Friday, 10 December 2010

protests not riots!

The London Standard last night produced a headline, calling yesterday's student protests, 'The Siege of Parliament,' yet this is a gross exaggeration. The protesters, the vast majority of them students, but there were also parents, teachers, lecturers, out supporting the cause. Indeed, whilst I was there, I ran into a young man studying architecture in London. He remembered me, from when I had taught him in year nine. Thus reminds me of why I'm there, and why I will continue to support the young people of Britain, and their educational future. I am fighting for the pupils I have taught, and will teach, to have the right, and I say the right to achieve the highest education they can.

The day started peacefully enough, meeting up with some friends at Embankment station, and then proceeding to Trafalgar Square. We were entertained for a time by the rantings of a man walking up and down out side the National Gallery, railing against the evils of socialism, or it started off like that, but twisted all over the place, so it was hard to decide what he was on about. We came to the conclusion in the end that he was probably UKIP.

We eventually joined the march on the Strand, and went up towards Parliament Square, or we would have, but as the way was blocked by the police, we had to deviate to get in. So I would be interested to know how we were supposed to follow a route that was blocked? Still, I'm sure that some rational explanation will be forthcoming.

Those who think the students should just roll over and let all this happen, wonder why these things happen. It's because people feel passionate about their futures, and of those coming up behind them. I have never known a Tory to go out and protest about things, indeed, if they believed the actions that the Labour government were so awful, why weren't they on the streets exercising their right to protest? Is it because they don't actually believe in anything, and just let things happen.

Nothing happened where we were for a number of hours, though when we went to grab some food, we saw of the news, police charging with horses. I have heard that objects were thrown, which isn't good, but was a horse charge a proportionate response? It threatened the safety of the protesters, though unfortunately a police rider seemed to fall, from their horse, though I understand not badly hurt.

As we went to rejoin the main demonstration, our way was blocked by police. I argued that we had a right to make peaceful protest, but to no avail. It seems that in ConDem Britain, the right to protest peacefully is denied.

However, not to be put off, we went around to Whitehall, where the police were happy to let us through. Now if you want to say that they were negligent, you may well have a point, because it was shortly afterwards that horses were brought up to block us in.

Unfortunately the police who were in the immediate vicinity were just sitting in their vans, so when they were asked to arrest someone who had attempted to steal someone's mobile, they totally ignored it. It also subsequently emerged, that if someone had been stabbed, they would still have sat there (I got this first hand from a police officer). Property more important than doing their jobs it appears.

As the expected time for the end of the debate, and the votes, approached (it was here that I ran into my former pupil), the crowd were in an excited mood. Following the news that tuition fees would rise, naturally there was great disappointment, and we sought to leave, but we were hemmed in. As you would expect, the protesters started to get annoyed, and unfortunately some people started to throw bottles around fairly randomly. We stayed well away from this, but were unable to leave.

Then out of nowhere the police appeared, dressed in riot gear. For a time they just stood there, then they drew batons, and stood there threateningly. It was here that things got a bit out of hand. A number of the protesters, had dismantled some of the railings, and threw them at the police. The police naturally have a right to defend themselves, but they were well protected. However, they just charged at the area where the railing had come from, randomly hitting out. I saw one young man get hit on the head who didn't get out the way quickly enough, and a young woman was also hit on the head.

The police then squashed us into as small a space as possible, which caused great distress to many, and some were having difficulty breathing. The police had to be made to attend to another person who was hurt, and several were limping from leg injuries. I was being squshed aginst a wall, whilst trying to protect other protesters from being crushed. I am lucky, I'm an adult and 6'2" but these were young people, many of them women, who were being treated like this. It's a miracle that more injuries, let alone serious ones, did not ensue.

Eventually we manged to escape into the square, and sought to leave, but all ways were blocked. We wandered back to the square, where there was more space, and we had been there a good while, before the Treasury was attacked. I do not condone the destruction of property, but you could understand the frustration of the protesters, and it was better to attack the building, than the police, who in the main were just there to do their jobs as instructed.

However, after a good while, the police charged the group on the Treasury walls, and lined up outside the building. They then turned and marched away, and the assault continued, leading to them coming in again. We quickly made out way back to the other side of the square, but were still unable to get away.

We then spent some time talking to a number of police officers outside Westminster Abbey. They were perfectly polite, and we had some honest debate. They understood our view that police tactics had contributed to, though not excused, the violent activity. They also agreed that holding people in one place for long periods of time is bound to provoke anger, but as PCs they had no option but to follow orders. I also asked after an officer I heard had been stabbed, and it appears, that a number of protesters were prevented from leaving, and he was stabbed with a piece of glass. This, is, of course totally unacceptable, and I was pleased the officer was not badly injured, and I trust the perpetrator will be suitably punished.

We were then informed that people were being let out slowly, so we rejoined the queue. However this turned out to be untrue (I'm not accusing the officer of lying, as the news has reported that this happened, but that most could not get out), and we stood there for many hours.

At just after eight, we were told that Westminster Bridge was open so we made our way, but then were told this wasn't so, and were sent back to where we had been. However, we went to ask an officer what was going on, and a senior one informed us that indeed the bridge would shortly be opened. Well, it seems the police idea of shortly is different from ours, as we were held for a good forty-five minutes, before they let us through.

But things were not as they seemed. We walked to the bridge, many people jumping and shouting, 'we are free, we are free,' which was sadly quickly disabused. A second line of police, all in riot gear, held us at the bridge entrance for around half and hour, before then taking us onto the bridge itself. As we got towards the end, we were stopped again, and not allowed to move at all. Some protesters appealed to them saying that their last train was due at Waterloo, but were refused, thereby condemning them to a night in London.

As the crowd's frustration grew, those behind us started to push, and eventually we were shoved, we held our hands up at this point showing we were not responsible, and the first police line broke. We were stopped by a second line, and again, not allowed to move. This was getting seriously dangerous now, and I can understand the police preventing those doing the pushing going further, but we were totally innocent of any of this.

Finally, around half ten, we were enabled to leave, though information from others caught in it, says that they didn't get out until half past eleven. So, I finally made it home around a quarter past one, and caught up on other events.

The lead story was that Charles and Camilla's car had been attacked in Oxford Street. It doesn't matter who was in the vehicle, but the attack was totally out of order, and if those who did it are caught, they should face the consequences.

The attack on the Treasury building was also wrong, and all the violence perpetrated by those who were amongst the protesters was not necessary. A number of police officers have been hurt, most of whom were just doing their jobs, and did indeed seek to protect the protesters as well as the general public (although I haven't heard of any of those being hurt, though as stories emerge, this might have change).

It is those in charge who take the largest proportion of the blame. They are the ones who order the 'containment' (kettling being the media term), which is exactly what the American policy was towards the Soviets in the fifties and sixties, so I'm curious as to whether they think there is a war going on, if a cold one.

Once they had identified those who were committing violence, they should have arrested them, and once order had been restored, allowed the vast majority of peaceful protesters to leave. The entire thing would have been over by seven o'clock, and the destruction to the Treasury building might never have happened.

The holding of thousands in the square, then on the bridge, after being told we were being allowed to leave, was totally unacceptable. I saw one young man having a severe asthma attack, which fortunately he recovered from, but it seems health and safety were not considered important.

I have always been sympathetic to the police in these situations, but seeing their tactics at first hand, and the totally disproportianate reaction of some of them, it is difficult to mauntain that. In the near future, they will be wanting our support as they face severe cuts themselves, but that may not be forthcoming if these sort of tactics continue.

So, that is my view of what happened yesterday. I can only give a personal perspective, because I wasn't in other parts of the crowd. As stories emarge over the following days, we will face claim and counter claim, which a full investigation might hopefully reveal. But, to return to previous points, the violence on both sides was not proportionate to the situation, and those in charge of the police take full responsibility for the holding of thousands of young people for many hours.

These were not riots, these were young men and women making thier feelings known, damage was caused, protesters and police were hurt, but there was no battle with the police. No one actually attacked them, therefore, it was not a riot, but it was a protest.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Fairness in Higher Education!

Tomorrow's tuition fees debate in the House of Commons is something of an unexpected event. When the coalition took power in May, we were still awaiting the Browne Report on the future of funding for higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. yet as soon as it was published in October, the rows started, especially once it was announced tuition fees would at least double, and the Liberal Democrats were all revealed to have pledged to vote against any such measure.

The subject has been a troublesome one, ever since 1990 when the Student Loans Company was established under the Major government. In those days it was as extra assistance to help less well off students with maintenance costs. So when in 1998 tuition fees arrived, to many it probably wasn't a surprise.

The Prime Minister, John Major, instigated the Dearing Report to investigate the funding of higher education for the next twenty years. The report made some 93 recommendations, but key was one that a means tested tuition fee was set, and the then Education Secretary David Blunkett, introduced a £1,000 a year fee (about 25% of the cost) in his Bill in 1998, following the abolition of the grant.

It is often said that Labour broke a pledge not to introduce tuition fees. Yet in an interview before the 1997 election Tony Blair said that, "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education." Semantic games perhaps, but no worse than Michael Heseltine's not having any plans to challenge Margaret Thatcher from 1986-90.

The Labour manifesto in 1997 actually said:

The improvement and expansion needed cannot be funded out of general taxation. Our proposals for funding have been made to the Dearing Committee, in line with successful policies abroad. The costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, from the career success to which higher education has contributed. The current system is badly administered and payback periods are too short. We will provide efficient administration, with fairness ensured by longer payback periods where required.

So at no stage did Labour say tuition fees would not be introduced, but room for the possibility existed, stating they believed that general taxation would not be sufficient to fund the expansion needed. It was suggested that repayment of the loans be based on earnings, so in reality, the system currently proposed, is an extension of the one already existing. So the question of why the new system would be any fairer is an interesting one.

The Bill was finally passed in June 1998, when the Conservative Party voted against (including Shaun Woodward so at least he's consistent), although in his speech David Willetts said they accepted the principle. But, with a large number of Labour MPs being against, attempted to make political capital.

In 2001 the Blair government did break a pledge not to introduce top-up fees, but they weren't to be paid until after the course was completed, and once the student was earning over £15,000 a year. A number of concessions were made, in order to prevent a backbench rebellion, and the Bill just passed in 2004. However, a cap was imposed of £3000 on the top up fees, which has existed to this day.

So, we now come to the current situation. I do not need to go into detail on the predicament the Liberal Democrats find themselves in, except to say it is one of their own making, and that in order to reduce the rebellion in the Liberal Democrat ranks, a couple of concessions have materialised. Firstly that poorer students would have their first years tuition paid, or two years if over £6,000, which isn't a great deal of help in the long run, as rents and bills etc will still need to be found. I don't see this encouraging any more students from poorer backgrounds, as a £30,000 debt will seem as daunting as a £40,000 one.

The second concession is that rates will be upped annually instead of every 5 years in line with inflation. But perhaps the biggest sign of the Liberal Democrat's chaotic position was Sarah Teather's running away from Sky News reporters today, and her refusal to answer questions

As we have seen, there have been protests all over England over the proposed fees, and the cuts in higher education funding. This must be remembered, as this isn't a one issue protest, it's tied up into many reforms and cuts. As well as 80% cuts in university funding, the Education Maintenance Allowance is also disappearing, which has enabled a large number of sixth formers just to travel to their colleges. This along with at least one County Council's (Norfolk) decision to remove subsidies will make further education a pipe dream for many.

However, let's be truthful here, cuts would have happened under whichever government had emerged following the election, and there was a possibility of a fees increase of some sort, though not to this extent. There have been other options available, a graduate tax, supported by Vince Cable and Ed Miliband, but not recommended by Browne, for example.

The Browne Report was eventually published on the 12th October, around seven weeks ago, and based it's recommendations on six principles, the key ones being; more investment should be available for higher education, everyone who has the potential should be able to benefit from higher education, no one should have to pay until they start work and they should be affordable.

Browne then recommended removing the cap and raising the point at which tuition fees are paid back. There is one thing the coalition have done that I do completely agree with, and that is that part-time students be treated on the same basis, enabling greater access, in theory, for those who continue to work, or have families. Although the prospect of greatly increased fees may deter a number, especially those who go into higher education for the fun of it, such as retired people looking to pursue an interest.

Browne did in fact recommend that there should be no limit, though models of up to £12,000 were included. The coalition decided to reject this, and set a limit of £9,000 a year, with the expectation that not many universities would charge that high.

The coalition have stated that they believe the new system to be fair, and will enable greater access to higher education for those from poorer backgrounds. So, in order to be fair, I will measure them against what the Tories themselves are saying and the 'factsheet' created by Alun Mabbutt at Conservative Central office

1) They are following the same system that already exists, in that nothing gets paid back until after university has finished, and not until the graduate is earning £21,000 a year. I have no issue with raising the rate at which repayment starts, and that this applies to everyone is fair in that respect. However, that doesn't address the central issue, over whether doubling, or even trebling fees, will attract more students from poorer backgrounds. Currently, the money is borrowed for fees, and the repayment starts at £15,000, so there isn't really any difference in method, it's just that much more will be owed in the first place.

2)and 3) Repaying the debt will be a concern, and on the face of it, the figures in the table are very reassuring. However, this is more than individual repayment rates, and I'm not going to doubt the figures as they currently are portrayed, but the overall effects of the reforms. The government's flagship quango the Office of Budget Responsibility has said:

"Increasing tuition fees will mean the Government will have to borrow more to fund student loans. The additional cash needed to fund the loans increases the Government’s cash requirement in any year and adds to the public sector net debt."

This would mean that even if student numbers stayed at current levels, and the intention is to encourage more, especially from poorer backgrounds, that by 2014/15, the public sector net debt will have risen by £13 billion.

The irony is that the coalition is constantly stating these cuts and fees are needed to do away with the deficit. Yet not only will the debt be greatly increased, but they will have an adverse effect on inflation, which will affect the interest charged, and mean the amount needing to be repaid is subsequently greater. It will also, in the short term, mean more borrowing which will add to the deficit.

4) According to the Coalition's plans, repayments would cease after thirty years regardless, whereas currently it is twenty-five years, and is cancelled if the graduate becomes unfit for work due to disability. Therefore, although the apparent payment is less, it goes on for 5 years longer, and with potential increases in interest rates could well add up to more, and although the, 'poorest fifth actually paying back less in total than they do currently.' What is apparent is that 80% could actually end up paying more.

5) Are these increases fair? Well according to the figures, graduates earn on average £100,000 over a career more then non-graduates, so it's fair they contribute. In fact, as my own conversations which the next generation of students has shown, the idea of making a contribution isn't the issue, it's the huge increases, and whichever way the coalition spin it, a debt is still a debt. And as has been previously demonstrated, the interest rates could well substantially increase.

The repayment rate is set at 9%, which is the same rate as now, just starting at a higher level, and the interest will be 3% above inflation, at current rates. Now, whilst it is fairer that those earning more repay more, it isn't to hit them with a financial penalty for early repayment. If a graduate goes on to achieve success, or makes early repayment a priority, then they shouldn't be penalised for that. The higher earners would already be paying more in income tax, and it may be at substantially higher rates.

6) The increase in maintenance grants is a good thing, although £344 isn't going to make a tremendous impact in the long run. Universities needing to prove they are taking more students from disadvantaged backgrounds is one thing, but with the increase in fees, the number actually applying could be significantly reduced. The National Scholarship Scheme is of little or no use, in that one years fees, do not take into account that money will still need to be found for the remainder of the course. Therefore, a reduction of £6-9,000 will not help over thirty years. In reality, this is just a sop to wavering Liberal Democrat MPs.

7) This is fine, that parents will not need to contribute to fees, but in order to reduce the potential debt, many will need to help out their children living expenses. This is something many parents, especially those form middle income backgrounds do anyway. However, with a number of increases coming, VAT amongst them, and fears over jobs, parents will contribute much less, or the students will decide that the debts they'll be left with are just far too much.

8) This is an outright lie by the Conservatives. Teaching funding is being cut by 80%, and these are starting now. Arts subjects especially will receive no funding whatsoever, and this is going to have a derogatory effect on quality. Reducing funding does not automatically make teaching better, and will not make them better able to respond to student needs. Indeed, an 80% cut in funding is not equitable with continuing to pay 40% of the costs of higher education, the coalition which to make up their mind which one is true.

9) This is a complete mess, as it relies, like so many of the coalitions policies, on hoped for income. The future funding is just that, in the future, whilst the damage will have already been done. The debt will have increased by a substantial amount by then, if the OBR figures are to be believed, and therefore, the next government will have to find ways to tackle that, and higher education funding seems to have become a target. All these figures, of course, get completely blown out of the water, if student numbers fall substantially, and there appears to be no catering for the worst case scenario, which is poor planning.

10) The Graduate tax is an interesting issue, and the Tories say it would discriminate against the poorest, so let's examine it. Now, it is fair to say that a graduate tax would need to be ring-fenced to ensure the money went back into the system. However, one of the advantages is it avoids a market in fees, and therefore enables students from less well off backgrounds to apply to the universities they wish.

Like the proposed system, education would still be free at the point of delivery, and could over the long run actually raise more money for universities. On the down side, it could mean students who did cheaper degrees, ended up paying more than they cost, but this is before a system has been worked out.

The Conservatives are arguing that high earners would end up paying less as a percentage than lower earners, and that it would start at £6,475. Seeing as no system of graduate tax has yet been discussed in detail by a government or party, this is impossible to state. Any government would be very careful about the rates they set the tax to start at, so typical bluster by the Conservatives, based upon no evidence.

There we have it, the ten main reasons why the coalition believe their system is fair, and will encourage more students from poorer backgrounds. But as we have seen, not only will graduates be saddled with huge debts, which could well affect their chances of getting mortgages, or business loans in the future, the system as it's currently envisaged will add greatly to the debt.

Access to higher education is a right, not a privilege, and anybody who reaches the required standard, and wishes to, should be able to go to university. That's not to decry those who wish to pursue other avenues, and other forms of education are equally important. So apprenticeships, City & Guilds, NVQs are equally important, and should not be pushed aside in this education funding debate.

Therefore, like many others, I will be marching tomorrow in support of the students of the future. I believe it is fundamentally important that all have access to higher, and further, education. The future of the country will rest in the and of the next generation of students, and it is vital that no one is prevented from doing so, by a fear of large debts hanging round their necks.

So, is the proposed system of the coalition government a fair one? Will it encourage more young people into higher education, especially those from poorer backgrounds.

The answer to both is an unequivocal no! It isn't fair precisely because it will not only discourage the less well off form going to university, but many middle income families will also be put off. It will saddle thousands of young people with huge debts, and this is going to affect many future prospects.

Nobody denies reform of higher education funding is needed, but the government should delay this ad hoc rise in fees, and wait until a green paper has been brought forward and properly discussed by education experts, and interested groups. This would be followed by a white paper, which can be properly debated and amended in the Houses of Parliament. Too much of the government's legislation has already been shown to be hastily drafted, and poorly thought out. Let's have a proper debate, and the Browne Report should be the basis of that.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Into the Valley of Death?

Thursday is going to be a big day in the coalition's short history, as the debate and vote on raising university tuition fees is held. Perhaps there is a certain irony in that December 9th will be the anniversary of the first publication of the Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.'

There may only be 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, but the 'valley of death,' if only electorally awaits them. The guns they are charging on this occasion are those of the students of the future who will be paying these fees.

As the Liberal Democrats ride headlong into the guns, the cannons left and right are constantly bombarding them. Students, and school pupils, the ones who will be hit by the fees, are protesting on the streets. Students are sitting in on university campuses, lecturers are offering them their support. University funding is being dramatically cut, and humanities subjects will receive no funding whatsoever.

However, there is also a fair amount of 'friendly fire' coming from behind. Many of the ordinary Liberal Democrat members are against this, and a number of their MPs, Bob Russell and Simon Wright have said they will vote against. But even more damaging, two of their previous commanders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, have also indicated they will abide by the pledge they signed. These are men who have the respect of people inside and outside politics, and across all parties. They stood up for their beliefs, and didn't just rush unthinking, into the arms someone whispering sweet words in their ears.

The original charge was led by a reckless commander, looking for glory. Poor leadership was the primary cause of the brigade's demise, and so it may well be for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg was looking for glory. The title of Deputy Prime Minister is one he wears with pride. The uniform of ministerial cars, red boxes, meetings with important international figures, he wears with a sense of entitlement, as though he had worked for them.

Yet, only a few short months ago, his career seemed so promising. His performance in the Prime Ministerial debates took people by surprise, and he especially made a connection with young people. The Liberal Democrats had long advocated free access to higher education for all, and although their policy had changed from immediate abolition of fees, to phasing out, they still had the same basic aim.

Clegg, along with many Liberal Democrat, Labour and four Conservatives candidates, pledged to vote against a rise in tuition fees. Students turned out in droves to elect Liberal Democrats MPs, yet now they feel totally betrayed. Clegg made much of this pledge, and indeed, it became a part of the party's campaign that they were attracting young people, many who would vote for the first time, into politics.

Well, he has certainly done that, though not the way he envisaged. There have been big protests on the streets of London, and other cities and towns around England (this rise does not apply to Scottish students, and the Welsh Assembly has voted to maintain fees at current levels). In fact, my own conversations with students show that many are not actually against the principle of fees in general. They accept that a contribution is inevitable these days, but believe that the trebling of fees, will greatly restrict access for those from less well off backgrounds.

What Clegg has done however, is motivate the young people of England, including school children who will, probably, face even larger increases in future, if the current government is maintained, and get them out on the streets. These are not easy protests either. They are coming as Britain enters a very cold spell. So they are not coming out just because it is easy to do so, and to enjoy the sunshine. They're facing snow and ice, as well as the kettling tactics of the police, which try to hem them into confined areas. They are out because they believe in the cause, and are prepared to put up with much to make their voices heard.

The Conservative majority of the coalition have cleverly turned the entire focus onto the Liberal Democrats. It is effigies of Clegg that are being burned, and although I do not agree with other tactics being used, such as dog mess being out through his letterbox, and it is all self-inflicted.

We've also had the preposterous position of not only Clegg, but Business Secretary Vince Cable, spinning like tops as they work out their stance on this for Thursday's vote. It now seems they have both decided to vote in favour of the rise, which at least for Cable is the only tenable position, being the man responsible for pushing it through.

Since they joined the coalition, the Liberal Democrat standing has fallen dramatically, as they stand anywhere between 9 and 14% in the polls. Next May they seem to be heading towards electoral massacre in the local and devolved elections. They may well also lose their referendum on changing the electoral system, such a change from that warm spring Saturday, when he stood before the fairer vores flash mob, pedging that he would only join a coalition with the Tories, if they gave way on a referendum. How long ago that must all seem now. When Nick Clegg was the most popular politician in Britain, to being the most hated. Harold Wilson was right that a week is a long time, but six months is now a career.

The Liberal Democrats will now decide on Thursday which way to vote. They are a fatally divided band, with those in jobs, and those who want jobs, supporting the rise. Those who want to stay in the favour of the leadership, abstaining, whilst those who still have a semblence of honiur, voting against the rise.

So as they ride into the 'valley of death' the Liberal Democrats will reflect on how it all went so badly wrong. Huge promise dashed on the ambitions of a few. How their commanders lied and prevaricated to get them on board, then threw them at the guns. Their's was not not reason why, but now they will do and die, and I leave them with a suitable epitaph, right from the pen of Tennyson;

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ed's premiership quality performance!

Ed Miliband not only passed the third test he had to face since becoming leader, he did so with flying colours. He had David Cameron floundering around looking for answers to Ed Miliband's questions. Indeed, he was so bereft he decided his best tactic would be to ask his own, to which EM's reply was, "Naught out of two on straight answers," which is odd for the man who prided himself on being straight, and as was pointed out, was proud of his Cameron Direct meetings.

This came back to haunt Mr. Cameron when Ed Miliband, giving not only his quote that child benefit would be safe as a universal benefit under him, but the precise date and location, allowing no wriggle room. After Cameron's lacklustre reply, the leader of the opposition retorted, "I agree with the Prime Minister, why doesn't he?"

This was a startlingly good first PMQ's from Ed Miliband, and as many of us have said, it would be dangerous for Cameron to underestimate him. You don't win a long and arduous campaign to lead your party without something, whatever the inadequacies of the electoral college system.

No doubt next week will see Cameron up his game, and Ed will have to do his, as he won't have the open goal that child benefit affords him. But like a striker, you need to score all your open goals. Since Ed Miliband's promotion to the political premier league he has been impressing more and more people with his ability to rise to the challenges before him.

His leader's speech at the party conference raised some eyebrows, but set out he was a tough man, who wouldn't be held hostage to any faction. Although his appointments to the Shadow Cabinet have caused some surprises, he more than made up for that with second and third rank appointments, really bringing in the 'New Generation.' Then he follows it up with today's brillaint performance, which the vast majority, including leading Tory bloggers like Tim Montgomerie, see as a big win for Ed.

So, as we await the biggest test yet, the spending review a week taday, Ed is the one who has grabbed the headlines, or at least those not taken up by the Chilean mine rescue, and seized the initiative on the child benefit debate, Now he needs to hammer that home, be as ruthless with the government, as he was with his own brother.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Chilean Joy!

Like many people, I am watching the Chilean mine rescue on the BBC News channel. After a long period, the miners trapped since August will emerge one by one over the next couple of days. Their families have waited patiently, setting up a camp, and another one for the world's media.

This is a good news story to shine a little light in all the gloom the news is constantly filled with these days. A great feat of engineering, and of human will. The Chilean authorities have played this brilliantly, and the President Sebastien Pinera has played a blinder, having visited the site three times before they realised the miners were alive.

The foreman Luis Urzua will emerge as the hero, holding it all together, and will deserve all the plaudits coming to him. Some might say he's just doing his job, but when the supreme test came, he was more than equipped for the task.

The inquiries will look into whether it could have been avoided, but for now let's celevrate with the Chilean people a magnificent feat of engineering and endurance.

AV confusion!

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill committee starts today in the House of Commons. The first day's debate is centered on the date is set as the 5th May 2011, the same day as local elections in England, and Assembly elections in Scotland and Wales. There are many arguments over whether holding these on the same dates will create confusion and mean that either the Assembly elections are minimised by the publicity, or vice versa.

There are also counter arguments which are that not only will it save a lot of money by holding the referendum on the same day, it will increase turn out for local and Assembly elections. Which of these is true is impossible to tell until, or unless, the referendum is held. The Electoral Commission has asked for the question to be altered to make it clearer, for those not as well versed in politics.

However, it is not these arguments I intend to address here, but to clear up some confusion. There are a lot of people, who seem unable to understand that the referendum, although included with the proposals to change constituency boundaries, they are separate issues.

The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has committed himself to campaigning for the alternative vote in the referendum. However, they will possibly, still vote against the bill. This is because we do not support the way the coalition seeks to go about the process of boundary changes. They intend to impose a shortened period, which means that local people will have no say in the changes, and they will ignore historic and geographical boundaries. This process is designed purely and simply to ensure it is as difficult as possible for any party other than the Conservatives to be the biggest party.

In the end, if the Liberal Democrats support the bill it will pass, which will mean that the boundary changes will go ahead. This will not be affected by whether people support changing the electoral system or not.

The confusion seems to be, that people think that by voting no in the referendum they will stop the boundary review. This will not be the case, when the bill passes, that will be a fait accompli, so AV supporters who vote against thinking they can stop this, will be, to use a well worn cliche, 'cutting off their noses to spite their faces.'

If you wish to vote no in the referendum, because you either wish to keep the first past the post system, or like Douglas Carswell, believe in a more proportional system, but aren't convinced that AV is a step on the road, then that is your prerogative, and both are perfectly legitimate.

So the important thing is education, and this is, to my mind, the strongest argument against holding the referendum on the same day as the various elections. Both sides will want to be able to put their case as clearly as possible, and both could well lose if the arguments cannot be clearly made.

The Yes camp because they will want to explain clearly the reasons why they think a change is important, if only on the path to a more proportional system. But the NO camp will also want the opportunity to explain their reasoning. The public mood seems to be for change, even if they aren't always clear what that means, and may be tempted to vote for a new system, because they hope it will lead to changes in politics.

Education is therefore the key, and one of the reasons why I support the teaching of politics at secondary schools. The political process is a complicated one, but the better the voting public understand it, the better the judgements will be as they will be able to understand the arguments.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The New Generation's first steps!

The Condem's have tried to make much of Ed Miliband's 'New generation' saying that the Shadow Cabinet was a collection of just the same old faces. But the senior positions were always going to go to previously serving cabinet ministers. However, only ten previous cabinet ministers, including the leader and deputy, have now been given shadow cabinet jobs, but Ed Miliband has been fairly imaginative in how he's distributed the jobs.

I still have doubts about Alan Johnson's appointment as Chancellor, but Yvette Cooper's and Ed Balls' promotions are well deserved. The previous Secretaries of State have all been given jobs they haven't had before, but will be bringing a wealth of experience to their new briefs. What is refreshing, however, is that a number of the top jobs have gone to new entrants. John Healey at Health, Angela Eagle as Chief Secretary and Caroline Flint at Communities. The temptation must have been to give all these to tried and trusted former cabinet ministers, but all these showed talent at ministerial level, and deserve their chance.

It is in the second tier that Ed Miliband has really struck a chord, bringing seven of the new intake into leading roles, shadowing departments. So the government ministers will have to make up their minds which attack they want, do they say that our front bench lacks experience, or that it is the same old faces? They can't have it both ways!

Following her spirited performance during the leadership campaign it is good to see Diane Abbott follow through and accept a number two role at Health. This will give her a real opportunity, and indicate Ed is selecting from across the spectrum of the Labour PLP.

There are a number of other MPs who have been members for a few years, but have been unable to advance, and a number, such as Stephen Twigg, who were ministers when previously members of parlaiment.

In total 22 members elected in 2010 have been appointed to prominent positions, as either minsterial shadows, or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. These work closely with a Shadow Cabinet appointee, and is often the first step on the parliamentary ladder. I am pleased to see Chumma Umanna given a role working directly for the leader, and Gavin Shukar, MP for Luton South as PPS to Sadiq Khan.

So, the new leader has carried through on his promise to create a 'New Generation,' which compares so well to the already tired looking coalition front bench. David Cameron made great play of appointing those who had shadowed to their cabinet positions, but it has backfired. The freshness you'd expect from a new government doesn't exist, and the Liberal Democrats are struggling more and more to justify policies they worked to defeat in May, and they will look even more so compared a new and enthused Labour Party.

When Ed Miliband first announced his Shadow Cabinet, I gave it a C, I now feel I can confidently upgrade that to a B. he has injected new life into the lower ranks, and expect a revitalised PLP.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The cabinet of Dr. Miliband!

I am still stunned from the announcement that Alan Johnson is to be Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. The only reason I can see for this is as a sop to the David Miliband supporters. The rumours were that Ed had offered David the Shadow Chancellor's position if he wanted it. Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls were considered to be vying for this job, and seemed untouchable. Both have solid economic backgrounds, and have impressed recently in this area.

Yet, Ed Miliband seems to have fluffed it. I hate having to say this, but it can only be a political appointment. I know Osborne isn't very impressive, but I can see champagne corks being popped in No.11 on hearing this news. With the greatest respect to Alan Johnson who in the main has been effective in his previous cabinet positions, he's not an economist. Being a 'safe pair of hands' is not a sufficient criterion for selecting your Chancellor when you have such an abundance of talent available it seems, frankly, stupid to not make use of it. On an economic front, Alan Johnson's best card was probably his view on the deficit. He has stated time and again that he supported the Alistair Darling plan, and as time goes on that plan is looking more and more sensible.

Other than that the only reasons I can see for doing it is as a sop to the David Miliband supporters, ten of whom got elected to the cabinet, but with the top four positions going to supporters of other candidates, Cooper, Healey and Balls, who supported Ed Balls, and Andy Burnham, he must have felt a David supporter should be in one of the big positions, and Johnson was the most substantial David Miliband supporter elected.

It does, however, mean that two big hitting former Cabinet ministers, are free to take on two of the best and most effective government ministers. Whether you agree with the reforms or not, Theresa May has so far been a pretty safe pair of hands at the Home Office, and Ed Balls is just the man to take her on over the reforms to the police that she envisages. I can imagine looking forward to Home Office questions, as two big beasts go toe to toe.

William Hague should be Prime Minister, if you have to have a Tory led government, then you want the best available. Unlike Conservatives, who seem unable to appreciate the abilities of others, something which will lead to them looking daft time and time again, I can recognise that Hague is supremely gifted, and has hitherto been a very good Foreign Secretary.

Yvette Cooper (my original pick for leader) is in the same position of being supremely gifted. It is disappointing that she will not be Chancellor, but this will give her a real opportunity to gain an international reputation, and to be honest, I don't see her and Hague disagreeing fundamentally on foreign policy. This will raise Yvette Cooper's profile considerably in the public eye, as the superb job she did at Work and pensions, in government and opposition, has been largely confined to the political spectrum.

When it comes to the lesser positions, Harriet Harman has been ill-served with International Development, as although an important portfolio, her performance as acting leader earned her a much higher profile position. Andy Burnham's moving to education is interesting, as health and education are both areas of high priority for the coalition to ruin...sorry reform. Perhaps it will come out over the next few days, but it is possible Andy Burnham was asked if he wanted to stay, or move to education, and wished to prove himself in a different portfolio.

On all the other appointments, we will just have to wait and see how they perform. Caroline Flint will want to do well at Communities, in order to prove she's not just 'window dressing,' and being up against Eric the red will give her ample opportunity. John Denham is very experienced, and will be a good foil for Cable at Business, whilst John Healey who rather surprisingly came second in the poll, has been thrown in at the deep end at health. Mind you, probably the most sensible decision was to tuck Liam Byrne away in the cabinet office, as his note on leaving office, a very bad joke, will follow him for some time.

So overall, has Ed Miliband passed his second test, taking into account the hand that was given him? A C is the best I can manage at the moment, with a re-mark up or down as an option depending on how he, and his appointees perform. It is very early days, and reasons will become clearer over the next few days, but I think the government will be a bit puzzled, but not exactly quaking in theri boots at the moment, and that Hague and May, will be looking forward to being severely tested.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Cameron's Plea to the faithful!

Speeches come in many guises. Some are aimed at the watching public, as was Ed Miliband's at the Labour conference. he needed to reassure the public that he was someone who could be a creidible leader of the opposition, lay some ghosts, and dispel some rumours.

David Cameron, like Nick Clegg a coupe of weeks ago, was speaking to the party faithful. They both felt the need to justify the decision they had taken, and Cameron today, spent the first section of his speech, attempting to do just that. But it came across as more of a plea, as though he had to ask for more time, in order to get things right.

There have been a lot of problems over the last few weeks, indeed over the first months of the coalition. It started with BSF, and ended with the rows over defence spending, and child benefit cuts. Yet no mention was made of this whatsoever, although you wouldn't expect him to normally, but with the row over child benefit that has erupted, you'd expect him to at least repeat his apology, stating it wasn't in the manifesto. It was also interesting that he brushed over the marriage tax break, yet another policy that many of the Tory faithful are unhappy with.

Before the election many leading Tories, such as Osborne and Philip Hammond (who lost out as Chief Secretary to whichever Lib Dem wasn't caught cheating on expenses), were saying that things like child benefit, winter fuel payments and free TV licences were safe, because they were so valued by many. Yet today Mr. Cameron said, 'A system that taxes people at high rates only to give it back in child benefit is very difficult to justify at a time like this.' He might have been able to get away with this, if it wasn't for the noises he made about balancing it with extending the marriage tax break to higher earners.

So, just moving the money around, to play to the Tory crowd. As Nick Robinson said on today's Daily Politics, Cameron wobbled. When the pressure was on, instead of standing up for it, he tried to get out of it.

Then there was the 'Big Society,' this idea is little understood because it hasn't been clearly defined, and he needs to persuade the faithful that it is the big thing for this parliament. This is the transforming policy, that will stamp the Tories term in office in the early 21st century

Which is why this speech was for internal consumption, he had to justify to his members going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, something which many of them are unhappy about in reality. He needs them stomping the streets of Britain next May, trying to get Tory councillors elected. But, if they introduce too much that even Tories can't accept, they might well do so, but not with enthusiasm.

This is why he particularly mentioned the AV referendum. Conservatives are naturally against this, and it plays into their reactionary instincts. It is too progressive for their taste. He used it to raise the nearest he managed to a rallying cry, as he implored them to go out and fight against change (I seem to remember he talked a lot about that in the election), keep things the same, don't risk trusting the electorate to decide who they want to work together.

In order to continue playing to the crowd there was absolutely no mention of the much vaunted green agenda, because although Cameron himself has accepted much of the argument, there are a large number of Conservative members who are sceptics, and he didn't want to have more negative mumblings.

David Cameron did not make the great speech he would have liked, he wasn't able to be triumphant. It was a safety first speech, attack Labour, play to the gallery, lots of empty rhetoric about individuals, and aspiration, without any explanation of how this would come about. Where was the growth? Where was the vision for the future? Where was the carrot, to balance the stick? Matthew Parris said that Ed Miliband had grabbed the optimist agenda, and Cameron has given that up with a whimper.

The man who goes under the title of Prime Minister is already on the defensive. He has nothing to offer accept tears and blood, it is austerity without affirmation, pain without progress and coalition without cause.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Benefit Fraud!

Chancellor George Osborne must have one of the most original views of fairness I have ever come across. Today he has announced major changes to child benefit, that seem set to penalise a large proportion of families in this country, especially those who would consider themselves middle class citizens.

His first decision is to remove entitlement at the level at which people start to pay the higher rate of tax, which after allowances works out at around £44,000 a year. At first glance this sounds fine, you are talking about a weekly amount of £846, and even after tax, you would still be left with a healthy salary.

Yet, whilst allowing that there are always winners and losers on the margins when benefits are not universal, this means a lot of people both above and below the threshold will lose out.

This is because the change is being brought in in an absolutist way. So if you have one earner only on £44,001 a year, you will lose, whereas two on £43,999 will still get their child benefit. Okay, this is at the extreme end, but a family with a total income of £60,000 would still get the allowance.

Indeed, the Think Tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which was established by Iain Duncan Smith, has asked Osborne to rethink the proposal, and saying that alternatives should be explored more thoroughly first. I wonder if this is IDS using a sideways method, to say he's not overly happy, without directly challenging the treasury?

There is also another aspect, which many people perhaps won't have thought of.The benefits agency will have access to everybody's records, whether working or not, which would mean that records would be more accessible to people, who aren't entitled to see them.

The second element, which will cause even more controversy, is to cap the amount of benefits a single family can claim. This is to be set at the supposedly average income of £26,000 (and it sounds to me to contradict the first element on here. After all, how can you set a cap, whilst allowing those below £44,000 to claim child benefit?).

£26,000 is not a lot of money, and a lot of people earn much less. It is not the real average in Britain, it might be in the south and south-east, but in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Corwall and many parts of the north, they would love to earn £26,000 a year.

The cap would also include befnefits such as carer's allowance and industrial injuries disablement benefit. So in effect, people in this position would be being penalised, as they would lose things like housing and council tax benefit.

This is the big problem with this cap! By restricting it to a certain amount, it means that people will have to start paying housing and council tax, out of the cash allowance they get. With the VAT increase, and inflation, as well as any increases being fixed against CPI, which is expected to fall, as opposed to RPI, many will find themselves in poverty.

The governemtn say they are trying to make it so that no one has a better standard of living on benefits, than in work. But they are aiming for the lowest common denominator, and it is those at the bottom once again who will suffer the most. In the next year or so, a lot of people are going to lose jobs, and unless new ones are created quickly for people to fill, then a lot of families will be in dire positions.

No one is asying reform of the system is not needed, but these changes are ill thought out, and if you are going to means test, then it is best to do it properly. As it seems here, they will means test child benefit, but not whether the cap comes too low for some people. These proposals fail the fairness task massively, and the government urgently needs to rethink.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Tory triumph postponed!

The Conservative party conference starting tomorrow, will probably be the biggest test of David Cameron's premiership to date. You might wonder why that should be? After all, he is the leader of the country, and his party is in government for the first time since 1997. Indeed, the conference should be a celebration, and the atmosphere should be triumphant.

The Conservatives did not win the large majority many in the party expected. They failed to gain one at all, and the arithmetic forced them into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, something that has upset many Tories, and Lib Dems. Which is exactly why it will be hard! The delegates may well be in a party mood, but the leadership will be well aware of the difficulties laying in store. The government is not a Tory one, or not a completely Tory one anyway. It is a coalition, and coalitions, no matter how tightly crafted they may seem, have inherent dangers.

Liberal Democrats who see no hope of front bench positions at any stage are speaking out against coalition policy. Even members inside the cabinet have made noises which counter official policy, particularly Vince Cable on immigration.

Liberal Democrat unhappiness to a certain extent could be expected, they ran on different manifestos during the election, and the Lib Dems, made a centre of their campaign a warning that a Tory government would raise VAT. So concerned indeed were they, that many, including Nick Clegg, were inviting people to vote Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out.

But there is another danger lurking and that is Tory backbenchers, especially those who thought they might be in line for government jobs, suddenly finding them going to Liberal Democrats. There is also another breed of backbencher, those who would rather a Tory minority, or even another election to try and obtain a majority. I spoke to Conservative councillors in May, who would rather the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with Labour, than give anything on electoral reform.

It is this issue that could cause Cameron his biggest headache of the week. It is strange really, when there are arguments going on between the treasury and departments over budgets, including a big one brewing with Defence Secretary Liam Fox, which I blogged on yesterday

There are also suspicions that Fox may kick up a fuss, though if rumours are correct, Iain Duncan Smith appears to have won his battle for funding in Work and pensions. But this is part of the reason why the Conservatives cannot afford to be triumphant, and Cameron knows this.

Electoral reform seems such a minor issue compared to things like cuts in welfare, police, education, health etc, yet it is something that really exorcises the grassroots. So, if the subject is brought up, than expect almost no support whatsoever, not even for Cameron's line of voting for the referendum in parliament, then campaigning against it in the country. This becomes even more important now that the new Labour leader Ed Miliband has confirmed that if it goes ahead, he officially be campaigning in favour of AV, along with the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, as with Europe in the past, the leadership may seek to sideline the debate in conference, so as to try and present a united front to the public.

I do not intend here to debate the justification for the depth of the cuts, but what Cameron does know, is that there will be a great deal of unhappiness in the country over what will happen. He will be looking to tell his party to stay strong in the face of what is to come, because, he believes, it will pay off in the long run.

As David Cameron faces this three pronged attack; unhappy Tory ministers, backbenchers and members, Liberal Democrat MPs, cabinet members and members, and the general public who face losing jobs and services, he will have to not only be realistic about the challenges, he says, they face, but also to get his delegates to realise that now is not the time for triumphalism, that will have to wait. They will need to see if the coalition lasts the full term, if the policies they've implemented have been successful, and they win the next election. Then they can celebrate!

Friday, 1 October 2010

Fox hot to trot?

All governments have internal rows, which is a normal part of the process. There are always conflicting interests, financial, personal or political. Therefore, the disagreements that have arisen between Ian Duncan Smith at Work and pensions, or Vince Cable at Business, are part of the regular to and fro you'd expect between departments and the treasury.

However, the dispute that has arisen between Liam Fox at defence and David Cameron, seems to have elements of all three. There are two elements to the financial aspects, firstly the decision by the treasury that the funding for trident should come out of the defence budget, whilst Fox feels it should come out of central funds, which is the normal procedure in these cases.

The second is found in the letter leaked earlier this week and published in the Telegraph. Fox states;

"Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war."

Now it is possible to see absolutely nothing sinister in this letter, as it comes over as a senior cabinet minister defending his department against proposed cuts.
However, when linked to the political and personal aspects, a larger picture emerges.

He is placed very much on the right of the Conservative Party, with an attitude that makes fewer concessions to modern society that David Cameron is prepared to. Indeed, it is amusing reading this article from 2005, that Cameron does not feature at all

Liam Fox has since then been antagonistic to Cameron, who emerged from nowhere to snatch the leadership in 2005. He felt that he was amongst the big three, along with David Davis and Ken Clarke, one of whom the crown would fall on. But he was forced aside and has felt more and more sidelined ever since. There were rumours that he might not even become Defence Secretary following the formation of the coalition, and so he may always feel he is on borrowed time. he may think David Cameron is just waiting for a decent interval before demoting him, or moving him out of the cabinet altogether.

So we have there a combination of the political and the personal which cannot be separated. It seems unlikely to me, however, that Cameron would sack Fox as he would be both a martyr for the right, and it would not look good to sack ministers defending their departments against cuts.

It could all erupt at next week's Tory party Conference in Birmingham, and if Fox feels he has nothing to lose, he may well use it to not only speak up for his department, but to launch a coded attack on the way he feels that Cameron has taken the party.

As the negotiations were underway, Fox, who wasn't a member of the team, was taking a much less conciliatory line, on electoral reform especially, and may well feel that the Tories have given too much to the Liberal Democrats, with Trident being a key issue;

The way the funding has been changed, is a way of delaying the system, without saying do expressly, and therefore lessening chances of arguments with the Lib Dems over the issue.

So, if Fox believes he has the support of many of the grassroots, who are unhappy about the concessions made in the coalition agreement, could this be the start of a fightback by the right of the party, and he sees himself as the man to lead it?

This though would almost certainly be a mistake, because whatever the form, David Cameron has returned the Conservatives to government, and they are the senior partner. To risk that for purely personal reasons would show that any doubts Cameron has about Fox are confirmed, and he would show himself up, as he has in the past, to suffer severely from lack of judgement.

Now a dance is now underway, and will be more interesting than anything on Strictly Come Dancing which returns this weekend. Perhaps, if he is forced to resign, Dr Fox will be a competitor, and we can see if his actual foxtrot, is better than his political one.

Ed on the BBC strike!

Ed Miliband has today urged BBC staff planning strikes, not to do so during the Conservative Party conference, especially over the day when David Cameron will make his speech.

He is right to do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is right that the BBC's reputation for impartiality be maintained, as this would be seen as a blatantly political motivation. There are elements in the coalition who think the licence fee should be abolished, and politically motivated actions by staff, even if only the perception if not the realituy, will add grist to the mill.

Secondly, Ed Miliband is new to the job as Labour leader, and needs to make an impact quickly. By speaking out in favour of fairness, and also being seen to criticise the timing of a union's proposed actions, it might help promote a positive image in the public mind.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Deserting the field!

David Miliband's decision not to stand for the shadow cabinet can be seen in two ways. The first is that he couldn't stand the idea of working for his younger brother, and is showing himself a bad loser. The second is that he felt that the media would constantly be trying to find tensions between them, and indeed create them , and that by standing aside, he allows Ed to forge the party he wants.

I expect in reality it is a mix of both. He wouldn't want to do anything to wreck the chances of the party he has been brought up in at the next election, or to overshadow his brother. But there is also a touch of pique about it, as though now the other kids won't let him be captain, he's taking his ball home, and leaving it to lesser talents to play the match.

Oh yes, David Miliband was probably the best player in the recent competition, but that didn't make him the best person to lead the team. One thing I'm pleased about, is that on Monday he made the best speech of the conference, as it saves the media telling us he did, even if he hadn't. A little division in the team makes better entertainment than a coherent unit, all playing the same way.

I suspect that in the short term he will remain an MP, but I don't expect him to stand again, and he may leave beforehand. That will depend on whether he stays a focus of media attention, constantly being touted as a replacement if Ed doesn't get immediate results with his changes.

However, now that David has taken the decision to move on, it does leave the field clear for Ed to mould the shadow cabinet as he sees fit. He can weigh up the pros and cons of those elected by their fellow MP's, and construct a cabinet to take on the government.

All the other leadership candidates have put their name forward, and although Diane Abbott didn't get too many votes from her fellow MP's, that is entirely different to being elected to serve in a shadow cabinet position. In fact, to give her some credit, if she is willing to give up her high media profile, and no doubt decent financial benefits of This Week, to try and help Labour back into power, means that the campaign has probably changed her outlook a lot. Politics is now about doing something, and not just protesting.

So, as he walks off the pitch, a lonely figure, as the rest of his former teammates gather around the new captain, I wish David Miliband well in whatever he does. I hope he can become reconciled to what has happened, and play some role in the future, supporting the Labour Party, and brother Ed, in returning Labour to government at the next election.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

New Labour renewed?

New Labour is not dead, but it is seeking a new wardrobe. This isn't meant as a criticism of the direction that Ed Miliband looks like he wants to take the party in, but he shows an acceptance that the old politics of the Labour Party are gone forever.

Ed Miliband is not an actor like Tony Blair, or a PR man like David Cameron, and he isn't a barnstorming speaker. This may change as he gets used to making speeches that the media and the public are waiting upon, and as he inevitably grows into the role.

This speech was a good one, and considering the short time he had to put it together, well delivered. He started by paying tribute to his family, and the country that gave his family safe haven during World War II.

There were places where he did not pull any punches, and was as critical of what Labour had done in power, as he was of the government and what they intend to do. He was brutally honest about the reasons we lost the election, and "We must not blame the electorate for ending up with a government we don’t like, we should blame ourselves."

This is not comfortable to listen to, and those of you who are not Labour supporters, need to understand that this was the speech of a Labour Party leader, not a Conservative, or Liberal Democrat. In reality, this was the first thing he had to do, to tell us where we had gone wrong, on civil liberties, 90 days detention without trial, and most telling of all, Iraq.

It is easy for me to applaud him saying we were wrong to go in, as I was always against it, as indeed were most of the members. But, many senior members of the party did vote for it in 2003, but he felt that it needed to have a line drawn under it. But he also needed to tell us that we had lost touch with the public, and although this wasn't explicit, those people who had come to us in 1997, but had ebbed away. These issues had come up a lot during the leadership campaign, but hearing them from the leader, at the conference, gives them a legitimacy.

Ed Miliband was also condemning of the cuts and the direction that the coalition are making, but he was also right to say, we can't oppose them all. We would have made cuts if reelected, and need to be honest about that. He said that Alistair Darling's four year plan was the starting point, which possibly rules out any chance of Ed Balls being shadow Chancellor. It does leave a big door open for his brother to step in if he feels he can, otherwise, it is almost certain that the job will fall to Yvette Cooper.

The speech was always going to be scant in real detail, because it was always important for Mr Miliband to show he was his own man. His comment that he wouldn't be supporting irresponsible strikes against the cuts brought a cheer to the audience, even if it didn't seem to be welcomed by the unions. What this really means is not possible to tell at this stage, and no doubt David Cameron will try to draw him out in the first PMQ's in two weeks time.

The central theme, which everything tied into was the 'new generation,' and the new politics. This meant not opposing the cuts wholesale, especially when it came to welfare, though he was looking for, "a genuine plan to make sure that those in need are protected and that those who can work have the help they need to ensure they do so." In reality, however, he isn't actually moving away from the changes we were already making in government.

I liked the line about saying that the new generation wasn't defined by age, but by attitude. This was the only time when the speech got personal in regard to the leaders of the coalition parties. I think this was good, as personal attacks aren't a good way to go, if done too much. He spoke about policy and approach differences, which is what the public want to hear.

So, did Ed Miliband pass the first test I said he faced yesterday? I think he did, and it has at least put the government into the 'better not be complacent' mode. He did lay to rest the 'Red' Ed sobriquet, and as I said at the beginning, was a lot more 'New' Labour than many of us expected. It seems to me, that Ed Miliband is looking to renew 'New' Labour, but with a view to once again connecting with those outside the party. I don't mean this in a disparaging way, but he has learned quickly, that the project that Alistair Campbell, Gordon brown and Tony Blair started hasn't faded away, it just has undergone a battering recently, but still has a lot of life left, and is the way to oppose this government in a realistic manner.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Ed Miliband's tests

I am totally intrigued by the reaction to Ed Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership contest. He has only been in charge for 48 hours, yet has been subject to constant criticism from the right, and their press, since the first moment.

They are trying to portray him as a tool of the unions, because it was affiliates (not just union) votes that put him over the line. Yet, they have no evidence to back that up, just their own prejudices against unions, which sadly, just proves that their opinions of them haven't changed since the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported in 1837.

The reality is, no one has any idea how good Ed Miliband will be as leader of the Labour Party. Tomorrow his first of a number of tests will come, which may give us an idea as to his mettle. He makes his first speech as leader, and will want to make an impression, but whether it is good, bad or indifferent, it will only be a taster. I was at his conference speech last year, and it was superb, and tomorrow's may well be a great one. But it won't actually prove anything until he has to do something.

The second test comes in the next week or so, after the shadow cabinet elections. he will then have to be very careful with the hand he is dealt, and that will test his abilities to be both strong, and diplomatic simultaneously. For instance, Ed Balls will finish high in the shadow poll, and his performance during the campaign has earned him a high position. With his background, Shadow Chancellor might seem ideal, yet, during the campaign Mr Balls' line was very Keynesian in opposing cuts. Whether right or wrong, if Ed Miliband wants to carry through his promise not to oppose all the cuts, having a treasury spokesman with that attitude would be playing into coalition hands. Therefore, a non economic post would probably be best.

Andy Burnham will also expect a promotion, though less troublesome from that point of view. Diane Abbott, if elected, would probably be an ideal at International Development. It is an area that would enable her to show she is capable of cabinet rank, and isn't just a protest voice. She would also be against the hitherto excellent Andrew Mitchell, and I think would enable her to have decent debates.

David Miliband, is the big problem, but not in the way that he would seek to sew division, or cause trouble for his brother. David is naturally hurt by the result, he expected to win, and although as he said today, that is something you have to prepare for, losing so narrowly to your own brother is a blow. As runner up, David would feel entitled to a big job, and already having been Foreign Secretary, that really only leaves the exchequer, as shadow Home Secretary would not be big enough. So, it's all down to whether David feels he could work closely with Ed, in the near future.

Ed Miliband's third test will be his first PMQ's, because although this on its own isn't conclusive, it will show his ability to act under pressure. If he does badly, it will put more on him, and if he doesn't improve quickly, the mutterings may begin. If he does brilliantly, it means he will need to be consistently good. Prime Minister's question's is pure theatre, but the only bit of parliament a lot of people will ever watch. So, if he does well in the other debates, but not there, he will be judged harshly.

The fourth, and biggest test in the next few weeks, is the spending review, and how he combats that. If he is perceived as having provided a sensible, and well argued case, for the stance he takes, then it will give him a lot of credit to take forward. If, however, he is seen as having failed to provide reasons why he opposes the coalitions policies, it may not be fatal, but would certainly ensure a long journey back for him. he really will have a short honeymoon period, but he needs to use whatever he gets well.

He will have a shadow on his shoulder throughout, as many people will quickly want to say, 'If only it had been David,' and this will either inspire, or defeat him. No doubt any right wingers reading this will automatically say he will fail. But as I stated at the beginning, we do not know at this stage, and can not. He may grow into a great leader of the party, and really have the coalition worried, or become the interim leader they are saying?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Being Ed?

So, the Labour Party has made its choice, and Ed Miliband is now the leader. The eventual results of this will not be shown for some time, but it would be a mistake either for Labour to see him as leading to the promised land, or the Tories or Liberal Democrats to write him off. You don't get to the place he is now, without talent and intelligence, and the ability to make your case, or stand your ground.

Those who know nothing about politics have christened him 'Red' Ed, which demonstrates a real lack of political knowledge. Ed Miliband is a typical social democrat which is not the same thing as being a socialist by any stretch of the imagination.

The public will now need to get to know him, and decide whether they like what they see and hear. That, of course, is the issue, and would be the same for any leader. However, he will have a baptism of fire on October 20th, as the coalition present the spending review. During the campaign he said we should have an alternative ready, and I hope he carries through on that. If he fails to do so, it would put him straight onto the back foot.

However, that is for the future, even if it is the very near future. There will be a lot of goodwill towards him, and he has a short honeymoon ahead of him. He needs to grab it, and present himself as a serious heavyweight politician, starting on tomorrow's Andrew Marr Show.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, people, led by the media, are prone to instant judgements, whereas it will take him time to create his public persona. Just as it did for David Cameron when he became Tory leader, after all, at the beginning of his campaign, his standing was at 5%.

There is also, in the end, a huge difference between being leader, and just a member, no matter how influential, or senior you may be. Leadership is a totally different beast. Think about how Nick Clegg said last week, how different it was being in government, to being in opposition, and how much harder it was.

Ed Miliband, will be a different person to how he was in cabinet or just an ordinary opposition shadow, he will now have to decide the direction, and the policy, and persuade others that that is the right way to go. That in the end will be the real test of his leadership. It's all very well leading the opposition to the government, but leading your own forces, is often more difficult, as honest Tories will admit, watching the way the right wing of the Conservative Party is constantly sniping against the leadership, and the coalition policies.

I give Ed my support, but it can't be unconditional, because that would be irresponsible. Labour needs to reposition itself to the centre-left, as the 'New' Labour agenda has been somewhat hijacked by the Cameron wing of the Tory Party. I don't think he will take us far to the left, but position us near the ground the Liberal Democrats tried to grab, with some success, before they went into government.

So if Ed does that, i will be happy enough, if he lurches too far left, I will be critical. So, best wishes and good luck Ed, and let's go to it!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A tribute to Harriet Harman

Polling for the Labour leadership election ends today, with the result being announced on Saturday afternoon. I will look forward to this, and even if, as looks likely, my candidate fails, it will still be an exciting event, as we look forward to the direction our new leader is aiming to take us.

The five candidates will line up, expectantly, all hoping they have defied the odds to come through, or at least, confirm their positions amongst the perty heirarchy. Of course, poor results, especially for Ed Balls, or either Miliband, would end their prospects of leading the party in the future, if things go badly over the next year or so.

However, there is one person missing from the field, and it is someone of whom, I never thought I would find myself saying this, and that is Harriet Harman. I would like to take this occasion to pay tribute to the way she has led the party through this difficult period, and defied many expectations.

Ever since circumstances decreed Harriet was to become acting leader of the party, she has done so with verve and humour. It proved a steep learning curve, as in her first PMQ's against Cameron, she chose to go on anonymity of rape suspevcts, an important personal issue for her. But since then, she has stepped aside from these issues, and chosen to attack the government on the policies they are enacting, as well as the occasional pointing out of discrepancies betwenn election statements and actions.

It was quickly evident that Cameron had a lot of respect for her, and also a liking, an aspect missing from his duals with Gordon Brown. This was demonstrated by the fulsome tribute he paid to her at her final PMQ's as acting leader. But, there had been a couple of occasions when he had asked why she wasn't running for the leadership. Even allowing for a bit of mischeif making on Mr Cameron's part, it became a genuine question as time went on.

Harriet's leadership has been exemplary, and showed what someone can do, once the opportunity arises. She has demonstrated that if she ever had become leader, she was more than up to the job, as I said, something I never thought I would say. She has also held the government to account, without a clear direction. The coalition have kept on saying that Labour haven't provided alternatives, yet, only a truly stupid government, would expect a party to be able to do that, when in the middle of a leadership election. Harriet, rightly, felt unable to speak on behalf of the party, other than to present alternative views we had campaigned on in the election, because she felt she did not have a mandate to do so. That position will change from Saturday!

So thank you harriet for all your efforts over recent months. I hope you will continue to serve the party in the combative way you have over the years, and continue to fight for the things important to you, even if we don't necessarily agree.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The last ten days!

We are now in the ten days of the Labour leadership contest, or eight if consider that voting ends on the 22nd, and the party is now going to need to look towards the post government world.

That is not to say we haven't been vigorously opposing those moves we believe the coalition to be mistaken in, but David Cameron is wrong when he says that none of the contenders have said what they would do. They all have, on many occasions, but as they have only been able to oppose their particular remits in the House (except for Diane Abbott, public statements on the policies of the coalition have been less frequent.

As Harriet Harman has only been the acting leader, she has rightly been reluctant to put forward alternative policies, other than those that were in the manifesto, because she felt she did not have a remit from the party to do so. Therefore, it has been difficult for the party to oppose the government as effectively as we would have liked, simply because we have not had a leader setting direction, whether we agree with it or not.

The media have been very disappointed in the contest, not because it hasn't been well conducted, or because the candidates are mostly putting forward their ideas for the future, but because it has been just like that. They wanted a bloodbath, and have consistently attempted to plant stories of this candidate or that briefing against another, or the differences between the Miliband brothers.

Yet, they do not take into account that this is a multi-contestant election, in which each is vying for the post. Of course there are differences, and even brothers are going to disagree on some areas, that's What happens when they are brought up to think for themselves, and not clones. But, the contest has been conducted in a an atmosphere of collegiate respect, and the media will no doubt attempt to build up antipathy between the winner, and the losers. I hope, without much expectation, that they are able to tell the difference between the natural post result disappointment, and any opposition to the new leader.

So, these last ten days are very important. Many members, and affiliates are still to cast their votes, and will be considering very carefully where to put their 1-5. It is not the job of this blog to state the case for a particular candidate, but urge you to just think carefully about the direction the party needs to go in.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

9/11 remenbered

For the last few days, out television stations have been showing various programmes related to the incidents of September 11th 2001. This day has become famous as 9/11 (due to way the Americans write their dates, and is one of the most iconic dates in modern history).

For our parents many can remember where they were when they heard the President Kennedy had been shot, and no doubt older readers will remember where they were when particular incidents occurred. These events are far and few between, but I would think that virtually all of you who read this, will remember where you were when you heard what was happening in New York that day.

In those days I was a lorry driver, delivering insulation materials around the east and south east of the country. I don't listen to much music radio, but I always enjoyed listening to Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley, otherwise known as Mark and Lard, on Radio One in the afternoons.

I was delivering in Suffolk, when news started to filter through around 13.45 that day. At first it was just being reported as an incident, as no one knew what was going on after the first 'plane flew into a tower. But once the second incident happened, it was obvious that this was an organised attack. The whole tone became very sombre, and the re were constant reports coming in on the evolving situation.

I finished my round, and returned to work to load up for the next day. Right next door was a timber company, and their driver's would be out for several days at a time, and had sleeper cabs. As you can imagine, it was the main topic of conversation, but no one really knew what was going on. One of the drivers from next door turned up, and he had put the television on in his cab, and so we flocked around it, watching as the story unfolded. I can't remember exactly, but I think we may even have been watching when the first tower collapsed.

So that evening I watched it on the TV when I got home, and then went out. It was strange that with a couple of friends, we had obtained tickets to a League Cup match that night between Colchester and Barnsley. Naturally there had been discussions as to whether the games that night should go ahead, and it was decided they should. As we walked up to the ground, one of our group was telling how he, and his colleagues, had been sent home as they worked at Canary Wharf, and there were concerns that buildings in Britain would also be targets.

The aftermath of 9/11 are well known, but are not for this, this is about that day, and the many lives that were lost. It is also to recognise the courage and sacrifice of the emergency services in New York who entered the burning buildings as those that could, fled. Many died that day, which is what makes the turning of it into a weapon for political, Iraq, and personal, Terry Jones, motives, sad and despicable.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Blighted man!

Today on the 9th September 1754 William Bligh, infamous captain of The Bounty was born. Possibly the greatest navigator in British naval history, whose reputation is forever tarnished by the events of 1787.

Yet, a knowledge of sea-faring life in the eighteenth century shows Bligh was no worse than any other captain, in the way he punished his crew. Indeed, he took very great interest in his crew's diet, ensuring fruit and vegetables were available, and that regular exercise was undertaken. He did have a reputation for failing to punish, when it was often felt he should, and was very reluctant to use the death penalty. His great weakness was he tended to favouritism, and set it on Fletcher Christian, who as we know led the mutineers.

The films give the impression that Bligh was overwhelmed by mutineers, but in fact he had the majority of the crew on his side, but as Bligh was already bound, they didn't put up resistance. The crew were then cast adrift, and all Bligh had was a sextant, and a pocket watch.

After losing a man in a skirmish on Tofua, in order to gain supplies, they sailed to Timor, a voyage of some 3,600 miles. Bligh, who had perfected his skills under Cook, amazingly got his men to Timor after 47 days, without losing another. A truly remarkable tale of seamanship and discipline. Not what you would expect of a tyrant.

Although he suffered more than his share of bad fortune during his career, being one of many captains whose crews mutinied in 1797, yet he had a very successful career. That same year, he lost only seven men on The Director, when they engaged three Dutch ships simultaneously. He was part of Nelson's fleet at Copenhagen, and became a vice-Admiral.

He became Governor of New South Wales in 1805, when the so called 'Rum rebellion' occurred. Yet Bligh's time was considered to be a good one, especially in his attitude and treatment of new settlers, who named many of their children after him.

William Bligh is probably only matched by Richard III is having an unfairly besmirched reputation, and his feat in sailing his small ship, loaded with eighteen men over three and a half thousand miles is possibly remarkable act of seamanship in naval history.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Bess is best!

Today we celebrate the birth of Elizabeth, Queen of England on September 7th 1533. After a turbulent forst twenty-five years of life, she eventually inherited the throne from her sister Mary in 1558.

Elizabeth was frighteningly clever, speaking something like five languages by the time she was five, and able to read and translate on her own, texts from and into French, Latin, Greek and Italian. But she also had grreat charm, and wit, and the writings of those who owed her no favour, confirm this.

She was the 'Virgin Queen' (an image carefully managed), 'Good Queen Bess'
who at the same time, with the help of her cheif spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (former Recorder of Colchester, tuened England into the first modern police state. Yet despite this, she is considered to be a truly great monarch, and is one of those that all britiah people know of without hesitation.

Elizabeth reigned for forty-five years, and is to my mind the greatest monarch ever to sit on the throne of England or Britian. She helped restore England as a force in the world as it was known at the time, and her reputation is confirmed by her great speech at Tilbury in 1588, on the eve of the defeat of the Great Armada.

There were many attempts to bring her down, not least by Catholics who lamented the passing of Mary (called 'Bloody Mary' by subsequent protestant historians), who wished to restore the 'old faith' to England. Elizabeth tried to guide a middle way between the two, although eventually her protestrantism won through.

There have been three great portrayals of her over the years, Glenda Jackson (MP for Hampstead) and Helen Mirren on television, and Cate Blanchett on the big screen. Elizabeth is a symbol of all that Britain was, and how we like to portray ourselves in history. A resolute, determined nation, who will not bow to anybody, and like to do things our own way.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Alternative opportunity!

I find myself in the position today, of totally disagreeing with the Labour Party, even if I understand their reasoning. However, if they're smart, there is a get out clause for them, which I hope they will take.

This afternoon they will debating the second reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and Labour seem to be saying they will not be supporting AV, because the Bill includes the measures to gerrymander the constituency boundaries in favour of the Conservatives.

I believe this move would be wrong for all sorts of reasons, both morally, we had support for AV in our manifesto, and had produced legislation in the previous parliament. Secondly, it would be politically corrupt, which is linked to pouint one, and take away our opportunities to attack the Liberal Democrats on accusations of political opportunism.

The Bill is likely to pass, so we would merely just open ourselves up to accusations of opportunism, which would be true. We should support the things we do, such as the principle of AV, but then vote against those we don't. We can support Bernard Jenkins on deleying the referendum so it is held separately to the local and devolved elections next May. But we can oppose his attempts to fix the referendum on the lines of the 1978 referendums on devolution.

There is however, an opportunity to embarrass the coalition, without compromising on our manifesto commitments. Green MP Caroline Lucas has put down an amendment calling for a PR alternative to be added to the ballot paper.

We could support this, thereby forcing the Liberal Democrats to either vote in favour of something what in their manifesto, or against it opening themselves up to all sorts of accusations on betraying their voters. This would, of course, still be opportunism on Labour's part, but it would just be that, and not a betrayal of a commitment.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Flattering to decieve?

A good result for England tonight, as they eventually overcome the Bulgarians by a 4-0 scoreline. But, it would be foolish to get carried away, despite the ITV commentators wanting to tell us it was a brilliant performance. It was adequate, with too many square balls, against a team that gave the ball away even more than we did.

I was pleased to see Jermaine Defoe do so well, and he looked dangerous all evening. Most of the other players had good spells, but then others when they were anonymous, James Milner, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry in the main. Apart from defoe the players who came out best were, in my opinion;

Joe Hart - always alert, and saved England from a number of embarrassing situations, not least Glen Johnson.
Jermaine Defoe - for obvious reasons.
Ashley Cole - always looked to get forward, and set up the first goal very well.
Matt Dawson and Phil Jagielka - worked well together, and put the foot in to make a number of important blocks.

England deserved to win, but 2-0 would probably have been a fairer reflection of the balance of play. Capello has got away with 4-4-2 in a qualifier, but on Tuesday the swiss will provide a stiffer test. Will he have the imagination to change if necessary?

England's ennui!

England play their first competitive match since the World Cup debacle this evening against Bulgaria. One of the things we are all eager to know is has Fabio Capello learned anything from the experience. In last month's friendly against Hungary there were optimistic signs, when he started and finished with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Unfortunately, he seems to have reverted to the failed 4-4-2 for tonight's game, at least at the beginning. The team is

Hart, G Johnson, A Cole, Gerrard, Dawson, Jagielka, Walcott, Barry, Defoe, Rooney, Milner

This distinct lack of imagination is a concern, as if we qualify, the finals will be even harder than the World Cup!

Capello should take this opportunity to bring in the fresh faces, and play Adam Johnson, Jack Wilshere etc and build for 2014 or even beyond.

Oh ballots!

There is the well known phrase, 'Vote early, vote often,' which was spotted on an election banner in the United States in March 1858. When I posted off my ballot this morning, I had certainly voted early, and indeed often. However, these were not multiple votes in one election, but in several sections. As well as the leadership, there were ballots for the National Policy Forum, the National Executive Committee and the youth candidates to the NPF.

Whatever mistakes Labour has made over the last few years in stopping listening to its members, and the realisation that this reconnection needs to be made, the structures already exist to enable that to happen. Labour does not need to radically reform itself to bring the membership back in, it just needs to switch its hearing aid back on.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Blair interview

One thing that comes across about Tony Blair, watching him being interviewed by Andrew Marr, is the almost total lack of regret. It is true that he has much to be proud of, in the way he led the government that reformed public services, and very much the way Britain feels about itself. A more tolerant and open nation is the positive legacy he leaves behind him.

However, there was no admittance that he got things wrong, especially in the invasion of Iraq. Andrew Marr is usually a very forensic interviewer, and challenged Blair on many subjects, but on this he seemed to let him get away with it. Indeed, it seemed to me, that Tony Blair was almost denying what he said in the speech to parliament in March 2003 regarding the forty-five minute claim.

This became even more of a worry when he spoke about Iran, and was more or less saying he would back military action there too. Even under his doctrine of intervention, which is against international law, though I am always reminded of Hedley Bull in these situations, in which aggression is first condemned, but is accepted if successful, invasion of iran without a specific UN resolution to do so would be illegal.

Andrew Marr was correct when he said that Tony Blair had indeed become a conservative, and that David Cameron would be applauding him. I won't go as far as saying he has left Labour, but his future vision would have taken Labour very much into the territory now occupied by the Cameron wing of the Tory party. I will now read his book, and let's see if he explains himself better there.