Sunday, 31 May 2009

Gordon was very good, but is it too late?

The Gordon Brown we saw on this morning's Andrew Marr programme was the leader we have long been promised by his supporters, but the one we too seldom see. He was concise, passionate and forceful in setting out what needs to be done on expenses and what he believes needs to happen on democratic reform. By contrast, David Cameron delivered a below par performance on Sky minutes later.

But with polls variously putting Labour on 16% in the European elections and 22% in national rankings, it all has a bit of a feel of too little, too late. Obviously, I hope Labour does better than the polls suggest on Thursday, and on Europe the expenses saga has utterly obscured the extremism of the Tories (in their plans to hop into bed with Europe's looniest parties rather than the moderate Christian Democrats) and the utter barminess of UKIP, a party which knows a thing or two about fiddling expenses. But the truth on Friday is that the party will be facing a huge electoral headache.

At that stage, Labour will need to decide what it does next. I am sceptical of a reshuffle whose central feature is installing Ed Balls as Chancellor, though I tend to believe little of what I read on the front page of the Sunday Times. But Brown's hint of a more bipartisan approach to government in this morning's Marr interview was more promising and is much more the direction people want after the last few weeks. He should be braver on electoral as well as democratic reform too: Cameron's cretinous suggestion that putting a new electoral system to the voters in a referendum is somehow anti-democratic exposes his plans (to cut the number of Labour MPs)in all their partisan vacuousness; Brown should be braver and openly less partisan.

It is a shame we have seen so little of the Gordon Brown we saw this morning over the last two years. But if it is a signal of a new way of doing things, it may offer a chance of some recovery after Thursday. Otherwise, there may well need to be bigger and tougher decisions made about the future leadership of the party. But it would be best for Labour and for the stability of the economy as we try to recover from the recession if we didn't need to reach that point ahead of the next election.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Bluegrass magic

We spent a wonderful (if slightly muggy) evening listening to brilliant bluegrass as part of the Bath Music Festival last night. The star turn was the sprightly 82-year old Dr Ralph Stanley, whose music made the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? so memorable. Accompanied by a fine group of musicians in his Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley provided memorable renditions of his own music, gospel standards (including a haunting rendering of Amazing Grace) finishing after a standing ovation with the O Brother favourite Man of Constant Sorrow. Support was provided by two shorter sets from the excellent Charlie Parr and the storytelling Jerry Harmon. A great evening of music all round.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Would Cameron really let go in No 10?

Surely one of the funniest notions to emerge from the whole expenses crisis is the image of David Cameron as the man who wants to become Prime Minister only to hand what limited power he has in Number 10 over to backbenchers and local authorities.

Yet this is what we were expected to believe from his speech yesterday (although he was quick to reject the one thing that might demonstrate that he really would give up some power - proportional representation). Sure, I can see that he might want to cut the number of (Labour) MPs and pretend this is a selfless gesture. And he might even want to improve select committees (though they are a lot more powerful now than in the 1990s).

But are we really expected to believe that when Cameron finally works out what he wants to do as Prime Minister, he will let opposition backbenchers and his own councillors who oppose his plans for Swedish-style schools tear it all up to make a constitutional point. Helpfully, Anne McElvoy has dispelled any such notions in a great piece in tonight's London Evening Standard which explains just how much of a control freak Democratic Dave really is. Referring to his handling of recalcitrant MPs, she tells us how the sight of his former PPS Andrew McKay 'prattling' on TV was enough for Dave to hang him out to dry and asks:
What does all this tell us about his way of running things? For one thing, that he enjoys wielding authority and can wear it without strain. He still relies on a small group of insiders in times of trouble - the attack on "sofa government" in yesterday's speech might be deemed a bit rich coming from a man whose inner team practically inhabit his office sofa.
She goes on to point out that
A consistent faultline in Project Cameron is that it is both devolving and centralising at the same time, and often on the same issues. The present mood has tipped the balance - without an assessment of the impact of how it fits with other Conservative goals. That's evident when the shadow education spokesman waxes Govishly about devolving power one day - and then starts insisting on traditional subjects and uniform practices across the board the next.
It is said that Tony Blair talked constitutional reform in opposition but didn't deliver in Government. Ignoring devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, an overhaul of the House of Lords, PR in non-Westminster elections and Freedom of Information, this is what passes for informed comment among political pundits. Blair introduced huge constitutional reforms with lasting impact (as MPs shamed over expenses know). But what he also recognised was that sometimes being Prime Minister required leadership from the centre; without it, reform rarely happened and was often stymied.

The problem for Cameron is that he has been making his limited proposals sound more impressive than they are. And when it comes to delivering reforms - such as those on schools - which are disliked by a professional establishment that includes many of his own agents of localism (that's Tory councillors in old money) he'll find (should he win an election) that he'll want to use any real levers available to him as a Prime Minister to get his reforms through.

Of course, by then, yesterday's speech will be ancient history.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Johnson is right on PR

Alan Johnson's article in today's Times rightly makes the case for the sort of fundamental political reform casually dismissed with typical selflessness by David Cameron as an 'irrelevance'. The AV-plus system recommended by the Jenkins commission would give voters a much greater connection with their MPs - as they must amass 50 per cent of the constituency votes after transfers - and the chance to register a protest vote whilst also backing a potential governing party.

It is an elegant solution to the crisis facing our democracy and one which deserves the support of Gordon Brown. That Alan Johnson, whose tenure at health has been an unsung success, may see this as part of his post-election bid for the leadership makes it no less worthy. Labour has been playing second fiddle to Cameron's breathtakingly self-interested use of the expenses crisis for weeks now. This is the sort of measure that could both restore the party's reformist credentials - and put it back on the front foot in the political debate.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Political parties are better for us than Esther Rantzen

As the drip-drip of Telegraph revelations continues, the cry goes up that we need an early general election to 'clear the air.' But this would be a big mistake. It would simply produce a parliament of extremists and policy-free independents. While the odd Martin Bell may be good for politics, a collection of people elected purely because of who they are not would be damaging to good governance.

The truth is that despite the fashion for extreme cynicism, politicians who stand on a platform tend to work towards achieving it, in areas as diverse as education, health, the economy and transport. Labour achieved over 80% of its manifesto commitments in its first term. The Tories with an alternative platform - given the time to formulate it - would work towards their alternative, as would the Liberal Democrats. But making politics a policyfree zone as a revenge for the moats and duck islands would lead to a lack of any such sense of purpose, substituting an ill-defined anger with politicians for the purpose of political parties. As Janice Turner puts it (pretty pointedly) about Esther Rantzen in an excellent piece in today's Times:
Do years uncommitted to a party make a celebrity admirably independent or mean that she simply couldn't subsume her ego to anything bigger than herself?
So, it would be folly to call an election at a time when perspective is so skewed. Instead, the parties should clean up politics, and consider other reforms which could improve confidence in MPs (such as an alternative vote or PR allowing both protests and effective votes). At the same time, all the parties must find the space to remake the case for party politics.

It is a lot stronger than the case for Esther Rantzen.

The truth behind the Iraqi surge

I've been reading Thomas Hicks's excellent account of the military surge in Iraq after 2006. The Gamble which is told largely from the perspective of General Petraeus is a fascinating look at how Petraeus and his small number of allies in the US military changed the course of the US intervention in Iraq by using soldiers in a way that brought them closer to the Iraqi people, and which successfully bought off many Iraqi extremists. What is fascinating in an account by one of the sternest critics of the war (his Fiasco is much cited by antiwar activists) is how the malign influence of Donald Rumsfeld was supported by many at the top of the US military, and it was only when Petraeus and his allies reached Bush after Rumsfeld's departure that the horrific monthly death toll started to fall and people in the main cities could start to live a life approaching normality. The counterinsurgency techniques described by Hicks will be relevant in Afghanistan - and in Sri Lanka for that matter - but the book also explains why an American military presence is likely to remain in Iraq for many years too, even if Obama reduces the 'combat troops'. I was a supporter of the Iraq invasion because of Saddam's malign record in his country and the region, but not the ill-prepared aftermath. The shame is that Petraeus was not there from the outset.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Field or Bercow: Make a maverick moderniser Speaker

Michael Martin's resignation had become inevitable after his failure to set his own departure date yesterday. And despite his lack of verbal dexterity, it is worth recognising the tremendous personal feat he achieved in becoming Speaker from such humble beginnings - and that he was the first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation.

Now the Commons must find the right replacement. Talk of a stopgap Speaker to take the Commons only to the next election is ridiculous. They need someone who can carry the House through the next parliament who can command support across the House. More importantly, they need someone who can oversee the overhaul of an institution that has not only lost touch on expenses, but which too often places procedure and historical precedent above the needs and expectations of a modern democracy.

That suggests that we need a Speaker who is willing to be a reformer, rather than somebody who has become too comfortable with Commons traditions. We need someone who is not afraid to shake up the establishment but has the respect of significant numbers of MPs in all parties. And we need someone who can restore public faith in parliament at the same time.

Of course, some say it should be the Tories' turn. But are Sir Alan Haslehurst or Sir George Young really the right people for the change needed? If we want a person who commands such respect, Labour MP Frank Field and Tory MP John Bercow must be strong candidates. These two maverick MPs would each show that the Commons really does mean it when it says that it wants to restore faith in democracy.

Field would not be top of Gordon Brown's list, of course, given that he was effectively sacked for his radicalism on welfare at Brown's behest, and he has often upset his fellow Labour MPs by appearing too close to the Tories on some issues. Bercow has moved considerably leftwards since his student days and has been used by Labour to work on some education issues. But it is precisely their cross-party respect and their willingness to tilt against their own party establisments - so much so that each has been the subject of speculation about the possibility that they might cross the floor - that makes them so potentially appealing.

This post has been picked up by Iain Dale and the Guardian website.

A good time to bury Tory U-turns

With the news dominated by moats and house-flipping, not to mention David Cameron's selfless spin on the subject, the Tories have been quietly performing a big policy U-turn. Regular readers of this blog will know my views about BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley, who has an occasional sideline as Cameron's health secretary in waiting. While Labour - with Alan Johnson - has been pursuing a resolutely patient-focused health agenda, Lansley has shown as much disdain for patients as the haughtiest consultant.

So, it is a pleasant surprise to see the Tories finally admitting that they got it wrong over polyclinics, Labour's plans to improve patient services by locating a range of GPs and specialists under one roof. Needless to say it has been left to an underling, Mark Simmonds, to admit that when Lansley and his protector Cameron claimed a year ago that one in five surgeries would close as a result of the new centres opening, they were talking utter rubbish.

Perhaps the perceptive Mr Simmonds could turn his attention to his bosses' belief that patients' interests would be well served by scrapping maximum waiting times and bringing back eighties-style waiting lists?

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul and Liberal Conspiracy.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The speaker must go

I don't often agree with Nick Clegg. But he is right when he says that Speaker Michael Martin must step down. There has been a lot of nasty class-based criticism of Martin over the years, and that has been as distasteful as it has been unfair. But this is not the issue of the moment. The fact is that Martin has been in effective charge of the expenses regime that has become so discredited. He has also failed to prepare the ground for the inevitable publication of expense claims, preferring instead an ultimately futile battle in the courts. A radical overhaul of the system is urgently needed, along lines discussed earlier on this blog. Michael Martin cannot be the person to see it implemented.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Sir Christopher Kelly must report quickly

I hold no particular brief for Clare Short (quite the contrary given her erratic political behaviour) but the attempt by the Daily Telegraph to make something of her claim for full rather than interest-only mortgage payments, which she repaid three years ago when the Fees Office pointed out her error, shows how the paper is mixing the serious - as with Elliott Morley and the McKay-Kirkbride couple - with the rest to create an atmosphere that 'they're all it'; one which would justify voters in supporting mad and bad political parties like UKIP and the BNP.

Aside from the more egregious examples, what we have is the following:
* Some relatively minor examples of expenses and allowances which the Fees Office should not have permitted - presumably this was supposed to be the job of the trusted employee who was too busy selling the information to the Telegraph for a six-figure sum; and cases where MPs submitted longer receipts apparently to cover some allowable items on them, a distinction ignored by the Telegraph to produce more salacious headlines.
* A system where a reluctance to pay MPs a better salary has led to a sense of entitlement over allowances and expenses, leading some to claim the maximum allowance, which seems to have been actively encouraged by the fees office.
* A pig-headed attitude of some MPs which delayed necessary reforms, and which seems to have found expression in the Speaker, whose time is clearly up
* An opposition which is successfully obscuring its nakedly partisan demands for an end to the communications allowance (perhaps we could reduce opposition Short payments to an inflation-uprated equivalent of what Labour worked with pre-97 too? No, I didn't think so) and a reduction in (Labour) MPs as an act of pure selflessness.
* A government party which has lost the ability to communicate its message effectively, which has meant that it has appeared to be playing 'second fiddle' to the Tories even though its proposals have been far more sensible - and that includes the much scorned £150 daily attendance allowance - the cost of a moderate London hotel room - as an alternative to second home allowances.
* A public distaste for the main parties which is likely to see support for UKIP and the BNP increase at the local and European elections (incidentally, if Tory support falls below 30%, there is surely a real crisis for Cameron there) and which has licensed saloon bar loutishness as an 'expression of public anger.'

That seems to me to be where we are. And it needs urgent action: the three main political parties must now get their act together to agree a way forward that cleans up politics - and its appearance - in a root and branch way.

If Sir Christopher Kelly is to present the solution, he must pull his finger out. Politics can't afford a vacuum, as Sir Christopher acts as if he has been given a commission for a long-term academic research report. There is frankly no reason why he should not report well before the summer recess. Doing so is vital to restoring faith in democratic politics - and the elected politicians who, for all their faults, are vital to its operation.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Keep tests and tables

I have a column in today's Independent arguing the case for keeping primary school tests and the importance of those results continuing to be published nationally. You can read it here.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Full disclosure

Well done to George Foulkes for his pricking the pomposity of BBC interviewers in this gem from News 24. MPs earn £64,000 a year; but News 24 presenters get £92,000, reveals Carrie Gracie. She will be popular in the BBC News canteen.

Monday, 11 May 2009

A conspiracy of conspiracy theorists

I have just finished reading David Aaronovitch's brilliant demolition of conspiracy theorists, Voodoo Histories, and it is one of the most entertaining books I've read in ages. Aaronovitch shows us how the Protocols of Zion were a poor copy of a mid-19th century French novel; reminds us of western gullibility over the Stalin show trials; and moves contemporaneously to bien pensant beliefs in the 'murder' of Hilda Murrell and David Kelly (his demolition of the sanctimonious Lib Dem MP, Norman Baker is particularly powerful). Aaronovitch shows how those who think Roosevelt sat back while Pearl Harbour was bombed are as likely to think that 9/11 was a huge CIA plot. And he shows the absurdity of the beliefs in conspiracies around the deaths of JFK (I hadn't known that Oswald had tried assassination previously), Princess Di and Marilyn Monroe.

Conspiracy theorists tend to produce books full of apparently credible references, but the sources tend either to be other conspiracy theorists or chance media reports that have later been updated. Many theories are harmless and wacky; but beliefs in conspiracies can have hugely harmful effects, as with the Protocols (that fed Hitler's anti-semitism) and the acceptance of the Stalinist show trials by Western Communists or McCarthyism. As Aaronovitch says, the book is a brilliant antidote to the pub or dinner party bore who claims to have 'irrefutable proof' of a conspiracy. Thanks to his work, it is possible to retort credibly that 'stuff happens'. Do read it.

Pay more, end expenses

Gordon Brown is right to join David Cameron in apologising over expenses. But I see little point in adding to the synthetic outrage of newspapers over the whole saga. I trust no journalist who has written or pontificated on the issue has ever fiddled their expenses (and, in consequence, the taxman) in the past, and that the proprietors of newspapers filling acres of space on the subject wouldn't dream of finding ways to avoid paying taxes in the UK.

That said, the whole thing is an utter mess for MPs and very bad for the image of parliamentary politics. Like state funding of political parties, it is an example of where fear of a day or two's bad headlines has led politicians foolishly to opt for the worst possible solutions. MPs should be better paid - £100,000 a year, fully taxed, would be about what a GP earns - and get no living expenses beyond travel costs (through a railcard for all).

Political parties, already heavily funded by the taxpayer, should be largely funded by them with donations above £1000 banned. Those two simple measures might cause a day or two of synthetic outrage. But it would do more to clean up politics - and its public image - than any of the absurdly complicated alternatives being bandied about at the moment.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

A good idea from the assessment experts on transition

The expert group on assessment has plenty of sensible recommendations in their report, including on the importance of keeping English and Maths tests at 11. But one that may get overlooked amidst the understandable focus on testing is their idea that schools should do an extended study which pupils would start at primary school and complete in secondary school. Transition is a difficult time for many pupils, and they often fall back after starting in the more impersonal secondary school environment. This study would not only provide a bridge between the two; it would also provide opportunities for the broader education that the unions complain is being lost by the tests. The idea has already been tried in some London schools, and should be tried more widely.

A reasonable way forward on testing?

Reports about the likely recommendations of the expert group on testing have focused on the plans to replace the Key Stage 2 science tests with assessment. Since this blog recommended this as a way forward - and it has been welcomed by the science teachers' association - this is a sensible way of reducing the amount of testing whilst focusing on the basics.

Of course, it is the primary responsibility of primary schools to ensure that children know how to read, write and add up properly by the age of eleven. And the state has a duty to parents and taxpayers to make sure that they are doing so. Of course, there may be different ways of doing this - and the expert group seems wisely to be urging more piloting of the so-called progress tests that pupils would take as they are ready - but such tests must be externally set and marked. And they should be taken at least once by every pupil in every primary school.

Of course, the NAHT and NUT don't like this. But the NAHT general secretary - fresh from trumpeting his dodgy 'poll of parents' - told Today this morning that the scrapping of science 'narrows the curriculum too much'. So, he is no longer concerned to reduce the 'burden of testing'? Logically, then children should be tested in every subject, not none, as Mr Brookes admits that the presence of tests concentrates teachers' minds on getting children to pass them.

In truth, the revision that pupils do for tests in English and Maths can and should be a time to ensure that they have learnt how to read and write, and that they know their grammar, spelling, punctuation and mathematical rules. How does Mr Brookes imagine these children will get on in secondary school if they can't?If there is too much pressure on pupils, that is the fault of schools and parents, and not the tests.

But there is one respect where the expert group and those teachers' leaders who oppose a boycott may be being disingenuous, if advance reports are right: with respect to the publication of results. As a general principle in a society where freedom of information is the norm, it would be intolerable not to publish the test results. So, the results would appear in school report cards. Fine.

But there is a suggestion that the government might stop publishing the results on the same day, to avoid newspapers compiling league tables. We did, in fact, leave publication to individual local authorities in 1998 precisely for this reason, and apart from inconveniencing the education correspondents, it made no difference. The Press Association had to work a bit harder. There was less celebration of good and improving schools. So we returned to national publication.

With report cards, the newspapers will still publish the results. Surely, the DCSF must continue to make it easy for parents and others to search for any school's results on its website?

Of course, the real reason why these unions don't want the tests is not that they really think they 'damage' children. It is that they don't like the scrutiny that their publication brings. But such scrutiny has spurred so many of them to improve in recent years. The tests should stay; and their results should remain easily accessible to all.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Gordon brings some coherence to the Government's schools policy

Today's education speech by the Prime Minister was talked up as part of the fightback against his Bank Holiday critics. The Liberal Democrats predictably sneered at it in advance (bizarrely imagining that their own feeble education policy offers a credible alternative). But whatever its genesis, that was a good speech on education by Gordon Brown that offered a sense of where the government is going on the issue that has been sadly lacking in too much of what has emerged from the 'children's, schools and families' department in recent months.

It was particularly good because it was about education and schools in particular. And once it moved from the obligatory global justifications, it got down to brass tacks in a credible way. By dividing itself into themes related to leadership, teaching and the role of parents, it provide a valuable vehicle for a good number of worthwhile announcements (and justifiable reannouncements). It was, as a result, far chunkier than the advance billing.

There is to be much stronger action on failing primary schools (though the Prime Minister needlessly stops at federations for their governance). Chains of schools - already developing through academies - are to be given greater encouragement. Online reporting by schools to parents of children's progress will become the norm from 2010 in secondaries and 2012 in primaries. The importance of external primary tests was reaffirmed, along with plans for a new Report Card. Local authorities will be expected to become more the commissioners envisaged by Tony Blair in his 2005 White Paper than the managers of schools and to be responsive to parents both where they want to set up new schools and where they want new provision.

There is a much greater coherence in this menu than has been evident not only in government speeches on education of late but than there is in the Opposition's still very sketchy proposals for free schools. But there are still areas where the Government could and should go further when it finally publishes its White Paper on schools next month.

First, the academies programme and academy freedoms should be available to federations of primary schools including weaker ones (this is not actually what the Tories are proposing, and would provide a constructive contrast to their plans).

Second, although most parents may not want to set up their own schools, the Government should make sure the powers in the 2006 legislation can be used by those who do and significant parent promoters not only get local authority support to develop their plans, but they are linked to others who might be willing to take up their ideas. The extra costs need only arise with the capital proposals that are the Achilles heel of the Tory plans.

Third, if local authorities are to be expected to act in parents' interests, there must be someone with the statutory authority to force them to do so. This should be an explicit responsibility of the School Adjudicator, who already has a number of similar roles.

In the current climate, it may be that Brown's measures are treated as trivial or repetitive. And the Prime Minister could have done a little more to remind people how much has already been achieved, not least with academies. But by giving coherence to an approach to education that has recently felt haphazard, the PM has made a valiant attempt to recover the Labour initiative in this subject.

I've also written on the speech for the Progress website.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The NAHT 'poll' that shows why we need independent testing in primary schools

I listened to NAHT general secretary Mick Brookes telling us this morning that we could trust his members to do their own assessments of how good their own schools were, without any need for troublesome tests or pesky performance tables.

In the midst of the discussion, Mr Brookes informed us that his stance enjoyed the overwhelming backing of parents, according to an opinion poll that his union had done. Given that an independent Ipsos MORI survey for the DCSF showed a rather different result - and it was conducted using a representative sample of parents by a reputable polling company - I thought this a bit fishy.

So I checked the NAHT's website for more details of this 'poll.' In fact, there is no independent opinion poll. Instead, the NAHT has pulled together a self-selecting 'sample' of parents' views collected by NAHT members and collated with no attempt at weighting.

The press release issued in February even suggests that embarrassed NAHT press officers know the whole thing is a crock. "Whilst we recognise that this is not an independent survey, it represents a substantial body of opinion," they plead.

So, let's get this straight. The union which tells us that we can trust its members to tell parents exactly how well their child's school is doing in English and maths without independent national tests or published results is quite happy to defy the rules of statistics to get the data it wants, and to pretend that its data is of some value even though it shows results exactly the opposite of properly conducted independent research.

And we are supposed then to take their word that we don't need any independent look at how primary schools run by its members are performing?

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Boycotting tests would be a slap in the face to taxpayers and parents

The fairly predictable decision of the National Association of Head Teachers to ballot its membership on a boycott of national tests for eleven year-olds is nothing to do with the absurd notion that a single set of externally marked and set tests in the first fifteen years of a young person's life is 'damaging' and everything to do with the view of some professionals that it is impertinent of parents and taxpayers to wish to have a degree of accountability that is independent of individual schools. After all, it is up to individual NAHT members to decide how much they want to 'pressure' their pupils, and to pretend this is all the fault of the tests is not only disingenuous but is disproved by the many successful schools that manage to get the balance right.

The issue here is not whether the existing tests might be improved; they can. The Government is already reviewing them, and it is likely that the conclusion will be more tightly focused English and Maths tests. There is also merit in doing much of the testing online. Rather it is the growing view that professionals should be accountable to nobody but themselves, despite the fact that the taxpayer foots the bill (the Tories have already swallowed this view in their plans to leave doctors free of any patient-focused targets).

Having seen what happens with excessively light-touch regulation in the private sector, it is extraordinary that public servants should demand the same for themselves. Politicians of all parties should make clear that anybody boycotting the tests is in breach of their legal obligations and their duty to parents; they should do so quickly and without equivocation, and explain the consequences. Otherwise, all the gains in openness in our schools system over the last two decades will be endangered, and parents will once more find themselves excluded from a secret garden in which their enquiries are unwelcome and there is no external check on the assessments being made by teachers about their child's progress before GCSEs.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The government's worst week...since the last worst week

Tony Blair used to joke in weeks filled with bad news that this was the Government's worst week since the last worst week. And it is always good to bring perspective in the midst of the sort of media frenzy around the Government at the moment. There is no doubt that ministers got the national mood wrong over the Gurkhas (though I still haven't heard David Cameron or Nick Clegg providing the costings for what they propose).

As for the MPs expenses saga, Gordon Brown may not have got second homes reform, but he has got big changes to London MPs' and ministers' claims; if anyone has looked bad in this saga, it is the MPs themselves. Moreover, his proposal for a flat rate linked to attendance is far more likely to work in practice than anything else I've heard, even if it upsets newspaper editors who may find themselves bereft of 'snouts in trough' copy. Brown did well with his Pakistan agenda. Britain is leaving Basra in a stronger economic position than before, a fact reported prominently in BBC coverage. And on the flu pandemic, ministers look prepared and ready, so much so that even the tabloids can't find anything to criticise beyond the delayed launch of a 'flu line.'

But much of this is beside the point. The week's events give a feeling that the Government is drifting, and this sense of drift which started with the dismal McBride antics and continued through the Budget, shows no sign of coming to an end. Charles Clarke and Bob Marshall-Andrews weighing into the PM in his time of trouble are no great surprise. But the PM would do well to heed some of the things being said by my ex-boss David Blunkett in a speech today.

Part of the speech is classic David: a plea for new localism and modern forms of self-help through micro-credit, and consumer rather than producer-based approaches, all of which could help government reconnect with people. But he is also warning against ‘turning the clock back’ and the “siren voices” who want to re-run the modernisation debates which took place in the Labour Party in the 1990s. “The old battles are over and the need for visionary action is self-evident. So talk of going back to the past, of wiping out the last two decades, is dangerous," he says.

David is right. The government needs to craft a strong message which explains the huge differences that have already been made to the public services, but shows that when it comes to ensuring the people have the choices and standards they expect, it is better placed to deliver even in a time of austerity than the Conservatives. Labour must show that it is still the party of modernisation. Next week, when Gordon Brown speaks on education, would be a good time to start getting that message across.