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.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Labour need to learn that it is policies not poll ratings that win elections.

A poll conducted for ConservativeHome shows that a majority of Tory voters (53%) believe their party will not win the next election. Only 19% believe they will be able to secure a majority whilst 22% see a Lib/Lab coalition taking power in 2012.

David Cameron can take some comfort from the fact that 49% of the respondents thought he should lead the party into the next election, his nearest rival, Boris Johnson polled only 18% and William Hague just 12%, despite nearly two years of frantic positioning Michael Gove didn’t even make the starting grid; poor lamb. In the longer term though Boris Johnson is seen as being the favourite to take over as leader of the Conservative Party if, or when, the position becomes vacant, quite what impact his absurd antics at the Olympic Park this week have had on his standing isn’t clear, but you suspect the Tories will put up with any amount of foolishness from BoJo just to see what he does next.

The news that less than half the people questioned saw the Tories winning the next election should be something to put a spring in the step of Labour leader Ed Milliband, but only a very small one. There is still a long hard pull ahead until the next election and plenty of pitfalls for an unwary opposition leader to fall into.

Anyway, things aren’t quite as rosy as they at first appear; only 20% of the people questioned see Labour winning a majority. A fair enough assessment, public trust in politicians is so low coalition governments could be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.

There is no question that the Liberal Democrats would feel far more comfortable building a coalition with Labour, but there is no guarantee such a situation will come to pass. Many senior Lib Dems currently tainted by their party’s ‘betrayal’ of its principles could survive due to the number of candidates opposing them diluting the protest vote and if UKIP do as well as some people suggest they might, largely by hovering up Tory seats lost thanks to HS2 a three, rather than two way coalition my be a possibility.

To forestall such an eventuality and make itself an attractive partner in the probably post election cotillion Labour must do something at which it has so far failed; produce a distinctive slate of policies. Ones that are sensitive to the underlying concerns of the British people that give a realistic vision of how a Labour government would work with its coalition partners to create a fairer society.

The party’s experiences during the 1980’s, when it regularly led an unpopular Conservative government in the opinion polls, as it does again now, but consistently lost elections, show there is no substitute for strong policies.

Not sitting comfortably; not sitting at all.

The rows and rows of empty seats at Olympic venues is an embarrassment that refuses to go away. Things have become so serious that David Cameron even called a meeting of COBRA, it stands for ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room’ with the A added to make it sound more ‘exciting’ because inside every middle aged politician is a twelve year old boy struggling to get out, to discuss the issue earlier this week.

Being given a free seat at a premier sporting event speaks of privilege; leaving that seat empty though screams of arrogance. It is a problem that extends way beyond the Olympic Village, go to any major sports event and you will see good seats left empty by prawn sandwich munching corporate types whilst genuine supporters are turned away.

The extent to which sport in this country has sold its collective soul to the corporate hospitality industry is a scandal and one that will do long term harm. Corporate hospitality is fickle, executives soon want something new to ignore as they hog the free bar; taking its grubby pound may cost the sports that do so dearly in the longer term.

Britain needs more social housing.

If there is such a thing as a good time to bury bad news then the Olympics must provide the ultimate opportunity for such spadework. That is why the government will be glad the latest figure on homelessness came out this week rather then last.

Figures released by marketing agency SSentif this week show homelessness has risen by 25% in just three years, during the same period the funding to tackle the problem has dropped from £213.7million in 2009 to £199.8million in 2011/12.

Labour have attributed the rise in homelessness to a ‘perfect storm’ of a fall in house building and the double dip recession, the government have hit back by saying they plan to spend £400million tackling homelessness over the next four years and have pledged another £70million in additional funding.

Both sides can bat statistics and accusations around like tennis balls, but it does nothing to disguise their joint culpability. The Tories carry a little more immediate guilt thanks to Iain Duncan Smith’s hasty and cruel changes to housing benefit, but Labour cannot dodge the blame for failing to get councils building social housing during their thirteen years in government.

Now they are in opposition and still desperately seeking a sense of direction Labour could win themselves much popular support by pledging to reverse the foolishness of the past three decades and get councils building good quality housing again.

And finally:

Two comments about the Olympics stood out for me this week. In the first ‘eccentric’ former sports commentator David Icyke described the opening ceremony as being ‘satanic.’

Another David, our own dear PM this time, said that the success of Bradley Wiggins et al was down to his having sat in the magic wishing chair and, er, wished for it, whilst on a recent visit to Ireland.

The worrying thing is it was David Icyke who was joking.