Monday, October 25, 2010

Public Sector Virtue

Jackie Ashley (private sector journalist) defends the public sector from the right-wing perception that it's all simply comprised of a bunch of parasitic, unproductive leeches, in the Guardian today. Looking forward to reading a defence of the bankers as genuinely upright, wealth creating men and women of corporate virtue, but am not holding my breath!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Politics of Spin - in the Commons

Great story in, of all places, the Mail on Sunday this morning, showing how Danny Alexander had to move along the Commons bench to make room for Nick Clegg to hove into camera shot during the Chancellor's Spending Review. All so that the Commons cameras could then project the trio of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, without Alexander getting in the way. The story has given Alan Johnson his first good line as shadow chancellor, when he commented that Danny Alexander 'disappeared faster than a family's child benefit'.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tower Hamlets and Labour's Misery

The election of an Islamic fundamentalist mayor for Tower Hamlets may have poor repercussions for Ken Livingstone. Lutfur Rahman was Labour leader of the Council before being removed, and was dropped as Labour's candidate for the new post of executive mayor of Tower Hamlets. The national Labour party appears to have had very good reasons for its actions, and did at least manage to distance itself from a man who, had they kept him on their lists, would have become an even more serious embarrassment. Somehow, the eternal maverick Ken Livingstone failed to get the message, but then, show him an extremist and he's right there. He campaigned for Rahman, standing as an independent, rather than the official Labour candidate for mayor.

This may be bad for Livingstone, but there are serious downsides for Tower Hamlets as a whole from Rahman's election. The Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan reports on the affair here, as does Labour member Luke Akehurst on his blog here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Headline Agreement

The Spending Review was so clear that there can be absolute agreement on who the cuts are, not.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

US Politics

With the mid-term elections approaching, and a likely harsh verdict on President Obama's first two years,the BBC's Mark Mardell reflects on Obama's apparent fall from grace, and asks why things have gone wrong for the reforming president. He refers to an article in the New York Times which uses an interview with the president to offer further reflections.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Schools Question Time

For politics set members, the information about Schools Question Time is here, with the application form questions here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

PMQs and Ed Miliband's Debut

David Cameron made a storming start when he was a novice Leader of the Opposition facing Tony Blair at his first Prime Minister's Questions, pointing at a clearly weary Blair and exclaiming that "You were the future once!" Well, now it was Cameron's turn to face a new Opposition Leader, although he has himself barely got his feet behind the Prime Ministerial Despatch Box yet, so weariness wasn't an option!

Several commentators called the exchange for Miliband - the BBC's Nick Robinson, the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh and the Spectator's James Forsyth for example. Certainly Miliband was considered, understated even, and rightly eschewed flashy statements or corny one liners. He came across as a man genuinely trying to get the truth out of the Prime Minister, and rightly focused on the child benefit policy, still one whose weakness doens't appear to have been properly explained or corrected by the government. Although there was a nervousness to his performance initially - or at any rate an apparent nervousness - he came across with sincerity. This is certainly not a leader to be under-estimated by the Tories. But whether or not he 'won' PMQs I'm not so sure. Cameron remained commanding and fluent, and appeared for the most part to be dominating the exchange. It's possible that expectations may have played a part in some observers' enthusiasm for Miliband, but you can always make up your ownm ind and go to the broadcast of the exchange here - it's near the beginning.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

St Vince Loses His Halo

Pity poor Vince Cable. An intelligent man, once able to command universal respect for authoritative economic pronouncements that could never expect to be tested in the cold light of real decision making, he now faces the nightmare of any politician in danger of wielding real power - the need to row back from rash promises. It must have seemed a great idea for the Liberal Democrats, in opposition, to demand the removal of university tuition fees. After all, it not only differentiated them neatly - and positively - from both main parties, but their pre-election expectations would hardly have indicated that they might ever need to actually deliver on such a generous promise. Alas, the turn of events that has given Clegg and Cable ministerial cars has also given them the thorny economic realities of higher education funding.

At least Vince is not alone in his need to retract an unthinkingly generous promise. I seem to remember a buoyant Labour Party under Tony Blair declaring their opposition to tuition fees. The Tory governments of Thatcher and Major never dared to introduce them, fearing the opprobrium that would be heaped upon them if they did so. Blair, on the other hand, had no problem as a new Labour Prime Minister in finally breaking the protective barrier between university students and tuition fees. Vince Cable should thus at least disregard current Labour criticisms of his actions - he is only carrying on where they left off.

The New Ruling Class

For a long time we had the aristocracy. Then came the distinctly lower middle class leaders (Heath, Thatcher), interspersed with the odd scion of the genuine working class (Callaghan). Now, who are our masters? Simon Head in the Guardian considers the new ruling class represented by the wealthy products of top public schools that are Cameron and Clegg. For class watchers amongst you, an entertaining read (and due thanks to blogger Skipper for noting this article).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bloggers - Inadequate, Pimpled and Single

Oh dear. That description above is the [abbreviated] one applied by the BBCs Andrew Marr to bloggers, and all I can say in response is that I'm not pimpled. Actually, Marr described bloggers as "socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting." I don't think he likes us, but when you take away the range of adjectival epithets he applies to us, at heart is an issue about online debate, and just how helpful it is, or indeed how informed. Whether anyone likes it - even an anyone as esteemed as Andrew Marr - is irrelevant, since it is certainly here to stay.

The quality of online debate is undoubtedly variable, and Marr's point that too much of it is simply angry and abusive can be verified from a look at any one of hundreds of political blogs and, even more, the comments attending most of their posts. Marr's successor as political editor of the BBC, Nick Robinson, has also gone on record to suggest that new media comment fails in the crucial area of reflectivity. It simply provides a new forum for uninformed, knee-jerk reactions, few of which genuinely widen the scope of our political knowledge.

I have some sympathy with the view of the two beeb people, despite my own incursion into this much abused field. But they miss the fact that online political engagement is crucial in enlarging the sphere of both political activists and interested observers in a way that remains important to the health of a liberal democracy. Sometimes, the 'blogosphere' can have an impact. The most prominent of the political blogs is probably that of the pseudonymous Guido Fawkes, and while I detest his witch-hunt against former Hague adviser Chris Myers, there is no doubting that he has a right to question how public money is being spent or to raise up issues of hypocrisy (as with his current campaign to reveal how many shadow cabinet members are millionaires) or pose awkward questions to newly elevated MPs like Ed Miliband's campaign manager, and now shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan. Other blogs, such as those run by politics lecturer Bill Jones (Skipper), or former lobby correspondent Paul Linford, clearly provide the informed comment of seasoned political observers, comment that is every bit as acute as that available from print or broadcast journalists.

The problem with the blogosphere is, however, not just that it can be seen as hysterical and vindictive (and in that respect hardly any different from the tabloid press), but that it can also take itself too seriously. The recent election for the chairmanship of the Conservative Party youth organisation Conservative Future drew a flurry of online activity that kept officials at Conservative Central Office engaged for many, many man hours. The online debate about the election was described to me as vehement, malicious, even slanderous at times. And the net result of all this online hot air? A mere 200 votes cast, out of a putative membership of 18,000. On a larger canvas, the Political Studies Association's magazine 'Political Insight' carried an article putting the online political sphere in its place, when it looked at the internet election that never was. The authors note that despite the huge sums devoted to digital engagement, very few votes were shifted as a result. The Tories' more traditional telephone canvassing effort proved far more significant, at a fraction of the cost, while Jack Straw's Blackburn campaign, devoid of digital engagement but very firmly focused on local activity, saw his vote increase by 5.7%.

Andrew Marr may be sounding a little too defensive, as a well known broadcast journalist whose own private life was exposed on the internet not long ago. He raises some legitimate points, but he is ironically in danger of over-stating the impact of the internet, whilst ignoring the areas where it is a healthy complement to the existing media.

Tory Teacher Trouble

Katharine Birbalsingh returns to work today after a rather turbulent week. The blogger Cranmer has an update on the somewhat murky political circumstances surrounding her suspension here.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Argument of the Right

At the Conservative Party Conference last week, Daniel Hannan MEP was a hugely popular speaker at the right-wing fringe events. A cogent, articulate and personable man, he is the current hero of the recidivist Tory right. Although he is a British representative in the European Parliament, his real ideological home is America, and he has just written "The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America", in which he urges them not to follow the European route towards statism and welfare. To mark its publication, he has been interviewed by the right-wing National Review, and the interview makes for genuinely fascinating reading. He correctly marks the historical beginning of America's move towards greater federal state action with the two Roosevelts, especially FDR. He rightly sees FDR as in some ways a model for Obama, although draws, naturally enough, rather different conclusions to those of liberal sympathisers from this comparison.

Since he covers American politics and the broader themes of relevant ideological trends, and always in a very cogent form, this interview is a must-read for A2 students, but it is illuminating for any observer of politics to read one of the more articulate assessments of right-wing Toryism around, and straight from the horse's mouth in a sense. I hate the fact, as a One Nation Tory, that I sometimes listen to Hannan and agree with him! Happily, this was less of a problem in reading the interview.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Teacher In Trouble For Speaking At Tory Conference

The nature of the modern Conservative Party Conference is that its main arena is a bland speech-fest for senior party figures. The days of delegate debate have gone, and in its place is a parade of established statements from ministers or shadow ministers that occasionally inspire but more often induce somnolism. Thus, it was good to see that in the Conservatives' Education debate, some figures from the real world of teaching were put up to talk of their experiences. One of the best received of these was an inner city primary school deputy head, Katharine Birbalsingh. One of my colleagues who attended the debate was enthusiastic in his praise of Ms. Birbalsingh's forthright assessment of the school system and why, in her view, it is failing poor kids. Certainly she received an extremely warm reception. Her analysis may not be to everyone's taste, but there is no doubt that in claiming that education ideology now inhibits schools from really pushing the brightest of their pupils, and that over-concern of politically 'correct' doctrines now makes discipline even more difficult, she hit a nerve. Alas, poor Katharine. She has hit such a nerve that her school has asked her to work from home until it decides whether to discipline her or not.

Her school is, of course, entitled to take whatever action it sees fit if it believes she has in some way harmed their reputation, and Ms. Birbalsingh might have been advised to at least inform her head teacher of what she was planning on saying. But it would be a pity if ultra sensitivity to criticisms of the education system from within lead to disciplinary action against this teacher, thus inihibiting other teachers around the country from voicing their own thoughts. Education should thrive on open debate, and if Ms. Birbalsingh is continuing to do a good job at her new school, her desire to contribute to the wider national debate should not be a matter for rebuke. Otherwise we will find that the contributions of 'real people' become as bland and uninformative as those we already get from the politicians.

You can see Ms. Birbalsingh's speech here (scroll in to 1hr. 5mins), and read the predictable outrage of the Daily Mail at her treatment here.

UPDATE: The blogger 'Dizzy' has uncovered an interesting point about the 'executive head teacher' who is responsible for telling Ms. Birbalsingh to 'work from home' prior to possible discipline measures. The head is one Dr. Irene Bishop, who in her previous headship allowed Labour to launch their general election campaign from her then school. Seems like this might not be such a clear cut case of educational principles after all.....

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

How Tory Conferences Work

Internet access here is ridiculously limited if you've forgotten to bring your own laptop, so a short reflection from the Tory Conference for the moment. Liam Fox, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt have been this morning's keynote speakers, and each has managed to demonstrate the facility of gaining ready applause by recycling some old tabloid fears or pushing the Tory crowd pleasing buttons. Thus, Liam Fox and William Hague both get decent responses to the "We will always support our brave forces" line, and Liam Fox managed to regurgitate some of the stories about men in uniform being refused service or harassed at shops, to rising anger from the few delegates still awake. I think there may have been one incident of that type a few years ago, but it goes down well here to remind us all that we are the party of "Our Boys" (rendering the conference a bit like a reality tabloid).

William Hague draws the prize for emptiest gesture receiving most applause yet. He announced a 'sovereignty clause' in any piece of EU legislation to pass through parliament henceforth. An utterly meaningless clause, since the the sovereignty of parliament stands as one of the few genuinely unquestioned aspects of our famously uncodified constitution. But it drew massive applause because (a) it involved an attack on Tory hate institution, the EU, and (b) he used the words "our ancient parliament" which always goes down well with this patriotic, history loving audience. Mind you, if they think parliament's current liberties and rights are ancient they may need a crash course from new History Tsar Simon Schama.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt employed the speech tactic beloved of David Cameron, by standing centre stage with no notes. Clearly his first bid for the leadership succession. He also drew applause by praising competitive sports. The ageing and rather somnolent audience clearly likes the idea of other, younger people competing hard. Hunt threw in a few button pushing phrases that seemed to suggest failure in competition really led to success, and then produced a tabloid-esque story about a primary school cancelling sports day because they were afraid children would fall down. Cue collective horror from outraged audience, whose most active role this morning was to squeeze into the seats.

We may have a new, fresh-faced coalition government, but tory delegates have merely emerged from a long state of suspended animation to carry on where they left off in the 90s.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Paxman's Nadir

There are undoubtedly better things to be doing on a Friday night - one friend has updated her facebook status to note that she will be drinking jager bombs in Piccadilly this evening, and that's one option. As it happens, I ended up half-heartedly watching Newsnight in between social reading sessions ("Team of Rivals" still). Half-heartedly, until I saw the neutering of that once fearsome interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Quite why a significant section of the BBC's premier news show was devoted to the essentially frivolous (when he's not being essentially offensive) character of Russell Brand is unclear. Maybe it's a slow news day, this day when Rahm Emanuel decided to leave the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago, and Pervez Musharaff looked as if he might be getting back into Pakistani politics. Whatever the reason, we got a ludicrously light interview with a man whose celebrity (Brand) remains both inexplicable and bizarre. Paxman grinned away at the motormouth before him, failing completely to ask any sort of challenging question, reverting really to the sort of deference his ilk once reserved for politicians - "Tell us, Mr. Brand [cue disastrous grin], have you anything more to tell the nation?" Brand talks quickly to disguise the superficiality of his views, and Paxman, the feared interrogator of wimpish politicians, drinks it all up. This is really just a little media love-fest. Paxman and Brand are united in their contempt for the BBC management that pays or paid them so much, and had a cute 20 minutes or so to chuckle together about it. Paxman offered Brand the current BBC compliance forms for him to mock, and bought wholesale Brand's considerable re-vamping of his pathetic phone call to Andrew Sachs. From a politician such revisionism would have provoked his utmost ire and contempt - from Brand, it provoked nothing but nodding agreement.

If this really is the best that Friday night Newsnight can come up with, they could save a lot of money by replacing the well-paid Paxman with a cheaper low-budget variety show. Or they could leave characters like Brand in the celebrity bubble they inhabit and venture out into the real world for some hard news instead.

The Impact of AV

The use of the Alternative Vote delivered the Labour Party a leader who was not their first choice. They're stuck with Ed Miliband now - and he may yet prove more impressive than his over-rated brother (see below) - but the impact of AV on General Elections has now been given a more in depth academic study in Parliamentary Affairs magazine. Tory blogger Iain Dale has referenced the new article with the gloss that AV would reward the Lib Dems with almost permanent king-maker status. This certainly seems to be the conclusion of the research done using the 2010 election data by the article's authors. However, voters are nothing if not unpredictable, and as the German experience shows, king-making parties too can suffer the wrath of the voters, who may choose to reject them completely. AV is a flawed system certainly, and it is a poor PR alternative to offer the voters in the proposed referendum, but Mr. Dale's concerns may be a bit presumptuous even so. The full article is here (requires pdf to read), and while it is a thorough study of the various ways AV would have affected the 2010 election, it does admittedly require a bit of fortitude to get through all of the statistical peregrinations.

The Shallowness of the 'New Politics'

Peter Oborne shows once again why he is a must-read, in today's column for the Daily Telegraph, comparing David Miliband's rapid and undignified exit after losing to the fortitude and reslience of earlier politicians.