Sunday, 29 July 2012

Olympic Tingle? I haven’t felt it yet.

It was hearing a presenter on the usually stolid Radio Five Live prattling on about the ‘Olympic Tingle’ on Friday morning that finally caused me to snap.

I know exactly what he was talking about, that feeling of transcendental joy that is supposed to have descended upon the country the moment the Olympic carnival finally rolled into town. Knowing what he was talking about though it not at all the same as sharing what he claimed to feel.

What I feel for the Olympics, and this probably makes me some kind of heretic, is nothing, zip, zilch, nada. Despite the best efforts of the media I remain determinedly neither shaken nor stirred.

Its not that I don’t recognise that the next month will see performed inspiring feats of endurance and skill, or that the Olympics provides welcome exposure for sports and sports people who are usually pushed out of the spotlight by mediocre footballers.

I’m even willing to concede that some people saw Friday night’s opening ceremony as a thrilling celebration of all that is quirky, warm and brilliant about being British. Although to me it resembled nothing so much as an opium induced nightmare designed by a committee of civil servants.

What I dislike is the corporate Olympics, the ugly carnival of unrestrained power and barely hidden corruption that has muscled its way into London bringing ‘zil lanes’ for Olympic officials and draconian bans on advertising by anyone other than official sponsors with it. It seems both insecure and bullying on the part of McDonalds to have demanded the sole concession to sell chips in the Olympic Park, for crying out loud they insist on calling them fries all the rest of the time then snaffle the rights to out national dish.

Actually while we’re on the point of sponsorship can anyone explain to me why a sporting event is solely sponsored by manufacturers of junk food? It sends out a decidedly mixed message, we want out kids to eat healthily but allow an event with global coverage to be funded by companies dedicated to making them fat.

Equally unappealing is the behaviour of the International Olympic Committee, who insist that their rules take precedence over national law in any country hosting the games. All the better, you suppose, to avoid those against demanding huge bribes in the form of luxury accommodation and the like. To add insult to injury there have already been embarrassing ranks of empty seats at events thanks to members of the ‘Olympic family’, IOC cronies to you and me, who didn’t feel like turning up. A nice slap in the face for all those people who struggled with the labyrinthine procedure to buy tickets only to come away empty handed.

The IOC alone aren’t to be blamed for the foolishness surrounding the games, home grown politicians seem incapable behaving sensibly. What purpose was served by insisting surface to air missiles must be stationed on East End tower blocks, apart, perhaps, from adolescent chest beating? How do politicians who preach austerity to single mothers and the unemployed square this with the £9.4 billion washed down the drain funding the Olympics? Why will nobody stop Boris Johnson from using this as a platform to launch his bid to be Tory leader and maybe even prime minister?

What sticks in my craw most is that the sort of questions asked above, indeed any criticism of the Olympics is instantly drowned out by a chorus of disapproval. How dare anyone question whether or not this really is the best use of time money and expertise? Maybe the ‘Olympic tingle’ is really the after effects of aversion therapy administered to drive off such unhelpful thoughts.

When the Olympic torch relay began I wrote that it was part of a ‘bread and circuses’ displacement activity designed to hide the problems besetting our country. I still hold that opinion now the show has finally moved into the big top.

Nothing will change because we have played host to a major sporting event. The economy will still be in the doldrums, last week the UK slipped further into recession. A generation of young people will still feel abandoned and increasingly frustrated. Worst of all the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble will have no more idea what to do after the circus has moved on.

Instead they will deliver pious lectures about the wrongness of paying trades people in cash and commission surveys on the happiness of the nation. This last farrago, incidentally, scaled heights of fatuousness hitherto unattained by humanity, if you’re poor and live in the inner city you’re more anxious and less happy than if you’re rich and live in the country; who’d have thought it eh?

In my own lefty, liberal way, I am patriotic and want to see Team GB win so many medals that small children think ‘God Save the Queen’ is the jingle that plays whenever someone switches the podium on, but I refuse to see the Olympics as a cure for all our problems.

At the end of the day I feel about the Olympics how W H Auden felt about the moon landings, they are worth seeing undoubtedly, but not worth the cost and the trouble of putting on the show. However many medals we will the problems facing the Team GB of which we are all part will still be there.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

If the IMF is losing confidence in George Osborne why isn’t the PM?

For the second time in a year the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the UK government could fail to reach its deficit reduction targets, as a result confidence in Chancellor George Osborne is plummeting.

The IMF report warns ‘post crisis repair and rebuilding of the UK economy is likely to be more prolonged than initially envisaged’, and goes on to say that ‘looking ahead the economy is expected to grow modestly, but with current policy settings the pace will be insufficient to absorb significant slack in the economy, raising the risk of a permanent loss of productive capacity.’

Not a good position to be in, in fact our prospects look about as bleak as those of a Dodo going internet dating. Government debt is predicted to rise from 78.8% of GDP to 79.9% by 2015/16 and the credit ratings agencies are starting to get jumpy.

This is the point when a sensible chancellor might want to open the file marked Plan B, there’s a problem though; George Osborne hasn’t got one.

As shadow chancellor Ed Balls put it as he called for more to be done to stimulate the economy ‘how much more damage must be done before George Osborne does the most important u-turn of all?’

Quite a lot would be my guess. You might be for turning, so might most sensible people; but not at all curious George just keeps trundling on towards the cliff edge.

Actually you don’t need a report from the IMF to tell you that austerity isn’t working, that it is, in fact, doing serious damage to our country. All you need to do is take a bus ride through any town and look at the boarded up shops, the houses that can’t be sold and the young people aimlessly wandering the streets. All you need is a basic ability to empathise with the experience of the people around you.

Nigel Lawson, a former chancellor under Margaret Thatcher, has criticised George Osborne for retaining his role as the Tories chief strategist, but the problem isn’t one of distraction, it concerns the dilemma facing modern politicians of all parties. How to understand the experience of ordinary Britons living through hard times when you are completely insulated from them yourself?

Never before have there been so many people with first class degrees from Oxbridge in government and yet despite this we are living under the most inept government of modern times. Take George Osborne (please and as far away as possible too) his experience of life outside Westminster is minimal and yet he has pushed through economic policies that will make many people poorer than their parents and their children even poorer still and done so with a smirking self regard that grows ever more offensive.

This might not matter so much, there have, after all, been duff chancellors before, if only he was in fear of losing his own job, but he isn’t. Far from it, our esteemed Prime Minister thinks he’s doing a splendid job. Hardly surprising perhaps since they both seem to be watching the sinking of the British economy with the comfortable detachment of first class passengers who know they will be ushered to a comfy seat in the lifeboat long before their handmade shoes get wet.

Contrary to the glum mantra chanted by the government there is an alternative, cuts to public spending may be inevitable in a time of global economic uncertainty, but they should be made from a standpoint of having clear priorities; not just of doing whatever you can get away with. It is the job of the opposition to articulate the case for such an alternative; the trouble is we haven’t really got one.

Almost two years into the job and Ed Milliband still hasn’t established who he is or what he thinks the Labour Party should stand for. At the moment he seems to want to be something different every other day, a traditional socialist one day standing on the platform at the Durham Miner’s Gala; a disciple of Tony Blair the next as a result despite health poll ratings he says nothing of consequence and in the long term impresses nobody.

This, along with the self preservation instincts of the Liberal Democrats is what will keep the coalition show on the road up to and maybe beyond the next election. There is a huge constituency of floating voters who are increasingly alienated by the current government and might be persuaded to embrace an alternative if one were presented to them in a sensible form.

It is notoriously hard to predict what the electorate wants this far out from an election; but judging by the way things stand I’d say it isn’t more of the same.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

A cruel betrayal dressed up as a reform of social care.

Government attempts to put together a white paper addressing the ‘crisis’ in the provision of social care have collapsed into chaos and bitter recriminations. This is hardly a surprise given the long history of foot dragging on this difficult issue, but still a tragedy for vulnerable people and their carers.

Amongst the proposals made are a cap on the amount individuals will be expected to pay for their care, deferred loans to help pay for the cost of care and national standards for access to care that would allow people to transfer the standard of care they receive from one authority to another; something that has previously been impossible.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley described the proposed changes as ‘ the most comprehensive shake up of social care since 1948’ and said they would mean vulnerable people were able to get ‘the care and support they need to be safe and to live well so they don’t reach crisis point.’ Brave words, unfortunately they ignore one important detail; how all of this is going to be paid for.

The government refuses to give any commitment as to where the cap on care costs will be set or how any of its other proposals will be funded until after the next spending review’ which could be up to two years away. As Labour shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham put it ‘with no answers on money this white paper fails to pass the credibility test.’ As a result, he went on to say, the proposals risk ‘appearing meaningless and may in fact raise false hopes amongst older people, their families and carers.’

Further criticism was heaped upon the proposals by Sir Merrick Cockell of the Local Government Association who said they failed to ‘address the reality of the growing funding crisis’ Richard Humphries of the King’s Fund attacked the ‘financial vacuum’ at the heart of the proposals and Michelle Mitchell of Age UK said the delay on making a decision on funding would have ‘a devastating impact on those currently in need of care and support.’

There is a pattern forming here, can you see what it is? To me it looks very much like another instance of the toxic car wreck of incompetence and cynicism that characterises this benighted government and all its works.

This botched, misleading and at heart deeply cynical set of proposals is a direct product of the sustained attack on the welfare state that has been almost the only discernable aim of the coalition. Two years of thundering tirades about ‘scroungers’ has blinded people to the real purpose of the welfare state; ensuring that everyone from dukes to road sweepers can live and die with dignity.

Nothing else could explain their willingness to put forward proposals that promise help for people struggling to cope without bothering to put together some basic costings. Anyone who thinks that paying for social care will be a top priority come 2014 is frankly living in cloud cuckoo land; with an election around the corner tax cuts and eye catching gimmicks will be the order of the day. Social care may be one of, if not the key political issues of our time, but being important isn’t the same thing as being glamorous.

I could, of course, turn this article into another attack on the ‘wicked Tories’ proving they are still as toxic as they always were; but however cathartic that may be it wouldn’t be accurate. Labour had thirteen years in which to tackle the ‘crisis’ in funding care for the elderly, it also had a moral duty to do so since freeing people from the fear of ending their days in poverty is a core value of the party.

What Labour did though was; nothing at all, apart from commissioning several reports to describe at great cost problems they already knew existed. In this latest round of negotiations their intent seems to have been scoring points rather than making constructive suggestions.

That is a serious mistake, for which the party will pay at the ballot box. The public are uninterested in the manufactured squabble over lords reform, what they want is a party that will set about slaying the ‘giants’ that stalk the fears of modern citizens, unemployment, social breakdown, inequality of opportunity and most of all poverty in their old age.

Rather than flirting, as he seems intent on doing, with the glib marketing expertise of Tony Blair Ed Milliband and his shadow cabinet need to concentrate on bringing people together to fight for fairness and dignity. If they don’t and the current cynical coalition is allowed to stumble on things will only get worse for the young, the old; for all of us.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Auntie has got her man; now she needs some new ideas.

After a selection process even more turgid than the one on The Voice the BBC has finally got a new Director General. His name is George Entwistle and he is currently the corporation’s ‘Head of Vision’, if you’ve never heard of him don’t worry, neither has anyone else.

Lord Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust described him as ‘a creative leader for a creative organisation’. The added that the new DG was ‘passionate about the BBC and committed to its public service ethos,’ needless to say he is a man with a ‘vision’ for harnessing ‘the creativity and commitment of its staff to continue to serve audiences in ever more innovative ways.’

The ‘vision’ thing is hardly a surprise in someone who is the titular head of that nebulous quantity. All the rest though sounds like something of a tall order for one man to carry off.

In his first public statement after being appointed George Entwistle told the press he was ‘delighted that the Chairman and trustees have decided I’m the right person for the job’, then added ‘I love the BBC and it is a privilege to be asked to lead it into the next stage of its creative life.

Does that sound like a passionate innovator speaking? Not really, to me it sounded more like John Major reading a speech written for him by an automatic checkout on the occasion of being made secretary of his local golf club.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to George Entwistle; rising to the top of any organisation is a significant achievement. It’s just that my heart sank when I saw that after all the fuss and chatter of the selection process the BBC had settled, again, for a white man in a grey suit.

I don’t doubt him when he professes his love for the BBC or that Lord Patten is justified in lauding his creativity, but I also can’t shake off the feeling that a safe pair of hands are taking up the reins, at just the moment when that is the last thing the BBC needs. At a time when the idea of public service broadcasting is under threat like never before bold leadership is likely to be of more use than an incumbent who is adept at playing the bureaucratic game.

People refer to the BBC as ‘Auntie’ with varying degrees of exasperation. Like a maiden aunt the corporation has an ability to mix comfortable stoicism with flashes of brilliance, offset by a tendency to misjudge its attempts to be ‘with it’.

The new Director General needs to make the BBC more intimately engaged with the concerns of the moment, to hole up a mirror to the troubled and troubling country we are fast becoming. Too often the current output is more concerned with ticking boxes and avoiding risks than saying something meaningful about who and where we are at this moment.

To survive and thrive the BBC needs to be more awkward, to ask unsettling questions of the establishment and its own audience. That will only happen if it has at its helm a DG, the last such being Greg Dyke, who is able to ‘think outside the box.’ I don’t fancy Auntie’s chances of doing so under a man who looks like he’s just been unpacked from one.

Farewell to a cheerful anarchist.

Eric Sykes, comic, actor, writer and all round genius died this week at the age of 89. I have fond memories as a child of the 1970’s of laughing like a drain at the eponymous sitcom in which he starred alongside the later great Hattie Jacques.

Back then I had no idea that I was watching the work of a cheerful anarchist capable of finding surreally comic gold in everyday situations. By turning reality on its head without ever sinking to crudity or cruelty Eric Sykes managed to be more subversive than a whole regiment of today’s so called ‘edgy’ comics.

I don’t believe in heaven, but if such a place did exist I imagine there must have been laughter in its halls since the moment Eric Sykes arrived.

And another thing

The clever chaps at CERN have finally found the Higgs Boson, aka The God Particle, which makes me wonder what they’re going to do with their Large Hadron Collider now? Perhaps they could use it to look for something really elusive; Bob Diamond’s conscience.

Apparently the craze for American style ‘proms’ has finally got out of hand with helicopter parents hiring real helicopters to ferry their offspring to their big night in an arms race of one-upmanship. The cost is, needless to say, ruinous and I’d like to suggest a solution, maybe they should tell their demanding children that the lukewarm orange squash and meat paste sandwiches we had to be grateful for in our day are part of a 1980’s retro theme.

In his latest loopy pronouncement Education Secretary Michael Gove has accused school governors of being more interested in the status conferred by their position than doing good in the local community. How very different than the way our esteemed politicians behave. Mr Kettle, have you met Mr Pot? You two have got so much in common.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The debate on welfare reform has to be about more than just what to cut.

This week Prime Minister David Cameron announced the launch of a ‘debate’ on reform of the benefit system, Westminster code for trying out the policies his party will take into the next election.

Amongst the suggested changes are capping the amount people can earn whilst living in council housing, linking benefit levels to wages rather than inflation and removing the right to claim housing benefit from the under 25’s. A plan to introduce regional differences in the amount paid in benefits was removed from the PM’s speech, but is still very much on the table.

In a speech launching the debate made in Kent David Cameron said there was something ‘truly awry’ about the benefits system and that it had created a ‘welfare gap between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it.’ This, he said, had created a culture that sends out ‘incredibly damaging messages’, such as ‘That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing,’ causing ‘huge resentment amongst those who pay into the system, because they feel that what they’re having to work hard for, others are getting without having to put in the effort.’

The speech and the ‘debate’ it is supposed to have launched is David Cameron’s latest shot at connection with ordinary voters, that and putting some clear blue water between himself and the Liberal Democrats in order to shore up his precarious position with his own party. It will not work on either count.

The thinking behind his ideas for reforming the benefits system is flawed, young people leaving home and claiming housing benefit to do so aren’t automatically freeloading, they could well be escaping chaotic and possibly abusive families. People claiming unemployment benefit for more than six months aren’t skiving off to watch daytime TV; they might live in places like my home town of Stoke-on-Trent where there are an average of seventy three people chasing every available job.

A comfortably off member of the political elite like David Cameron may not, through personal experience anyway, though you might hope that a professional politician had some capacity for empathy, be aware of such realities. The voters he is trying to talk to are though; often because they are only a couple of pay-cheques away from the benefit queue themselves.

The welfare state indeed ripe for reform, but that will not be brought about by stirring up tabloid style outrage with tales of ‘scroungers’ milking the system. What is needed is new thinking and the courage to put forward new ideas that might, at first, attract criticism but will pay dividends in the long term.

As a means of keeping the more rebellious elements in the Conservative Party quiet talking about welfare reform has the advantage of playing some powerful notes on the political dog whistle. The only problem is it also tends to call home some decidedly mangy policies, the sort of thing that play well with the ‘Turnip Taliban’ but alienate almost everyone else.

The Tories, unlike Labour, are relentless pragmatists, theirs is a party without dogma and taking a hard line stance alone is not enough to save a leader who looks like becoming an electoral liability from the axe. After a bungled budget followed by countless u-turns Citizen Dave is starting to look like just such a liability; he might be finding out what its like not to save a job one day soon.

Time to be beastly to the bankers

Following on from the chaos caused by the computer system at Nat West developing a bad case of the yips and the revelation that traders at Barclays have been manipulation the Libor rate to defraud customers there have been calls for an inquiry into how the banks operate.

This is an attractive idea, but a likely dead end. Any such inquiry would, like the Leveson inquiry into the media, rapidly turn into a dreary talking shop.

The flaws in the banking system, a lack of morality, huge rewards offered for taking insane risks and a near total disconnect from reality at the highest levels of management, are already well known.

The solution is also all too clear; fining banks is an ineffective punishment, in a world where trillions of pounds can be wiped out with a single key-stroke three hundred million is little more than pocket change. It is time for bankers who commit fraud on a grand scale to be brought to trial and if found guilty sent to jail.

And another thing

The Spice Girls are getting back together to promote the musical ‘Viva Forever’ based on their 1990’s hits. This will delight their now thirty something fans, at least it will until they realise their youthful rebellion has become the stuff of corporate nostalgia. Then what they want what they really, really want might be to feel a little less old.

Leaving David Beckham out of the GB Olympic football team isn’t a cruel snub to a national treasure; it’s a rare outbreak of sanity in the mad mad world of football.

If Goldenballs had been serious about being an Olympian he would have spent the past few years plying his trade in the Premiership rather than trotting around in the lucrative mediocrity of American Major League Soccer.

Time and fashion move on leaving those who can’t or won’t keep up in their wake, as the performance of Roy Hodgson’s journeymen showed at the European Championships teamwork and effort now count for more than celebrity glitter. Football might not be coming home; but it might finally have started to grow up.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, died this week and thanks to the resulting press coverage I learnt that the proper name for the last surviving member of a species is an ‘endling.’ This makes me wonder who will be the Lib Dem’s endling as the party stumbles towards electoral extinction; Unloved Nick or Annoying Vince would be my guess.