Category Archives: Centre Right

This Gove Grand Conspiracy

Michael Gove is not universally popular.  Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon.  This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings.  Oh yes he is.

Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan.   The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets.  They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies.  This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose.    The evidence is out there.  Join-the-dots.  The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate.  The man must be stopped.  Right?

Oh come on.  Get a grip.   Gove is no puppet-master.  Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders.  But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight.  Take the playing-fields storm.  Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’?     Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20.  Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie.  It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.

I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring  and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play.  This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense.  Don’t forget  Academies enter exactly the same exams.   Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables.  If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny.  Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver.  That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.

Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves.  It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track.  Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January.  I took mine over 20 years ago.   Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.

That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine  issue in the way students  had their expectations managed.  And the students themselves are blameless in that.  Had the change not  come ‘in year’ and  been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided.   Conspiracy? No.  Cock-up?  A little bit.  British policy development  was ever thus.

I’m no blind Gove fan-boy.  I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong.  It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now.  The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow.   Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them!  As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.

A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of  praising success.  Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time.   There are  schools out  there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge.  You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%.   They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves.  This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it.  And that is no bad thing.

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“1.6 Million Children in the UK Live in Severe Poverty”. Erm. Really?

Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’.   Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian.  Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head.  This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then).   So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’.   That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’.   I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’.    This figure needed some sniffing.

The original report is from Save the Children.  It can be downloaded here.  It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs).   A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.

When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution.  Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from.    We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.

Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time.  The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face.   I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham.   Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy.  To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous.  By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.

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Conservative Policy Forum Launch

The last time I heard Baroness Warsi speak her big thing was to make sure the Conservative party was “a political party, not a dining club”.   The sentiment was spot on.   New members (like myself), will have realised the party is good at getting money out of you, good at getting you to post leaflets, good at organising social events – but not so good at giving you any sense of voice or influence.   It’s not unreasonable to suppose that many people who might feel motivated to join a political party may have as much or more of  an interest in policy as they do in giving money, stuffing leaflets or attending BBQs.


Today Warsi took a step to address this by re-launching the Conservative Policy Forum.  100+ activists from across the UK gathered at the old Custard Factory in Birmingham.  The event got off to a bit of a stilted start, the morning session was a succession of speakers (Warsi, Jeremey Middleton, Fiona Hodgson and Natalie Elphick) who were individually good, but unfortunately had very repetitive content.   The gist was:

  • they were encouraging local associations to set up groups to discuss policy (all under the framework of ‘The Conservative Policy Forum’. )
  • This is intended to mirror the history of member involvement in the old CPC/CPF.  It is recognised the forerunner got broken somewhere over the last couple of decades and this initiative is about putting that right.
  • To  help facilitate these new groups they would share discussion papers each month
  • they had agreed clear channels to receive feedback on the discussion papers from the local groups .
  • They then have a process to consolidate all feedback and get it to the relevant Ministers
  • They’re also looking at launching a website to solicit similar input for those who cannot attend the meetings..

It needn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to tell us all that:  It took an hour and half.  The irony in launching something  to enable members to talk, rather than be talked to, by  lecturing the same message four times wasn’t lost.  It contributed to a little frustration in the audience which bubbled over into the first question and answer session.  I actually quite felt for Baroness Warsi – here she was launching a sincerely positive initiative yet was getting criticised for the ‘lack of democratic involvement’  – as a flavour she was asked:  “who elected the regional co-ordinators?  Who elected the forum council?  Who elected you Madam Chairman?  Why is this kick-off the first I’ve heard about it?”.    Leadership in a voluntary organisation is an exercise in herding cats and I don’t envy anyone who has to perform that role.  Warsi handled the more direct comments with self-deprecating aplomb and just about managed to stop the moaning minnies from sapping the energy out of the room.

Oliver Letwin came after lunch and did a sterling job in properly positioning the intended focus of the CPF.  He was crystal clear that the CPF must not become a forum to critique current policy implementation – that’s the opposition’s job.   Current policy is current policy and it is the Government’s job to properly implement it.  The CPF is there to inform the 2015 manifesto and respond to the needs of Britain as it will be then.   Letwin comes across as a bit of a policy wonk on TV and his manner on the box is not everyone’s cup of tea.  In the flesh he was very convincing in his narrative.  He talked about the eyes-wide-open choices the current government has made, the strategic reasoning for doing the more ambitious stuff early in the Parliament and why there will be no respite in this current pace of policy implementation until mid 2012 (“After 13 years preparation, I don’t know why people find it surprising that we actually had a well prepared plan we’re putting into play”).    For me, the gold of the day came when he put up a straw-man of the possible priorities for the 2015 government – the CPF is expected input to a manifesto that will help:

  • Rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes,
  • Keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas,
  • Make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise
  • Ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market
  • >Respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate
  • Meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies
  • Ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation
  • Strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
  • Support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘big society’

I found it reassuring in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle that at least some politicians still do some forward thinking.  It’s not a bad first stab at what challenges we will face in 2015– he was also at pains to express this list was not exhaustive, and the CPF could well add to it.

Launching something is not the same as delivering on it – but I have high hopes for the CPF.  It is absolutely a step in the right direction for letting ‘membership’ of the party mean more than the right to be mugged for more cash.   The instinct that solutions and great ideas need not come from smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall, but can come from the collective wisdom of the huge pool of motivated, bright people outside the Westminster bubble is something that could really differentiate Conservatives from the heavily centralised Labour Party.  We’ve always claimed to be different in that way – if we can make this work – then we can make that claim demonstrable.

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Tuition Fees D-Day: Final Thoughts

There will not be a  single Coalition MP went into politics to triple tuition fees.   Yet here we are.  A depressing truth of wielding power is often-times the only responsible choices boil down to picking ‘the least worst thing’.  I wont repeat in any depth my own sad feelings on today’s vote – you can see them here.

In all the noise we’ve had on the subject you can break down the core theme into two parts:

  • The fact of a raise in the cap on fees three-fold  (Boo)
  • The funding arrangements for their payment (Yay)

The removal of the cap stinks for everyone who will be impacted.   I have two kids to think about and the figures terrify me.  That said, given the nation is skint the realistic choices were always to either:

  1. have fewer people go to university (when it was free for all we only sent 10% of the population)
  2. keep aspiring to allow 50% of the population to benefit from higher education but revisit funding to ensure we can afford it.
  3. no change, keep the current funding arrangements regardless and keep adding to the structural deficit

Only 1 & 2 above were realistic (unless we wish to end up like Ireland).  We chose 2 (as would Labour).    And here we are.  Even the right choices can have unpopular consequences.

Which then brings us to the arrangements for payments.  One of the things that has got lost in the debate due to the understandable focus on the headline price increase is the new repayment regime.  This is a great leap forward from what we currently have in place.  There is an excellent website here which covers this in depth and debunks an number of the myths floating about.

Away from the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation the other thing that fascinates me about today’s vote is the Lib Dem position.  They really are between a rock and a hard place.  As I noted last week they need this Coalition to work.  One of their fundamental beliefs is Proportional Representation.  PR would make coalition government the norm not the exception.  Coalition requires compromise.  They either stick to their coalition agreement, vote with the Government and take an electoral beating else they pander to the public noise and surrender any future argument on the viability of governing under PR.   It must be a nightmare choice for them.   I’m hopeful that Clegg will carry them over the line in choosing to do the right thing over the popular thing but have no doubt that if an election was called tomorrow they would be wiped out as a result of this issue.  This means if the vote does pass then they will need distance between today and the next election so that they have positive achievements to point to as counterbalance to today’s resentment.  For this reason, IF the fees vote passes today I am more confident than ever that this Coalition will go the full distance – any Lib Dem recovery will depend upon it.


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Insider View of Coalition Negotiations

On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May.  The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*.  For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.

A  blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that.  I will just summarise my take-away points:

  • The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing.  Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats.  Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats.  He was way out.
  • The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place.  Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go.  At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November.  They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
  • The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament.  Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
  • The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario.   They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously.   Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position.   The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform  (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject).  I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder.  He didn’t think so.   I personally do wonder.  Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
  • Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes.  When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
  • On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.

It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak.  He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet.   If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing.  His replacement is not half as able.  I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply.   On reflection, I could live with that.

* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.

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Does the Irish bailout teach the UK anything about austerity measures?

Ireland has bowed to the inevitable and accepted the necessity of a bailout.   There will be a lot written about the causes and blame for the sorry state of affairs.  Take your pick:  Reckless bank lending, reckless corporate and individual borrowing, reckless State spending, reckless lack of regulation, etc.   Folk will write very studious books on these events.  The headline conclusions will be the same old broad themes they have been after every financial crisis in history.  Initially people will earnestly take on board these lessons and kick off the new economic cycle.  The age old truth that the ‘collective memory’ is shorter than the ‘economic cycle’ will then slowly kick-in.   As time passes people will forget the lessons and again rationalise that the laws of economics ‘are different now’.  The whole thing will rise and collapse again – probably more than once or twice in our lifetimes.   It was ever thus.

Back in the here-and-now there are political points being scored as the Irish brown stuff hits the whirly thing.   An argument gaining currency amongst leftist commentators is that the Irish humiliation shows that austerity measures (read government cuts) do not work.  There is one example here.   This needs to be taken head-on.

At first pass there does sound a clear logic to their argument.  Ireland hit breaking point first so went first with austerity measures .  The measures manifestly haven’t done the job given the need for this bail-out.  Therefore, ‘logically’, austerity measures do not work.   Therefore, ‘logically’, they would have been better to keep pumping more state money around the economy to avoid this final meltdown.  Therefore, ‘logically’, the UK must take note and course correct.

It is a compelling narrative.  It is also dangerous.  If you  stop and think about it this argument  is no more or less a ‘logical’  as saying “A man was in a hole, he stopped digging, he found he was still in a hole, therefore he should have kept digging”.

We cannot let their spin distract us from the fundamental issue:  the nation was spending four pounds for every three that it brought in.   We have an unsustainable debt and government spending polices were making it worse.  You don’t solve a problem and delaying the inevitable for longer.  When you have a bubble – sadly you have to let it burst.  Pouring more soap into it doesn’t let it down gently – it just makes for a bigger bang when it comes.

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Whatever You Think of Him, Why We Should All Stand Up For Gareth Compton

It is the stuff of nightmares.  You’re listening to a radio interview.  The interviewee  winds you up by saying that you have no moral authority to take a view on human rights.  You react immediately by putting on Twitter an ironic response to that specific point.  You don’t think hard.  You just hit send.   Just another moment in the day, just  another narky tweet.   Then things get out-of-hand.   Within 24 hours this tweet makes worldwide news headlines.  Next there are statements made in Parliament.  Next the police come and arrest you.  For Gareth Compton this nightmare is a terrifying reality.

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really,

Any reasonable person given just those words to judge would conclude that the author is a bigot, an idiot and nasty.  I know Gareth Compton.  He is none of those things.  But you only have that one tweet to judge him on.  So I don’t expect you to believe me.

Context matters.  He was listening to Alibhai-Brown on a Radio 5 Interview (which you can hear in full here – fast-forward to 53 minutes).   Alibhai-Brown made her point that British politicians do not have any moral right to protest human rights abuses including the stoning of women in other countries.  She claimed only human rights groups or Nelson Mandela should engage in that debate.  I can imagine Gareth’s jaw dropping with outrage at the assertion he should shut-up on human rights.  He is, and I don’t expect you to believe this either, a believer in human rights and a fighter of bigotry.

If you knew Gareth, were listening to the radio and clocked the tweet when the interview was playing you would probably have ‘got it’.  You may not have found it funny, you may still have taken offence but you would have ‘got it’.  The world doesn’t know Gareth and wasn’t listening to the radio when the tweet went up.  So, the world didn’t ‘get’ it.  Truth be told, even with full context it is neither funny nor clever and has an unpleasant snarl to it.  Nevertheless, it isn’t incitement to murder. It is simply what the kids would call ‘an epic fail’ in joke telling.  Since when was that a crime?

Gareth Compton is a grown man and a partisan politician.  He takes and gives heaps in the virtual political bun-fights that litter the internet.  He has apologised unreservedly but in the rough and tumble of politics he would now expect the opposition vultures to circle and tear shreds.  If the boot was on the other foot he would do the same.  He would expect calls for ‘resignation’.  He would expect the Conservative Party to suspend him given the furore.  All of that is fair game in the playground of local politics.  But the Police? Arrest? Criminal charges?  Come on.

Voltaire famously nearly said:  “Sir, I do not agree that your jokes are funny, but I will defend unto death your right to tell them”.   I would appeal to anyone who has ever said anything knee-jerk in a pub, who ever momentarily wished harm to George Bush and said so, who has ever said anything they regretted, or ever had anything they said taken out of context (which must be all of us, right?) to stand up for Gareth in the event of any prosecution.

Even if you still think he is an idiot, a bigot, and nasty (he isn’t).  Even if his politics are Mars to your Venus.  Stand up against this thought police nonsense.

This whole sorry affair has left me terrified to type.   I have a real sadness that the hysteria that these storms whip up will deter our politicians from engaging in new social media.   It brings to mind the telling scene in “The Social Network” where the main character is confronted by an ex-girlfriend he berated on his blog.   His apology falls hollow, she looks him in the eye and says with all the power of a great metaphor –  “The internet is not written in pencil.  It is written in ink.”   It is a lesson for us all.

Nevertheless, no matter how staggeringly misjudged Gareth was, the chain of consequences has been out of all proportion.  I honestly wish Gareth well.  I believe his apology and I hope that Alibhai-Brown can find the grace within herself to accept it.  I trust the Conservative Party will be fair in their investigation and measured in subsequent action.  Our democracy needs us to have the right to say daft and wrong things without criminalising us.  We already saw yesterday with the mad judgement in the Robin Hood Airport case that this right is vanishing.  So most of all –  I pray that all thinking people – whatever their political hue or view of Gareth – demand the CPS drop this case.

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