Sunday, 29 April 2012

Half of voters not being interested in politics is a problem- but not a surprise

According to a poll conducted for the Hansard Society less than half (42%) of the British public will openly admit to having any interest in politics and only 48% said they would go out and vote were a general election to be held. This shows a fall of nine points in the past year and is the lowest figure recorded since such polls began nine years ago.

Just 24% of the people questioned said the coalition was working well, although this jumped 56% amongst self declared Tory voters, Lib Dems were less enthusiastic with just 27% saying the coalition was working. No surprise really since until the shambles over the budget the lion’s share of public opprobrium was heaped upon Nick Clegg’s hapless crew.

Dr Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society told that voters seemed to be ‘disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged’ adding that if ‘only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of governing’ it ‘must raise questions about the long term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence.’

There is, perhaps, some small crumb of comfort to be drawn from the fact that 56% of people still thought that it was possible to make a difference politically at a local level; until you read on and discover that only 38% said they wanted to be actively involved with local politics.

When we think about a ‘broken’ political system it is easy to picture something that resembles Eastern Europe after the wall came down, or some banana republic where everyone from the bellboy on upwards has a price and isn’t ashamed to name it. The corruption within our system, all those duck houses and bath plugs bought on expenses is very much minor league stuff by comparison.

Our problem isn’t a culture where politicians are on the take; its one where they are taken for granted.

On the one hand you can see why so many people are turned off by politics, the noisy, childish and out of touch antics of many practitioners act as a sort of aversion therapy when it comes to crushing engagement. The moribund state of the three main political parties doesn’t help either , but the fault can’t solely laid at the door of the Oxbridge educated politicians who have done so much to turn their parties into ghost brands.

Like it or not we the, increasingly non-voting, public must shoulder some of the blame. Just as there are ‘census Christians’, people who pitch up at church for weddings, christenings and the odd Harvest Festival when the kids are small, but don’t much want the fuss and awkwardness of actually believing in all that guff we now have ‘census democrats’; people who think voting is important and democracy is a good thing but don’t want the hassle of actually taking part.

In their understanding of politics the council and beyond them the government exist as a sort of amorphous ‘they’ to be called on to solve any problems that might crop up and ignored the rest of the time. This is what has fuelled the rise and rise of what might be called anti-politics politicians, who include in their number the likes of Tony Blair and George Galloway.

Whatever they may tell the public (or themselves) such politicians believe first and last in the inevitability of their ascent to high office, everything and everyone else is just a rung on the ladder to the top. In place of real beliefs or convictions they have a shrewd grasp of the zeitgeist of their particular moment and a neat facility when it comes to performing for the cameras.

They are lionised for a brief period and then shunned by the public they so cynically took in; needless to say the ‘change’ and ‘hope’ they promised never arrives. Real change, dull as the prescription may be, will only come about when the political system itself does more to promote collaboration and consensus.

A little under a year ago the British public fluffed the chance to start building such a system when it allowed itself to be scared into rejecting plans to change the voting system. If we had accepted the alternative vote and begun the much needed discussion about maybe moving to proportional representation it might have allowed new, possibly ‘radical’ voices to join the political conversation whilst tempering what they say with the moderation that comes from having to actually deliver.

Instead the next election will be fought by exhausted parties saying things in which the voting public isn’t much interested. If the Hansard Society conducts a poll in 2015 the days when less than half the public took an interest in politics may seem like a golden age of engagement.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Take to the streets over government snooping plans- just don’t tweet about it first.

People should ‘protest in the streets’ over government plans to increase monitoring of mobile phone calls, emails and web usage. This isn’t a communiqué from the Workers Revolutionary Party or boat race disrupting ‘activist’ Trenton Oldfield; it’s the advice of World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

The proposals to increase surveillance of communications made by suspicious characters such as you and I put forward by the Home Office are set to appear in next month’s Queen’s Speech. It will still, for now, be necessary for the authorities to obtain a warrant to access the content of emails and phone calls, but they will be able to find out who an individual spoke to, how often and for how long.

This is all being done in the name of combating terrorism and organised crime, so we should all stop worrying and let the spooks get on with things. I don’t think so, there is plenty to worry about, not least, as Sir Tim points out, the failure to strike an appropriate ‘balance between respect for human beings and the powers the government is giving itself’ inherent within the proposals.

Speaking to the BBC last week Mr Berners-Lee predicted a ‘battle’ between the government on one side and the vast majority of responsible internet users on the other over access and privacy. He said, ‘we need to fall back on the principle that the government doesn’t have the right to intrude on individual people in their homes and look at what they’re doing.’

He went on to say that people should not take the freedom to use the internet for granted and should make their MPs aware of their concerns and ‘if necessary get out there in the streets waving banners.’

Prime Minister David Cameron denies that the proposals constitute a ‘snoopers charter’ and that they aim simply to help the security services ‘keep up with technology.’ Civil liberties groups, understandably, disagree with this point of view, as does former shadow Home Secretary and Tory leadership contender David Davis, who called the plans ‘an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary citizens.’

Equally worrying are the ongoing attempts to water down the power of the public to access information the government and other bodies would like kept quiet through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The poster boy for this campaign is former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who, along with his good friend Tony Blair, has some awkward questions to answer about the rendition of terror suspects he would quite like the public to be prevented from asking in the first place.

New Labour have very little to be proud of, but introducing FOI is one of the few occasions when they were unquestionably on the side of the angels. Empowering the people to find out those things the government would like to keep hidden may sometimes make things awkward for minister and civil servants, but it does much to bolster a democracy that often feels like it is slowly dying of indifference.

Perhaps in this brave new world of internet surveillance the government should give serious consideration to blocking Facebook, Twitter and the like and replacing them with alternatives that are run directly by GCHQ. Actually when you come to think of it people can get up to some pretty seditious things without having to go online to do so, perhaps the government should ban groups of more than three people meeting together in public places without a MI5 officer in attendance?

The suggestions made above, rightly, sound absurd; but if you enter into the Alice in Wonderland world where the government knows every detail of our lives but keeps its own activities hidden behind a cloak of secrecy that is the sort of mind-set you are taking on. A governing class that treats everyone, including before long its own members, as objects of suspicion will eventually be driven mad by paranoia.

At a time when the government is clawing back benefits from the ill, the elderly and the poor it would be deeply misguided to sanction the huge costs involved in setting up the massive apparatus of snoopers required to put these proposals into action. Even if the money could be found to do so the plan would fail due to the impossibility of monitoring the unceasing babble of internet and mobile phone chatter.

I have always though it rather an anachronism that we still make people knights of the realm, although if, like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, they are willing to have a go at slaying the dragon of state funded paranoia I’m willing to concede that they have their uses. If necessary we should all join him in taking to the streets to protest against government plans to snoop on the way individuals use the internet; but it’s probably not a good idea to tweet about it beforehand, you never know Big Brother might already be listening.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Never mind making mud pies some eleven year olds haven’t even had a childhood.

The National Trust has released a list of things every child should have done by the age of eleven, it is, to say the very least, a little bit Swallows and Amazons. Even so this has been sufficient excuse for a marching corps of columnists to wax lyrical about the joys of climbing trees and making mud pies.

Rather fewer column inches have been devoted to a survey conducted for the Consortium for Street Children (CSC), which showed that four in five Britons are unaware that a hundred thousand children run away from home in the UK every year, many of whom end up living rough. Most people, myself included, associate ‘street children’ with Africa of South America, that sort of thing doesn’t happen here we tell ourselves; only it does.

As Sally Shire, chief executive of the CSC told the BBC ‘whether they are a runaway from Derby or a street child in Delhi the factors that drive children to the streets are similar.’ They include poverty, abuse and addiction and the victims have little or no access to support.

Andy McCullough, UK policy lead for the charity Railway Children said ‘Street children are over-represented in the mental health system, the criminal justice system and there are clear correlations’, they also often go on to experience homelessness as adults.

If the authorities were serious about helping vulnerable young people they had, he said, to ‘go to the streets, the estates, the street corners’, he added, ‘you can’t expect them to reach out to you. This, Mr McCullough said, was not happening because local and national government officials were trying to solve the problem ‘from behind their desks.’

In response an spokesman for the Department of Education said local authorities were ‘responsible for targeted support for families with complex needs’ and that the government was ‘providing funds through the Early Intervention Grant which they can use to invest directly in services to safeguard vulnerable children’ and that they were working with ‘a range of charities and organisations to help them do this.’

Even though we contrive not to ‘see’ them we all know that Britain’s ‘street children’ are there. They don’t beg at the roadside, instead they’re the mob of youths in hooded tops hanging round outside after dark. It is their fists and feet that smash up the property of others because it happens to be in the path of some nameless anger they can’t control.

The poor, and even more so their children, are the ‘poor bloody infantry’ of the type of capitalism Britain embraced in the eighties, forever at risk of being harmed by the stupidity or capriciousness of someone in a, metaphorical, chateau far away from the carnage. It is an old and painfully unjust relationship to which a new and even crueler element has been added. These days government doesn’t try to solve the problems of poverty and social breakdown from behind a desk; it tries to do it through tabloid editorials instead.

This isn’t a new thing, ‘chavs’, ‘feral children’ and ‘sink estates’ have been journalistic clichés for the better part of a decade, but since the riots the façade of objectivity has been torn down. Quite reasonable disgust at individual crimes is used as an excuse to stereotype whole communities as being home to ‘scroungers’ and ‘thugs’ in a show of unashamed prejudice it would be unthinkable to heap upon any other social group.

This is another symptom of a ‘political class’ that is out of touch with the realities of everyday life being egged on by a media that increasingly has little of value to say. The latest wheeze is for MPs tax returns to be made publicly available, this is supposed to make their finances more transparent, but will really just give the media an excuse to fillet the resulting documents for more evidence of public money being spent on building duck houses and renting ‘artistic’ videos for ministerial spouses to watch.

Frankly I don’t much care about politicians building houses for ducks; I want to hear what they’ve got to say about the growing number of children who haven’t got a roof over their heads. I’d also like to see what they say reported and challenged by a media that sets its sights higher than providing celebrity tittle-tattle.

On mainland Europe disaffection amongst people who have been made poor by the recession, particularly the young, is translating into increased support for extremist parties of the left and the right. Here in the UK a sense of entitlement fostered by a quarter century of rampant consumerism has curdled into resentment, anger and as last year’s riots showed occasional outbreaks of violent chaos.

None of this is being reported in the media in anything other than the most simplistic terms and worse still our political leaders don’t seem willing to come out from behind their desks to engage with a rapidly fragmenting society. As a result for too many young people their childhood has more in common with the dystopian horrors of The Lord of the Flies than the soft focus fantasy of tree climbing and den building prescribed by the National Trust.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Schools still failing to bridge the class divide.

Class is the last great taboo in British political discourse. The left daren’t talk about it for fear of sounding envious; the right worry that doing so will draw attention to their largely privileged origins.

As a result we’ve ended up in a situation where New Labour bent over so far backwards to prove they were relaxed about people becoming filthy rich their spine had fragmented long before Northern Rock went to the wall. As for the Tories, the ever more desperate efforts of Citizen Dave and his chums to show us they’re ordinary blokes only serves to convince sceptical voters that if they do eat pasties then they probably have them served up on a silver salver.

Even though her comments about indulgent parents turning their children into ‘spoilt little Buddhas’ provided an easier quote for the media to hang its coverage on Dr Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) deserves praise for raising the issue of class, in particular the ‘toxic’ effect it has on the education system.

Speaking to the ATL annual conference in Manchester this week she said the UK currently has ‘schools for the elite, schools for the middle class and schools for the working class’, what it doesn’t have, she went on to say, is schools with a mixed intake where children from all backgrounds can learn together ‘those intangible skills of aspiration, effort and perseverance from one another.’

This, Dr Boustead said, created a situation that was ‘toxic for the poorest and most dispossessed’ students. She hit out at the impact government ‘austerity’ policies were having on the educational chances for students from poorer families and the claim that schools weren’t doing enough to tackle underachievement.

It was, she said, ‘a lie that conveniently enables ministers to evade responsibility for the effects of their policies’ and that schools were ‘straining every sinew’ to help disadvantaged students get the best out of their time at school, but were fighting a losing battle against the effects of ill health, poverty and deprivation, problems she accused Education Secretary Michael Gove and the government as a whole of wilfully disregarding.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told the BBC that although schools ‘couldn’t be expected to solve every problem’ related to deprivation they should do more to challenge poor performance rather than ‘defending a culture of failure.’

Issues of class, even though it makes us nervous to talk about them, are at the heart of the current chin stroking debate about what schools are for currently occupying so many people who, allegedly, are the owners of first class minds. The one thing they aren’t , Michael Gove tells us with finger wagging certainty, is engines of social engineering, even though he has had his own oily overalls on since taking office.

This, after all, is the Education Secretary who has driven the process of turning schools into academies at breakneck speed; downgraded vocational education to the fury of the business sector and only last week endorsed plans to hand over writing the A Level syllabus to the Russell Group universities. He has also backed endless inane plans to bring back Latin lessons and to make teachers dress up in gowns and mortar boards that serve no real purpose other than to get his name into the papers.

If all that isn’t social engineering then I’m the Easter Bunny.

It is certainly part of a plan to turn the educational clock back to some idealised vision of a Britain where everyone knew their place and the people who worked with their brains were kept separate from the people who got their hands dirty by a Berlin wall of prejudice and thinly veiled snobbery. If reversing at full speed is your plan for the future you’ve got serious problems.

To stand still never mind compete in the twenty first century the last thing Britain needs is to maintain the current situation where intellectuals look down on rude mechanicals; that way lies disaster. What we need is a society where whether they do so with their hands or their brains, or in many cases a bit of both, people work together for a shared aim.

One of the most powerful tools for creating such a society is the education system, the experiences people have at school like those they have in the family home shape the rest of their lives. If that means taxing the rich a little more to make sure children form poor families get an education that allows them to achieve their full potential so be it, in the long term even the people who complain about being squeezed until the pips squeak will benefit.

Being obsessed with class is as much a part of the experience of being British as queuing, warm beer and inventing sports the rest of the world is better than us at, we shouldn’t though hold back from doing all we can to minimise its effect. The most efficient way of doing so term is through schools policy, however for that to happen we need a more sensible engineer at the controls of the educational machinery.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

It’s not just ‘problem families’ who need to develop character.

The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel have identified as part of their investigation into the causes of the August riots 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ who have been let down by the education system and social services. They cite poor parenting and a lack of opportunities for young people from this group combined with ineffective policing as being amongst the causes of the riots.

Chair Darra Singh told the BBC ‘We must give everyone a stake in society. There are people bumping along the bottom, unable to change their lives. When people don’t feel they have a reason to stay out of trouble the consequences for communities can be devastating.’

Amongst the proposals the panel are likely to make when their report if published are for local authorities to do more to identify and support problem families, protecting young people from aggressive advertising and improving relations between the police and the BME community. All very worthy I’m sure, but to get notices outside Whitehall a report has to stir up a little controversy, this one does not disappoint.

For a start the contents have been leaked to Sky News, even though his public position is that this has a negative impact on the panel’s ability to ‘give a voice to the communities and victims of the August riots’ Chair Darra Singh is smart enough to know that if it had stayed under wraps until its official publication the ‘voice’ provided by the report would have probably been stifled. Hence also the inclusion of the suggestion that primary schools should be fined if their students fail to reach the required level of literacy and that schools in general should do more to teach develop the ‘character’ of their charges.

Let’s pick some of this apart, when it comes to heaping blame on schools I’m with David Lammy, MP for Tottenham where the riots began and one of the more lucid commentators on the issue since when he says that is ‘a bit unfair.’ The best, most inspiring, teaching in the world is rendered ineffective if a student lacks application and comes from a family background where education isn’t valued.

Mr Lammy is also right when he points out that many of the rioters were old enough to know better; in fact some of them were old enough to have sciatica and grey hair. As he puts it these were ‘people in their thirties and forties who did not feel they had a sufficient stake in society and were certainly prepared to stick tow fingers up at society as a whole.

The report is right to identify a growing number of families slipping through the societal net, but fatally flawed if it thinks the solution is to ‘do’ something with or to those families to bring them back into line. The solution lies in working with troubled families and communities to give them a sense of agency over their lives, a process that could take decades and doesn’t fit easily with tabloid wails that ‘something must be done’; even if it turns out to be the wrong thing.

I am also somewhat dubious about the idea of schools teaching their students to have ‘character’, not least since there is a risk that some people on the right will interpret that as teaching them to ‘know their place.’

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the report’s conclusions though is that they seem to ignore the wider malaise afflicting our society. Without exception the institutions of our country fail to inspire even the most basic level of trust.

The government is mired in corruption with the chance to have dinner with the Prime Minister being hawked to the highest bidder in return for a donation to the Tory Party coffers. Elsewhere Chancellor George Osborne seems not to have realised that a footling measure regarding VAT on pasties would seem like a tax on the pleasures of the poor to a public enraged by his budget and silly Francis Maude caused widespread panic with his advice that in the event of a strike by tanker drivers people should hoard petrol in jerry cans.

Things are no better on the Labour benches, despite leader Ed Milliband finally seeming to find his feet over the budget the party has managed through a mixture of complacency and an inability to communicate with voters to lose one of its safest seats to George Galloway.

I’m not a believer but I feel deeply sorry for those people who turn to the Church of England for comfort and inspiration during these difficult times only to find that it is too busy squabbling amongst itself over gay marriage, women bishops and a lot of other things the rest of society accepted years ago to notice.

The BBC has all but given up on making the sort of dramas and documentaries that encourage its audience to explore challenging ideas or to take a critical look at the world around them; instead it pumps out antiseptic drivel just like all the other stations. As for coverage of current affairs, television and press alike have dumbed their output down to a level where even the lowest common denominator feels his or her intelligence is being insulted.

The list goes on and as I write it my blood bubbles like lava inside a volcano. Perhaps it isn’t just ‘feral’ kids on rough estates who need lessons in character; maybe our political and cultural elite need a little tuition too.

They need to develop an understanding of the experiences, hopes and fears of the people outside the charmed circle they inhabit. That can’t be done through focus groups and consultations; it can only be done by engaging with the man and woman in the street; especially when they say things you don’t want to hear.

The riots of last summer were an embarrassment for Britain as a country and a devastating blow for communities already struggling with entrenched deprivation. They were also a wake up call to our complacent leaders, if we can’t find a way of lifting everyone up together; then we will all surely go down into chaos together.