Tuesday, 30 September 2008

An Irish example to follow?

Ireland's finance minister Brian Lenihan has guaranteed all savings and bonds in six major Irish banks - including their UK branches - for the next two years. His actions followed a disastrous day on the Dublin stock exchange yesterday. Robert Peston points out that this now puts British banks at a significant competitive disadvantage. Shouldn't Alastair Darling and the Bank of England follow suit with British banks?

The Republican meltdown

Yesterday's extraordinary vote by Congress against the rescue plan for the US finance system shows just how far removed the Republicans in Congress have become not only from their President but from the rest of the world. It is not, as Janet Daley disingenuously claims, primarily the fault of an overly partisan Nancy Pelosi that the Republicans backed their President less than the Democrats did. It is the fault, as David Brooks points out, of the talk show mentality that has afflicted their politics, and some rightly wonder whether it could split the party.

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

Preparing for government?

Whatever the merits of high speed rail links, the idea that Heathrow can survive without another runway is pure madness, as my former colleague Tom Kelly has clearly impressed on Iain Dale. Do Cameron's Tories ever use the same airports as the rest of us?

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

The flaw at the heart of Cameron's schools plan

The Sunday papers have been persuaded that a Cameron-led government would open either 3000 or 5000 new schools, thanks to their 'free schools' proposals modelled on the Swedish system. The figures are pure guesswork: they are simply made up, and in some ways, the proposal is an extension of existing Government policy. Academies and school competitions have made it easier for diverse new providers to set up new state schools. There will be 400 academies - secondary schools with similar governance to that proposed by the Tories - within the next few years. (Which will be news to the Mail on Sunday, which thinks there is a local authority monopoly on new schools that the Tories would abolish).

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

As Tories lose voters' trust on the economy, Alan Duncan loses the plot

Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling have regained public trust on the economy, at the expense of David Cameron and George Osborne.

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

After Manchester

The polls are certainly better. However, despite Luke's optimism and plea for silence, there is a danger that their post-conference boost may not outlast the Tories' Birmingham conference.

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

The manner of Ruth Kelly's premature resignation

Ruth Kelly has always been a far more impressive minister than her public persona or reputation suggested. When I worked with her when she was education secretary, her knowledge and interest in the detail and consequences of policy was always abundantly clear; I am sure she brought the same commitment and grasp of detail to her transport job, and her departure is a loss for a government in which delivery matters. Moreover, her lunchtime interview on the World At One and conference speech today showed that, when she spoke from the heart, her sincerity shone through, despite a not wholly unfair reputation for poor public performances.

But I do think both Ben Brogan and Daniel Finkelstein are right when they suggest that the manner in which this resignation was 'announced' stinks. Someone who presumably thinks they are doing Gordon Brown a favour has undone a lot of the good he achieved in his powerful speech yesterday by leaking the story. It reflects an approach seen with David Cairns last week and it suggests that the people around Brown simply don't understand the extent to which they are damaging him and precipitating further revolts. Whoever thought it a good idea to feed this story to Newsnight should be in possession of their marching orders pronto.

The Gradgrind school?

Several times a year, the Times arts commentator Richard Morrison writes a cliche-ridden piece that proclaims our schools to be Gradgrind institutions without sport, arts or a hinterland. Morrison repeats this canard today in his tirade against homework. As someone who has visited scores of schools and has been a school governor on a good but not atypical comprehensive for some years, I know this to be wide of the mark.

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

A good speech from Gordon

It was a good speech, if not a great speech. Gordon Brown's conference address was well-received in Manchester, and struck many of the right notes. It was an attempt to remind people who he is and what he believes; a defence of his personality and his values. With a theme of fairness, it sought to place it in a wider context than simply tackling poverty. There were useful reminders of what has been achieved and is being achieved in schools and the health service. There were good announcements on free prescriptions for cancer sufferers and a right to catch-up tuition. He addressed the problems of the economy in the detail they deserved. And he took on the Tories on their lack of experience, a long overdue line of attack.

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

A respite for Gordon

MANCHESTER - I've been up to the Labour conference for a night to speak at an SMF fringe meeting on higher education last night. There is still the sort of buzz to conference that one has experienced over many years, despite the dismal opinion polls. And there is no doubt that Gordon has had a respite as a result of this week's economic crisis. But there is also a real sense that the Prime Minister is on probation, with many MPs awaiting the results of the Glenrothes by-election, likely to be held in early November. One side-effect of last week's events has been the loss of David Cairns and Frank Roy to running the by-election campaign; by common consent Cairns ran a good campaign in the last by-election, though there was an inevitability to the SNP victory. Fellow Labour blogger Tom Watson now seems set to be the de-facto campaign manager in Glenrothes; a lot hangs on the result there. The likelihood is that if Labour loses in Glenrothes, the pressure will be on the Prime Minister again, and that it will be far more challenging then. But for now he has a temporary reprieve and a chance to show his mettle, not only in tomorrow's speech but in his activities over the next month.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Building blocks

I have a feature article in this week's Public Finance magazine about changes that are taking place in the government's school building programme, Building Schools for the Future. You can read it here.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Lessons for Gordon

Bernard Donoughue has some very sound advice for the Prime Minister. Despite the New Statesman's attempt to present it as 'lessons from Jim Callaghan', his article contains some excellent suggestions.
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.

Brown's decisiveness at a critical moment

Recent criticism of Gordon Brown - which has culminated in today's dismal poll ratings - owed much to a sense of indecisiveness in the face of economic crises. The dithering over Northern Rock had as much to do with his growing unpopularity as his failure to call an election.

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.

Success on MSRA

I do hope people notice this amidst the prevailing economic gloom. MRSA cases have been halved. And for the benefit of the churlish BMA spokesman/shadow health secretary for life Andrew Lansley, it has been done as a result of clear targets and strong government action combined with the work of dedicated NHS staff. This is a real success story.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A witchhunt at the Royal Society?

The forced resignation of Professor Michael Reiss from his education post at the Royal Society suggests he is a victim of an unpleasant witchhunt. Prof Robert Winston is right to say that
"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".

Brown needs to change his way of operating

Gordon Brown may seem on probation, with many ministers waiting to see what happens at the truncated party conference and in the Glenrothes by-election before deciding his fate. There is quite a lot that remains within the Prime Minister's powers during that time.

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.

Wall Street turmoil highlights McCain's big weakness

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

Claire Martin

To see the velvet-voiced jazz singer Claire Martin at Bath's Ustinov theatre last night. The theatre may lack the ambience of a Ronnie Scott's, but Martin, backed by Jim Mullin on guitar and Laurence Cottle on bass, enthused her audience with a virtuouso performance lasting just over 90 minutes. There were a lot of Shirley Horn numbers - too many perhaps for a mixed audience that would have liked more Julie London or Johnny Mandel, craving a little more familiarity and even a few standards. Moreover, having recently seen a distinctly under par Mark Murphy at Ronnie Scott's, I'm not sure I'd agree with her that he is the finest living jazz singer. But Martin is a fine live singer, and her great voice did as much justice to his music as to that of her heroine Shirley Horn. She is definitely worth catching live if you can.

Clegg goes for nostalgia

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

Siobhain's speaking out

I have known Siobhain McDonagh for over twenty years, several of them as chair of Mitcham and Morden CLP, and know that her decision to seek leadership nomination papers was not taken lightly. She is as loyal to the Labour Party as any MP could be; but she also has a better sense of voters' concerns than most. Why Gordon Brown's lieutenants decided to force the issue into the public domain at the end of a relatively successful week for the Prime Minister is a mystery. But then Brown was never completely blessed in his choice of lieutenants.

As it happens, I am not convinced that this is the right time to demand a leadership contest. But the fact that Siobhain does should send a shiver through the party leadership. For if anyone is a bellwether of party fortunes, she is. A formidable campaigner, she has defied significant swings against the party in her constituency; if she believes her seat, which she won from the Tories in 1997 and has retained handsomely since, and similar ones are at serious risk, it is as much an indicator of Labour's potential fate in 2010 as any opinion poll.

The question is whether a leadership contest would really clear the air or whether it would signal a sense of division to the wider public? And, more importantly, whether the divisions signalled by a contest would ultimately prove healthier for the Labour Party than a sense of continuing drift? Siobhain has bravely raised those questions. The challenge for Gordon Brown and the government is to show that it has the sense of purpose needed to restore party fortunes. And the will to win.

Friday, 12 September 2008

XL's administrators should explain their actions

The collapse of the XL group may be another unfortunate by-product of soaring fuel prices and the credit crunch.

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?

A good week for school reform

There has been a welcome sign of purposeful activity from the awkwardly-named Department for Children, Schools and Families this week, and an unusually high degree of reasonably well reported good news stories.

* 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.

Yellow buses are the way forward

David Blunkett's Yellow Bus commission may be sponsored by one the biggest bus companies. But its report is nevertheless spot on in recommending more dedicated school buses. The government, in the 2006 education act, has extended the rights of children to free school transport, linking those rights more to school choice than before. For good environmental and safety reasons, it should go further and encourage the development of far more dedicated buses - yellow or otherwise - for youngsters. Nobody would mourn the death of the school run.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Obama needs to show he means business

For all the phoney fuss over Obama's use of porcine colloquialisms, shrewder observers detect a bigger problem with his campaign. Newsweek and MSNBC's Howard Fineman offers a good summary:

  • 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.

Not everyone is on the internet, Evan

Has Evan Davis (left) been drinking John Humphrys' coffee? Certainly, the environment secretary Hilary Benn (right) must have felt so as he endured a repetitive tongue-lashing from the normally mild-mannered, reasonable and intelligent Today presenter on Radio 4 this morning.

But while Evan may have been right to demand crisp Yes or No answers to his schoolmasterish questions, he was surely wrong to cut Benn off when he tried to give a helpline number on air for people who might wish to avail themselves of the government's free or low cost home insultation deals. "We haven't time, they can look at it on the website," snapped Evan, wasting more time than would have been taken reading out the number.

In fact, a third of all households are still not online and most older people have never used the Internet - according to Help the Aged, 70% of those aged 65 or over have never used the web - but are usually in possession of pen, paper and phone. So receiving the number on air would be a lot easier for them than trekking down to the library to look up the Today website. For the record, the Energy Saving Trust helpline number is 0800 512012, and it is indeed on the Today website.

The Year of Magical Thinking

To see the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave on stage at Bath's Theatre Royal in the National Theatre's touring production of The Year of Magical Thinking. Redgrave delivers a tour de force in her rendering of the great American journalist and essayist Joan Didion's extraordinarily moving and profound account of the grief she endured when her husband and collaborator John Gregory Dunne died in December 2003, followed 18 months later by her 39-year old daughter Quintana.

The 90-minute monologue demands your full attention with David Hare's spartan direction. But that is no hardship with Redgrave moving from memory to guilt, from hope to despair, in a flawless and unflinching account of the horrors of coping with bereavement. Writing the memoir and play were clearly a cathartic process for Didion. She didn't want to believe the two people she loved the most had died; for a long time, she wanted them to reappear, hence the title of the play. This is a production not to be missed.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Transatlantic endorsements

William Hague is tut-tutting because Gordon Brown has penned an article - or, more likely, one of his political advisers has done so on his behalf - which praises Barack Obama for his "foreclosure prevention fund", whatever that may be.

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.

The real message from the OECD report

Today's newspapers are full of tales of educational woe drawn from the latest OECD survey, Education at a Glance. For the Times, it vindicates their eccentric campaign to stop government efforts to create a level playing field for poorer toddlers, though the report actually says of the UK in this respect:
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

Labour should not copy failed Tory campaigns

Patrick Wintour reports in today's Guardian that there is a plan to treat the Tories as hard right headbangers in a Cameron mask for the next election. While this may provide some comfort to unthinking activists, I doubt it will have any more impact on voters than John Major's brilliant New Labour, New Danger campaign, with its absurd Demon Eyes adverts.

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

Building on Brown's Birmingham Awayday

Judging by the lunchtime news coverage, today's Cabinet awayday in Birmingham wasn't a bad idea. Not least because it reduced the impact of the increasingly mad advice on taxation and public sector pay from the TUC in Brighton. The Birmingham cabinet meeting - and the associated local ministerial visits - did at least convey a sense of purpose after a pretty woeful week; it even suggested that the Downing Street strategists might have got their act together. Gordon Brown's briefings of today's papers with his slightly more personal take on the challenges facing Britain, and his capacity to deal with them, was also a big advance.

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.

Overturning the McCain-Palin lead

Today's USA Today/Gallup poll gives the McCain/Palin ticket a 10-point lead among likely voters, helping give the Republicans their first advantage in weeks in the RealClearPolitics average. The candidates - Palin excepted, as she mugs up on likely interviewers' googlies before sitting down with ABC News - were on yesterday's talk shows, and one thing is clearer: Obama is by far the more impressive of the principal candidates, not least after a dismal, low key speech by McCain. But unless the Democrats can find an effective way of neutralising the political message that Palin brings without resorting to the personal and patronising, they will stay on a losing streak.

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.

Palin for President (Michael, that is)

Hat tip to Tom Watson for this highly entertaining video:

Sunday, 7 September 2008

The will to win

Matthew D'Ancona's piece in today's Sunday Telegraph is a characteristically insightful take on Labour's current predicament.
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

Scotland's freedom to tax itself

News that Gordon Brown is going to give Scotland the chance to pay for its own decisions should be welcomed by all taxpayers in England and Scotland. It should allow a reduction in the multi-billion pound subsidy we pay for their free social care, free tuition at university for everybody except English students and free car parking at hospitals, the affordability of which the Scottish health minister seemed singularly unable to explain this week, leaving hospitals to cut patient care to foot the bill.

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

Charles Clarke is contributing to the problem, rather than advancing solutions

There's quite a lot to agree with in Charles Clarke's critique of the lazy attacks on Blairites from the Compassite left and some briefers supposedly close to the Prime Minister. And his analysis of Tony Blair's record is not unreasonable. But like Luke, I cannot understand what he thinks is the point of his New Statesman article, aside from self-publicity:
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.

Sneering at Sarah won't win the Dems the White House

Last night, the Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, gave a good account of herself in her new role as Republican vice-presidential candidate. There is no doubt that she is a strong right-wing conservative; and she has been embarrassed -though not as much as liberal critics might wish - by revelations about her family. But she showed last night in a well constructed speech, and in a particularly clever jibe about Obama's experience as a 'community organiser', that she is no slouch when it comes to gentle but devastating putdowns:
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.

The case for testing

I have a column in this morning's Independent, making the case for keeping the national tests:

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

Diplomas are moving in the right direction

There is a lot of sniffiness in the papers today about the content of the new Diplomas. The Daily Mail groans that those taking land-based studies could become customer advisers in garden centres. The Times sniffs that hospitality students will learn to "meet and greet customers in a responsible way". And never to be outdone, the Daily Telegraph scoffs that teenagers on hair and beauty courses will learn about the world of spas.

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.

No 36

Thanks to those of you who voted for this blog in Iain Dale's annual contest. In its first year in contention, no 36 seems like not a bad result in the 'Top 100 left of centre blogs'. Congratulations to Tom Harris and Hopi Sen for their top rankings. Thanks also to Iain Dale for including the blog in his list of the Top 50 political blogs on the Total Politics website. The full top 100 list is:

1. Tom Harris MP2. Hopi Sen3. Stumbling & Mumbling4. Liberal Conspiracy5. Recess Monkey6. Luke Akehurst7. LabourHome8. Tom Watson MP9. Ministry of Truth10. Dave's Part11. Sadie's Tavern12. Harry's Place13. SNP Tactical Voting14. Socialist Unity15. Paul Linford16. Labour Outlook17. A Very Public Sociologist18. Obsolete19. Ordovicius20. Normblog21. Bloggers4Labour22. Theo's Blog23. Kezia Dugdale's Soapbox24. Beau Bo D'Or25. Bob Piper26. Forgesian Thinking27. The Daily (Maybe)28. Stuart King29. Lenin's Tomb30. Pickled Politics31. Never Trust a Hippy32. Chris Paul's Labour of Love33. Bloggerheads34. Chicken Yoghurt35. Bethan Jenkins AM36. Conor's Commentary37. John McDonnell MP38. Neil Clark39. Adam Price MP40. Snowflake541. Jane's the One42. Progress43. Two Doctors44. Rupa Huq45. The F Word46. Fat Man on a Keyboard47. Cynical Dragon48. Scots and Independent49. Byrne Baby Byrne50. Rachel North London51. Drink Soaked Trots52. Adam Smith was a Socialist53. Tory Troll54. Penny Red55. Kevin Maguire56. Nosemonkey's Eutopia57. Five Chinese Crackers58. Grimmer up North59. Guerilla Welsh Fare60. Welsh Ramblings61. Kerron Cross62. Three Score Years & Ten63. Labour and Capital64. Mars Hill65. Wheeler's Website66. Indygal67. Tartan Hero68. John's Labour Blog69. Charlie Beckett70. Ian Bone71. Another Green World72. Harpymarx73. Blog Menai74. Kerry McCarthy MP75. The Exile76. New Direction77. Lancaster UAF78. Modernity79. Organised Rage80. Madam Miaow Says...81. Calum Cashley82. Clairwil83. Councillor Terry Kelly84. Stroppy Blog85. Shiraz Socialist86. Labour Left Forum87. Amlwch to Magor88. Defend the NHS89. Jon's Union Blog90. Paul Flynn MP91. Scribo Ergo Sum92. Andrew Burns's Really Bad Blog93. Don Paskini94. Oliver Kamm95. Bid for Freedom96. Macuaid97. Reading Marx's Capital with David Harvey98. Sit Down Man99. Tygerland100. Jon Worth Euroblog