Sunday, 28 July 2013

Naughty Weiners, royal babies and bishops bashing Wonga

British workers need more than just ‘platitudes’ from politicians if a living wage is to be introduced, so says not Red Ed but Dr John Sentamu; otherwise known as the Archbishop of York.

Writing in the Observer last weekend the combative cleric said the ‘scale of low pay in Britain is a national scandal’, he went on to call for more to be done to help those workers who earn above the minimum wage but still can’t afford a decent standard of living.

The idea of introducing a living wage, set at £8.55 in London and £7.45 for the rest of the country, has attracted honeyed words from all three main parties, but these have not been backed by much in the way of action. In his article Dr Sentamu writes that ‘what workers need is pay not platitudes’, adding that too few employers have ‘stepped up to the mark’ in terms of fair pay; go get em Bish!

Not to be outdone Sentamu’s boss, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, laid into high street loan company Wonga a couple of days later saying that he wanted to use church run credit unions to ‘compete them out of business.’

Dr Sentamu is set to chair the Living Wage Commission which will campaign for the introduction of a living wage across the country. The strongest argument at his disposal will be that if introduced a living wage would save government £4billion in support for low earners and boost the national income by £6.5billion, with a corresponding knock on for consumer spending.

Ok Justin Welby had to wipe a bit of egg off his face with the hem of his bishop’s robes when it emerged that the Church of England had invested money in Wonga, but once again it is leading religious figures who are setting the agenda when it comes to tackling social issues.

The politicians seem to have painted themselves inextricably into the austerity corner, leading to some very odd positions being taken. For example the Tories want to make work pay in order to reduce the number of people claiming benefits, how exactly is that going to happen without the introduction of a living wage?

As for Labour they persist in the belief that willing complicity in the savaging of the welfare system will make them more electable; it will do noting of the sort. Backing a campaign to give the sort of people their party was created to fight for the confidence and security that comes from working for more than survival just might, what a shame not so Red Ed and his team are incapable of recognising a golden opportunity when they see one.

I’m not one of their flock, but having troublesome priests like Justin Welby and John Sentamu around is cause to sing hallelujah.

A poll conducted for GP’s trade magazine Pulse found that 51% of its readership supported the idea of charging patients a small fee of £5 to £25 for a routine appointment. If so they risk sending the NHS down a very dangerous road.

The logic, such as it is, behind the proposal is that charging a small fee will reduce the number of ‘unnecessary’ appointments and the workload placed on GP’s. All well and good until you remember that, as doctors are continually telling us in endless health awareness campaigns, even the most minor symptom could be a sigh of a major illness, so how exactly so we mere patients to know when our trip to the quack is unnecessary?

What will happen is that the poorest and often sickest people will be priced out of seeing their doctor, rich hypochondriacs however will happily pay to see the doctor and expect far more from him or her because they are paying. This situation where the rich get treatment and the poor stay sick is what the NHS was created to prevent, allowing it to return could spell the beginning of the end for universal free healthcare.

Anthony Weiner, a candidate to be mayor of New York m’lud has been caught, again, sending intimate photographs to women who aren’t the remarkably tolerant Mrs Weiner. Weiner, a former Congressman has form in this area and has faced calls to withdraw from the mayoral race.

Sex scandals need not necessarily be the kiss of death to a political career, consider the case of our own dear Boris Johnson, a tendency towards self sabotage always is though.

Bo-Jo rode out the media fuss about his affairs with a charm and aplomb that enhanced his appeal to voters in London. Weiner by contrast looks and sounds like the saddest sack on the truck, his sole motivation for entering public life seems to be to provide a stage on which to make regular pratfalls. It would be much kinder if he were allowed to return to the obscurity he so richly deserves.

And finally it is impossible not to mention THAT baby, Prince George Albert whatever.

As the nation alternately cooed and fawned around the royal Moses basket I couldn’t help thinking the poor mite doesn’t know what he’s in for; a life of wealth and privilege undoubtedly, but one marked by intrusive media interest and suffocating protocol too.

Add to this the knowledge that like his father and grandfather before him he will probably spend decades waiting to take on the only role open to him and Prince George might come to wish he’d been born plain old Mr Windsor instead.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Kids need to learn more than just how to compete.

Primary school children in England could be ranked against each other based on test scores at the age of eleven under a government plan put out for public consultation last week. Unions representing head teachers have called the plan ‘disappointing and destructive.’

Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers told the BBC that the ‘majority of teachers are unhappy with the need to rank students by ability’, there was, he added, a risk of students being ‘pigeonholed’ for the rest of their school career by results achieved at the age of eleven.

Under the government’s plans SATS scores would be used to divide students into ability bands of 10% with a tougher minimum level for achievement in place for schools to meet or risk triggering an Ofstead inspection. For example the current target for maths SATS is 60%, the government considers this to be too broad and lacking in ambition and so intends to raise it to 85%.

The tiny carrot being dangled in front of schools as they face yet more stressful and time consuming tests is an increase in the pupil premium, used to support disadvantaged students from £900 to £1,300 in 2014.

Speaking to the BBC deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg dismissed the concerns of the head teacher’s union as groundless, saying the government wasn’t ‘going to publish a name and shame league table.’ Well not unless there is an outside chance of their getting a positive editorial in the Daily Mail by doing so anyway.

He went on to say he made ‘no apology for having high ambitions for our pupils, but for children to achieve their full potential we need to raise the bar in terms of tests, pass marks and minimum standards. I am confident that primary schools and their pupils will meet the challenge.’ Gosh I hope they do Nick; after all we’re only playing with kid’s futures here, so no pressure then.

If you ever needed one this is a perfect example of why politicians should separated from the education system by an electric fence and maybe a couple of minefields too. Only a politician could come up with such a determinedly cynical plan and be so wilfully blind to its inherent dangers.

This whole sorry farrago plays on the nonsensically nostalgic idea that everything in the educational garden was rosy when we had the 11 plus. Back then everybody knew their place, the sheep and the goats were kept rigidly apart and if talent was often criminally wasted that was a small price to pay for certainty.

Nick Clegg and the other boosters for this dangerously retrograde idea don’t seem to have grasped the effect labelling a child a ‘failure’ at the age of eleven, a sure consequence of placing in one of the lower tiers, can have even if you tie yourself in semantic knots trying not to use the word. It blunts their aspirations, makes school a place they are kept against their will rather than an opportunity to learn and grow.

Incidentally anyone who thinks this proposal will put an end to grade inflation is laughably wrong. If schools feel their future, or, come to that, the government finds the rigour it has clumsily tried to programme into the system has pushed grades down too far in an election year; the foot pump will come out quicker than you can say hypocrisy.

This radical change, which is really nothing of the sort just the same wearisome regime of endless tests that’s been around for the past two decades with a fresh coat of paint, is so unnecessary. It will only produce the same results as before, meaning kids trooping out of school with a pile of GCSE’s only for employers to complain they lack the ‘soft skills’ necessary for work and university academics to grind their teeth over having to spend the first year of a three year degree course teaching their students how to think.

This isn’t a plea for a return to soppy notions of ‘child centred’ education, mastering facts rather than finger painting is the route to success; but when test results are given undue importance everything else tends to get pushed to one side, and that is seldom a good thing.

What gets lost is things like learning to work as part of a team, self confidence and an ability to value skills that can’t be measured by pen and paper tests. These are exactly the skills the UK needs to compete and they’re what we’re throwing away.

If politicians wish to understand being competitive as clawing everyone else out of the way as you climb the ladder to the stars so be it, that’s down to the nature of their profession and the sort of people attracted to it. It is wrong and potentially disastrous though to foist such foolishness on the next generation of working people.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The big three parties are dead- one in five Tories can’t be wrong.

There is a rumbling in the shires, trouble in the Tory heartlands. The Turnip Taliban are lacing up their sensible shoes and getting ready to go on the warpath.

According to a poll of eight hundred grassroots members of the Conservative Party one in five are seriously considering voting for UKIP at the next election and fifty three percent said they did not feel respected by the party leadership. Unsurprisingly a large proportion didn’t care for gay marriage (59%) and even more (67%) were unhappy about the ring fencing of the foreign aid budget.

David Cameron and his chums probably won’t have been all that shocked by those results, if nothing else an Eton and Oxbridge education gives you the ability to work out what bears get up to in the woods. They might though have been a little more discomforted by the fact that forty four percent of the members polled said they spent no time at all on party activity, out of those who were still active thirty nine percent said they were less active than previously.

I could spend the rest of this article having a whale of a time going on about Tory stereotypes sitting in their crumbling country piles harrumphing that there was no youth crime when we still had transportation and that the BBC, apart from Radio 4 obviously, is a communist plot. Thing is though this isn’t really a laughing matter; not one little bit.

It’s inconvenient for David Cameron because if he can’t enthuse his own party members to go out and campaign he has little chance of getting the country to go blue again. For anyone who cares about democracy though it’s as serious as an unexpected shadow on a routine x-ray.

The Tories might be the party in the spotlight but were the same poll to be conducted amongst Labour or Liberal Democrat members the responses would be identical. All three main parties are dead brands trundling along to nowhere on the last of their momentum.

In the past I have likened being active in politics to going to church, an activity carried out by enthusiasts that either bores or bemuses most of the public. That isn’t quite correct, the church, through its links to powerful ideas about birth death and personal growth, will always have an, admittedly much smaller nowadays, steady flow of people who have surprised a desire in themselves to be more serious flowing through its doors.

Politics could have a similar pull, one linked to notions of fairness and striking the right balance between tradition and change, but the three main parties that are its gatekeepers have allowed it to wither. As a result their own membership is in freefall and their sense of purpose is burning away faster than morning mist during a heat wave.

Tame focus groups have taken the place of an engaged if often awkward membership and the dark arts of spin and triangulation have replaced ideas around which people can rally. The result is three parties that look the same and say most of the same things, none of which resonate with a bored and cynical electorate.

The best case scenario if the three main parties are determined to consign themselves to history is that smaller, more communitarian parties like the Greens might fill the resulting void. Trouble is along with them might come less kindly political forces like the BNP and a parade of chancers and charlatans out to grab a piece of the action.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum; what fills the space left by the three main parties might be much worse than what went before.


It could be curtains for the long summer holiday as the government prepares to give schools the power to set their own term times. The teacher’s unions are not best pleased, making all the usual noises about their members needing to ‘recharge their batteries’, although I doubt they will attract much public support for retaining what most working people will see as a perk. Anyway they have a bigger battle to fight against the unbalanced and unworkable reforms to the national curriculum Michael Gove is determined to push through at all costs.

The normally sensible New Statesman got all excited about Ed Milliband’s plans to reform the relationship between Labour and the unions calling his plans a brave step towards modernisation. I’m not so sure, the system for having union members ‘opt in’ to having part of their membership fee donated to Labour seems overly complicated and could lose the party millions of pounds at a time when it is all but bust. If not so Red Ed emerges from this looking anything other than weak I will be more staggered than the Staggers.

The government is likely to withdraw its plans for forcing cigarettes to be sold in plain packets and a minimum price for alcohol, this is a rare, but welcome, hint of common sense. Putting a minimum price on alcohol won’t deter hardened boozers it’ll just penalise sensible drinkers; plain packets like blood curdling health warnings just make smoking look like a cool and dangerous thing to do to silly people. The best way to promote sensible drinking is through community pubs where the emphasis is on convivial fun rather then soulless ‘vertical drinking’; if you want to make smoking genuinely un-cool with the kids, then treat it like the unpleasant but legal habit it is not like a threat to society.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Taking a big pay rise could cost MPs public trust.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is to recommend that MPs be given a pay rise of up to £20,000 after the next election.

All of a sudden IPSA, an organisation not previously much loved by honourable members because it required the poor dears to file their expenses like ordinary mortals, is the toast of the house. In a YouGov survey carried out earlier this year two thirds of the MPs questioned said they were underpaid, they favoured raising their salary to £86,000; this is unlikely but thanks to the nice people at IPSA a rise to £75,000 looks likely.

Unless, of course something truly unlikely happens to derail the gravy train, like the party formerly known as Labour winning the next election. If that happens Ed Milliband has pledged to call on MPs to accept a rise of just 1%, adding a measly £850 to their salary.

This has hugely annoyed commons Speaker John Bercow who told the Mail on Sunday he didn’t want MPs pay used as a political football. He went on to say that party leaders mustn’t ‘do what they have always done, the generals have always abandoned the troops and engaged in a Dutch auction to appease the public by saying ‘well of course I won’t take a rise, I will tell my colleagues they shouldn’t take a rise.’

The cheek of it; politicians responding to public concerns and not feathering their own nests during a time of economic hardship; anyone would think this was a democracy.

In a rare moment of unity David Cameron and his minion Nick Clegg have both spoken out against a pay rise for MPs. The deputy prime minister told the public would find such a move ‘impossible to understand’ and that he ‘wouldn’t be able to support a recommendation like that.’

Speaking to the press during a trip to Pakistan David Cameron said the IPSA recommendations were, if correct, ‘unthinkable’; adding that ‘anything would be unthinkable unless the cost of politics was frozen and cut’ and that he had told IPSA that ‘restraint is necessary.’

Unfortunately for the reputation of politics in the UK the final decision about whether or not MPs get a pay rise doesn’t rest with the PM or any other party leader, something Nick Clegg alluded to in a soggy coda to his ringing denunciation of the IPSA proposals by saying it was ‘up to individual MPs to decide.’

This is a far from ideal situation, but also one that provided an opportunity for MPs to show their moral mettle. They could grab for the brass ring, take a rise to £75,000 and sacrifice public trust on the altar of instant gratification; or they could send a powerful message that they understand that politics isn’t about making money, it is about serving people.

As Nick Clegg the decision is down to individual MPs, it might, then, be interesting to require all sitting or prospective members of parliament to declare as a matter of public record how they would vote on the issue of their pay. If nothing else this would give a fascination insight into the moral health of the men and women we are electing to make our laws.

Labour’s death wish strikes again.

What should a party with a healthy lead in the polls and facing a government that is fast running out of time and ideas do?

In the case of the party formerly known as Labour it seems getting embroiled in an unseemly squabble about whether or not UNITE fixed the selection of a candidate to fight to Falkirk by-election is the favoured option. The resulting farrago has made the party look corrupt, its leadership look weak and driven the marriage of inconvenience between Labour and the unions another step closer to the divorce courts; result!

It isn’t unknown for selections to be rigged, in fact the New Labour wing of the party making pious noises in this instance have been known to do so themselves in the past. By referring the matter to the police Ed Milliband has made himself look weak and prone to overreaction, hardly the qualities a country looks for in its leader.

Most worryingly of all at a time when people are being battered by austerity the party that exists to speak up for the downtrodden is consumed with an internal squabble. This is something voters will neither forgive nor forget; mostly because Tory election strategists won’t allow them to.

And another thing

Egypt’s President Morsi has been deposed by the army after less than a year in power with violent upheaval likely to follow. Proof, if any were needed, that maintaining economic stability is more important to good governance than either religious or revolutionary fervour. It certainly suggests that the ‘Arab Spring’ is likely to turn out to be a darker story than we romantic western liberals imagined when it began in 2011.

Poor Laura Robson, the great hope of British women’s tennis was doing so well at Wimbledon; then disaster struck in the shape of a good luck message from David Cameron. Even more so than his predecessor in Downing Street an encouraging word from Citizen Dave seems to be the kiss of death, so much so that I’m told Tory Party election strategy for 2015 rests on our beloved leader sending not so Red Ed a tweet saying ‘hope everything goes well tomorrow’ on the eve of election day.

At least things went well for Andy Murray in the men’s final today. Despite having David ‘Jonah’ Cameron watching him from the Royal Box the scowling Scotsman became the first British player to win the tournament since Fred Perry way back in 1936. It is even rumoured that he was, albeit for a second or so, seen smiling; but it was probably just wind.