Sunday, 23 December 2012

An Olympiad of dunces

Spotlights rake the skies over Stoke, the red carpet has been laid out in front of Wetherspoons and Elton John is hosting an after party at the Monzil Indian Restaurant. Yes its time for me to hand out my annual awards to the movers and shakers of 2012; here we go then.

Worst idea of the year: There is really no contest on this one; the gong has to go to Chancellor George Osborne and his infamous ‘pasty tax’ announced in a budget so dire they had to invent a new word to describe it. You’d have to be a special kind of stupid to think that slapping a tax on one of the few small luxuries people can still afford wouldn’t cause mass outrage and it turns out that is exactly what Boy George is.

Least convincing apology: He’s sorry, really, really sorry and with a big fat cherry on top too; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg apologised for reneging on his pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees in a Youtube video that made Gordon Brown’s risible efforts of a few years ago look almost competent. Cynics say that in politics if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made; it looks like Numpty Nick can’t even get that right.

Special award for removing herself from public life (sponsored by Charles Darwin): Despite strong competition from Louise Mensch this has to go to Nadine Dorries, her brief sojourn on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ mean that she and her odd collection of prejudices will be leaving the political stage at the next election; try not to get hit by the door on your way out dear.

Comeback of the year: It’s been a good year for Ed Milliband, he’s repeatedly put David Cameron on the spot at PMQ’s; Red Ed might not quite look like a prime minister in waiting but at least he’s been taken seriously now.

The ‘oh cripes!’ how did this happen award: This has to go to Boris Johnson, not for winning a second term as London’s mayor, Red Ken is a spent force and none of the other candidates came close, but for his utterly unlikely popularity with the public. Despite carrying on like a posh Homer Simpson on acid he’s one of the few politicians able to ‘connect’ with voters, despite his loud protestations that he has no ambitions to be PM David Cameron should watch his hack around Bojo.

Disappointment of the year: The ‘Occupy’ movement, this time last year their protest outside St Paul’s captured the attention of the world giving them a platform from which to say something important about the need for a fairer and kinder society. Unfortunately they fluffed it big time, preferring to preach to the converted instead, since then some former members have talked about doing outreach work in schools, which is all very worthy but does nothing to hide the fact that a once in a lifetime opportunity has been scandalously wasted.

Relief of the year: Barrack Obama beating Mitt Romney in last month’s US Presidential elections. The thought of the free world being led for the next four years by a weird android from planet Mormon who thinks ‘corporations are people too’ and that the almighty cares what sort of pants he wears would have been to scary for words.

Gold medal for self congratulation: This has to go to Lord Coe and the organisers of London 2012, ok Team GB won loads of medals (hurrah), but the opening ceremony was pretentious nonsense and the ticketing system an embarrassing shambles; worse still the promised legacy from the games looks like being consumed by a costly legal wrangle. Only if there isn’t tumbleweed blowing through the Olympic park in four years time should anyone involved in organising the games be patted on the back.

The ‘jumped the shark’ award: Sadly this has to go to Newsnight, the one time flagship of BBC News bottled it badly over the Jimmy Saville sex abuse scandal and has forfeited much of its credibility; like the Fighting Tameraire its next port of call should be the breaker’s yard.

I’d like to wish everyone who has read this blog in 2012 a merry Christmas and a happy new year; now I’m off to see if there are any onion bhajis left at Elton’s bash.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Is studying history about to become a thing of the past?

The study of history in schools in the UK could be about to become, ahem, history, as students appear to be falling out of love with the subject. A report for the all parliamentary group on history released this week that entries to study history at GCSE have dropped below 30%.

This will not please Education Secretary Michael Gove, who recently expressed concern that many 18 to 24 year olds didn’t know that Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar or who built Hadrian’s Wall. You have to guess that they must have questioned the dimmer half of the demographic since there is a big clue in the latter question.

Anyway young people don’t know enough history, Michael Gove won’t be happy about it; so it follows that something will have to be done.

In its report the group criticises schools for teaching just an hour of history a week to thirteen year olds and for doing so in a way that doesn’t follow a logical chronology. Apparently it’s all Hitler, Henry (the eighth that is) and the pyramids with little to link things together. This, as Chris Skidmore MP, vice chair of the group told the BBC, produces a sort of ‘Dr Who history’ that made it ‘very difficult to generate understanding and a sense of chronology in such abbreviated time periods.’

The group would like to see history included in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) when it replaces GCSE’s and for the curriculum to focus more closely on key events in British history. They fought shy of recommending that history be made a mandatory subject up to sixteen, but it was recommended that citizenship be forced out to make room for more extended teaching of history.

In response a spokeswoman for the Department of Education told the BBC that the government was ‘looking at history’ as part of its review of the national curriculum and wanted to ensure that students were ‘engaged and inspired by the subject.’ Commenting on the proposal to replace citizenship with history in the new EBacc Andy Thornton of the Citizenship Foundation said proponents of the change were ‘defending their own subject based on ignorance of another’s.’ He added that through studying citizenship students were ‘inducted into the social order of the day, empowering them to play their part in its stability and prosperity.’

The teaching of history, particularly British history, is vital, if you hold anything like liberal views that it is a given that you accept the best way of learning to respect and value the culture and traditions of others is by understanding your own first. The trouble is we seem somehow to have ended up in a situation where people on the right of the political spectrum believe themselves to have a unique understanding of our nation’s history and how it should be passed on.

This has produced some truly odd ideas, many of them firmly lodged in the busy brain of Michael Gove. He seems to view history, as he does most subjects, through an odd sepia toned filter, as something carried out by kings, princes and, we might suppose, Education Secretaries with their eye on the main prize, at which we groundlings can merely gawp in wonderment.

In reality the world and the subject have moved on, the teaching of history, unless it is merely to be a process of dinning dates into the heads of students, has to reflect the diversity of experience and origins to be found in British life. As for making history part of the new EBacc, all well and good but something else will have to be pushed out to make room, unless, of course, the new qualification is going to share the sad fate of GCSE’s by becoming a bloated repository for whatever fad happened to be preoccupying the Westminster villagers the week before last.

If, as seems likely, it is citizenship that gets the push then the people responsible really don’t understand their subject. One of the dominant themes in all of human history is how power is devolved from the hands of the few into those of the many. It is a story that is still being played out today in Egypt and Syria and one that may, if we aren’t careful, skip back a few chapters here in Europe.

Young people, and those of us who aren’t so young, should study history because if you don’t understand the mistakes made in the past you are doomed to repeat them; not understanding how democracy works and what we all need to do to keep it working produces the same sad result.

Monday, 10 December 2012

A good week for thumping the poor

Cuts to benefits could put the poorest people living in Stoke-on-Trent into debt and into the hands of high interest loan dealers. For the most vulnerable people the bad times that started rolling in 2007 are fast turning into an avalanche.

According to figures released by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) over the weekend the number of people seeking help with council tax arrears has risen from 610 in 2008/09 to 1236 this year, the total debt has risen over the same period from £466, 97 to £1.3million.

Further cuts to childcare payments, out of work benefits and sickness benefits are also going to hit the most vulnerable people hardest.

In a truly Victorian touch the council will be required to deduct £25 from working claimants of council tax benefit as an ‘incentive to work’. If you’re an investor now might be a good time to take out shares in gruel; the workhouse may be making a comeback.

A spokesperson for the CAB told the Sentinel that the changes to benefits will increase levels of personal debt and force vulnerable people to ‘borrow, often at exorbitant rates, from home credit providers, payday loans and pawnbrokers.’

Deputy Council Leader Paul Shotton told the Sentinel ‘welfare reform is not something we choose to do but something forced upon us and every council nationally,’ the council was, he said, ‘mindful of the potential impact and we want the changes to be as fair as possible.’

Whatever your opinion of their regeneration plans, and mine isn’t high, there is no argument that the council have been forced into a corner by the government over welfare reform. They have been unwillingly recruited as the hired muscle for a programme of withdrawing the support of the state from the most vulnerable members of society that revives notions about the deserving and undeserving poor belonging to a bygone age.

Pious talk about giving claimants and ‘incentive to work’ rings hollow when jobs are rarer than hen’s teeth. Many people lucky enough to be in work are struggling as food and heating costs continue to rise whilst wage levels remain stagnant, for them benefits aren’t a windfall; they’re a lifeline.

There was a time when I had a certain degree of respect for Iain Duncan Smith, unlike many former leaders of the Conservative Party he didn’t retreat into a cosy world of executive directorships and gentleman’s clubs; instead he set out to see how the other, poorer, half live. At least he’s supposed to have done, which makes it surprising that he’s managed to survive the experience with every one of his prejudices intact.

The biggest of these is that anyone, working or not, receiving benefits is a ‘scrounger’ living high on the state reared hog while everyone else struggles. This is demonstrably wrong, a fact attested to by the sad lines of people queuing up at food banks, the alarming rises in homelessness and mental illness to be found in areas blighted by high unemployment and low wages; areas just like Stoke in fact.

A life on benefits isn’t a free ride, it’s a miserable trudge through dependency and despair that all too often leads to a very dark place indeed. It isn’t just the government that wants to get people off benefits and into work, the vast majority of claimants are desperate to work too, this won’t be achieved though by telling people to pull their socks up and try harder.

Pretending it can might play well with the sillier sections of the Tory party and the tabloid press, but politicians with expensive educations and serious responsibilities should take a more nuanced approach. It isn’t a matter of carrots and sticks so much as working constructively with people to find them work that actually pays; not an easy task but a vitally important one none the less.

If the current misbegotten government can’t grasp the necessity of carrying it out then vulnerable people in Stoke and many other towns around the country will continue to struggle. Alone and abandoned with the only help on the horizon a loan from a company that hides sky high interest rates behind a cheery jingle.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The start of an awkward conversation about the city’s budget

On a wet Tuesday evening last week I headed down to the Civic Centre to attend the launch of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s budget consultation for 2013.

The event took place in the Jubilee Room, a rather gloomy wood panelled space with heavy red drapes at the windows and a print of George V in full ceremonial uniform glowering down from the wall, a reminder of the slightly fly-blown civic grandeur that will be lost if the building is sold off to developers.

All the big guns of what the council, somewhat pompously, bills as its ‘cabinet’ were present, sitting at the front of the room and looking for the most part more than a little uncomfortable. They, as did most of the audience, knew this was not going to be an easy evening.

Front and centre was council leader Mohammed Pervez, a portly man in a grey suit with a speaking style that alternates between nervousness and exasperation; not a good combination in a politician with something unpopular to sell to the public. The consultation was to be, he said, part of a ‘meaningful conversation’ with the public about the city’s finances; specifically how £21 million in savings can be found in addition to the £56 million already made overt the past two years.

He reiterated what are to regular observers of politics in Stoke familiar themes about the lack of a financial settlement from the government, it is expected some time in December and is unlikely to be generous and the refusal of ministers to recognise the challenges faced by the city. The meat and drink of the presentation that followed though was that the council will have to tighten its belt and go on doing so for years to come, if predictions made by the Local Government Association are correct there may be little in the budget beyond funding for statutory services.

The latest round of efficiencies will, he said, involve large ‘savings’ from the budget of each of the council’s directorates, the sale of buildings and the merging of departments along with another two hundred to two hundred and fifty job losses. Those council employees who keep their jobs will, again, go without a cost of living increase in their pay settlement, although the council have agreed to give the lowest earning workers the minimum living wage of £7.45 per hour; cold comfort in hard times.

The language the bad news is delivered in is drawn straight from the lexicon of middle management, it is all about ‘efficiency savings’ and cutting ‘ back office costs’; the council is going to move from providing services to ‘commissioning’ them from companies in the private sector. It seems that three years of austerity economics have provided our culture with as many words for spending cuts as others have for snow.

The delivery veers between the dull and the downright bad tempered, like many a politician before him Mohammed Pervez knows all too well the soporific effect of statistics and provides a blizzard of them here. He also gets more than a little testy during the question and answer section what asked how the council can justify taking out a huge loan to build a new Civic Centre whilst at the same time cutting vital services.

The logic behind this move, if you can did it out of rather a lot of waffle boils down to ‘if we build it they will come’, meaning that if the council moves to the new Central Business District on the outskirts of Hanley investors will soon follow. If you think this has more than a touch of magical thinking about it you’d probably be right.

Pouring investment into Hanley is both a bone of contention and an article of faith under the ‘Mandate for Change’ that is the bedrock of the council’s regeneration strategy. Residents of the other five towns making up the city feel aggrieved that so much investment is being aimed at the city centre whilst their own communities are being left to crumble; Mr Pervez and his cabinet cite this as an example of the parochialism that has held the city back for decades and say that if investment if focussed on Hanley the benefits will, eventually, trickle down to the rest of the city.

Whilst it is possible to feel sympathy for the Council Leader as he struggles to balance a budget without much help from a government that sees no votes for either coalition partner in Stoke, the unavoidable fact is that much of the thinking underpinning the city’s regeneration strategy is flawed. Almost every former industrial town in the region is trying to re-invent itself along the same lines and there is only so much money to go round.

It was hard not to come away from the evening without feeling a sense of gloomy resignation, the council it seemed, was defending a position on which it had already decided rather than seeking suggestions from the public. It was suggested that the council would consider suggestions sent in as to how to save money and promote the city to investors, I can imagine the postbags filled with letters saying don’t sell the Civic piling up to following day and promptly being tipped into landfill.

As exercises in public engagement go this felt more like box ticking than the real thing, sadly Stoke council has form in this area having run a Community Empowerment Network that folded because it wasn’t taken seriously or given much in the way of independence. That inevitably fosters an atmosphere of weary cynicism; people feel there is little point in taking part in a conversation if they aren’t going to be listened to.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Parliament needs a serious debate on votes for prisoners, not playground posturing from the government.

Parliament will get the ultimate decision as to whether or not the UK grants voting rights to prisoners, says Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. Although something of an assertion of the obvious this is exactly as it should be.

The government has waited until the last possible moment to address the issue of complying with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the current practice of denying prisoners the vote is not compatible with the convention on human rights. In a statement to parliament on Thursday he cited legal advice received by the government making it clear that parliament could breach individuals’ human rights if it wished, in this case by denying prisoners the vote.

The Ministry of Justice has published draft legislation offering MPs three options, maintaining the status quo, giving votes to prisoners serving sentences of six months or less, or giving the vote to prisoners serving up to four years behind bars. What, if anything might be done to give voting rights to prisoners serving longer sentences is an issue that seems to have been swept under the Westminster carpet.

In his statement Mr Grayling said that it was ‘ultimately for parliament to determine’ what to do and that ‘nobody can impose a solution on parliament, but it is accepted practice that the UK observes its international obligations.’ Last year parliament voted by 234 votes to 22 not to give prisoners the vote, at the time this was seen as an instance of plucky little Britain striking a blow against the overweening EU.

Although the language he used on Thursday was suitably cautious the subtext in Chris Grayling’s speech was that parliament should take the opportunity to do so again. This is something the sillier sections of the Tory party will respond to in the way dogs respond to a high pitched whistle; by rushing off to obey the call of unreasoning instinct.

The Justice Secretary added that the ‘constraints’ exercised on parliament were ‘political not legal’ and that the ‘principle of legality means that parliament must confront what its doing and accept the political cost.’ Reading between the lines any dissenters from the populist line can expect to be thrown to the tabloid wolves, who just happen to be ravenous for a taste of woolly liberal.

One such dissenter is Labour MP Paul Flynn, who pointed out that by following the line suggested by the government the UK could by ‘insisting on the British way on a relatively insignificant matter’ be giving ‘ an open invitation to other countries in Europe to mistreat their prisoners.’

I agree with him on everything apart from one point, whether or not we give prisoners the vote isn’t a ‘relatively insignificant matter;’ it is a hugely important one. An issue of principle that goes to the heart of what sort of country we want to be.

Not that you’d know it from the way the government has handled the issue, an odd mixture of foot dragging and blustering assertions from the PM that ‘prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.’ A stance that seems as baffling as it is reactionary from a man who is, quite correctly, willing to fight his own party over the issue of gay marriage. Yet again we are left wondering which, if any is the real David Cameron; the shire Tory or the metropolitan progressive or some grey mix of the two.

The principle behind the issue is simple, so simple it needs repeating time and time again. Giving votes to prisoners isn’t to do with soppy liberalism or condoning what they might have done to end up behind bars; it is about protecting an inalienable right of citizenship. In a democracy when someone is jailed for a crime they may lose their freedom for a period, but they are still citizens.

An honest and open debate in parliament would draw this issue out into the open and make MPs confront the real political cost of their choice, if we can take the franchise away from a prisoner is it secure for anyone else? Can the UK continue to preach the virtues of democracy to other nations when its own isn’t operating fairly? I don’t intend to offer up pat answers to either question, it is something that has to be wrestled with as an issue of conscience.

Sadly what we have been presented with is muddled legislation and shallow gamesmanship on the part of the government. This is perhaps par for the course since its leader has truly shown himself to be the ‘heir to Blair.’ A showman who alternately patronises and provokes his own party and treats parliament with thinly disguised disdain.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

PCC elections break the wrong kind of record.

This has been a record breaking week for Britain, although not in the way people remember from the heady days of our ‘Olympic Summer.’ The records in question were for the lowest turnout in a peacetime election.

On Thursday around 15% of the eligible population turned out to vote for one of forty one Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent that figure was down to just 9.46%. Maybe there was something good on television; either that or this is empirical proof that the voting public wanted nothing to do with this sad farrago.

Commenting on the low turnout Labour shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna told that the election had been a ‘total shambles and the £100 million spent on it could have been spent on 3000 police officers’ instead. This was a line that would later be repeated by shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and has everything to do with nailing the false, as Labour would like it presented, contrast between their supposed profligacy and Tory fiscal rectitude.

The Electoral Reform Society hit out at the way the elections were organised, calling it a ‘comedy of errors’ and citing poor scheduling, a lack of information and a tepid coverage in the media as contributing factors. Civil rights group Liberty commented on the dangers posed by the ‘sole concentration of power in one elected official’ and warned against the risk of political interference in the way the police operate.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP so unworldly he took his nanny with him on the campaign trail and seems like a minor character from a PG Wodehouse novel felt obliged to comment on what he called an electoral ‘experiment’, saying ‘nobody really knows if its worked, £100 million would seem to be a high price to pay for this.’

Anybody who thinks because most people couldn't be bothered to vote for them the arrival of a PCC in their region is a matter of no concern is quite wrong. This is a post that gives its holder a large salary, the power to fire the Chief Constable is he or she wishes to do so and all the ‘face time’ with the media an ambitious politician could ever want.

The way the election was organised was a shambles, the only excuse for holding an election in November should be a national emergency, and creating a sinecure for party hacks is definitely not one. As for the £5000 deposit required from candidates, this was a blatant attempt to keep independent candidates out in favour of people on the payroll of one of the three main parties. The whole point of having free open elections is that anyone from the ambitious young man or woman with one eye on Downing Street and the oddball dressed as a carrot has an equal opportunity to take part.

What should really stick in our collective craw though is the thinking behind the whole sorry project, which seems to boil down to a mad notion that all you need to do to engage the public is give them lots of things to vote for. Understood in this way politics is, supposedly, a bit like the X-Factor, leaving no opening for the hard but necessary work of building networks of shared experience that people can use to take control of their lives and communities.

All that has been achieved at ruinous cost is a move from having the police ruin by a largely anonymous Police Authority to electing a PCC who will most likely caper in the media spotlight but do little to lead a rational debate into how complicated and increasingly fractured communities should be policed. Instead it will be all skewed crime statistics and initiatives designed to grab a few easy headlines for the incumbent.

The Electoral Commission is to hold a review into why the turnout was so low, I am not at all hopeful that it will come even close to considering why so many people feel alienated by politics. It certainly won’t entertain the possibility of giving communities the chance to vote again on whether or not they want a PCC in a few years time. The government have learnt the lesson of New Labour’s experience over elected mayors, they too were once seen as the bright new hope for re-engaging the public with politics, when many of the towns saddled with this expensive and unwanted office voted for it to be scrapped.

This shows, sadly, that in our brave new world you can vote for anything you like; apart from real change.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Note to Nadine Dorries, you’re a politician not a celebrity.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries must have thought it seemed like such a good idea when she signed up to appear in the latest series of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. Unfortunately things haven’t turned out as she planned.

It turns out, surprisingly, that parliament and her own constituents take a dim view of a sitting MP skipping the country for a month or more to muck about in the jungle. On Tuesday a spokesman for the Tory Party expressed ‘concern’ that she ‘will not be doing parliamentary business in the meantime.’

Poor soul, do you think he’s ever seen ‘I’m a Celebrity…?’ All he probably knows is that it’s on that television thingy they seem to enjoy so much below stairs. Ms Dorries, an elected representative, is going to spend the next month or more removing her own dignity one atom at a time in the company of ‘celebrities’ you’ve either never heard of or thought had died years ago.

Her decision to embrace the witless world of reality television has attracted rather more focussed criticism from other quarters. Home Secretary Theresa May pronounced ‘frankly I think an MPs job is in their constituency and in the House of Commons’ with the frosty disdain of someone being touted as a future party leader. Fellow back bencher Sara Wollaston said ‘we need more women in parliament but it doesn’t help if they make themselves ridiculous by swanning off to the jungle.’ Paul Duckett, the Chair of Mid Bedfordshire Conservative Association told the press they were considering a range of sanctions against their errant MP, including de-selection.

One of Ms Dorries constituents took to Twitter, as reported by, to write ‘My MP Nadine Dorries just arrived in OZ for I’m a Celeb! No wonder she hasn’t replied to email about my poorly boy. Busy eating bugs! Thanks!’ Which rather puts things in perspective, this isn’t about a sometimes stuffy institution being embarrassed by one of its members, it’s about people struggling to cope with serious problems being let down by the person elected to represent them.

Justifying her decision to go on the programme Nadine Dorries told the Daily Mail she was ‘doing the show because sixteen million people watch it. Rather than MPs talking to other MPs about issues in parliament, I think MPs should be going to where people go.’

Generally I don’t much care who appears on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ or what they get up to once there, the programme has its target audience and if they enjoy it all well and good. Personally I’d rather glue toenail clippings to the roof of my mouth than join their number.

However, when an elected representative decided to join in the stupidity at a time when the reputation of parliament and politics in general is at an all time low it is a different matter; one that raises issues of trust and responsibility that go to the heart of the problems afflicting our political culture.

The thinking, such as it is, behind Dorries actions is that she is somehow making politics more ‘accessible’. If you follow this all the way to the outer edges of reductio ad absurdum David Cameron should enliven the next PMQ’s by doing a Gangnam style dance routine and the leader of the opposition should change his name by deed poll to Ed ‘rock n roll’ Milliband.

If you think this would be stupid, harmful to the dignity of their respective offices and a grave insult to the intelligence of the British public you would be quite correct. Politics isn’t made accessible by cheap gimmicks, to do that the people who practice it have to get on with the unglamorous and often thankless task of helping the people they represent and holding the government to account.

Perhaps Nadine Dorries, a somewhat eccentric character at the best of times, really does think she can do so by appearing or an exploitative and often cruel televised freak show. We are all free to entertain whatever delusions we choose; but she might have been advised to consider the case of George Galloway before she reached for her passport.

These days nobody remembers that the week before going into the Big Brother house he ran rings around a Senate committee or that he is, for all his opportunism and eccentricity, one of the smarted and most articulate members of the house. Nobody remembers these things because the memory of him capering about in an unflattering green body stocking on live television keeps getting in the way.

This will one day make a sad epitaph for an admirably free spirited, if often misguided, political career. Nadine Dorries has in the past been no stranger to saying unpopular things because she happens to believe them to be right, that made her an effective back bencher even if she was a little too fond of courting publicity.

This latest exertion into the spotlight though could well come at the coat of her political career or at the very least mean she forfeits the right to be taken seriously. I seldom agree with what she has to say, but if Nadine Dorries is really the woman of principle she portrays herself to be that may in the long term leave a far nastier taste in her mouth than any of the bugs she’ll have to eat over then next few weeks.

And Another Thing

I don’t know what came over This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield when he ‘ambushed’ David Cameron live on air with a list of Tory politicians accused of being linked to child abuse allegations cobbled together from the internet. Maybe he snapped after years of listening to celebrities drone on about their latest film/book/divorce; either way his actions were misjudged and unprofessional.

Child abuse is a terrible crime and neither age nor status should shield perpetrators from facing the consequences of their actions, false accusations though have the power to wreck innocent lives and make it harder for victims to come forward. The only way the problems abuse causes can be addressed is from a firm basis of evidence, not as part of the sort of ‘witch hunt’ the Prime Minister so rightly warned against.

BBC Director General George Entwistle resigned late last night, brought down by shoddy journalism and his own staggering lack of curiosity. Am I the only person who is surprised that the former ‘Head of Vision’ couldn’t see any of the problems that did for him coming?

Clive Dunn, Corporal Jones in the long running BBC sitcom Dad’s Army died this week aged 92.

The remarkable success of this most enduring of programmes, the last episode was filmed in 1978 but it has seldom been off our screens since, rests on a mix of nostalgia, strong scripts and brilliant comic acting from the likes of Dunn, Arthur Lowe et a; by far its biggest attraction though is that it could be about anyone living at any time, Captain Mainwaring and his platoon are archetypes of our own foolishness and virtues, everyone knows somebody who is a bit like one of the characters in Dad’s Army.

Dunn was a lifelong Labour supporter, maybe Ed Milliband could draw inspiration from his two famous catchphrases. Don’t panic when the press turn against him and remember that the Tories, like Jerry, don’t like it up em!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fancy footwork over Europe won’t win the next election for Labour.

This has been another bad week for David Cameron’s beleaguered government. On Wednesday they suffered a humiliating defeat in the commons over the EU budget at the hands of a coalition of Tory rebels and Labour MPs.

The Tory rebels wanted a real terms budget cut for 2014/2020; the Labour Party wanted to land a punch that would make the PM stagger against the ropes. It was a marriage of political convenience that produced a result of 307 to 294 against the government and could come back to haunt all concerned.

There followed something of a ‘spat’ between the Conservative and Lib Dem halves of the coalition, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Thursday there was now ‘no hope’ of a budget cut, something about which his party was entirely comfortable. Chancellor George Osborne though later told the BBC’s Today programme that the UK was still ‘at the beginning of negotiations’ on the EU budget.

He added that although he wasn’t saying ‘Nick Clegg is wrong. I’m saying we’re beginning a negotiation. Let’s see where that negotiation leads.’ The Chancellor might not have said so out loud, but he was certainly implying that Nick Clegg was wrong and that any negotiation would be more likely to result in a cut to the budget than any other outcome.

Thanks to the division within the coalition Labour are riding high, their poll ratings are healthy and PMQ’s has stopped being a weekly exercise in humiliation for leader Ed Milliband. In fact this week he was able to raise the ghost of our own dear PM being more than a little like his inglorious predecessor John Major, a hapless dupe clinging to the tail of the party he is supposed to be leading as it goes wild over Europe.

About the only thing the coalition seems to be able to agree on these days is how unhappy they are that the opposition have learnt to be sneaky. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Labour had ‘taken a step further away from government’ by siding with the Tory rebels. Nick Clegg called their position ‘dishonest’ and ‘hypocritical’; adding that although it may have been seen by some people as ‘clever opposition politics’ it was not ‘the behaviour of a party serious about government.’

If you can ignore the vintage of sour grapes being trodden out on the government benches Nick Clegg does, surprisingly, have a point. It must be hugely satisfying for Ed Milliband and his advisors to see the coalition coming so spectacularly off the rails, it must bring back fond memories of the nineties when another Tory government tore itself to pieces over Europe letting Labour sweep in with a huge majority.

Unfortunately in politics, as in so many other things, the shiniest fruit often has the bitterest taste. It would be a serious mistake if Labour imagined that the wider public are as impressed with their nifty footwork in the voting lobby as they are; trust me they aren’t. To the average voter this will look like so much cheap point scoring, they may have opinions on Europe and whether or not we should be in or out; but most aren’t obsessed with the subject.

There is also the small matter of this being actually a less adroit move than it at first appears, siding with Tory Euro sceptics will produce little in the way of long term advantage for Labour, their new found friends will be unlikely to reciprocate the favour of supporting Labour in the voting lobbies. The whole thing is the political equivalent of a grubby one night stand that will only return to embarrass both parties at the most inconvenient moments.

What Ed Milliband needs to do is get back to what he was trying to do when he was booed by the crowd at the recent TUC march through London, talking about the priorities that will have to inform the fiscal restraint practiced by a Labour government. He needs to talk about how he intends to be more realistic about the sort of country the UK is now, as opposed to what it might have been in the past; maybe not a ‘great power’ but one with the potential to be a great society.

As the cliché goes it is governments that lose elections rather than oppositions that win them, however the make the transition from one to the other effectively a party needs a clear idea of what it stands for and what it wants to achieve.

The mistake made by New Labour in 1997 was relying too much on the fact that the electorate was tired of the squabbling Tories; as a result they squandered a huge mandate and an equally large store of good will in return for little in the way of achievements. Despite a rocky start Ed Milliband has a chance of putting Labour back into government at the first attempt, but to do so he must learn from the mistakes of the past and devote as much time to serious thinking as he does to fancy political footwork.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

From threat to farce in a tweet

Does anybody remember Nick Griffin? For a while there the BNP supremo was, almost, a big shot. He scandalised the chattering classes by appearing on Question Time and even managed to win a seat in the European Parliament.

It didn’t last though, the media rapidly lost interest in his peculiar brand of sweaty belligerence, his party performed badly in the 2010 elections and has been haemorrhaging members and councillors ever since. Like many people who used to be someone and now have too much time on their hands Mr Griffin has found a home for himself on Twitter.

This week his antics brought him back into the public eye when he used the social networking site to publicise the address of Michael Black and John Morgan, the gay couple who have had the ruling that they were treated unfairly by the Christian owners of a B&B who refused to rent them a double room upheld by a court of law. Mr Griffin tweeted ominously that a ‘British Justice team’ would be visiting the couple to ‘give them a bit of drama’ and encouraged supporters to protest outside their house.

To their credit the nation’s Twitter users either ignored Griffin completely or condemned his comments. As Michael Black told the public reaction seemed to be ‘overwhelmingly in support of our stand against discrimination’, he added that the ‘vast majority’ of people in the UK had long since seen ‘what an idiot Nick Griffin is and reject his views.’

Quite so, the country has moved on and embraced difference as a positive thing; everyone apart from Nick Griffin and his kind that is. Whatever they were doing though it certainly wasn’t protesting in the streets, maybe there was something good on television.

The only protest was on Twitter against the crass comments made by Nick Griffin, his account was, all too briefly, suspended and Cambridgeshire police are launching an investigation. I doubt he has done himself many favours in the light of this by tweeting ‘if you get burgled and police don’t want to know, just tweet something Peter Tatchell can claim to be offensive. Plod will be round in minutes.’ Indeed he will, hopefully to feel your collar Nick.

It is more than a little ironic that this self appointed spokesman for the silent majority has chosen to comment on British justice because that is just what this issue shows in action. Both sides had the opportunity to put their case, the evidence was weighed against the law and a decision reached, some people aren’t very happy about that decision, but that’s just how it goes; you can’t win em all.

Personally I think the court got it right, the owners of the B&B are, of course, perfectly free to live by their religious values, but they have no right to impose those values on other people who either don’t share their faith or interpret its teachings differently. If they struggled so much with the idea that people live valid lives that are different to their own maybe they shouldn’t have gone into a different line of business.

Nick Griffin and the Christian B&B owners, who are I imagine not all that pleased to have attracted his support, may not like it but public attitudes towards sexuality have changed dramatically over that past couple of decades and that is a good thing. We don’t live in a utopia of acceptance and equality, but these days it is the bigots who feel like outcasts.

Bigots like Nick Griffin who want to inhabit a world where everyone is a stereotype and anything new or different is something to be feared. That sort of thinking is an invitation to live a monochrome life; most people these days prefer to embrace the rainbow of possibility that comes with accepting that we are all, as the song says, what we are and that life is better and more fulfilling if we try to get along.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Citizen Dave and the ‘hour of reckoning’

You get the impression that David Cameron is the only one of the three party leaders who really enjoys making his party conference speech. What to the others is a dreary task surrounded by potential pitfalls is, to him, an opportunity to connect with his inner ham actor.

There was certainly a spring in his step this week as he took to the podium in Birmingham to tell a, not very, breathless nation that the UK faces serious economic challenges that only his party can solve. We face, he said, an ‘hour of reckoning’ as countries like China and Brazil that are ‘lean, fit, obsessed with enterprise’ rise up to usurp a Europe that is ‘fat, sclerotic, over regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems.’

Phew! It’s a good job we’ve got a hero like Citizen Dave in our corner, a man who is committed to preventing the UK from ‘joining the slide’ into the economic doldrums. He and George Osborne mean to do so, of course, by slashing our own, allegedly, unaffordable welfare system to the bone.

Anyone thinking this was a reversion to the harsh Tory tactics of the 1980’s would be quite wrong though. Mr Cameron said that his shiny new party isn’t ‘the same old Tories who want to help the rich’. They’re not the party of the ‘better off’ as much as the party of the ‘want to be better off’; on the side of the ‘people who want to get on in life, the doers, the risk takers,’ and their leader is personally committed not to defending privilege but to ‘spreading it.’

Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? Maybe a few people believed him too, but I’d bet most were inside the warm champagne bubble of the conference centre.

The speech was, as ever, smoothly delivered, David Cameron knows how to play to the gallery in the same way Tony Blair did, a little schmaltz here, some tub thumping patriotism there; it all helps to sugar the pill.

The unfortunate thing for him is that, as prime minister, he is judged on what the government he leads does, not what he says or how well he says it; by that standard things haven’t been going well. This has been the year of the pasty tax, the botched budget and the nasty, sneering antics of Andrew Mitchell, try as he might Mr Cameron has a hard time persuading we ‘plebs’ that his isn’t a government composed of public schoolboys so out of touch with reality they’d ask to see the wine list when eating at a soup kitchen.

Populist sops such as promising householders the right to ‘bash’ burglars without fear of being arrested and blood curdling warnings that austerity alone will protect us from sharing the sad fate of Greece may please the party hacks; but they cut no ice with the wider public. Not least because no parliamentary time has been set aside to amend the laws governing how much force householders can use to defend their property and the IMF and the markets the government has been so keen to appease are rapidly losing faith in the ability of George Osborne to stimulate our moribund economy.

Perhaps the real fault doesn’t, entirely, lie with David Cameron and his slick but lifeless speech; maybe it is the whole business of holding party conferences that is tired and fraudulent. Their role as a forum for internal party democracy has long since been sidelined, grassroots members of all three parties stay away in droves meaning the hall is filled with paid officials and hangers on more interested in having a week long bun fight than forming policies that connect with sceptical voters.

All three party leaders, even Ed Milliband who gave what was probably the best speech of his career in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, seem uncomfortably like silent movie stars emoting for the camera when all we want is for them to actually say something. David Cameron, as the most accomplished of the three, looks the most out of step. A political Norma Desmond tottering along in a deluded haze and telling Mr De Mille he’s ready for his close-up. When it eventually comes in 2015 it is likely the electorate will find him wanting.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Just what will the ‘one nation’ Ed Milliband wants to lead look like?

Something remarkable happened to Labour leader Ed Milliband at the party’s conference in Manchester this week; people started to take him seriously. Following his big speech on Tuesday he looked less like the earnest captain of the sixth form debating society and, perhaps, a little more like a prime minister in waiting.

In the course of his speech Mr Milliband invoked the ‘spirit of the Olympics’ and sought to establish Labour as the real ‘one nation’ party. He poured scorn on David Cameron calling his government a ‘u-turning shower’, then added ‘When David Cameron says to you ‘lets just carry on as we are and wait for something to turn up’, don’t believe him. If the medicine isn’t working, change the medicine.’

The medicine in question being austerity and while Ed Milliband also suggested that the UK should ‘change the doctor too’, it is likely that whoever stands at the nation’s bedside the prescription will be much the same.

There was a huge policy shaped hole in the centre of the speech, one that Mr Milliband filled with a stirring call to arms against the ‘two nations’ Britain has become, ‘the bankers and the rest of the country.’ As in his 2011 conference speech the leader of the opposition is keen to weed out ‘predatory’ capitalism from the more helpful version, he’s just still rather vague as to how this might be done.

He also made a big play of his back-story as the son of Jewish refugees and his, relatively, modest origins, saying ‘I was born in my local NHS hospital where my two sons were born. And I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds.’ Through this experience the future leader of the opposition learnt ‘a lot more than just how to pass exams; it taught people how to get on with each other, whoever they are and wherever they were from.’

While Ed is certainly no old Etonian toff raised amidst the splendours of some Downton style country house he’s not exactly a horny handed son of toil either. His parents were both respected left wing intellectuals and though the school he went to was a comprehensive it was also located in a leafy suburb.

The policy element of the speech, such as it was, focussed largely on Labour’s plans to help the ‘forgotten fifty percent’ who don’t go to university by reforming vocational education, bringing in a single ‘gold standard’ exam and involving employers more in deciding what is taught on vocational courses. This is a much needed and long overdue reform of a vital part of the education system, how effective it might be after two more years, or longer, of Michael Gove’s peculiar meddling though remains to be seen. A lot of needless damage will have to be repaired before any good can be done.

As conference speeches go this was perhaps Ed Milliband’s best to date, the delivery was slick, he prowled the stage speaking ‘off the cuff’ rather than standing rigidly behind a lectern and even occasionally had in his eyes that gleam of messianic certainty Tony Blair used to have when he was really in the zone. He looked more like someone who, maybe, could be PM one day than he has before; but that maybe is so large he might not be able to scramble over it.

For a start the lack of discernable policies is a serious handicap, an incoming Labour government would be bound by strict fiscal restraints, meaning that it would have to talk in the ‘language of priorities’. Unfortunately without setting out a clear slate of policies voters will have no idea what those priorities are and so may opt to hold their noses and stick with what they know.

Then there is the whole issue of his attempt to lead his party in a charge to capture the centre ground. Pledging to govern for all of Britain is like saying he holds motherhood in high esteem and favours apple pie over all other dessert options, effective leadership requires taking a position somewhere other than in the middle of the road and then sticking to it.

Anyway a position on the ‘centre ground’ isn’t worth nearly so much as he and his aides think. Rather than being connected to the pulse of some mythical ‘middle England’ it really means being forever engaged in a flat footed chase after yesterday’s Daily Mail editorial. New Labour tried that and look where it got them.

This hasn’t been a bad week either for Labour or Ed Milliband. There were no embarrassing disputes and Ed’s position as party leader is safe for now. Last week I wrote that the image Nick Clegg’s speech gave me was one of the Deputy PM walking alone along the Brighton seafront at dusk, a forgotten and rather sad figure. This week I tried to summon up one of Ed Milliband standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street waving to the cheering crowds and grinning from ear to ear; but I just couldn’t do it, not yet anyway.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The conference of the living dead

Last week the Liberal Democrats toddled off to Brighton to hold their annual conference and be told by leader Nick Clegg that after two years in government theirs is now a grown up party. One that has made a mature choice between ‘protest and power’ and despite the ‘pain’ involved is sticking by the coalition.

Mr Clegg said of the perception of his party before the last election ‘the received wisdom was that we wouldn’t be capable of making the transition from opposition to government;’ that they were ‘a party of protest, not power.’ Two years on, he asserted, the critics have been proved wrong, the once flaky Lib Dems have had ‘our mettle tested and we haven’t been found wanting.’

He used his thirty seven minute speech to trail policy announcements designed to show what the Lib Dems had brought to the coalition, such as a pledge to ensure the top rate of tax didn’t drop below 45% and an extra £500 in funding for England’s 110,000 worst performing eleven year olds to help them make the transition from primary to senior school. There was also a return for that old favourite the ‘mansion tax’ and the general message was that the Lib Dems had brought some much needed humanity to the Tory quest to conquer the deficit in a single parliament.

Mr Clegg said he was ‘proud’ of how his party had remained ‘focused, determined and disciplined’ as it went about this task, admitting that it ‘hasn’t always been easy and when we’ve made mistakes we’ve put our hands up.’ A cynic might say that they have indeed, usually in order to surrender to the wishes of their Tory partners.

Government had, he said, changed his party and there could be no turning back to the more comforting days of eternal opposition. As he put it ‘the past is gone and it ain’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition, a ‘stop the world I want to get off party, they’ve got plenty to choose from; but we’re not one of them.’ I’m not all that sure the old Lib Dems did want to ‘stop the world’ and get off; they just wanted to make it a little bit fairer.

Anyway the past is just so much water under the bridge and there is a ‘better, more meaningful’ future waiting for the Liberal Democrats if only they can hold their nerve, one where they aren’t just the ‘third party’, but ‘one of three parties of government’; whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Again a cynic might interpret this as a vague promise of an afterlife rather than a vision for the future, but the atmosphere inside the conference hall was probably different. Like being high in the mountains there is less oxygen and so the inhabitants are prone to delusions. Just for a moment even the most hardened of party hacks must have thought things were going to be different.

Only for a moment though, then it will have been back to reality with an almighty splat. The Liberal Democrats are polling below ten percent and have further implicated themselves in the demolition of the welfare system thanks to the announcement made by their leader that he backs the removal of free TV licences and bus passes from ‘wealthy’ pensioners. I don’t know which shocks me more, the flagrant disrespect of the elderly implied by the announcement or the failure of a, so called, liberal to understand that the whole point of a welfare system is that it benefits everyone.

There is something a little forlorn about Nick Clegg these days, he has about him the look of a man who has won second prize in the political raffle only to find out the game wasn’t worth the candle after all. Things aren’t made any better by the fact that he’s been obliged to bring Paddy, now Lord, Ashdown back to oversee the party’s election strategy for 2015, the poor booby might even have meant it when he said ‘I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have by my side.’ Maybe so, but it is hard to think of any party leader who wouldn’t be fatally undermined by bringing back a more popular predecessor in such a high profile role.

Whatever ‘vision’ he was trying to sell up there on the platform all most people could think about was that apology, the one that was even more cringe worthy than the countless internet parodies it inspired. It is hard not to read it as the work of a politician who isn’t so much sorry that he broke a promise as that we’ve all found out how little substance there is behind his style.

Nick Clegg will go down in political history as the man who squandered the biggest opportunity his party has had in a century to bring about real change. He allowed the cynicism of the NO campaign to win during the AV referendum because he childishly refused to share a platform with Ed Milliband, fumbled the ball over Lords reform and, yes, made a fatal miscalculation when he made a pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees that he knew he couldn’t keep.

If this week represented the big chance for the Liberal Democrats to re-invent themselves and stop the slide towards electoral oblivion, then I’m afraid the curse of Clegg has struck again. The whole thing played out in an atmosphere of weary resignation, the party faithful have lost faith in their leader, but haven’t the energy to get rid of him.

Nick Clegg will stumble on until the next election taking, no doubt, countless pratfalls along the way. Afterwards it might be a different story, being forced to resign early in the life of the coalition turns out to have been the best career move David Laws ever made. He’s dodged the compromises made by his rivals and now fully rehabilitated is back and circling the leadership like a hungry shark.

Whatever ‘vision’ he wanted observers to come away from his speech with on Wednesday the only one Nick Clegg has planted in my mind is the, entirely imagined, one of him walking alone along the Brighton seafront at dusk as a mournful saxophone wails; yesterday’s man trudging head down to nowhere as it starts to rain.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Michael Gove- the man who shot GCSE’s just to watch them die.

The GCSE is no more, killed off by endlessly busy Education Secretary Michael Gove, it will be replaced in 2015 by the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc to its friends.

The new qualification will do away with modules, most re-sits and see grades decided by a single exam at the end of two years study. There will be one exam board covering each subject, ending, it is claimed, the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of assessment standards caused by multiple boards competing for business.

In a joint statement made with deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg Mr Gove said ‘We believe that if we remove modules and reduce coursework, get rid of the factors that encourage teaching to the test and, above all, ensure there is just one exam board for each subject, we can restore faith in our exams and equip children for the challenges of the twenty first century.’ Phew! Even for the hyperactive Mr Gove that sounds like a tall order.

Even though more students will fail the new exams there will be, so Nick Clegg seems to believe, no return to the two tier system that operated in the days of O Levels and CSE’s. Speaking this week he said ‘You can raise standards, increase rigour and confidence in our exam system, but still do so in a way that is single tier.’ Really? Good luck with that, personally I think you’ve got more chance of winning the Grand National riding a unicorn.

Criticism of the new EBacc has come from the teaching unions and the opposition. Labour shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said they risked a ‘return to a two tier system which left thousands of children on the scrap heap.’

Chris Keates of the NASUWT accused the Education Secretary of ‘embarking from the outset on a cynical and wholly unjustifiable attempt to discredit the quality and rigour of the GCSE qualification.’ He added that instead of ‘celebrating’ improvements in teaching methods and pass rates he had ‘sought to claim, aided and abetted by commentators, that these improvements are merely the result of a ‘dumbed down’ GCSE that has become increasingly easy to pass.’

That GCSE’s have been killed off or that it is Michael Gove standing over their corpse holding a smoking gun is hardly a surprise; years of fiddling by Labour and Conservative governments had put them on the critical list long ago. What should cause worry to anyone with an interest in education is the way the opportunity to bring about helpful change has been swamped by personal prejudice and ambition.

The sadly inevitable truth about the shiny new EBacc is that it will do more harm than good; every one of the problems it claims to end will in fact be made much worse. For example far from discouraging ‘teaching to the test’ having the success of a whole year depend on the outcome of a single exam will make the practice more not less prevalent.

The focus of the new qualifications is too narrowly specific to meet the needs of further education or employers and totally ignores new subjects such as design and technology and performing arts that are economically important, but don’t fit easily into the confines of a traditional examination. As for vocational education, that has, yet again, been ignored completely by an education secretary who thinks the only measure of intelligence is being able to prattle eruditely in a dead language.

Most worryingly of all the thinking behind the EBacc is that because students all have to learn the same things it follows that they all learn them in the same way; this is nonsense. As a result more students will fail, not because they have been poorly taught or aren’t up to the mark, but because the way they have been tested is too narrowly prescriptive, this is a shocking waste of effort and potential that will coat Britain dear in the long run.

About the only thing the EBacc is good for, it seems, is promoting Michael Gove as the curled darling of the Daily Mail and the sillier sort of Tory traditionalist. Despite loud protestations to the contrary he clearly believes himself to be destined for a higher office than Education Secretary, maybe even, with a following wind, the greatest office of all. That he is willing to squander the chance to do good in order to pursue his own ambition shows that Michael Gove is unfit to hold his present position, let alone climb any higher.


Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell threw a hissy fit when refused permission to ride his bicycle through the security gates into Downing Street by the police. He, allegedly called the officers in question ‘plebs’ and used the sort of language nice people don’t in mixed company. Probably nothing worse that they hear on an average Saturday night, but pretty much beyond the pale in the refined cloisters of Westminster.

Such behaviour is even more unpalatable when acted out by a senior official of a party that spends so much of its time an effort railing against the belligerence and unwarranted sense of entitlement of what Mr Mitchell probably thinks of as the ‘lower orders.’

Since he clearly believes himself to belong to a much higher order of beings his resignation, which has been called for by the Police Federation, isn’t nearly enough. The bounder should be despatched to the library with a loaded revolver to do the decent thing; after all it’s the only way out for a gentleman Mitchell.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg this week made a cringe worthy television apology for getting his party into such a mess over university tuition fees, within hours this had spawned dozens of internet parodies.

Poor numpty Nick, he just doesn’t get it does he? Saying sorry is the easiest thing in the world, everyone from bank CEO’s to ten year olds caught with their hand in the cookie jar do it on a daily basis. Its meaning it that is hard.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Grassroots organisation not a general strike is what the unions need to beat the coalition.

Conference season proper is almost upon us and the TUC raised the curtain this week by voting to look into the ‘practicalities’ of, maybe, organising a general strike in protest at government spending cuts.

Proposing the motion, which was passed with a large majority, Steve Gillian of the Prison Officers’ Association said ‘If this motion is passes, it does not mean we are on a general strike tomorrow, but we should have it in our armoury because this government aren’t afraid to do what they’re already doing to society.’

The motion was supported by, amongst others, Bob Crow, the combative RMT leader, he said the unions would keep protesting against the cuts to raise public ‘consciousness’ but may have to adopt more radical methods. These, he suggested with his tongue firmly in his cheek, staging an ‘organised streak’ through London, with new TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady playing the role of ‘Boudicea.’

On a more serious note he said unions had to have the freedom to strike and that is ‘that means holding a general strike, let’s do it and get on with it.’

Support for the motion was not completely unanimous with the leaders of several unions expressing concerns as to the damage a general strike could do to the public standing of the union movement. Chris Keates of NASUWT said it could ‘risk alienating the general public’; Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned that a general strike would be a ‘gift’ to the right wing press.

As someone who joined a trades union at the age of nineteen I find this a difficult thing to say, but any union seriously considering participating in a general strike is making a serious mistake. Even thinking aloud about the, none existent, ‘practicalities’ of organising one risks handing the media and the right wing of the Tory Party a stick with which to beat the unions.

It would allow both to rehash their favourite stereotypes about the trades unions, namely that they are a collection of out of touch dinosaurs constantly re-fighting the lost battles of the seventies, or agents of a dastardly socialist plot to destroy civilization itself. That these views are both illogical and contradictory hardly matters; the tabloids seldom let inconvenient things like facts or common sense get in the way of a good moral panic.

What should the unions be doing then? When faced by a government seemingly intent on dismantling society in a misjudged attempt to placate markets that could destroy our economy with the flick of an algorithm doing nothing is not a viable option.

What they need to do is employ a little lateral thinking, unsettling their opponents by doing what they’re least expected to. Even if the logistic hurdles of organising one could be crossed a general strike would fail, partly because it couldn’t be sustained for long enough to have an impact; but mostly because as Chris Keates and Mary Boustead both pointed out it would hurt and alienate the very people the unions should be supporting during these hard times.

Instead the union movement should build on the fact that, unlike the Labour Party, it still understands the importance of building a strong membership base and involving them in making decisions. A good start would be expanding the community membership UNITE offers to the unemployed to cover the thousands of people who might not have the opportunity to join a union in their workplace.

This large grassroots membership could then be deployed to support local campaigns to protect threatened services, use its collective spending power to boycott companies the use bad employment practices and to promote a more inclusive approach to organising the economy and the society it serves. Doing so would give the complacent coalition a far more unpleasant shock that any amount of placard waving on the picket line.


On the subject of conference season we are, of course, going to be subjected to the ‘big’ speeches of the three party leaders. Last year they all gave us their diagnosis and cures for the ills of ‘Broken Britain’, the results were either fatuous or forgettable; usually both. This time round expect variations on the theme that we would all be happier and healthier if only we were more like Bradley Wiggins. Am I the only person out there who thinks we wouldn’t be better off copying the American model and having conventions every four years and treating them as nothing more or less than Ra-Ra meetings for the coming election?

Boris Johnson, according to at least one opinion poll is now more popular amongst Tories than Margaret Thatcher, their long time political pin up; Citizen Dave must be shaking in his handmade shoes, then again maybe not. Opinion polls are notoriously fickle, during the last election they showed Nick Clegg as being more popular than Winston Churchill, these days he practically has to go out with a bag over his head so great is the public antipathy towards him. The same thing could well happen to Boris Johnson, were he to land a senior ministerial position never mind the premiership the public would soon tire of his over-rehearsed eccentricity.

Anyone surprised that topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge have found their way into a downmarket French magazine must have spent the pat few years living in a tree. To the bottom feeders in the media puddle everyone; royalty included, is fair game and far from discouraging the paparazzi the threat of legal action will only encourage them to further excesses, scandal is a powerful marketing tool. If things follow the course they look all too likely to Waity Katie might learn to her cost that membership of the royal ‘firm’ wasn’t worth waiting for after all.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Predistribution isn’t the answer Ed.

Another week, another barmy policy pronouncement from a party leader, this time it comes courtesy of Labour’s Ed Milliband. The big new idea in town is, drum roll please, predistribution.

In a speech to the Policy Network he said, quite rightly, that sine the nineties inequality in the UK had grown despite the best efforts of the Blair and Brown governments to reverse the trend. He went on to say that the ‘model of the economy we have and the distribution of income it creates should be at the heart of Labour policy.’ What this means, he added, was that ‘we need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.’

There’s that word again, so what, exactly, does it mean? It describes, according to Mr Milliband, a process of funnelling government money into projects such as creating a living wage and tackling the unfairness inherent in high fuel costs and train ticket prices. All of which is good stuff, but if you’re struggling to see how this is any different from plain old redistribution you’re not alone.

Helpfully Ed Milliband explained it, making reference to the sort of hypothetical supermarket or call-centre workers full time politicians like to talk about because they seldom meet the real thing outside of an election campaign, in the following terms. ‘Redistribution offers a top-up to their wages. Predistribution seeks to offer them more: higher skills, with higher wages – an economy that works for working people.’

The proposals extend Ed Millibands commitment that a future Labour government will encourage ‘responsible capitalism’ and, he said, are about ‘saying we cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being a low wage economy.’ A model that, he added, ‘is neither just, nor does it enable us to pay our way in the world.’

Again there is little to argue with in the broad brush strokes, but the detail skitters away from you like a bar of soap in the bath; perhaps because at the end of the day this is more about posturing than policy.

Anyone who thinks ‘predistribution’ really is a means for making capitalism more responsible is being charitable to the point of foolishness. Like Nick Clegg’s ‘radical’ plans for the tax system there is no substance to what is being said.

For example if Ed Milliband thinks rail fares are extortionate, and I’d agree with him, and that the lack of a high quality public transport system is holding back our economic recovery, why are he and his party unwilling to even think about renationalizing the railways? Doing so doesn’t mean creating a forties style monolith, the railways could, perhaps be run on a co-operative model that gives government, employees and passengers a stake in their success.

If he wants to raise the level of skills amongst British workers to attract high quality jobs to the country then a Labour government will have to invest massively in training for young people and adults. To pay for that investment there will have to be a significant, and ultimately beneficial, redistribution of wealth.

Unfortunately this isn’t about bold policy ideas, it’s about positioning, branding and the sort of nonsense dreamed up in the never-never land of flip charts and focus groups. It’s the sort of thing Blair could have carried off magnificently in his pomp, earnest Ed Milliband can’t make it work and he shouldn’t even want to try.

The most tragic aspect of the whole thing is that Labour have got an open goal yawning before them and seem intent on kicking the ball into the stand. The government are growing more unpopular by the day; the feel good bubble of the Paralympics was burst this week when the crowd booed George Osborne, a botched reshuffle has moved the Conservative half to the right but failed to bring with it any new ideas and nemesis is bumbling towards Citizen Dave in the shape of Boris Johnson.

What Labour need isn’t to find a gimmick; they need to set about forging a connection with the people who are sacred about the future, angered by a government that seems remote and out of touch and who feel the current economic system has sold them a pup. To do so the party has to get back to its grassroots, to organising people locally to fight for a better and fairer society, mangling the English language with dated New Labour nonsense is a blind alley.

They need to look for a model to the Greens, who this week elected no nonsense Aussie Natalie Bennett as their new leader, and are unafraid to talk openly about their beliefs. They’ll never win an election though, says the voice of received wisdom, the electoral system is against them and anyway the media continually writes them off as well meaning cranks.

Their presence though gives anyone with an interest in seeing a more progressive version of politics cause for hope. Not least because the British people are often much smarter than they’re given credit for being; smart enough to realise that today’s crank often turns out to be tomorrow’s visionary.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Clegg says the rich should pay more tax- a real progressive would mean it.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said last week that the rich should pay more in tax to ‘hardwire fairness’ into society, cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Tory turnips and the Daily Mail.

In an interview given to the Guardian he says he wants to make sure ‘high asset wealth is reflected in the tax system in the way that it isn’t now, making sure that we crack down very hard on avoidance, making sure that tax breaks don’t go disproportionately to people at the very top.’

If you think that sounds vague, then you’re probably right, the deputy PM isn’t calling for the top rate of tax to be raised back to 50% and seems to be advocating a revival of the ‘mansion tax’ his party got into such a tangle about a couple of years ago. Then again he might mean something else entirely, depending on which newspaper he’s talking to.

Whatever, vitally important that the policy goes through because ‘ if we want to remain cohesive and prosperous as a society, people of very considerable personal wealth have got to make a bit of an extra contribution’ as part of fighting what he sees as ‘in some senses a longer economic war rather than a short economic battle.’

Crikey! The squawking and hissing you can hear is probably the sound of a not very small cat being set loose amongst a flock of Tory pigeons. Chancellor George Osborne said the government was ‘clear the wealthy should pay more tax’ but added that ‘we also have to be careful as a country we don’t drive away the wealth creators that are going to lead our economic recovery.’ Especially, you’d imagine if they just happen to be generous when it comes to making donations to the Conservative Party.

Anyway George isn’t happy, not one little bit and neither is Citizen Dave; there’ll probably be a bit of an atmosphere at the next cabinet meeting.

Labour aren’t happy either, shadow Treasury Minister Chris Leslie accused Nick Clegg of ‘taking the British people for a fools’, before laying into him for ‘supporting a failed economic plan which has pushed Britain into a double dip recession.’ Quite rightly too since the Lib Dems have willingly toed the ‘austerity’ line since 2010, sometimes, as in the case of Danny Alexander with stomach churning enthusiasm.

In the Guardian interview Nick Clegg defends himself by saying he is ‘proud of some of the things we have done, I actually think we need to hardwire fairness into what we do in the next phase of fiscal restraint.’ He adds that ‘if we don’t do that I don’t think the process will be either socially or politically sustainable or acceptable.’

A senior member of the government getting to his hind legs and calling for the rich to pay a fairer amount of tax, what’s not to like? Almost everything I’m afraid because Nick Clegg didn’t mean a word he said; not one.

This is confirmed by the conspicuous lack of detail making that more of a woolly aspiration than a concrete policy proposal. Then there is the small matter of timing, the Liberal Democrat conference is just around the corner and the party faithful are not please with their leader after another year of u-turns and electoral disasters.

By suddenly ‘outing’ himself as a supporter of a more progressive approach to taxation Clegg is hoping to hang onto his position as party leader. He probably will too since very few people actually want to be captain of a sinking ship.

He has though at least highlighted again the fault-line between the two approaches to how we tackle the current economic crisis and build for the future that will follow it.

On one side of the chasm are the supporters of ‘austerity’, who think that the best thing to do if one round of painful cuts has proved ineffective at getting the economy moving is to embark on another. In their world ‘wealth creators’ will only do their job if bribed to by tax cuts.

On the other is the small, but growing, band of people who realise that we will all have to pay a little more for decent services and social cohesion. That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘soaking’ the rich, just asking them to pay tax in proportion to what they own or earn, under the current dispensation a company director pays less proportionally than a cleaner because he or she can take advantage of, legal, tax planning measures unavailable to other workers.

The former group have people like George Osborne and a compliant right wing media to articulate their case using blood curdling warnings that we might follow the path taken by Greece if we don’t appease the cruel and jealous god of ‘austerity’ at every turn. Those who support a more progressive approach to taxation have, well, nobody really. Ed Milliband, sometimes, sounds like he might do, but then tends to trundle off to ‘review’ policies he hasn’t yet explained to his party or the wider public, confusing pretty much everyone in the process.

The progressives though do have a compelling case, its one that says creating wealth and building a strong and fair society aren’t mutually exclusive. Look, for example, at the Scandinavian countries, they operate on a more socially democratic model and have by and large avoided recession and have happier and healthier societies too.

What’s stopping Britain from following their example? A lack if imagination and political courage. Building a fair society where people are free to create wealth for themselves, but bound by an obligation to use some of it to benefit the common good will be no less difficult than pursuing ‘austerity’; but in the longer term it will pay far greater dividends.

The public are, I suspect, moving inexorably around to an understanding that chasing growth alone won’t cure the problems they see around them, to do that we will all have to work together for the common good rather than individual gain. What they need is a politician with the courage to say so and mean it, Nick Clegg isn’t such a politician, neither is Ed Milliband or David Cameron; so who is?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Elected Police Commissioners won’t extend the franchise they risk damaging it further.

As almost everyone apart from the plan’s boosters in government predicted the forthcoming elections for Police and Crime Commissioners look like being a shambles. With a little over three months to go the public seem either unaware or indifferent to the whole expensive farrago.

Concerns have been expressed about the timing of the ballot, the likelihood of a turnout even lower than the measly twenty percent achieved in most council elections and the large number of ex MPs and government ministers standing as candidates. Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society told the BBC last week ‘It has been a shambles. They have decided to hold a winter election even though we know that drives turnout down.’

A low turnout means that the new elected Police Commissioners will have only a tenuous mandate and so be unable to deliver the radical change most will have promised out on the stump. That such a basic fact of political life seems to have by-passed everyone from the PM down is both surprising and shocking.

Blair Gibbs of the right wing think tank Policy Exchange, also speaking to the BBC, said the new Commissioners would represent and ‘extension of the franchise’ and would put ‘an important executive figure at a local level.’ He went on to say that ‘if Police and Crime Commissioners do their jobs well policing will improve and the streets will be safer.’

In light of the potential lack of any realistic mandate mentioned above the question ‘but what if they don’t?’ begs to be asked; so far I haven’t received a convincing answer.

At the start of the year I wrote that you could judge the lack of value elected Police Commissioners will bring to public life by the stampede of ‘has beens’ rushing to put their names forward to be candidates. Nothing I have seen or heard since has changed my mind, if anything it has made me more concerned about the potential this ill conceived plan has to damage out already fragile franchise.

Everything about it suggests the actions of a political elite so impressed by its own cleverness it blithely ignores the likely consequences. The refusal to provide candidates with a free mail shot as happens in general elections has all but frozen out independent candidates in favour of party funded place people, the media have ignored the elections making a low turnout a certainty.

If Blair Gibbs thinks this is going to strengthen the franchise then he’s employing the magical thinking all too typical of our out of touch political elite and their hangers on. Simply by creating another official to oversee policing, with the salary, pension and perks to match, won’t improve policing or make the streets safer.

To do that the police need to be given the resources they need to do their job and operational power needs to be devolved to officers on the ground. None of this will happen in a force pressed from all sides by government cuts and the spiteful, ill thought out ‘reforms’ put forward under the Windsor review.

As for ‘engaging’ the public, the holy grail of our current political discourse, that could be done better and more cheaply by reforming the existing Police Authorities. Largely by removing a few councillors from comfortable billets and using the funds saved to involve and empower communities.

Police and Crime Commissioners who have been elected by almost nobody and so have neither the mandate or the confidence to act decisively won’t be champions of public interest, they’ll be hostages of the party hierarchy from whom they have received patronage. This will not extend our fragile franchise, it risks damaging it even more.

And Another Thing

Try as I might I can’t work up much in the way of righteous indignation about the antics of Prince Harry.

About the only thing I can think about the ‘scandal’ of his antics in a Vegas hotel room with a bevy of showgirls is that the fact they were the end result of a game of ‘naked billiards’ means that F Scott Fitzgerald was right, the rich are different.

Apart from that it seems like the sort of behaviour you might expect from a not too bright twenty seven year old to whom life has fame, wealth; but no real purpose in life.

A women’s group on Tyneside has called for copies of E L James’s ‘mummy porn’ mega-seller ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to be burnt because it glamorises violence against women. There is a urgent need to draw attention to the horrors of domestic violence, and not just that experienced by women, but this it no way to go about doing so.

Whatever you may think of its literary merits, or lack of the same, E L James’s book no more condones violence against women that the average crime novel condones murder. Both are works of escapism unconnected to the world as their readers know it, by failing to recognise that the group in question is damaging what is an important and too often ignored campaign.

The torch relay for the Paralympics got under way this week; unlike the one for its sister event is has been dignified, unpretentious and mercifully short. There are no dubious ‘celebrities’ involved, no oppressive security measured and the media coverage has avoided undue hysteria. It seems the Paralympics are where the true values of the Olympic movement are to be found.

And finally Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon died yesterday. In an age when the title is applied unthinkingly to people who kick footballs or actors with stunt doubles this quiet, modest and remarkable man showed what a hero is really like.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Plain packets will just make dumb people think smoking is cool again.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is said to be watching closely the outcome of a ruling made by the Australian High Court on the sale of cigarettes in plain packaging. Big tobacco companies down under had contested the banning of all logos from cigarette packets on the grounds that it infringed their intellectual property rights, the high court found this not to be the case and upheld the law requiring cigarettes to only be sold in plain packets carrying graphic health warnings that has been in place since late last year.

Health campaigners in countries including the UK, Canada, India and New Zealand are encouraging their governments to adopt similar rules. In the UK it is expected that the government will eventually given in to pressure from campaigners and introduce plain packets, if only because it will deflect a little of the criticism being heaped upon them for their inept handling of the NHS.

Scott McIntyre, a spokesman for British American Tobacco in Australia said that banning logos from cigarette packets was ‘a bad law that will only benefit organised crime groups which sell illegal tobacco,’ he added that the existing black market in cigarettes would ‘grow further when all packets look the same and are easier to copy.’

I have no great love for big tobacco companies, but I have to admit that Mr McIntyre might just have a valid point. The more draconian laws banning smoking become the more profit there is to be made from selling black market cigarettes and the local spiv is rapidly replaced by the international crook.

Even if that weren’t the case I would still be dubious about the wisdom of only selling cigarettes in plain packages. Like the rule introduced in the UK last year that cigarettes cannot openly be displayed in shops it is predicated on the idea that smokers are idiot children; only they aren’t, they’re ordinary people just like you and I.

Lets be honest smoking is a mugs game and I ought to know since I used to be a smoker. This means that unlike many anti-smoking campaigners I also know what it isn’t and what it isn’t is an addiction from which society must be protected at all costs.

People who give up smoking don’t pass through some horrific ‘cold turkey’ experience to win a moral victory, at worst they feel like they’ve got a bad cold for a couple of weeks. Those smokers who don’t give up aren’t therefore lacking in moral fibre, they’ve just made a choice. Not a very wise one I’d argue; but one they should be free to make and accept he consequences of in the long term.

The hysterical crusade against smoking that began about a generation ago and has seen smokers banished from pubs, cafes and busses and soon from smoking in the privacy of their own cars is rapidly becoming counterproductive. There is a constituency of people for whom anything ‘they’ don’t want you to do has to be exciting just because someone wants you to avoid it. Putting cigarettes in plain packets runs the risk of making impressionable people think a bad habit is a cool one.

Smokers, like dinosaurs, are on the wrong side of evolutionary change and within another generation or so the habit will seem as arcane as taking snuff or believing in witches. This presents a problem for the professionally self righteous brigade for whom the campaign against smoking has provided a platform, if they are given their head and allowed to use ever more stringent laws to curtail the rights of smokers it cannot be long before they turn their attention to everyone else’s freedoms too.

School playing fields are not safer under the Tories.

As if it wasn’t already enough of an embarrassment the government has had to revise upwards its admission of how many school playing fields have been sold off since 2010 from twenty one to thirty. Even worse it has emerged that ministers pushed five of those sales through despite objections from the panel set up to advise them on this issue.

Questioned by the press about the sales by the press last week absurd Education Secretary Michael Gove sanctimoniously replied that school playing fields are safer under the coalition than under the last Labour government.

Labour certainly don’t have clean hands when it comes to the selling off of school playing fields, but the levels of hypocrisy required for ministers to pose with Olympic athletes whilst simultaneously selling off school playing fields are surely deserving of a gold medal. If things carry on like this it’s probably the only one we’ll win.

And another thing

Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton puts on a slinky dress and pouts for the cameras whilst claiming to be a ‘reluctant sex symbol.’ Yes dear and Richard Burton really only liked an occasional sweet sherry after evensong.

For the first time in twenty years the number of students achieving top grades in their A Levels has fallen, for some reason a lot of silly people think this is a good thing. That swishing sound you can hear is the result of a lot of tall poppies having their heads lopped off. Who needs ambition when you can know your place instead?

The Dandy is to go out of print at the end of this year after almost eighty years of entertaining children large and small. Personally I always preferred the Beano or Whizzer and Chips myself, but it is still a shame.

Before he hangs up his Stetson for good I’d like to point out that Desperate Dan with his huge belly, stubble and expression of dim witted belligerence always reminded me a little of John Prescott. Even more worryingly Michael Gove is the spitting image of Billy the Cat.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

When the cheering stops the real legacy of 2012 will start; and it won’t be pretty.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a ‘big cultural change’ in school sports in the UK to instil a more ‘competitive ethos’ and capitalise on the success of Team GB. London Mayor Boris Johnson said something similar about how he could ‘see the benefits of sport and what it does for young people’, only did so with more eccentricity.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC’s ‘World at One’ programme that the government planned to invest £1billion in school sports over the next four years. This initiative was, he said, about ‘empowering teachers, empowering heads and getting an ethos inside schools and particularly when it comes to sport about the role of competitive sport and the values that can give young people.’

Later, when challenged about the sale of twenty one school playing fields sanctioned by the coalition government on LBC radio David Cameron attacked some members of the teaching profession for ‘not wanting to join in and play their part’ and said that too many schools ‘did not want to have competitive sport’ as part of their curriculum. Getting the chaps out playing rugger is a bit tricky though if the big field behind the school has had a Tesco Express built on it, but I don’t suppose that sort of thing happens down Eton way.

Criticism of the government’s sudden enthusiasm for all things sporting came from Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers who said that school sports needed the ‘support of government’ not shifting of the blame for the selling off of playing fields and the huge cuts made to the School Sports Partnership. Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg criticised the government for abandoning the target of providing two hours of PE every week for pupils in state schools and Labour leader Ed Milliband said the government had to do ‘a lot of hard thinking’ about how to keep young people engaged with sport.

When it comes to jumping on a bandwagon the average politician, and the current crop are very average, make Usain Bolt look like the slowest of slow coaches. They’re even quicker off the mark if they can mix shallow opportunism with a chance to exercise their favourite prejudices.

As a result we are treated to Citizen Dave playing, again, the populist card and weighing into stereotypical lefty teachers with an ideological commitment to mediocrity for all. The existence of such people is a right wing fantasy; but a remarkably durable one since much of the press buys into it.

Actually things are a little more complicated. When it comes to funding elite sport the best thing the government can do is hand the cash over to the experts and let them get on with things. The secret of success for so many of Team GB’s gold medal winners is, along with personal determination and technical skill, operating mostly underneath the radar. As a result their successes and failures are way stations en route to their ultimate goal rather than invitations to engage in hysterical optimism or soul sapping introspection, as is often the case with the fortunes of the England football team.

Where the government could and should play a part is in promoting sport in schools and the wider community; at the moment it is failing miserably. However hard he tries the prime minister cannot wriggle out of his government’s complicity in the selling off of playing fields across the country, attacking a teaching profession that has been suffocated by bureaucracy and demoralised by constant criticism is just a cynical attempt to cover his tracks.

While we’re on the point a large slice of criticism should be dropped onto the plate of local authorities who insist on keeping school sports facilities locked up at weekends and during the school holidays. If we are serious about getting more young people playing sport then they need somewhere to do so and coaches to help hone their skills, surely this is a better thing to spend money on that the fatuous nonsense of the Olympic torch relay?

A suitable amount of thought should also be given to the fact that 2012 will be a year with a legacy that has nothing to do with the Olympics. This is the year when the full effects of the coalition’s economic policies began to be felt in earnest, through, for example, in rises in homelessness, mental health problems and terrifying levels of youth unemployment. Far from inspiring a generation we are at risk of abandoning one altogether.

The Olympics have provided a sort of cultural sugar rush, for two weeks Britain has been the centre of the world and our national mood has lifted as a result, but such a rush is always followed by an almighty crash. The economy will still be moribund, our national institutions will still fail to inspire public confidence and our elected representatives will still have no idea what to do.

As golden summer gives way to gloomy autumn the party conference season is fast approaching, it is a sure bet that all three party leaders will find some way of incorporating the Olympic ideals of ‘faster’, ‘higher’, ‘stronger’ into their keynote speech along with a pledge to ‘go for gold’ in the year to come. What they won’t do, even though it is what we need most from them, is provide a convincing picture of how they will restore hope to a country that even though it staged a successful Olympics still grows poorer, more divided and angrier by the day.