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?