Tuesday, 30 September 2008
All this is bad news for John McCain. The VP debate may not go as badly for Sarah Palin as everyone expects - Joe Biden has escaped lightly for his buffoonery of late, including his declaration to CBS News's Katie Couric that folks sat round watching President Roosevelt on TV during the Wall Street Crash in the 1920s.
And she will not be allowed by her minders to repeat her own performance with Couric, wonderfully satirised on Saturday Night Live, so could benefit from decidedly low expectations.
But McCain was underwhelming on the economy in his own debate against Obama last Friday and it is increasingly clear that his intervention helped push floating Republicans against the bailout.
The polls now show Obama opening up a significant lead, which he needs to translate into some more key states. But at this stage, the Presidency is Obama's to lose.
Monday, 29 September 2008
And much as one would welcome a council tax freeze, the idea that it will be paid for from a cut in PR spending is for the birds.
Given that George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has also said that they would force Bradford and Bingley and Northern Rock into bankruptcy, rather than supporting the government's nationalisation, perhaps someone could explain how exactly this lot are ready for government?
Sunday, 28 September 2008
But the difference between Labour and the Tories lies in a word that is apparently a dirty word: planning. Labour has been deliberately replacing failing schools with academies, as part of a drive to remove poor schools from the system. With floor targets to raise the minimum standard, they have successfully driven up standards already. The government has been encouraging and cajoling new providers to get involved. And with new schools costing around £20 million, this makes sense.
Let's be clear. The Tories are not guaranteeing 3000 or 5000 new schools. They are saying that if people get together and decide to set up these schools, then there might be 3000 new schools. In fact, Labour has already built around 1200 new schools, and it has funded the capital costs both of doing so and of renewing many more. But there has been an attempt both to prioritise and target funding, and to insist on linkage to school reform.
Those likely to take advantage of the Tory plans will be fourfold. The first are the education charities involved in the academies programme at present. It is not clear, however, that they have the capacity to move into hundreds of schools. The second may be some groups of parents, some of whom are already putting ideas into school competitions. Several parent power schools have opened under Labour, and there may be demand for more. The third will be people unhappy that unviable schools are being closed as primary school pupil numbers fall. The extent to which they succeed under these plans will depend on whether the Tories set a minimum school size. At present, such schools are typically amalgamated into new extended schools, with improved facilities. And the fourth will be Muslim groups who currently run fee-paying schools. It is likely that several hundred such schools would be the first to be set up. Which is not necessarily a bad thing: such schools are better regulated in the state sector, but I'm not sure that Dominic Grieve had this is mind when he sounded off yesterday.
What the Tories are proposing is not the same as the Swedish model, in one crucial and costly respect. In Sweden, where a group of parents or a private company wants to set up a school, and fulfils regulatory requirements on the curriculum and inspection, it receives some cash for each pupil it educates. It does not receive capital funding. That way, if it fails, the taxpayer is not greatly out of pocket. But the Tories plan to raid £4 billion from Building Schools for the Future to gamble on their success. The result is likely to be a large deadweight cost, which will eventually limit the programme. It is also likely to mean a lot of disappointment in areas that were counting on a well-equipped new school through the BSF programme.
Friday, 26 September 2008
The news seems to have caused particular distress to the Shadow Business Secretary, Alan Duncan, whose paranoia apparently knows no bounds.
He declares on Andrew Neil's Straight Talk programme this weekend that the government's decision to borrow more rather than raise taxes or cut spending in the economic crisis is a sign of a 'scorched earth policy' designed to upset an incoming Tory government.
Really? Isn't it likely that it has more to do with wanting to win a fourth term than causing hypothetical trouble for Mr Duncan and his fellow wannabee ministers?
Thursday, 25 September 2008
However, for a good analysis of where Gordon Brown is now and the obstacles he faces - internal as much as external - Martin Bright's piece in this week's New Statesman takes some beating (national government aside!).
Wednesday, 24 September 2008
School sport has been revived, with lots of new competitions under way, thanks to the brilliant work of the Youth Sports Trust and specialist sports colleges. The sale of school playing fields - except to provide brand new sports facilities - has been halted for some years. Lottery funding has transformed many facilities. There are more active trips abroad than in the past. Music has been supported by hundreds of millions of new money. There is lots of great drama in our schools. Debating is seeing a return in many state schools. Some have their own radio stations, run by pupils. Most have seen a revival of after-school activities in the last decade, with lots of sports and hobby clubs, often supported by dedicated teachers. And cooking is being put back on the curriculum, thanks in part to Jamie Oliver.
Of course, schools want their pupils to get good qualifications, but most schools also place a lot more emphasis on pupils discovering new things for themselves than they did in the past, and on developing independent learners. The idea that good results are only being achieved at the expense of a 'hinterland' or creativity could only be written by someone who doesn't see enough of what really happens now in our state schools.
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
There were name checks for most of the cabinet, seeking to embrace them to his wider purpose. And the speech showed a more confident Brown than we have seen in recent months, perhaps because he stuck with a lectern and a style with which he is comfortable. The speech did a good job in setting out Gordon's and Labour's stall. It was more engagingly delivered than usual, and the better for it. Whether it has done enough to stave off wider political problems in the months ahead remains to be seen. But his speechwriters have still done him proud on the day.
Monday, 22 September 2008
Friday, 19 September 2008
Thursday, 18 September 2008
First, he should strengthen his cabinet by persuading some big beasts back inside in senior positions - one of them at the Treasury. Labour needs him to try sincerely, and them to agree. Second, he should overtly try to create trust within his government by giving genuinely full support to his chosen ministers and making it clear that the days of cabals are over (he might wish to acknowledge the past sins of his own entourage in this area and the so-called Blairites could do the same). Third, and above all, he should abandon micro-tinkering with a wide range of policies and focus on two or three major policy areas where he means to make progress in ways that matter to the mass of ordinary people. He should realise that Labour's legislative programmes in recent years have contained little political potency. I have read the Queen's Speeches in dismay and wondered, "Where are the votes in this?" They are usually full of administrative management and politically correct claptrap.
But in the last 24 hours, we have seen rather more of the Brown the public used to respect as Chancellor. Ably assisted by his best Downing Street aide, Jeremy Heywood, Brown has facilitated the merger of Lloyds TSB and HBOS, to the benefit of the wider economy and provided reassurance to HBOS customers (if not those facing job losses). He has also acted quickly to set up an inquiry into what the intelligence services knew in advance of the Omagh bombings.
Whether he gains any public credit for these actions remains to be seen. But having endured so much criticism in recent months, he deserves credit for his speedy responses on these occasions.
Wednesday, 17 September 2008
"I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. "This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science - something that the Royal Society should applaud."
Prof Reiss was misquoted by mischievous newspapers, after his unexceptional suggestion that teachers should not shy away from addressing questions about creationism if raised. "They should take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis," he said. He was neither advocating creationism nor its teaching as part of the curriculum. Given that the best teachers engage with youngsters when they ask questions, and don't shy away from such interaction, his answer was surely right. Even the Society's own policy seems to advocate something similar.
In its actions and censorship of Reiss, the Royal Society has reduced itself to the level of the small-minded small town American school board that seeks to ban Darwin from the local schoolhouse. As Dr Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said, the organisation "should have supported him and used this opportunity to further a reasoned debate".
For a start, Brown has generally given good rousing conference speeches. The question this time is more than ever whether what resonates in the hall in Manchester touches people worried about their household budgets at home. Or, rather, whether the soundbites do so, as we don't have the equivalent of the 38m people who watched McCain, Obama and Palin for leaders' conference speeches here.
After the conference, Brown will need to manage any reshuffle wisely and ensure that any further policy announcements exceed expectations ahead of the Glenrothes by-election. Because expectations are now so low for that poll, if Brown were able to pull off a narrow win, he would probably change the political weather and his fortunes considerably.
But one thing has become clear in recent weeks. It was obvious in the reaction to David Miliband's Guardian article in July, and it was apparent in David Cairns's thoughtful and heartfelt letter of resignation yesterday. Brown needs to reign in those who spend their time badmouthing colleagues ostensibly on his behalf to other MPs and to the press. Their actions are making things far worse for their boss. Today's sour Daily Mail profile of Cairns has all the hallmarks of such a briefing in a paper still personally loyal to Brown (even as its pro-Brown leader confidently tells us he has lost the next election).
If Brown is to survive until a 2010 election - and it seems a bigger 'if' as the days pass - he needs to change the way he operates, the way people operate on his behalf and the way that Downing Street is run. The old ways of doing things may have worked for an all-powerful Chancellor; they are steadily weakening him as Prime Minister.
Finally, Obama's team seem to have realised how to fight the Republicans. The polls are moving again in Obama's favour. McCain has not only made a prize ass of himself on the economy, Obama's team have seized the opportunity to put him on the defensive. He is back to attacking McCain and ignoring Palin, as her novelty is paling. As his ad which forced McCain on the defensive showed, this requires being on the ball politically.
Monday, 15 September 2008
David Cameron wannabee and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg chose to use a hovercraft when being filmed for the BBC Politics Show yesterday. Could his choice of vehicle have represented nostalgia for the good old days of Liberal politics?
Saturday, 13 September 2008
Friday, 12 September 2008
But the consequences for 90,000 stranded passengers seem to have been avoidable. The adminstrators Kroll decided to ground 20 planes, instead of working with the CAA and ATOL to bring stranded passengers back. Those 20 planes could easily have been grounded after a repatriation exercise.
Yet no spokesman for this outfit saw fit to appear on the lunchtime news. Surely a financial deal could have been reached with the insurers and CAA to make everyone's life easier? Isn't it time that the administrators in such operations were required to pay some regard to customer interests?
* The opening of 180 new schools, including 47 new academies, has given positive prominence to the school building programme not just nationally but locally too.
* Details of plans to bring back the compulsory cooking lessons agreed by Tony Blair with Jamie Oliver have been strong and without equivocation. The difference between 'food technology' and cooking is being well understood.
* Plans for 100 new trust schools run with the co-operative movement echo an idea floated at a time when trust schools were hugely controversial. It is good to see the key proposal from the 2006 education act being taken forward with enthusiasm.
* Plans announced today for £10 million investment in boarding places for vulnerable children are particularly welcome, although select committee chairman Barry Sheerman's odd reaction to the idea suggests that this is a policy battle not yet fully won.
And what characterises these four excellent proposals? They represent a welcome continuity of the education policies developed by Tony Blair as Prime Minister. They have a level of detail and plausibility that remains lacking in the Conservative proposals. And they confirm that early signs of a retreat on reform in education after Gordon Brown became PM have been firmly abandoned.
Thursday, 11 September 2008
- Declining to take federal financing for the general
- Declining McCain’s offer to hold ten town hall debates
- Failing to go all the way with the Clintons (not being nicer to them)
- The 22-state strategy (wasting time in unwinnable states)
- Failing to state a sweeping, but concrete, policy idea
- Remaining trapped in professor-observer speak
- Failing to attack McCain early
Obama can turn things around; he should do more debates with McCain for example. His team simply can't afford to keep letting the McCain team define the news agenda with their pseudo-controversies. As others have said, Obama should focus on McCain, leaving surrogates to deal with any misstatements by Sarah Palin. Obama's people need to start setting the agenda, rather than allowing themselves to be put on the defensive.
Wednesday, 10 September 2008
According to the Shadow Foreign Secretary: "A responsible British prime minister needs to be ready to work with either presidential candidate after the US election, and should neither take sides nor be seen to be taking sides."
Quite. After all, Hague's former colleague John Major reportedly ordered the trawling of Home Office files for dirt on Bill Clinton's time as a student in the UK, during the 1992 Presidential election, and Douglas Hurd sent a message to Republican Secretary of State James Baker, "May you bring down every duck in the last flight of the shoot." (Tories sent messages like that then)
Clearly a mildly partisan article for Parliamentary Monitor is the more heinous offence.
90% of children 4 and under (as a percentage of the population aged 3 to 4) are participating in pre-primary programmes (OECD average 70%). This is all the more impressive [my italics] as the rate increased from 51% in 1998 to 90% in 2006.It is true that class sizes are a little skewed in the UK, though teaching assistant numbers are relatively high, and there is no evidence that a difference of one or two students in older primary classes has any impact on standards, despite right wing think tank Civitas's wish to divert masses of government funding to the project.
But what the papers neglect is a more worrying trend in the UK: our undergraduate population is growing at a relatively slower rate than other OECD countries, despite a strong level of vocational degree entry.
In 2000 the UK had, at 37%, the fourth highest graduation rates for tertiary-type A programmes, well above the OECD average which then stood at 28%. Although the graduation rate in the UK had increased to 39% by 2006, the OECD average increased at a much faster rate to 37%, with eleven countries showing now higher graduation rates: Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden. Rates of current participation suggest that more countries are likely to surpass UK graduation rates. The increase in tertiary enrolment between 1995 and 2005, which will influence future graduation rates, was, at 33%, considerably below the OECD average level of 40% and well below increases in the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Korea, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Sweden and partner countries Brazil, Chile, Estonia and Israel, that ranged from 44% to 161% during the same period.Could the fact that this trend is virtually ignored by our papers have anything to do with the years they have spent bemoaning our relatively modest rates of student growth, seeing them as a dimunition of standards rather than a necessary contributor to our global competitiveness?
Tuesday, 9 September 2008
This is not to say that there is not some truth in the charge that many Tory activists have not embraced the Cameron revolution. Many have not. But many Labour activists - the misleading name for regular meeting-goers - never embraced Blairism either. The difference is that many swing voters believe they have changed; the challenge for Labour is not to tell those voters that they have been hoodwinked, but to show where it has superior policies to the Conservatives on all the issues that matter and where the Tories' plans are to dismantle popular programmes.
Of course, this will require some signs of economic and housing market recovery, and falling food and fuel inflation, before the next election. But it will also require the government to give a better account of itself and a better account of the real rather than imagined differences that exist between it and the Conservatives. This means publicly acknowledging changes on issues like gay rights or green issues before attacking differences of substance.
There is, for example, no point in pretending that the Conservatives would reintroduce school selection when they patently would not. But if George Osborne decides to cut public spending, there is a genuine argument to be had. Equally, there is a far better debate to be had between the successful government approach to failing schools and cutting waiting lists - which has meant minimum national standards, or targets - and the more laissez-fair Tory approach.
Of course, this will require messages that are simple and straightforward. But Labour should not copy the Tory mistakes of 1997, if it wants to make the 2010 election a winnable fight.
Monday, 8 September 2008
But we do need to hear from more cabinet ministers in longer interviews, giving a sense that they are on top of things. Ed Balls did his best yesterday, but where are his colleagues? One big advantage enjoyed by Tony Blair in his first term was the sense that he had an experienced team of heavy hitters. Gordon Brown undoubtedly has a talented team of ministers, but he needs more experienced figures reassuring the public through these difficult times (and, for the moment, best keep Alastair Darling away from interviewers). That is the main reason why an early reshuffle would make sense, both to give someone like Alan Johnson a proper deputy PM's role and to bring back figures like Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett or John Reid who can talk to the public in plain terms.
Obama's attempts both to respect her skills and to link her to Bush, pointing out that she holds more extreme views than McCain, strikes the right tone.
She wouldn't be governor of Alaska if she wasn't a skilled politician, and I think her performance at the convention showed what a skilled politician she is.....[McCain] chose somebody who may be even more aligned with George Bush – or Dick Cheney, or the politics we’ve seen over the last eight years – than John McCain himself is.And there is plenty of opportunity for flip-flop ads on McCain. The Democrats need to able to do so with good humour and straight facts. As noted here shortly after Palin's selection, McCain played a political blinder in selecting Palin, notwithstanding her wacko views on creationism or her lack of a longterm passport.
The next move is with the Democrats. And it needs to be a smart one.
Sunday, 7 September 2008
The most striking contrast between Labour in 1997 and Labour in 2008 is the drainage of that mighty thirst to achieve and to hold onto office. It was often said of Blair that he was "just interested in winning". For the leader of a party that had been in opposition for 18 long years, that struck me as a pretty sensible priority.Yet, despite this apparent fatigue, the government is achieving results. As Ed Balls mentioned in his interview with Andrew Marr this morning, the number of secondary schools where fewer than 30% of pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths has fallen from 1600 - half of all secondaries - in 1997 to 475 in 2008. When anyone tells you Labour is failing on education, that's a figure worth deploying. Moreover, because the Conservatives are so disdainful of targets - which work when used alongside the diversity of academies, or good schools helping weaker schools through Trusts - it is unlikely they would achieve similar progress in the weakest schools.
At the moment, nobody is listening, but that doesn't mean they won't in the future. But as Alastair Campbell reminded ministers on Thursday night, they should be far more willing to remind people of our record. Otherwise, we are allowing the media and the Tories to define us unchallenged. And they are certainly more than happy to oblige.
Friday, 5 September 2008
Scottish taxpayers will benefit if they suddenly realise there is no such thing as a free lunch (or university education) and recognise that with financial power comes individual responsibility. Of course, if the SNP continue to pretend otherwise, they will have to raise taxes, which might not appeal so much to their voters. So, a win-win situation all round, then. So what if the SNP think they've won a great victory - for now.
Thursday, 4 September 2008
the stupid, stupid timing of his completely unnecessary article has knocked all the positive policy announcements this week off the headlines and given the media the chance to reprise stories about division just as most of the Party is trying to put its weight behind a relaunch. Charles should be part of the solution but he is repeatedly making himself part of the problem.Gordon Brown needs to be given some time and the space to show what he intends to do to address our economic woes; the stamp duty announcement this week was a small start. But he cannot do it when the political news is dominated by noises off from ex-ministers. Charles Clarke sounded more temperate on the Today programme this morning, but he was only invited to speak because of his attack in the New Statesman. By all means, let's discuss the issues. But doing so in terms that can only be interpreted as an attack on Brown contribute to the problem, rather than advancing any solutions.
Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organiser", except that you have actual responsibilities.Those are the skills that may see her through a televised debate with her uber-experienced Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Since Obama thinks the same in private about his community organising years, this was a cleverer jibe than it might seem. But her performance should also serve as a warning to Democrats and their supporters who seem to think that sneering at Sarah will see them through.
Many swing American voters will be unimpressed by the sneering, which recalls Obama's putdown of 'bitter' small town Americans that cost him votes in the primaries against Hillary Clinton. Obama's lead has advanced since the convention, but it is still far lower than that enjoyed by Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Obama needs to embrace many of the voters who are impressed by the small town girl made good image of Sarah - and her family and hunting credentials - if he is to win in November. That they may not share her born-again Christianity or her opposition to abortion is beside the point; they will respect many of her values and will not respect those who sneer at them. Of course, it is fair game to attack her policies - and her approach to abortion, the environment or Alaskan independence are certainly fair game - but that is different from the sort of patronising putdowns that have characterised a lot of the coverage in recent days. And if it continues, it will backfire badly for the Democrats.
Obama needs to ensure that his campaign is seen to be on the side of small town as well as urban America, if he is not to repeat the mistakes of John Kerry. A McCain-Palin ticket would be disastrous for the US economy and healthcare reform; preventing it requires more tact and better tactics than many who claim to want an Obama victory have shown these last few days.
Tests allow parents to compare schools on an objective basis. They could accept what schools say is happening: but without external validation, does anyone imagine that there won't be pressures on some schools in a competitive admissions system to exaggerate a little? More recently, tests have also been a great source of data for schools. Their data are used by most teachers to help set ambitious pupil goals, a key to school improvement. There is a difference between recognising the need for external accountability and believing that the system we have at present is the right one to achieve it.
There is a case for some reform; after 13 years, it would be surprising if it were otherwise. With tests at seven now marked by teachers, the only national tests before GCSEs are at 11 and 14, hardly a sign of over-testing. But confining the external tests to maths and English, leaving science to be marked internally, would help with shortages of markers and reduce time spent on external tests, while ensuring accountability in the basics.
Tuesday, 2 September 2008
But what such sneering shows is how out of touch our newspapers seem to be about business needs today. I am heartened that there appears to be so much practical and relevant content in the Diplomas. There is a strong emphasis on the social skills so vital in the services sector. And Diplomas should be preparing young people for today's jobs, not the jobs that were relevant in the 1940s or 1840s, where some newspapers believe vocational education should exist. There are jobs in garden centres, hotels and spas; or, do news editors never read their own endless lifestyle and travel supplements each weekend? For youngsters who are not academically minded, it makes sense to produce qualifications that are related to today's growing service industries.
If there is a complaint about Diplomas - which have 20,000 rather than the originally forecast 40,000 students taking them - it is that they are not work-related enough. They should have more relevant practical content with real employers, not less. And Ed Balls should scrap his academic diplomas, which are both confusing and pointless; if he wants a genuinely mixed diploma, he should promote rather than sideline the International Baccalaureate alongside A-levels. But the specifications for the second batch of the new Diplomas are a sign that they are heading in the right direction, not a cause for condescension.
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