Labour

I used to love politics. What went wrong?

I used to love politics. I mean really love it. The cut and thrust of debate, the incredulity I felt when someone didn’t agree with my particular point of view, the battle of ideas. Oh the ideas! That was at the heart of it. Even when I was a teenager and, to be completely frank, some of the ideas my friends and I debated were both awful and probably quite offensive, it didn’t matter. We relished the conversation, we learnt from it and it inspired us all to a greater or lesser extent towards our future lives and achievements.

We were lucky. We grew up at a time of big ideas in politics. I was born 14 months before Margaret Thatcher was appointed Prime Minister. I remember the miners strike being called-off on my 7th birthday in 1985. In my first general election as a voter Tony Blair won in a landslide. It was a time when politics mattered – big issues being debated by towering figures – Heseltine, Williams, Benn, Healey, Owen, Major. Well OK, maybe not Major, but you get my drift.

What do today’s young people think of politics I wonder? If the 56% of 18-24 year olds who chose not to vote in 2010 are anything to go by – not much. And who can blame them?

We live in extraordinary times.

We are consuming resources faster than our planet can replenish them, whether it be energy or food, at the same time our choices mean we are slowly (but certainly) heating up our planet with potentially ruinous consequences.

Our National Health Service is creaking at the seams, unable to cope with the numbers of patients or the complexity of their conditions, whilst at the same time consuming ever more of GDP.

We have an education system that was designed for a different era, an era where conformity and facts ruled and competition for jobs came from amongst your classmates, not from a globally mobile labour force.

People are living longer, but still retiring broadly at the same age. What is more, they are having fewer children to support them.

The world is experiencing the highest levels of wealth inequality in human history. The richest 80 people on the planet have the same combined wealth as the bottom 3.5billion; by 2016 it is estimated the richest 1% will hold more wealth than the other 99%.

Oh, and we are still working our way through the most significant financial crisis of modern times.

Historically these kind of challenges would have thrown up leaders who could inspire and engage the public, working with them to generate the big ideas required to meet the challenges we face. But what do we have instead?

The environment and food security almost non-existent on the political agenda, as if only something to be discussed during the economic good-times.

A fight over the Health Service on who will cut the least, battles over a few thousand nurses and doctors, but no attempt to even begin the much more challenging and needed debate of what our future health service might look like and, crucially, how we will pay for it.

Squabbling over what books our children should or shouldn’t read, micro-managing teachers and ladening with debt those young people who want to better themselves (and society) through higher education whilst making no attempt to imagine the education system of the future – one that understands that children are individualss and puts creativity and the ability to find, process and apply knowledge above that of rote-learning and the repetition of facts.

Meanwhile, whilst working families struggle and the poor are increasingly demonised by politicians from all sides, doing anything that might impact on older people has become a political bete-noire. Pensions are triple-locked, the winter fuel-allowance and free-travel are given to all (tax-free) regardless of need.

Despite all the evidence that says inequality is bad, not just for the poorest in society but for everyone (if you haven’t already, the Spirit Level is a must read book), any attempt to redistribute that wealth, whether a mansion tax or any other form of wealth tax is derided as both communist and just too difficult. At the same time, any call for businesses to pay a living wage is immediately rejected as anti-business – as if somehow it should no-longer be a business’s responsibility to pay their workers enough to do simple things like heat their home or put food on their table. Instead the responsibility falls on other tax-payers who are, in effect, handing a multi-billion pound subsidy to businesses every year.

Despite all this, I will trudge to my local church come election day, put a cross next to the name of my local labour candidate, and post it in the ballot box. But I’ll do it because I have always voted and my parents have always voted – it is a sense of duty that I can’t quite shake rather than any enthusiasm for the agenda of any of the major parties. For those that say I could vote for another party, why would I? I live in a straight two-way marginal and, all things being equal, I’d rather Labour than Tory.

Our political system is fundamentally broken (as are many of our individual representatives) and currently there is little hope of it being fixed.

In most industries there are disrupters, start-ups and fringe businesses that challenge the business models of their larger competitors and ultimately shift the way business is done. Think of what Aldi and Lidl have done to the big-4 supermarkets, what the iPod did for the way we listen to music (and, in turn, how services like Spotify are reinventing it again), or what services like Twitter and Facebook have done for the way we consume news and other media.

Disrupters exist in politics too, The Green Party, The People’s Assembly, even UKIP (if that is the kind of thing you like) are all trying to disrupt the way we approach and do politics. The problem is the price of entry is just too high, even those who do make progress in the short-term tend to fall-back over time. Look at the SDP in the 1980’s and I am sure the same will happen with UKIP post 2015. This leaves us with a straight choice between the Tories and Labour and an inevitable focus on a few thousand voters in a few dozen swing-seats and with it a drive to the centre, small c conservatism and the status quo.

Until there is a fundamental overhaul of the political system, an end to first-past-the-post, an embracing of more direct and local democracy and a change in how politics is delivered (more equality, less pantomime performances for example), this is how it will continue. Year after year, election after election fewer and fewer will bother to trudge those few steps to the polling-station, preferring to stay away and make a silent protest of non-engagement.

And until politicians understand this who can blame those who choose to stay away?

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When I die: Lessons from the Death Zone

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Philip Gould was the unsung hero of New Labour. Possessing a unique understanding of people, he was able to get to the heart of their hopes, fears and aspirations. The intelligence he gathered from polls and focus groups was utterly crucial to the project both in terms of presentation and policy.

When I die is his personal account of his battle with Cancer. A battle he tragically lost. Far from being depressing however (though, take it from me, it is not something to read on the tube) this is an uplifting and inspiring book full of hope and promise.

By choosing to accept that death will come to him Gould releases both himself and those around him, making their final weeks together ones of joy and intimacy rather than despair and solitude.

Perhaps most impressive is that first him then, in his final days, his daughter manage to capture every moment and emotion in words so that we can share in it.

It finishes with an e-mail from Alastair Campbell to Philip, written just a few days before his death. In it Campbell quotes The Queen, from a speech first spoken in the days after 9/11

“Grief is the price we pay for love”

Go read it now.

 

Thoughts on Tony Blair

There has been a flurry of activity surrounding Tony Blair over the last few days to mark the 5year anniversary of his departure from Downing Street. It has got me reflecting about just how good a politician he really was, whether any of the current generation have his potential and if not, why not?

First, if it is not already obvious, I am a fan. It was Tony Blair that gave me that final reason to join the Labour party back in the mid-nineties and, since his departure, it is a party I have generally felt less comfortable in. Some of it was his policies – major reforms to health and education that only a centrist from a Labour background could have hoped to succeed in; an aggressive equality agenda; a global view based on the spread of democracy and active engagement when humanitarian needs demanded it (not to mention the massive expansion in the international development budget). In short, the third-way was what was needed for the country and that is what Blair delivered.

Less tangible but perhaps more significant were his leadership qualities, of which he had in abundance. Whether it was the death of Diana, Kosovo or 9/11 he had a knack for understanding the public mood. He also understood the dangers of a political vacuum and, if no-one else could, would quickly step in to fill it. This was particularly important in the hours, days and weeks following 9/11 where America felt isolated and therefore unpredictable and the rest of the world unsure how to act, it is no understatement to say that during that time Tony Blair held together a global peace.

That is not to say I liked everything he did, far from it – Iraq as in for many on the left was a cause of angst and something I couldn’t and didn’t support. That said, I never doubted his belief that it was the right thing to do, and that is third important trait – the belief and confidence that what you are doing is right. Politics, particularly at the highest level is rarely about absolute rights and wrongs, it is about judgement. Once you have made up your mind you have to have the desire and belief to see it through.

So how do the current crop compare? Tony Blair said in his interview with the Evening Standard yesterday ‘there are two types of leaders – reality managers and reality creators. Mostly it is adequate to have reality managers but now we need leaders who can create reality’. Judged against that we are not faring well. Despite what I sometimes write, there is no evidence that Cameron is inherently evil, but he is just adequate – and that just isn’t good enough such uncertain times. Sadly he is not alone, there are very few, if any on either front bench who have that desire, vision and belief that is required to simultaneously take on challenges like the banking crisis, the arab-spring, health, education, the Olympics and much more. The only names who come to mind with even the potential are Gove for the Tories or Umunna for Labour. Both at least have intellect and belief in abundance.

Why so few heavyweights? I think the answer is three-fold.

First, selection for either of the main parties benefits two groups of people far too much – ultra-loyalists and special advisors/those within the political machine. There is nothing wrong with being loyal of course, but I would far rather have an MP who has the power of free-thought and rebels from time to time than one who slavishly holds party line at all costs (just look at how many ‘loyal’ Conservative MPs looked ridiculous following the fuel duty u-turn earlier this week).

Secondly, age. Has anyone else noticed how just as the average age of the population is increasing, the age of MPs and ministers is tumbling? I am all for the ‘if you are good enough, you are old enough’ philosophy, but as I mentioned earlier great leadership is about judgement and that almost always comes with experience. This also links to the first point and the shallowness of the pool for potential candidates. It is now a well-trodden path to cabinet – good school, PPE or similar at University, parliamentary assistant, special advisor, a couple of years on the backbencher and then a junior ministerial role before graduating to cabinet. Where are the teachers, doctors, nurses, business leaders in all this?

Thirdly and finally, the power of the whips has just become too strong – so even if you have made it through the first two, you are unlikely to get past the third with your reforming zeal and dignity still in tact. Like Big Brother in 1984, you’ll have every bit of independence squeezed out of you until you become fully assimilated into the party machine. Great for party unity, bad for politics.

And so, depressingly, fear we will have to wait a long time until we see another Blair and perhaps even longer until we see one surrounded by other strong Ministers. On the other hands Blair did say he would like to return to office….

Thoughts on… Gove and education

Michael Gove this week announced the biggest shake-up of secondary education in a generation. Should his policies ultimately succeed then GCSE’s will be consigned to the bin, being replaced instead by a revamped system of ‘O’ Levels and CSE’s. 

The way he announced it; allowing the reforms to be leaked to a very sympathetic Daily Mail before they had been discussed at cabinet, let alone parliament, is instructive in itself. It put Labour on the back foot, entrenching them into an ‘old-Labour’ ideological position whilst simultaneously emboldening parliamentary Conservatives and forcing Cameron to back reforms that are possibly too ‘old-Tory’ even for him. The Lib-Dems meanwhile continue to be confused – the leadership know the grassroots oppose any move towards a two-tier examination system, but understand that for the sake of the coalition and their immediate political future they cannot oppose it too much. In all the hype it is easy for Labour types like myself to disregard Gove and his policies as nothing more than nostalgic elitism but that would miss the point, and leave generations of kids worse off. 

Labour’s track record in government was good but it was also unfinished, particularly when it came to secondary education. True, Academies had just started to take-off, breathing life into some of the country’s worst schools, but still too many talented pupils were able to coast, whilst those at the bottom were frequently not entered for traditional GCSEs for fear of the detrimental impact they may have on league tables. Meanwhile the competition between exam boards led to corruption and the perverse situation where those offering the easiest papers were at a commercial advantage. Finally, GCSEs have lost the confidence of many employers. None of this is to blame teachers or pupils, who I honestly believe work harder now than ever to attain the best possible grades. But to continue with a system that has so clearly had its time fails them perhaps more than anyone. 

I actually agree with Gove on a couple of things – we should end intra-subject competition between different exam boards and papers should regularly be independently verified to ensure standards year-on-year remain consistently high.It is also fair to argue that too many pupils are gaining top-grades – that is not necessarily an admission they are easier than in previous generations, more that teaching has become more sophisticated and pupils are working harder, nonetheless any future exam system needs to be able to push the most able as much as it does the least. That said, a two-tier examination system that effectively limits a child’s ambition at the age of 13 or 14 is, to borrow a phrase from the PM, morally repugnant. 

Instead, I believe we need to look across the continent for inspiration, delivering more broad-based education for longer with final assessments in english, maths, the sciences, arts, humanities and a language. The resultant qualification being similar to a ‘junior’ baccalaureate. From here students have a choice to carry on and study for a full ‘baccalaureate’ (or whatever we might choose to call our version) or to complete a vocational equivalent. Either way, all 16-18 year olds would stay in either full-time education or training. 

Sadly, because of the nature of Gove’s leak and the resultant political positioning it is unlikely we will see the wider public debate and resultant policy in 11-18 education that is so desperately needed. Instead we are likely to see another generation unable to reach its full potential. 

 

 

 

 

 

Ed – Slowly but surely he is coming good.

If this was The West Wing you might say that Ed Miliband has the Mo. Well maybe just the M, or perhaps half an M. Whatever you want to call it Ed is beginning to look a little more at home as leader, and the public are responding.

His slow and thoughtful approach to politics, which for the first year of his leadership was deemed a potentially fatal hindrance, now compares favourably to the lightweight Cameron. This bears out in the polls where, not only have Labour held a fairly consistent lead in the last few months, Miliband has overtaken Cameron in terms of popularity.

There is no doubt he has been helped by a Coalition seemingly intent on destroying itself – but he should be given some credit for this too. Better strategy has meant, bar a few shrill moments, he has been more decisive and effective in attack – not allowing Cameron to wriggle out of trouble as he so often did before.

Credit too should go to his frontbench team, particularly the power-duo that is Balls and Cooper. Balls cut Osborne’s austerity budget to shreds and made one of the Tory’s biggest assets look weak, out-of-touch and out of ideas. His unswerving message of growth and gentler passage out of deficit means Labour have earned the right to be listened to again. Cooper meanwhile has done the political equivalent of taking May out back and giving her a shoeing. Law and order was once a banker for Conservative ministers – not any more.

Six months ago the resignation of a shadow cabinet minister would have led to abject panic. Today we saw a confident Ed Miliband make a couple of minor tweaks plus the very smart promotion of John Cruddas – a guy liked and respected across the party, whether left or right, Blair or Brown. That he didn’t feel the need to replace Hain with another ‘big-beast’ shows just how far he has come.

There are still lots of challenges ahead – Labour fell just short of the magic 40% in the May elections. turnout was also worryingly though, ,waning that whilst the public don’t like Cameron and Co. they are yet to be convinced by Ed and his team. As Ed himself noted at the recent Progress conference, he and the rest of the party now have a job of work to do to engage all those registered voters who decided to stay at home. He also needs to start articulating a vision of a future Labour government in policy terms. The country is inclined to listen, so now is the time to start the conversation.

That said, it has been a long-time since Labour were in such a promising position and, like it not, it is Ed Miliband who has put us there. Slowly but surely he is coming good.

Local Elections – First Thoughts (A good night for Labour, a bad one for democracy)

It is far too early to judge the significance of the local election results but, as of 7am on Friday morning, here are my early thoughts.

Labour have had a good night, whatever way you spin it a projected gain of 700 seats is not to be sneezed at. More importantly Ed M can point to gains in places like Harlow as evidence that Labour are able to at least compete in the South again. It is not a watershed moment and they will be disappointed if the share of the vote stays under the magic 40% mark. This gives Ed some breathing space to carry on with his ‘slowly but surely’ strategy and means they have earned the right to be heard again – a vital first step for any longer-term recovery. The disappointing result in the London Mayoral race announced later today will not be blamed on Ed or his team (in fact it arguably makes him look more of an electoral asset) and is unlikely to take the shine of his first real electoral success.

Although it was a bad night for Lib-Dems, I don’t think they will be too disappointed. The ongoing slide in the opinion polls has not borne fruit, with their vote actually holding up well compared to last year. Their biggest problem is, due to the peculiarities of our voting system, even small fluctuations in the share of the national vote have the potential to destroy them come General Election time. They have pinned their hopes on a significant economic upturn by 2015 and all the goodwill that comes with it, now all they can do is wait.

For the Tories this is a shocker, the leadership may have ‘priced in’ this scale of loss, but that is no consolation for the hundreds of ousted Tory councillors who feel the government has no guiding vision, no plan for growth and has become detached from its Tory roots. Better news to come for them later when Boris is returned as London Mayor – this is a poisoned chalice for the leadership though. How is it Boris can be so popular when Cameron, to put it mildly, isn’t? How come Boris looks like a heavyweight when Cameron, to put it mildly, isn’t? How come Boris has a mission when Cameron, to put it mildly doesn’t? Expect an angry and rejuvenated right-wing of the Tory party to put real pressure on the Cameroon both pre and post the upcoming Queen’s Speech.

All of this however will be overshadowed the the terrible turnout. Less than a third of people managed to get to their polling stations and put an X in a box. I haven’t really got my head round what this means yet – expect that it is bad for democracy and shows political parties continue to be detached from the people they purportedly represent. This probably deserves a post of its own, so I’ll have a think and get back to you.

Will try and write later once the dust has settled and the Mayoral results have been announced.

Tc Bx

The day I delivered a baby

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It snowed last weekend, and I mean snowed. But more of that in a moment. At 3:40am on Sunday morning Charlotte woke me with the slightly delayed words ‘I think my waters have broken’. It stirred in me a mixture of excited anticipation and relief – we were after all nine days overdue. Our first labour had been a shade under four hours, quick by first-time standards, but not alarmingly so. I woke Carol and Piers (my in-laws) and phoned my own parents, then put the coffee machine on; it could be a long night.

The first inkling that things might not go entirely to plan was when Piers and I went to get the car. The moment we stepped outside our shoes sunk down into the four inches of newly fallen snow, the car was going nowhere. A sense of hope not really bedded in any reality led us to the porters lodge to see if they had a solution. Whilst Piers was chatting to Howard I noticed a car stuck in the snow and went over to help. After a fashion we managed to get the car moving again, as thanks the driver kindly offered us a lift to hospital. It only took a quick look towards Piers before we both politely declined. It was time to call an ambulance.

When I got back up to the flat it was apparent Charlotte’s labour had progressed. She was in a lot of pain, but dealing with it in her normal stoic way. It reminded me just how amazing it all is – she could be shouting out in pain one moment and then able to hold a perfectly normal conversation the next. At this point I still assumed we would be having the baby in hospital, however two things quickly disabused me of this. First, Charlotte announced that, in the last seven minutes, she’d had three contractions. Second, in response the ambulance call-handler (who stayed on the line throughout) very calmly but assertively told me to get her somewhere comfortable, get some towels (it turns out you do need them) and check ‘if you can see the head’. Thankfully it was all clear, but equally clear was that it wouldn’t be long until I could. I handed the phone to Carol and got ready to deliver a baby.

Lots of people over the last week have asked how I felt at this point. The answer always seems to disappoint. I felt remarkably calm – I knew I had to take control of the situation and be able to make decisions on Charlotte’s behalf, allowing her to focus solely on the childbirth. This much we had already agreed in our birth plan (though that had assumed a midwife might also be there to help out a little). It sounds strange now, but my overwhelming feeling was that it was no big deal – she had chosen now to enter the world, all I had to do was guide her out. What’s more we were in a safe, warm environment and an ambulance was on its way. Things could have been a lot worse.

And so the time had come. After two contractions where Charlotte had resisted the urge to push on the third I told her to let go and push as hard as she could – what felt like seconds later I could first feel and then see a little head as it emerged to join us. There was a small moment of private panic when I thought the cord was stuck round her neck, it was just a hand, temporarily trapped by her shoulder. There was a moments pause as Charlotte caught her breath and then, with a final heave she was out and in my arms. We wrapped her up, placed her in her mothers arms and waiting for the pros to arrive. Our work here was done.

Writing a week after the event, there are a couple of things that don’t quite fit into the narrative of the story – the first is my sheer admiration and love for my wife. It is impossible to imagine the feelings and emotions that must have been coursing through her as first plan A, then plan B were torn-up before her eyes. Yet she never showed the slightest bit of panic and dealt with everything as if it was entirely routine. Even better she made us the perfect baby girl. I should also thank Carol and Piers who not only allowed us to turn their beautiful home into a temporary birthing centre but also supported us in the whole thing with a contagious sense of calm.

There is nothing to compare to the pride you feel on becoming a new father, and this doesn’t diminish second time around, The emotion that comes with being the first person to hold your baby and to have actually delivered her into the world is however off-the-scale. Even as I look at her feeding now, I can’t quite believe that it happened. It is a night that will never leave me, and one that I am sure will haunt Alba as I bore first her and then her friends recounting the tale for many years to come.