Sunday, 31 July 2011

As the economy stumbles its time for some REAL blue skies thinking from Downing Street

The sun is shining, the politicians have skipped town for the summer recess and the silly season is upon us, which must be why the latest wheeze from Steve Hilton, the Prime Ministers ‘blue skies’ advisor has received so much media coverage.

Steve Hilton is what you might call the ‘holy fool’ of the Cameron government, a trendy type given to wearing t-shirts to the office and, allegedly, going barefoot through the corridors of power. Anyway his big plan for kick starting our moribund economy is, drum roll if you please; scrapping maternity leave.

The thinking, such as it is, behind the plan is that businesses are put off hiring female workers because they might one day want to have time off the have a family. I’m sure this is true too; well it is if the businesses in question are trading in a 1970’s time warp. Its all very well your wanting to be CEO of ICI, but how are you going to have your hubby’s tea on the table when he gets home if you get the job, really my dear you haven’t thought this through at all.

Not thinking things through, it seems, is an experience with which Steve Hilton is all too familiar himself. As a government insider told the Financial Times this week ‘some of his ideas are great but a lot of time is spent at an official level trying to deconstruct his maddest ideas.’

Mr Hilton mad, surely not? Wanting the government to invest in technology to blow away the clouds and make the UK a sunnier and happier place is sanity incarnate. The road to madness surely lies in supporting the barmy ‘Big Society’ project, oh hang on a minute, turns out Steve Hilton does support it and really has got the t-shirt to prove it; maybe he is barking mad after all.

There is no doubt that the UK economy needs something to lift it out of the doldrums. This week the Office for National Statistics published figures showing that growth had slumped to just 0.2%, even taking into account the effects of the Japanese earthquake, the Royal Wedding and a wet summer things look pretty bad.

At least they do to everyone but the two men who matter most, David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne. The Prime Minister is reportedly worried by the poor performance of the economy; the Chancellor though seems able to see sunshine and flowers where the rest of us see only trouble and strife.

On Tuesday he told the press that ‘the positive news is that the British economy is continuing to grow.’ Well up to a point Chancellor, in roughly the same way that someone who has only gone down twice can claim to be still swimming rather than drowning.

The opposition has poured criticism over the government’s raising of VAT to 20% and the breakneck speed with which it is cutting public spending.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said that the Chancellor’s ‘rash decision to hike up VAT in January and to cut further and faster than any other major nation has caused confidence to fall and the economy to flatline since the autumn.’

Brendan Barber of the Trades Union Council said ‘A target of eliminating the deficit in just four years always looked as if it came from what others might call ‘right wing nutters’ than sensible economics.’ Making along the way a thinly veiled reference to Business Secretary Vince Cable’s accurate, if not exactly diplomatic, assessment of the Tea Party and their contribution to the debate over America’s own debt problems.

He went on to add that the UK economy needs a ‘Plan B based on growth and investment’ if we are to avoid another catastrophic recession.

None of this criticism seems to have reached the ivory tower inhabited by the Chancellor who believes despite all evidence to the contrary that ‘our economy is stable because the government has taken the difficult decision to get to grips with Britain’s debts.’

Could it be that Steve Hilton isn’t the most deluded man in Downing Street after all? The austerity sold to the British public as the only option to avoid the fate of Greece and Ireland turns out to be holding back the growth without which we cannot hope to clear our debts. Who’d have thought it eh? Not the Oxford educated man in charge of the country’s economy it seems.

The problems faced by the UK economy are real and require a radical solution; some real blue skies thinking if you like. They require us to address the long avoided question of which matters most, economic growth or the health of our society?

If it’s the former, fine cut away; but don’t call out for help if you fall ill, lose your job or become a victim of crime because there will be nobody there to help. If it’s the latter then we will all have to accept, in the short term at least, having fewer gadgets but a much stronger society.

John Maynard Keynes famously said that when the facts changed he changed his mind. The facts of the economic picture have changed, if inflexible ideology beats common sense and the ability to strike a compromise next week causing the world’s largest economy to sneeze the rest of us might just catch pneumonia.

A Downing Street advisor with the ability to think clearly, about blue skies or anything else, would be advising David Cameron to show some real leadership and order his Chancellor to follow Keynes’s example and change his mind about how to deal with the economy before it is too late.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A tale of two countries with one big problem; lifting people out of poverty

A survey carried out for the universities and College Union (UCN) and reported by the BBC this week has highlighted huge local variations in educational achievement across the UK, making Britain, in educational and economic terms, two different countries.

In Glasgow East 35% of adults have no qualifications compared to just 1.9% in the north London constituency of Brent. There are more adults without qualifications in a single Birmingham constituency (Hodge Hill) than in Cambridge, Winchester, Wimbledon, Buckingham, Romsey, Leeds North West and four other constituencies put together.

The message is stark, in the north too many people are held back from finding paid work, let alone reaching their full potential by a lack of qualifications than in the south east with a certainty that the vicious circle of low achievement and low incomes will be handed on to their children. As Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the UCU told the BBC on Friday: ‘There is a real danger that children growing up in places where it is not unheard of to have no qualifications will have their ambition blunted and never realise their full potential.’

Although the survey finds that the areas with the best qualified workforce are generally in the south even here there are pockets of low achievement and correspondingly high levels of disadvantage. London is described as a ‘city of contrasts’ with many high achievers in wealthy areas, but significant pockets of low attainment in parts of the old east end such as Romford, Hornchurch and West Ham.

The deep regional divide in educational achievement, say the UCU, underlines the importance of improving access to education and foolishness of allowing universities to raise their tuition fees made by the coalition. In a reply reported by the BBC the Department of Education said it was using its reforms to target support towards the most disadvantaged children and was working to make qualifications more rigorous and compatible with the needs of employers.

The UCU are right to criticise the failure of a largely privately educated government to improve access to higher education for those people who don’t have the odd £9000 a year lying around to spend on putting their offspring through university. To this might be added the cruel and thoughtless decision to scrap the Educational Maintenance Allowance late last year.

It would also be fair to castigate the political establishment as a whole for its attitude to supporting the areas of the country that were his hardest when the old heavy industries collapsed in the seventies. For eighteen years the Tories largely ignored everywhere north of Watford gap because hardly anyone in the north votes Conservative; then under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the same areas were ignored again because that people there vote Labour could largely be taken for granted. Talk about a double whammy.

The blame for this sorry situation though shouldn’t just be laid at the door of the politicians; the educational establishment must take its share too. For years the focus has been on getting ever more people into university with the equally important task of providing decent vocational training has been largely ignored.

While we’re at it a large brickbat should be thrown at the nation’s employers who sing a gloomy chorus about the poor skills demonstrated by school leavers whilst being as quiet as church mice with laryngitis about their own failure to provide decent apprenticeships.

If we’re going to apportion blame though then a large slice has to land on the plate of the great British public too. We have all, to some extent, colluded in the culture of stupidity that seems to have the strongest grip on those areas of the country that most need to value education. Dim footballers are held up as role models for boys who think that reading a book makes you a geek and therefore beneath contempt; reality television force feeds girls the dangerous delusion that what they look like on the outside matters more than what is inside their heads.

In parts of the country that have been battered by the changes undergone by the economy over the past thirty years parents have to realise that education matters, however hard it may be to do so they have to drum into their children’s that being illiterate when you’re forty is way less cool than being thought a geek for trying hard at school.

Despite the best efforts of New Labour and now the coalition to persuade people otherwise education is best organised and delivered by the state because this is the only way of ensuring fairness; but the willingness to learn has to come from the participants and if it is missing the system fails. In the sort of working class communities that have been hit hardest by economic change in recent years there used to be a proud tradition of valuing education both as a way out of poverty and of broadening horizons the owners of capital would like to keep a narrow as possible, it is a tradition they must rediscover if they are to prosper again.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Poor spelling could cost the UK millions in lost online revenue.

According to Charles Duncombe, an internet entrepreneur and owner of the Just Say Please Group poor spelling and grammar could cost British companies millions of pounds in lost internet sales. Not exactly small potatoes, however you spell it, in a market where according to the Office for National Statistics sales to the value of £527 million taking place every week.

Speaking to the BBC this week Mr Duncombe said that he was ‘shocked by the poor quality of written English’ he encountered in applications when seeking to recruit new staff, many of which were peppered with spelling and grammar errors and even the use of text speak. Even university graduates, in his experience, were all at sea (or see as they might have put it) without a computer spellchecker to fall back on.

A single spelling mistake on a website could, he estimated, cut sales by half and caused and ‘if you project this across the whole of internet retail, then millions of pounds worth of business is probably being lost each week due to simple spelling mistakes.’

Charles Duncombe’s concerns are shared by Professor William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute, he told the BBC that whilst some areas of the web, social networking sites for example, have a tolerant attitude towards spelling and grammar in other areas ‘such as a home page or commercial offering that are not amongst friends’ poor spelling could ‘raise concerns over trust and credibility.’ He added that in these circumstances where consumers might be wary of SPAM or phishing efforts, ‘a misspelt word could be a killer issue.’

James Fothergill of the Confederation of British Industry, also speaking to the BBC, expressed concern saying that the government ‘must make the improvement of the basic literacy skills of school and college leavers a top priority.’

At this point I could come over all funky and say that being concerned about declining standards of spelling and grammar is so last century; but I won’t because it is probably one of the most important issues facing the country. Partly for the splendid economic reason that, as Charles Duncombe pointed out trading online means that ‘cutting edge companies depend upon old fashioned skills,’ namely being able to express information accurately and in a easily readable form. Unless you’re under twenty five text speak does not come within a mile of doing so.

There is also the small matter of literacy being the key to lifting people up from the bottom rung of society, without it all other learning is impossible and however great it may be an individual’s potential will inevitably crumble into dust. Since politicians of all parties claim to be committed to giving the poor a hand up rather than a handout you’d think improving literacy would be at the top of the political agenda; but it isn’t.

Instead what seems to be the major concern of the political classes is endless fiddling with the curriculum, a testing regime that seems designed to produce statistics rather than test knowledge and picking fights with the teaching unions at every opportunity.

Add to this the expensive and unwanted imposition of academies when what most people want is decent community schools that educate their children in the skills they will need to make their way in the world and what you have is a disaster waiting to happen. As for the ‘Free Schools’ project favoured by ambitious Schools Minister Michael Gove along with lessons in Latin, and for all I know compulsory Quiddich, don’t even get me started.

This has been a good week for Labour leader Ed Milliband, he might not be ahead in the opinion polls but he has given a sufficiently assured performance over the phone hacking scandal to silence his critics within the party for now. If, however, he wants to turn a good week into a fighting chance at the next election then he needs to find an issue that will connect with the concerns of Middle England, education might just be that issue.

To do it though he will have to do two things that scare modern politicians witless, admit to being wrong and speak up for a policy because he believes in it not because a focus group told him it might resonate with whatever group of voters he’s triangulating on this week.

The admission is a simple one; he must admit that Labour got it wrong on education. Wrong on endorsing the trendy ‘child centred’ teaching methods of the seventies that removed discipline and rigour from education; and wrong that they compounded this in more recent times by endorsing the misguided and expensive academies project that conspires to bring back the divisiveness of the old grammar schools disguised by a shiny new atrium.

The policy he must speak up for is a little more complex and, at first will draw howls of mockery and displeasure from the tabloid press; he must speak up for comprehensive education. Not the failed experiment of the past, but the sound idea that underpins it, schools with strong discipline and rigorous standards that are open to all and that treat vocational and academic learning with equal respect.

In the short term that won’t be popular, in fact it will expose him and his party to ridicule as out of touch lefties, but politics, like golf, is all about being able to play the long game as well as the short one. The ‘Free Schools’ experiment will fail and many of the establishments set up by well meaning parents will be gobbled up by huge companies with more interest in benefiting their shareholders than their students. When that happens an education system that is run for the benefit of all not just those with sharp elbows or deep pockets will suddenly look very attractive, so too would whatever party had the guts to speak up for it when everyone else thought they were mad.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Killing off the News of the World shouldn’t be an excuse for shackling the press.

The News of the World (NoW), a newspaper that traded in scandal for more than a century has finally been done down by one of its own making.

This is the sorry outcome of the phone hacking scandal that saw the paper gain, if the Metropolitan Police are to be believed, access to four thousand people’s mobile phones including those of the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and survivors of the 7/7 bombings. Even this might have been dismissed as just another example of tabloid bad behaviour if it hadn’t been revealed earlier this week that a private investigator working for the NoW had, allegedly, hacked into the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler deleting messages and giving her family false hope that she was still alive, an action that shocks you with its stupidity before angering you with its insensitivity.

A line had been crossed, the moral indignation of the British public had been stirred up and something had to be done. That in other circumstances the NoW would have been one of the loudest voices calling for heads to roll is ironic to say the very least.

On Friday it was announced that this weeks edition of the paper would be the last, in a statement to staff James Murdoch, son of the more famous Rupert, said ‘The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself. What he described as ‘wrongdoers’ in the employ of the paper under previous editors had ‘turned a good newsroom bad’ and the closure of the paper was ‘a price loyal staff are paying for the transgressions of others.’

All week official condemnation of the activities of the NoW under previous editorial regimes has been conspicuously loud. A Downing Street spokesman said the view of the Prime Minister was that ‘what matters is that all wrongdoing is exposed and those responsible brought to justice’ and that Mr Cameron was ‘committed to establishing rigorous public inquiries to make sure this never happens again.’

All of which sounds very brave; braver certainly than David Cameron looked when put on the spot about his relationship with former NoW editor and, until forced to resign in January this year over his links to the phone hacking scandal, Downing Street director of communications Andy Coulson. Standing at a lectern and backed by two union flags that his aides have obviously told him make the proceedings look a little bit ‘West Wing’ he spent most of his weekly press conference squirming with embarrassment.

Asked repeatedly about his continued support for Andy Coulson in the light of the weeks revelations Mr Cameron said ‘I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful to put a different gloss on it. People will judge me for that, I understand that.’ Judge him and find his response slower and less decisive than the situation warranted.

David Cameron even had the unusual experience this week of being trounced at PMQ’s by Ed Milliband and seeing the Labour leader, briefly, seize the initiative by using a speech given to Reuters this week to call on the PM to ‘come clean ‘ over his relationship with Andy Coulson and how much he knew about his involvement with phone hacking.

Ed Milliband used the same speech to say that the behaviour of a small group of journalists at the NoW had ‘harmed innocent victims and contaminated the reputation of British journalism.’ It is hardly surprising that a beleaguered opposition leader should seize the opportunity to attack Mr Cameron over what is a shocking lapse of judgement, but he might yes face some awkward questions himself over the behaviour of his own director of communications Tom Baldwin during his time on Fleet Street.

There is also the small matter of just how much of a reputation British journalism really has to defend. The NoW might have gone furthest when it comes to hacking into people’s mobile phones, but the press as a whole is hardly whiter than white in this respect.

Few people will mourn the demise of the News of the World and even fewer will be sorry to see Rupert Murdoch dethroned as the man who wins elections for whatever party his papers favour. Serious questions need to be asked about his suitability to gain full control of BSkyB, an issue the government had hoped would be swept neatly under the carpet, and the grip he already has on the nation’s media.

Toughening up the toothless Press Complaints Commission would also help, particularly when it comes to protecting the rights of ordinary citizens who have their privacy invaded by the press and don’t have recourse to expensive lawyers and publicists to fight their corner. Shackling the press with too much footling regulation though is not an option that should be considered in a democracy.

Even if Rupert Murdoch is despatched to spend the rest of his days croaking ‘Rosebud’ as a snow globe falls slowly from his hand something dramatic will still have to change if the press is to regain its integrity. This has nothing to do with legislation that will favour unfairly a wealthy elite and everything to do with the prevailing culture of the British media.

The sad truth is that the NoW hadn’t held anyone to account for years; the even sadder truth is that neither has the rest of the popular press. There is still a lively and intelligent ‘quality’ press but by its nature this is read by a small section of the public.

The popular press has served up an endless diet of scandal and gossip for decades, the tawdry private lives of footballers garner more column inches than national or world events and its coverage of politics treats the subject as a sort of third rate sitcom. This should be of particular concern to Ed Milliband because the Mirror, the only tabloid that, notionally at least, leans to the left is now no better than its peers; meaning that the Labour Party has lost a powerful engine for explaining and building popular support for its policies.

Things don’t have to be like this, the British public is cleverer and more curious than the media often gives it credit for being. They don’t want a Sunday Sun to take the place vacated by the News of the World, they want real news backed by rigorous research and challenging analysis of current events; if that can be served up with a little humour and a refusal to be beholden to anyone all the better.

Any paper with the courage to take such a stance, to treat its readers like engaged and thoughtful adults rather than easily distracted children might be pleasantly surprised by just how many people from all parts of the political spectrum will want to read all about what it has to say.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

‘What a disgrace!’- Feeble Ed ducks the fight that could save Labour from irrelevance

This week pubic sector workers across the UK went on strike and, despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail to persuade us otherwise, the world didn’t come to an end. There were no scuffles on the picket lines and a march through London organised by the TUC resulted in just thirty arrests, rather less, I imagine, than on an average Saturday during the football season.

What happened instead was that, as Brendan Barber of the TUC put it at a rally in Exeter, people came together to protest quietly and peacefully about ‘The living standards of low and medium paid public sector workers being hammered in the name of reducing the deficit. Meanwhile those who caused the crisis go scot free.’

An event further from an orgy of militant anarchism it would be hard to imagine, participants in the London march even picked up their own litter. As the late great Gil Scot Heron might have put it the revolution won’t tidy up after itself.

Let’s knock two myths propagated by the right wing media and the coalition on the head before we go any further. The public sector workers who took to the streets on Thursday weren’t doing so to defend ‘gold plated pensions’; because for the most part they don’t have the sort of gold plated salaries that would produce such pensions. As for the wider public not supporting their cause, I’d say there is more concern and anger over the way private sector employers failed to invest in their pension funds when times were good and then pulled the rug from under the feet of their staff when they turned bad.

There is much in this strike to support, not least since it turns on the issue of fairness which is at the root of how the British see the world, and yet Labour leader Ed Milliband has chosen to stay on the sidelines.

In a speech to the conference of the Local Government Association (LGA) given on the day of the strikes Milliband said that he ‘understood the anger of workers who feel they are being singled out by a reckless and provocative government’, but the he believed that taking strike action was a ‘mistake’ and that it would not help public sector workers to ‘win the argument’ over pensions.

The responses from the unions were swift and angry; Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers said with the sort of irony that could chill the most riotous of classrooms that it would have been ‘nice if Ed Milliband had felt he could have supported what we’re doing.’ Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said that the Labour leader’s response was a ‘disgrace’ and that he ‘should be ashamed of himself’; before adding ‘I’m glad we’re (meaning the ATL) not affiliated to Labour.’

Later in his Birmingham speech Ed Milliband condemned the government for declaring their final position while negotiations were still ongoing and described their attitude towards public sector workers as ‘high handed and arrogant.’

Too little, too late; as a sad sounding John McDonnell MP put it the public sector unions had ‘expected more’ from the Labour leader; once again Ed Milliband had failed to deliver. It probably didn’t help that he made the point that he didn’t support the strikes five times in a weirdly robotic TV interview that brought back unwelcome memories of Gordon Brown’s odder moments in front of the cameras.

Trades unions, by their very nature, are able to organise large scale campaigns that capture the attention of the media and the public alike, on this occasion they are linked to a much wider movement than seems at first apparent. Thursday’s strikes were about more than how much public sector workers get paid in retirement, they were about the sort of society we want to live in. Do we want a society where people work together for the common good or one where the market drives us into endless and divisive competition?

All across the country individuals and communities are taking action to defend services they see being threatened with destruction by a government that is making cuts in line with the dictates of a flawed ideology rather than sensible economics. These may attract less attention than Mark Serwotka leading 100.00 civil servants out on strike, but they still share a common cause.

What is needed is an organisation capable of drawing these disparate strands together into a single coherent campaign. That could and should be the job of the Labour Party.

So why isn’t it? In part it is because the Labour Party as reinvented by Tony Blair and his followers feels awkward around the unions, they’re happy to take their money but don’t want their political input. The largest share of the blame though rests with Milliband himself, as has been the way with weak leaders since the dawn of political time he lets the headlines of tomorrow’s newspapers dictate his policies.

Real leaders do exactly what the name suggests; they lead the way. Sometimes that means walking head first into a storm of criticism and fighting battles that are hard and often thankless, what it doesn’t mean is sitting on the fence while your aides find a way of triangulating things to get the Mail to say something nice about you.

In an interview given to the New Statesman PCS leader Mark Serwotka said of this dispute and, I suspect the struggles of the unions in general ‘if you fight in life, you’re not guaranteed to win. But if you never fight, you lose every time.’ That sounds like advice Ed Milliband should take to heart, he should either gird his loins for a fight to defend the things so many people believe to be under threat from a government composed of individuals who are too rich to care; or step aside and let someone else take on the job.