 April 2011

The left has a world to win, but it will never do it like this.

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in Stoke-on-Trent and I’m standing in the foyer of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery waiting to attend a hustings event for the leaders of the political groups contesting the local elections.

Outside on the way into the museum members of the Socialist Party hand out leaflets, as does a representative from Unite Against Fascism, Stoke has an unfortunate recent history of electing far right councillors and BNP leader Nick Griffin recently chose the city to stage the launch of his party’s manifesto. Everybody milling about in the foyer seems to belong to one group or another; undecided voters of the sort that stay at home in droves allowing the far right to make worrying gains in what used to be a Labour stronghold are notable by their absence.

A bright and friendly PA bustles through with a clipboard for people to write down their questions, a pointless exercise I later discover since the Chair of the meeting decides all the relevant questions have been asked from the floor and so the written ones can be ignored. This will not go down well and adds to the already tense and factious atmosphere of the meeting.

All of a sudden the star of the show, Mohammed Pervez, leader of the Labour Group and of the council, arrives trailing a camera crew in his wake. He does not cut an impressive figure and this turn out to be a precursor of the poor performance he will give on the podium. Everything about the way he moves is suggestive of a man who feels uncomfortable with his position in centre stage of this event and the wider political life of the city.

We meander through into the Foyer Theatre, a dowdy bowl shaped space with tiers of seats reminiscent of a university lecture hall, I sit in front of two Labour activists who have arrived with Pervez and eavesdrop on them as they gossip about their party colleagues. Looking around none of the thirty six people present look like they have wandered in off the street out of curiosity; everybody, as will emerge later, has come with an agenda.

The Chair, PCS Regional Secretary Andrew Lloyd, an affable Welshman, asks us to move forward to things easier for the cameras, we all shuffle awkwardly forward and I find a seat at the end of a row looking down and to the right of the stage. Noticeably everyone sits in little huddles, socialists in one corner, campaigners fighting to keep children’s centres over on the far left and a knot of supporters from the Labour Party directly opposite their leader.

Three group leaders are present at the meeting, the Tory leader is indisposed and the BNP haven’t been invited and this announcement draws one of the few rounds of applause of the night. Placed on the podium from left to right, physically not politically, are Nick Gore of the Liberal Democrats, the chair from PCS, Mohammed Pervez leader of the Labour group and Andy Bentley of the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

Nick Gore is the first to speak and it would be fare to say his didn’t set the room alight with his oratory. Mr Gore’s speaking style consists mostly of reciting a list of local and national policies the Liberal Democrats have been able to push forward since going into coalition nationally and locally. They have seen off ID cards and got future pensioners a £150 state pension, locally his party plan to promote ‘green jobs’, but nobody including Mr Gore is quite sure what these actually are. Taking questions he seems nervous and struggles to defend a party that many accuse of selling out too many of its principles to attain power.

Labour leader Mohammed Pervez begins his speech by saying how important the elections are and stressing the need for a city like Stoke to be led by a single party with a strong mandate to govern. Under Labour, he says, Stoke would be a ‘working city’ again, this is a phrase he will work into the ground as the evening goes on using it in the answers to at least three questions and his closing remarks. Adding to the impression that he has been over rehearsed and under prepared for such an important event.

Where things go most wrong for him though is during questions from the floor, he is caught out badly on his approach to the spending cuts waffling ineffectually about ‘managing’ the process of deficit reduction and his having written to the Secretary of State pleading for Stoke to be treated as a special case; unsurprisingly Eric Pickles declined to do so. Later he is caught out over claims made in election leaflets put out in the city that Labour had ‘saved’ local children’s centres from closure, when all he really seems to have done is gain them a stay of execution.

Andy Bentley of TUSC knows his audience, the small one based mainly around his party, well and pressed their buttons with considerable skill, talking about Tory cuts and the unnecessary nature of the £36 million in cuts made by the council locally, instead he suggested using the city’s reserves and borrowing powers to protect services. He also attacked the PFI schemes that have made a few companies rich at great expense to ordinary working people.

His was certainly the most passionate speech of the night and he can be credited for suggesting the cuts are something people can fight back against rather than something the be managed at best and, more likely, endured at worst. Unfortunately he also seemed to inspire those present to indulge in the in fighting that is so prevalent on the left of British politics and which does it so much damage. A representative from Unite Against Fascism attacked his party for putting up a candidate against a Labour Councillor in a ward where the BNP had growing support, Labour attacked TUSC’s plans for fighting the cuts as unrealistic; to his credit Bentley answered both points well but this observer was still left with the impression of needless squabbling amongst people who might achieve more if only they could present a united front.

A number of things deeply disappointed me about the event, there was, for example little interaction amongst the candidates on the podium. I wasn’t expecting an ‘I agree with Nick’ moment from anyone present, but hearing people defend their position rather than regurgitate pre prepared sound bites would have been valuable. What really disappointed me though was the fact that the public weren’t present at all, largely because the event had not been advertised, everyone arrived with a political position of their own and I doubt they had changed it by the end of the evening.

What should have been an opportunity for engaging with the public, something politicians talk endlessly about wanting to do was turned instead into another opportunity for internecine squabbling. This should be the left’s moment, savage spending cuts directed by central government and the collapse of the ‘live now pay later culture’ that fuelled the economy for the quarter century up to the collapse of Northern Rock make their argument that public policy should be based on the needs of the many not the profits of the few more attractive than ever; yet they seem determined to blow the whole thing.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

No playing in the playground.

Remember the old schoolyard, the scabbed knees and rough games of a ‘free range childhood?’ Then you’re probably over thirty, anyone younger will have rather more tepid memories involving staying in a staring at a screen when they should have been outside having fun.

According to a survey conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) childhood games such as conkers, British Bulldog and even, heaven help us leapfrog are rapidly vanishing from playgrounds in the UK. Out of the 653 teachers questioned 29% said that British Bulldog had been banned in their school, 14% said that conkers were playground contraband in their school and 9% that there was a moratorium on playing leapfrog.

‘Apparently the main problem with conkers is that nut allergy sufferers are increasingly allergic to them’, said one of the respondents. Really? Obviously they must play an extreme version of conkers in that particular school, one where the loser has to eat the shattered remains of his conker.

The survey highlights the extent to which risk averse policies have taken hold in British schools and how they are changing the nature of playground games as a result. According to the findings of the survey 57% of the teachers questioned said that the trend towards avoiding risk at all costs was growing and as a result 15% fewer traditional games were being played by the children in their care than just three years ago.

Forgive me if I sound like a warmed up editorial from the Daily Mail but it is hard not to connect this wholesale flight away from healthy activity with a corresponding decline on pupil behaviour. Another survey published this week claimed this week that in the experience of most teachers the behaviour of girls was now no better than that of the boys in their classes; meaning pretty bad alas.

Hardly a surprise really, when the boundless energy with which children are blessed is contained for too long without access to a suitably organised outlet it will inevitably translate itself into naughtiness or worse. Even the kids who don’t act out are liable to be diminished by being wrapped in cotton wool during their formative years. As one Welsh secondary school teacher who took part in the ATL survey put it ‘Pupils need to learn their own limitations, which they can’t in they don’t encounter risk.’

Surprisingly for a self confessed ‘pinko liberal’ I have never had a problem with children taking part in either informal playground games or properly organised competitive sports, in fact I’d say it’s a good thing. Not just because it provides a much needed release valve for youthful energy, it also teaches important lessons about life, such as that if everyone gets a prize then winning isn’t worth anything and that the best response to defeat is to try harder next time.

There is also the small matter of the risk averse culture that seems to have a death grip on the school system being grounded in a truly poisonous form of hypocrisy. The same people who worry themselves silly about little Johnny or Susie falling over and getting a scraped knee are happy to plonk them down in front of the TV or internet for hours on end, even though it means exposing them to a tsunami of violent and sexualised images in the name of commerce.

At the same time they hit the young in general with the double whammy of drilling their minds into dullness with endless testing only to tell them the ten GCSE’s they’ve gained aren’t worth anything because the exams keep getting easier. Is any of this better or healthier than letting them spend a little time climbing trees and playing British Bulldog?

The next couple of decades aren’t going to be easy for anyone, but they will be particularly hard for the young. They will need guts and intelligence just to make their way in the world, never mind trying to sort out a failed political and economic system; revolutions, even polite parliamentary ones aren’t led by milksops. If we really want to see a million flowers bloom, then it might be a good idea to let the kids climb a few trees first.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Rising levels of child poverty today will lead to anger, alienation and worse tomorrow.

Imagine a school where an ever growing number of students turn up in worn out clothes without having had a proper meal and so generally run down they struggle to concentrate. Where and when would you expect to find such a place, in America during the darkest days of the Depression of the 1930’s; maybe in a forgotten corner of the third world today?

The one place where you wouldn’t expect to find children growing up in such impoverished conditions is in a modern democratic country with pretensions to being a ‘world power’. That is exactly where you would find them though; right here in twenty first century Britain.

A survey of 627 primary school teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) revealed this week that 85% of the teachers questioned believed themselves to be teaching a significant number of students for whom poverty was having a negative effect on their wellbeing, 40% said they had seen the numbers affected rise since the start of the recession.

The shaming statistics go on to show 73% saying they taught students who arrived regularly at school hungry, 67% saw students coming to classes in worn out clothes and 63% knew of students who missed out on after school activities due to tack of money. In shocking personal testimony one teaching assistant told researchers ‘Every day I become aware of a child suffering due to poverty. Today I had to contact parents because a child has infected toes due to squashing his feet into shoes that are way too small.’ Another teacher from Nottingham told of a student who ‘had not eaten for three days’ because her mother had no money for food until pay day.

Mary Boustead, General Secretary of the ATL told the BBC on the day the findings of the survey were published ‘It is appalling that in 2011 so many children in the UK are severely disadvantaged by their circumstances,’ she went on to ask what sort of message the government was sending by cutting benefits and public services at a time when they are needed most.

In response a spokesman for the Department of Education said the government was ‘overhauling the welfare system precisely to tackle entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, low educational attainment and financial insecurity’, before reeling off the usual litany of promises that handing money out to new academies would help life 305,000 children out of poverty. Quite how that will happen when as everyone but the government knows the new academies will cherry pick the students with the least problems leaving skint local authorities to cope with the rest is a triumph for misplaced optimism over common sense.

Like anyone else reading these shocking accounts of what it is like to live on the breadline in broken Britain I share Mary Boustead’s feeling of being appalled, when I read, as I did this week that the number of stillbirths in the UK (3.5 in every 1000, atrociously high for a developed country) is rising in disadvantaged areas the feeling rapidly turns into anger. Not least because the response of the opposition and the media has been so muted to what should be a national scandal.

The position of the government is clear, however much soft soap about David and Samantha Cameron jetting off for a mini-break to Spain and behaving just like ‘ordinary’ people, just as they did in the 1980’s they think the poor are only where they are because they aren’t trying hard enough and so deserve to suffer. Labour though, as the official opposition and a party that owed its existence to the need to fight inequality and exploitation have been embarrassingly silent.

Silly Ed Milliband trotted off to be photographed visiting a tough estate but his entourage seemed to be more concerned with making sure the first class headrest cover was taken off his seat on the train before the photographers arrived than coming up with the policies to fight inequality and promote an alternative and fairer way of doing things his tired, timid party so desperately needs. They need them because most of the areas with the deepest entrenched poverty are also areas Labour has taken for granted because they were once home to its industrial power base, if Labour can’t or won’t speak up for the people who are struggling to feed their children then the extremists will take their place.

This week John Cave was elected as the BNP’s first civic mayor in Padisham near Burnley, the post carries a nugatory amount of political power, but does move the far right party a little closer to the political mainstream. Mr Cave told on Wednesday ‘This is my home town and I was born here. It is all about Padisham and Padisham is not about politics.’

I beg to differ, it is all about politics and politics of a sort that make the rest of us feel decidedly uneasy. The sort of politics where a party with no policy beyond fostering hate can gain power by convincing people who feel ignored they are the only people who will speak for them.

The media has been no better, shaming levels of poverty have been relegated to the inside pages by newspapers obsessed with printing reams of nonsense about the royal wedding. Never mind poor children going to school with holes in their shoes lets all worry ourselves stupid over whether or not Kate Middleton will be too fat or too thin on the big day; either way I doubt she’ll have gone to bed hungry the night before.

The television news has poured out hours of drivel enjoining us all to bake cakes and trot off to street parties on April 29th, as if this were the 1950’s and a benevolent ruling elite will look after things until the affluent society comes along. Only it isn’t of course, ours is an uneasy atomised country where the poor are getting poorer and the politicians aren’t listening. At least the nice ones, whatever their party, aren’t, but the nasty ones who only care about power and will manipulate discontented people with nothing to lose are and that could spoil the wedding party for everyone.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Posh Oliver’s foot in mouth moment might just reveal truths Dave would like kept quiet.

Show some politicians a microphone and they will sooner or later (usually sooner) plant both their feet in their mouth before falling flat on their backside.

Step forward into the spotlight of stupidity then Oliver Letwin, occasional Cabinet Office Minister and full time Tory caricature. This week his contribution to the debate on airport expansion was to signal his opposition on the grounds that building more airports would only encourage the poor to move around; or as he put it ‘we don’t want more families from Sheffield flying off on cheap holidays.’

It was the sort of remark that, like Peter Mandelson’s about New Labour being intensely relaxed about some people becoming ‘filthy rich’, will come back to haunt his party over and over again; not least because a throwaway remark seems to contain some damning truths about his party’s values.

Add to this the research by the University of California published this week claiming that social mobility in Britain is now slower than it was during the middle ages and the mess Nick Clegg got into in his attempts to address ingrained privilege and said truths start o thunder towards you over the horizon like the Star Wars credits.

Professor Gregory Clarke of the University of California told on Monday ‘the huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility’; and that ‘The modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy. Instead the rate seems to be a constant of social physics beyond the control of social engineering.’

It is possible to disagree with both points, for much of the past couple of hundred years improving public health and access to education has led to a corresponding improvement in the lives of all Britons regardless of class. Diseases of the sort that stalked the fetid streets of pre Victorian cities didn’t differentiate on class lines who they infected, so improving sanitation benefited rich and poor alike; compulsory education made the industrial advances of the nineteenth century and the prosperity they brought possible, the tragedy lay then in the inequality with which the wealth was distributed.

Where things have gone wrong is in the past half century, old industries that offered working people the chance to rise above their origins have contracted and for all but the lucky few social mobility has hit the buffers with a sickening thud. Fear not though, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has taken up the fight for equality and announced in the commons the setting up of a ‘child poverty and social mobility commission,’ for good measure he then laid into ‘sharp elbowed’ upper middle class parents who use their influence and contacts to land their children plum internships that provide the experience necessary to embark on high flying careers.

In the resulting debate, as reported by the Guardian, Clegg fell foul of Labour’s Harriet Harman who accused him of ‘betraying a generation of young people’ and said that he had ‘lost the right to pontificate on social mobility when he abolished the educational maintenance allowance and trebled tuition fees.’ In coalition Britain, she said social mobility now meant getting ‘a bus to the job centre,’ not exactly a rib tickler even by Ms Harman’s low standards, but enough to make the Deputy PM stagger back to his corner rather unsteadily at the end of the round.

He managed though, as is often the way with poor old Cleggy these days, to provide the knock out punch himself. It seems that the brave opponent of sharp elbows and undeserved privilege got his own start in life thanks to family patronage; oops! Cue much embarrassment and a flurry of mocking headlines in the tabloids, open mouth, insert foot; business as usual.

When the tears of laughter dried though the problems of social mobility not just stopping but being thrown into reverse were still there and the politicians don’t know what to do about it. Before the party managers hustled him off out of sight like an embarrassing uncle at a family gathering Oliver Letwin gave a hint that the Tories don’t really care about social mobility, even though they nod and make approving noises when earnest Iain Duncan Smith (another embarrassing uncle?) mentions it and why would they, their reason for existing is to protect privilege.

Labour should care though and in their way I suppose they do, but they certainly don’t understand the frustrations of being forever at the back of the queue. These days there are precious few horny handed sons and daughters of toil on the Labour benches and internal party prejudices prevent local parties from communicating with the gilded elite in their Hampstead ivory towers.

Britain is a democracy and privilege can’t be abolished by force and even if it could few would want that to happen. What people want is a level playing field, they want to see an economy based on manufacturing industries that provide talented working class boys and girls with the chance to get ahead if they want to or to earn a decent living if they don’t; they want to see local government given real power to bring about change based on what communities want not what big government backed by bigger business thinks they should have and they want to see fewer people like Oliver Letwin and more like Alan Johnson in parliament.

If they’re serious about reversing the decline in social mobility David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and the rest of our ‘political class’ know what needs to be done; but do they have the guts to do it? I won’t hold my breath.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

I support AV but the debate about it sends me to sleep.

Did your heart start beating a little faster yesterday afternoon? It should have done because yesterday was the day when the campaign to get people to vote yes in the referendum on whether or not Britain adopts the Alternative Vote (AV) method for choosing its government was launched.

The launch event was attended by a legion of people who used to be quite famous in the 1990’s and are now mostly famous for being willing to put on the slap and turn up to the opening of an envelope. By teatime levels of apathy had reached fever pitch across the nation.

One time independent MP Martin Bell said that adopting AV would mean that our members of parliament would no longer be ‘elected by a minority’ whilst we were at the same time ‘going our and preaching democracy to the rest of the world.’

Former Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi said that the current ‘first past the post’ system had ‘worked well in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, but is no longer fit for purpose. He dismissed as ‘poppycock’ suggestions made by opponents of AV that changing the voting system would allow the likes of the BNP to enter the political mainstream.

A spokes person for the campaign against AV told the BBC that the launch event was a ‘glossy veneer’ covering a costly and divisive plan, highlighting the latter aspect by pointing out that Labour Leader Ed Milliband and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg refused to play nicely and share a platform even though they both support AV.

He went on to say that ‘At a time when people are seeing their pay frozen and the cost of living rising, why should they listen to a bunch of celebrities who are backing a plan to spend £250 million scrapping our fair voting system for one that gives some people more votes than others.’

It is time, I think, to lay a few cards on the table; I support AV and will be voting for it in the referendum next month even though like many supporters I recognise it as the ‘least worst’ of the two options on offer. I will be supporting AV for one very simple reason, I believe that democracy in the UK is in a mess; too many seats are so safe they have become baubles to be handed out by powerful party managers, public trust in politicians has slumped to an all time low; something has to change and fast.

AV is far from a perfect solution, it is too fiddly to grab the interest of a voting public that has always been marked by its lower case conservatism and too timid for the liking of those of us who are hungry for real change; but it is a start. If a majority of the voting public can be persuaded that making this one comparatively small change won’t result in the sky falling down on our heads than it might be possible to start a mature discussion about one day embracing proportional representation.

What sticks in my craw though is the way that both sides of the debate have conspired, probably I’ll admit unconsciously, to turn what should have been a defining moment into a dispiriting playground squabble. The ‘No’ campaign have spent months filling the airwaves with emotive and inaccurate claims that AV will cost £250 million, meaning that hospitals will close and our brave troops will have to go into battle in Afghanistan or, heaven forbid Libya, armed with little more than sharpened sticks, the ‘Yes’ campaign seem to think we the voting public will only take an interest in politics if it is sold to us by celebrities who are themselves slightly past their sell by date.

None of this constitutes a reasoned and mature political debate; but it does tell you everything you need to know about the state of British politics in the second decade of the twenty first century. That two supposedly intelligent politicians with a common standpoint on an issue refuse to share a platform is a perfect example of the silly, divisive and counter productive nature of our political discourse and the best argument for change.

If we have the courage to reform the voting system noisy tribalism will have had its day, parties of all hues will have to work together for the common good. That is why however leaden the campaign for it I will be voting for AV and, I hope in a few years time for proportional representation.