Sunday, 27 January 2013

Shifting the deckchairs on RMS Europe as the iceberg approaches

The delivery was delayed by the Algerian hostage crisis but David Cameron finally gave his much trailed speech on the future of Britain in the European Union this week. As is often the way with the pronouncements of Citizen Dave it stirred up a fresh set of problems.

Amidst much waffle about giving the British people ‘their say’ and this being a moment of ‘destiny’ he pledged to hold a referendum on our continued membership of the EU in the event of a Tory victory in 2015. This will be based on a renegotiation of the terms of our membership, a process that could take two years or longer.

The reaction from the yokels inhabiting the Westminster village was immediate and mostly horrified. A Labour spokesperson said that making any referendum dependent on a Tory election victory and a renegotiation of our membership terms would put the country through ‘years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy.’

Labour leader Ed Milliband went even further, saying during Wednesday’s PMQ’s that he opposed the holding of a referendum altogether. A position he later had to back-peddle away from with the speed of a hyped up Lance Armstrong.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a former MEP, said there was a ‘right time’ to hold a referendum, but that creating ‘years of uncertainty because of a protracted renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest.’

Even Angela Merkel, the evil genius behind the whole European Union if you read certain newspapers and the Chancellor of Germany to everyone else, got in on the act, saying that she would ‘listen’ to Mr Cameron’s plans for renegotiation. Listening, of course, is not anything like the same thing as actually taking any notice.

Her foreign minister Guido Westerwelle took a more robust line, saying that the UK couldn’t ‘cherry pick’ the terms of its membership of the EU, likening Europe to a football club saying that ‘once you join you can’t then say ‘let’s play rugby.’

Since the speech was made there has been no end of carefully worded attempts to suggest the prime minister wasn’t really saying what he seemed to be saying and that he wants Britain to stay in the EU; none of which were at all convincing. As Nigel Farage put it the ‘genie’ of whether or not we stay in the EU is out of the bottle and he seems to have granted the UKIP leader all three of his wishes at once.

UKIP might not win a referendum, but leading the campaign will generate much needed publicity and allow them to make trouble within the Tory party; happy days indeed, let the mischief making commence. Actually can’t we stop it before it starts?

On one level I’m almost looking forward to watching a Conservative government tear itself to pieces over Europe, the last time this happened during the nineties the resulting farrago was hugely entertaining. Unfortunately though these are less kindly times, the UK is staring a ‘triple dip’ recession in the face that could make the shocks and scares of the past few years seem like a walk in the park.

Europe, like reforming the voting system, is an issue with a near magical power to bore the electorate rigid. Any referendum will, like the one on the alternative vote in 2011, inevitably present itself to the public as an undignified squabble amongst the political classes punctuated by celebrity stunts and occasional instances of outright hysteria. They will ignore it in droves, meaning that as a result a decision that could shape our place in the world for decades will be taken by a handful of people most of whom have an axe of one kind or another to grind.

The European Union as it is now, with its parliament, pretensions towards a foreign policy and legions of bureaucrats probably won’t be around ten years from now. If it is to survive at all it will have to become a much looser organisation focussed on trading alone that allows members to act autonomously or collectively as the situation demands.

Dragging a mostly indifferent public to the polls to vote on whether or not we stay in Europe an attractive displacement activity for a governing class that refuses to engage with the problems we face socially and economically. The triple dip recession, if it arrives, will hammer communities across the country into the ground and yet David Cameron and his cabinet of the complacent trundle blithely on towards disaster.

Remember next time a well fed politician with a starred double first in PPE from Oxbridge talks at you about the necessity of taking ‘tough choices’ that their own default choice is to always do whatever seems easiest at the time; usually with disastrous consequences.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Pots, kettles and an unseemly squabble about expenses

Conservative Party co-chairman Grant Shapps has attacked a report calling for the allowances paid to councillors to be increased as a way of encouraging more people to take part in local politics as a ‘cynical and sleazy’ attempt to benefit Labour.

The report was produced by the communities and local government select committee, chaired, you might have guessed, by Labour MP Clive Betts. Amongst other things it recommends that political parties do more to support councillors and that the Local Government Association’s ‘Be a Councillor’ programme be expanded.

Mr Shapps condemned the rules obliging Labour councillors to pay part of their allowance to the party, saying that ‘local taxpayers’ would be ‘shocked to learn that the Labour Party will be quids in from demands for more taxpayer’s money to be used fro councillor’s allowances.’ In my experience many local taxpayers would be shocked to learn they’ve even got a councillor so low have levels of political engagement sunk.

Clive Betts refuted these claims saying the committee had found politicians ‘achieve more when they work together’ and the public were turned off by ‘shallow point scoring.’

Quite so; which means he probably wasn’t all that glad to see Labour Party vice chair Michael Dugher riding to his defence by, erm, scoring a few cheap political points; oops.

He laid into the Tories, accusing them of ‘hypocrisy’ and drew attention to Tory councillors in Walsall who had recently voted to increase their allowances. Warming to his theme he asked if ‘Grant Shapps will now call on Conservative councillors to hand back their allowances.’

The phrase ‘calm down dears’ springs instantly to mind; this seems like one of those squabbles between the kettle and the pot that nobody ever wins, but manage to leave all concerned looking foolish. No wonder the public find such things a turn off, I’m inclined to reach for the off switch myself and I’m actually interested in politics.

There is clearly something rotten in the state of local government, turn-outs at elections are dwindling, it’s ever harder for parties to find willing candidates and those who do come forward are seldom of high quality. I’m not sure that simply paying councillors more is the answer though.

A straightforward rise in the level of allowance paid coming at a time when most councils are cutting services to the bone would be deeply unpopular. Trying to sneak some extra cash in through the expenses system is a non starter too; that was tried years ago when MPs were, relatively, underpaid and created the culture of fiddling that caused such a scandal in 2009.

The idea that the three parties should do more to support their councillors is not an entirely good one either. They can certainly provide the training needed to make a good councillor into an outstanding one; but the downside is that it will further wrest control over who gets to be a candidate in the first place from the hands of local activists.

This will result in the mavericks, the paid up members of the awkward squad who seem like trouble makers at the time only to be proved right a few years hence being pushed even further to the sidelines. Their place will be taken by the eager battalion of men and women with elastic principles for whom the town hall is just a stepping stone to Westminster. All of which is just about the last thing out sickly local government system needs right now.

What is needed isn’t the sort of mild reform proposed by commons select committees so much as a total transformation in how local government works. A new deal where power over who stands as a candidate is returned to grassroots party members, with the trade off being that any allowance beyond what is needed to cover loss of earnings disappears. Councils need both the money saved itself and the influx of people for whom politics is a calling not a lucrative sideline.

Sadly none of this will come to pass because the three main parties long ago turned themselves first brands and then ‘ghost brands’ kept alive by a trickle of votes when what we most need them to be is agents of real change.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Farewell to a rebel with a cause.

On Thursday of this week as a cold front swept in from the East and the weather forecasters did their best to make our collective flesh creep with threats of snow the news came through that a brilliant, sometimes difficult, but, I think, genuinely good man had died.

His name was Mick Williams and he will be unknown to most people outside either the Labour movement or the political scene in Stoke-on-Trent, although readers of the Guardian, Tribune and the Local Government Chronicle may well be familiar with the letters combining informed comment and often surreal humour he contributed to those and dozens of other publications.

I could tick off the achievements of his long career, three times elected to Stoke-on-Trent City Council, a holder of every branch and constituency office in his local Labour Party, a leading light of the WEA and the Trades Council, the list goes on; but I don’t think that explains why whether you knew him or not you should be saddened at his passing. This is because Mick Williams didn’t have a political career so much as a political calling; the difference between the two is important.

Politics, national or local, has always attracted its fair share of charlatans and they fall into two broad categories. There are the determined ladder climbers, ‘back stairs crawlers’ a George Orwell called them’, who believe in very little beyond the inevitability of their rise to greatness; there are also those who style themselves as ‘rebels’, making a lot of attention grabbing noise but taking very few real risks.

There is also another, much rarer sort of person drawn to politics; those for whom it is a sort of faith, providing them with principles they are not willing to abandon in the name of expediency. Mick Williams belonged to this latter group, at times this could make him difficult to work with; but it was also the source of his brilliance.

If he sometimes stood too stubbornly on points of principle or chased lost causes he also had an awkward, for the holders of vested interests, determination to stand up for what he believed was right. Nobody else could have galvanised the campaign to rid Stoke-on-Trent of an unworkable mayoral system or been more shamefully treated by the party he served for nearly half a century as a result.

It was this rejection by a Labour Party he felt had lost touch with its true principles that prompted Mick’s last; unsuccessful attempt to win election to the council in 2010. I had the honour, I don’t use the word lightly, of working closely with him during this campaign and came to be impressed by his remarkable energy and the passion with which he sought to engage a jaded public with political issues.

The energy faded as ill health slowly took hold, but the passion for politics remained undimmed to the end. Just before he went into hospital for the last time I spoke to Mick on the phone and he told me that he was still ‘pushing’ the council on several issues and we agreed to meet and lay our plans when he was discharged. It was not to be and those of us who knew him will miss his wise counsel, his irreverence in the face of pomposity and his untiring commitment to building an honest, open and inclusive democracy.

Dylan Thomas famously wrote that the old should ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ meaning the dying of the light of physical potency. Throughout his remarkable career Mick Williams raged against the dying of an equally important light; that of a democracy threatened by the ambition of cynics with careers to build and principles to jettison the moment they start getting in the way.

Those of us who knew Mick Williams and want to honour his memory could find no better way of doing so than raging in the same cause ourselves.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

A new year and the same old problem over tuition fees

It’s a new year, the season for cold mornings and new resolutions to be thinner, fitter and more sober in the year ahead. Along with these comes the return of an old familiar problem, how to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university.

The government isn’t making much of fist of things at the moment thanks to its decision to raise tuition fees to £9,000. A fact attested to by a report from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) which shows the number of applicants having fallen by 6.6% to 653,600 with 188,700 of those prospective students failing to secure a place.

Labour shadow higher education minister Shabana Mahmood told that the government’s policy on tuition fees had ‘put a brake on aspiration and has led to people considering applying for university to decide against doing so at precisely the time that higher level skills have never been more important to secure their future;’ before going on to add that this was also ‘holding back the potential’ of the UK economy.

The UCAS report says that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are 10% more likely to attend a ‘high tariff’ university; ministers have used this to claim that the poor are not being hit disproportionately by higher tuition fees. The report also shows that more females than males are applying to go to university with white working class males the most likely to miss out.

Mary Curnock, chief executive of UCAS said this trend was ‘striking and worrying’ and that the financial burden of going to university was putting off many prospective students. Sally Hunt of the Universities and Colleges Union said that ‘fewer students at university represents the failure of the government’s higher education policies;’ adding that ‘if we are to open up access to university to our most talented people we need to remove punitive financial barriers.’

Defending the government’s position higher education minister David Willets said that he expected the total number of students going to university to be higher than in any year since 2010. Where we groundlings see only a wilderness of contracting opportunity Mr Willets sees the sunlit uplands of the Promised Land; you clearly get a better class of view when looking down from an ivory tower.

The waste of potential is always tragic; when the potential in question is that of young people it is positively criminal. David Cameron and his ministry of almost no talent whatsoever seem content though to watch that happen, blithely unaware of the impact not going to university will have on the health and economic outcomes experienced by millions of young people.

University admissions aren’t, of course, the only game in town, the chronic lack of apprenticeships and the slow death of Britain’s FE colleges from a thousand tiny cuts are cause for concern too; but they do grab the lion’s share of media attention. Not least because children growing up in leafy suburbs are being priced out of a university education too and their parents are angry and articulate enough to make things uncomfortable for David Cameron at the next election.

A bad situation is made much worse by the fact the education policy seems to be trapped somewhere between the rocks in David Willets head and the hard place occupied by Michael Gove’s ambition.

Willets has allowed his considerable intellect, he revels in the nickname ‘two brains’, to make him complacent. He simply can’t conceive of the notion that someone so clever as he is could make a mistake about raising tuition fees; by the time events prove him wrong it will probably be too late.

Michael Gove, a k a the busiest man in politics, seems intent on wrecking schools with a mixture of misplaced nostalgia and deranged ambition with a little pure eccentricity sprinkled on top. This is the man who wants to bring back lessons in Latin, turn the history curriculum into a replay of the ‘drum and trumpet’ one abandoned in the sixties and sent a copy of the King James bible to every school in the land within which his name appears in larger print that that of either King James or the lord god almighty himself.

Important issues like tragic levels of illiteracy amongst pupils going up to primary school and the lack of decent vocational courses don’t even make it onto his radar. His every action since taking up office has been an overt play to win the approval of the Tory turnips he thinks may one day help him to win the party leadership he so unconvincingly pretends not to want.

Just before the conference season lumbered into motion we all had a good belly laugh at Nick Clegg’s apology for opposing tuition fees during the election campaign only to go back on his word once in office. Looking back from a few months hence the delivery still seems laughably inept; but its beginning to look like was demonstrating a rare hint of conscience on the part of a senior politician.

The education system is being slowly wrecked by people who either don’t know or don’t care how much harm they are doing. Schools are being transformed into places that teach young people to know their place rather that opening their eyes to what they can achieve through hard work. The universities are going back to being a glorified finishing school for Sebastian Flyte and his chums while a generation of doctors and engineers we’re never going to have flip burgers or draw the dole.

Some day soon this will make us all as sorry as Nick Clegg was pretending to be in his laughable video; but by then nobody will feel much like laughing.