Monthly Archives: March 2010

Why George Osborne is an Optimist – and Why He Needs to Be

at Birmingham Uni

The knives are well and truly out for George Osborne.  The Observer reports that Labour are going to target him as the shadow teams ‘weakest link’.  The polling data (referenced in the Observer article) confirms that the public are averse to him – and I’ll add to the evidence with a less scientific straw-poll of my own ‘vote undecided’ mates all of whom see him as a liability.   To pick out the key words from their objections to him he apparently lacks ‘experience’, ‘credibility’ and ‘gravitas’.

It is maddening there is any doubt in the electorate’s mind  who is the safer pair of hands for the economy.  The economy should be an ‘Open Goal’ for the Tories but somehow they seem intent on blasting over-the-bar from close range.  Osborne is finally realising that he’s got to turn this public perception around.  There is no room on the front bench for someone who wants to be a back room strategist – if he wants one of the ‘Great Offices of State’ he has to get out there  and land his message in the minds of the public.    Is he really up to the task?

I like to judge politicians in the flesh so on Friday I went along to the University of Birmingham to listen to him deliver a speech there.   He spoke with only hand scribbled notes, not quite a sharp as Cameron who can manage these things without any reference material, but certainly better than most current politicians who wouldn’t dare step up to a lectern without a fully typed speech and/or autocue.

He spoke of three central themes the Tories wish to land:

  • That they have a credible plan for the deficit.  He delved into some of the detail making clear that it is the structural deficit he has to target and that we are in the bonkers position that the State is still spending £4 for every £3 it receives.  That we need to make the cuts ‘not on the backs of the poorest in society’.  He hinted any tax cuts would come from NI before he aimed at the 50% tax band – and indeed the NI cut seems to have been made official policy this morning.  He was more open about where he would cut income than where he would cut expenditure and I know that annoys people.  They do have to add this detail to the public domain soon.
  • That there are plans to ‘get business’ going again.    He gave some detail on the help to be given to small businesses.  As the owner of a small business myself there is real gold in these proposals.
  • To create a more balanced economy.  Again, he delved into a little detail on how Tory policies on education reform, welfare-to-work, energy policy and broadband infrastructure would pull together to achieve that end.

All the content of the speech was fine – he certainly pushed all the right buttons for me.   If there was a problem it wasn’t the content – it was the delivery.

It is hard to put your finger on what is ‘wrong’ with the delivery.    Some people are blessed with a presence , voice and stature that commands an audience to cling to every word .  They could frankly read out the dry text of a European Directive and keep an audience fully engaged.   George Osborne is not one of those people.  Politics should not be like that, it harms our democracy that it is.  To make the leap from manager to leader you need this X-factor.   I guess the point of the phrase ‘X-factor’ is that the ‘X’ is impossible to define.  Whatever it is: he hasn’t got it.

I guess the plan was always that he could cling onto Cameron’s coat tails to get the job then the missing ‘experience’, ‘credibility’ and ‘gravitas’ would grow by default as he made the job his own.  The calculation must have been that whilst he isn’t an electoral asset he wouldn’t be a liability and would be good at the job.  That ‘wouldn’t be a liability’ part of the assumption is now being tested.

We did get a five minute glimpse that it is within him on certain themes to strike the right chord.  In response to a question about the possibility of a double –dip recession he suddenly went a bit off-piste and talked about his personal optimism for Britain.

His point was that despite the global woe when you look at the global business cycle, and you look at the surge of economic activity in India, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, China and so on, as the manufacturing and service base they have created over the last few years settles down (which has been to a certain extent at our expense) so their new middle-class begins to embed middle-class spending habits.  When we look at the industries Britain still excels at – pharma, aerospace engineering, media, financial services, prestige brands, tourism etc – these are all things that this new global middle-class will push their new found wealth into.   We are poised to be big benefactors of that shift.  With the right policies to support our economy whilst the global cycle swings to this next stage – there can and should be great hope for the UK.

As he warmed to his optimistic theme he relaxed, his shoulders visibly dropped an inch, he smiled, his hands moved – there was passion there.  He had a compelling, well articulated narrative which he believed in.  In response the audience sat up straighter, leaned forward, listened closely – they were with him – they were engaged.  The moment ended as quickly as it had started when he then fielded a question about his role in managing both fiscal and monetary policy.  The spell was broken.

Cameron isn’t going to change horses this close to the finish line.   Osborne is the man and he has to drag himself out of this rut where he is being cast as a liability.  He needs to find something else on top of the depressing detail of what needs to be done to get us out of the economic hole – if you’re asking people for pain now, you have to have them believe that there will be less pain tomorrow.  The optimistic message is key – he should develop it and shout it from the rooftops.

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Getting Back The Lost Conservatives From ’97

On Monday Michael Gove gave a speech in which he hammered Labour over their links with the Unite union and savaged their mischief-maker Charlie Wheelan.  The attack on what is being called  ‘Labour’s New Militant tendancy’ got a fair amount of media coverage.  For me though, the really interesting bit of Gove’s speech was the level of empathy aimed at the ‘New Labour’ voter.   I’ll quote a bit from the start:

“Once or twice in a generation, we have watershed elections – where the future direction of the country depends on the outcome.   It happened in 1945 – when people chose to build a new Jerusalem on the rock of social solidarity rather than individual freedom.It happened in 1979 – when people decisively rejected the corporatist model that had dragged down the British economy and chose a new  way based on free enterprise, low taxes and union reform. And it happened in 1997 – when people were inspired by a message that politics could be different; that wealth and fairness could go hand-in-hand.”

Stating the obvious two of these three watershed elections were Conservative defeats.   What is interesting is that in Gove’s language there is no hint or suggestion that the public were wrong in ’45 or ’97 – just a calm acknowledgement of the choice they made and why they made it.  In other words ’empathy’.

He then ratcheted up even more of this  ’empathy’ – in a way that borders on outright worship for Blair as he drills down into the reasons for Labour’s appeal in ’97

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour leadership gradually came to realise that the changes of the Thatcher revolution were irreversible, because the British people did not want to reverse them. We did not want to go back to nationalised monopolies, class warfare, industrial strife and an economy defined by high inflation, higher interest rates and higher debt.

An increasingly classless Britain wanted a lifestyle which transcended class division – based on aspiration, freedom, opportunity – all found in the new market economy.  Tony Blair understood this – and it is why he went to such great lengths, and fought some considerable battles, to change his party.

And he goes on.  You can read the whole speech here and I recommend you do so.  I know that many Conservatives will be deeply uncomfortable with a lot of what he says – such acknowledgement of any of Blair’s achievements will not sit well with  many.   Stick with him though – you can learn from the way Blair won the electorate over  without admiring what he did with the power he won.  Fundamentally, Blair managed to appeal to people’s core conservative values without being lumbered down by ‘nasty party’ baggage.

The Conservative Party have no divine right to reclaim the vote of those who left them in ’97.  It is a two part equation; Labour have to lose them (check) then the Conservatives must win them back (still to play for). These folk still need to be convinced and the argument still has to be won.  But winning any argument is always so much easier when you show empathy and understanding first rather than arrogantly asserting your own view point and expecting dissenters to follow.  I like the language Gove has chosen in this speech.  I hope to hear far more along these lines from the Tory front-bench in the run-up to May 6th.  Game on.

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Filed under Centre Right, Politics, UK, UK Politics

A Thought on Lib Dem ‘Porn Queen’ Candidate

This weekend’s papers have had much gratuitous fun debating the virtues or otherwise of Anna Arrowsmith, a porn film director, as a Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Gravesend.  Examples of coverage can be found here or here.

My concern this Mothers day is with the one person that the papers always ignore when they go full barrel with coverage.  Can you imagine the pain this poor woman’s mother is going to feel when she sees her precious, innocent daughter in double-page spreads in the national media openly talking about having a career in… politics?

The shame of it.

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New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference

Yesterday I attended the New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference at the Commonwealth Club in central London.  There was cross-party representation looking at the big issues on school reform whoever wins the next election.  There was also a sample of guests from other countries to share their experiences of similar journeys.  I’ll not bore you with the reason why I was there – I suspect that will be a whole blog post in its own right soon.  Nor will I summarise what the New Schools Network is all about – you can find out all about them here.

What was interesting for me was listening to the three keynote speakers.  We had (Baroness) Sally Morgan from Labour, David Laws from the Lib Dems and Michael Gove from the Conservatives.  There was a surprising amount of consensus between the three.  I don’t think I am misrepresenting any of the speakers if I pick out the following common themes:

  • The Academy Programme has broadly been a force for good.  As with any programme there are known exceptions but they should not distract from the overall picture.
  • Whoever wins we will see a development/evolution of the thinking that went into Academy approach in the way we consider new schools
  • Whoever wins we can expect to see more disparate groups – including possibly ‘for-profit’ organisations and more parent-led collectives – joining the roster of providers
  • School Autonomy is a good thing.  Nobody on the panel said it directly but the implicit flip-side to this is that Local Authority meddling can be a hinderance to good school governance.

The disagreements between the parties were more around the implementation details than the ‘big idea’ of letting more schools run themselves.

The thing that really struck me though was Sally Morgan’s seeming reluctance to press ahead with new schools unless the capital was identified to support them with best-in-class building provision.  She hated the idea of schools opening in ‘converted office buildings where children cannot enjoy the richness of the broad curriculum that only a properly equipped school can offer’.   This bugged me at the time, and having reflected on it for 24 hours it bugs me even more now.  It is as if Labour believe that you cannot possibly be solving a problem unless you hurl money at it.  Her argument boils down to that she would rather have kids in adequate buildings so they can have a wide curriculum albeit with the crumby teaching, poor leadership and sapped morale that is present in failing schools; rather than have a narrower curriculum in less ideal temporary buildings that do at least have quality teaching, strong school leadership and a sense of mission and purpose in the institution.   Actually Sally, I would rather my children went to the second and how dare you and your lot deny me that choice.  Quality of teaching is far more important than the shiny new facilities.  Don’t get me wrong – ideally we aim for having both, but if the capital isn’t there now then let’s just get the quality of teaching and leadership up and get moving – the shiny new toys can follow as institutions start to prove their success.  Gove gets this.  You could see him bursting to just get on and get started.  So whilst there may be consensus on the overall direction of educational reform, there is difference about the appetite for the pace and depth of it.  This whole area is too important to pussyfoot about with for fear of hurting teaching union sensibilities.  My vote is going to the chap with the hunger and sense of urgency to tackle this head on: Michael  Gove.

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Filed under Education, UK, UK Politics