Politics

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?

£35 a week

According to a story in today’s Guardian Britain is seeing a boom in shoplifting, as those on the breadline are simply unable to make end meet.

An Algerian boy was restrained by five people are attempting to steal a sandwich from a supermarket, as an asylum-seeker he was not permitted to work and received just £35 per week for food, clothing and travel.

Just in case any of you were still under the illusion that asylum-seekers were coming to Britain and living the life of Riley I’ll repeat, £35 per week to feed yourself, clothe yourself and travel around, and no opportunity to work and try and improve your lot. In court he said he frequently went 1 or 2 days a week without eating.

The Trussell Trust predict that over 200,000 people will use food banks in the 2012/13 financial year, even in austerity Britain it simply can’t be OK for people to be unable to afford to eat.

Whilst George Osborne talks of ‘strivers vs shirkers’ real people are going hungry, someone needs to convince him it’s time to change tack.

In praise of the BBC

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I was listening to David Mellor earlier. After five minutes of telling the BBC exactly what they had got wrong and how they needed to improve he said “I am a friend of the BBC, I just want to stop them falling at the hand of their enemies”.

Really though? Really? I have been lucky enough to have been a friend to and been befriended by some amazing people over the years and I am comfortable in saying that not one of them, when the chips were down, would have gone on TV to tell the world exactly how I had been the author of my own demise”. A friend, in my book at least, might have that conversation with me in private, but to the world would be my champion.

I also count the BBC as friend, so this blog is dedicated to why I love it – and why you should too.

It is the first thing I listen to

Whether it is Jim, Jon, Sarah or Evan, I love waking-up to the Today programme. The show, on its own, delivers on Reith’s original mission to ‘educate, inform and entertain’. The joy doesn’t stop there however, I trust the whole of their news-output, from Breakfast to the (world-leading) website, to do the same. Sure they’ve made a couple of mistakes, but haven’t we all? When you put it up against phone-hacking, the crime of now showing a news-piece when you should have done (and then doing the opposite three-weeks later) seems a relatively minor one.

But the quality doesn’t start and end with news. The entertainment output is simply world-class. Don’t believe me? How many of you would have even thought about watching ball-room dancing a decade ago? Then we come to Drama, and again they are head and shoulders above any other UK broadcaster – from Spooks to Hunted, Waterloo Road to Holby, they deliver first-class programming for a huge range of audiences.

I was just thinking as I wrote the last paragraph and the BBC would be my organisation of choice for – news, drama, entertainment, spoken-word radio, music and (in terms of quality at least) sport. I don’t imagine any other broadcaster in the world could lay claim to that, yet I expect I am one of millions for the BBC.

The big moments

Weddings, funerals, elections, major-sporting events, in fact any moment of national significance, and it is the BBC we turn to. Why? Because no-one does it better. The Olympics reeled us in, not just because of the incredible athletes, but because of the incredibly story-tellers the BBC employed (and in many cases trained) to guide us through three weeks of triumph and disaster. This morning I turned on the TV and then later the Radio to watch/listen to the Remembrance Day commemorations – who else could do this?

Detractors of the BBC will tell you it is because they have a monopoly and far greater resources. Whilst this may be true in some respects (no-one else is willing to spend the money they do on news for instance), it isn’t always the case. The American broadcaster sent over five-times as many people to staff London 2012 than the BBC. Ask an American how that worked out for them.

They face-up to the things they’ve done badly

No-one gets it right all the time and the BBC are no different. What is different is everything they produce, from day-time dramas to Newsnight is held to a higher-level of scrutiny than other broadcasters. It is this level of scrutiny that, for me at least, has led them to being possibly the most transparent and accepting of blame of any major media outlet.

Just take a look at the Savile affair again. Entwistle had offered a full-apology within days of the story-breaking, whilst the Newsnight editor was removed from his role. Most impressively, the corporation opened themselves up for interrogation by their own shows. First Panorama, then Newsnight itself, investigated and reported to millions, the facts that led to the Savile decision. Not only that, Entwistle and other senior-execs did gruelling interviews both with their own and their competitors. Could you imagine Sky doing this? The Daily Mail? ITV?

If anything, in their keenness to stay ahead of public opinion they over-react. Entwistle first put himself at the mercy of Jon Humphreys and then resigned after only seven weeks in post for what was, ultimately, a couple of his editors being on the wrong-side of two very difficult judgement calls. Compare this to phone-hacking – how long did it take Rebecca Brooks to resign? Or the expenses-scandal (where some of the worst offenders are still serving MPs, whilst those who made genuine errors, find themselves bundled out of office).

The BBC should be looked at with some respect for how quickly and decisively they have acted.

They help deliver real and lasting change

Some of you’ll know I used to work for Comic Relief, so I feel personally indebted to the generosity of the BBC and their staff. Each ‘night of TV’ that is delivered as part of Red Nose Day or Sport Relief raises tens of millions of pounds. I imagine it is the same for Children In Need. More than the money raised on the night itself, the exposure through the campaign, helps inspire hundred of thousands of people to go out and fundraise. To date, Comic Relief has raised over £800 million pounds. That’s real money that helps save real lives. Without the BBC it is hard to imagine how the project would have even got off the ground.

They are just some of the reasons I love the BBC. Whenever they do something stupid or wrong, I line it up against all the good they do, all the quality programming they produce and remember there is no-one else even close.

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 Welfare

Behind in the polls, rebellious backbenchers, a stagnant economy – it is fair to say that No.10 might not be all David Cameron thought it would be. Desperate to regain momentum but without any kind of grand plan for jobs or growth he has decided to take the Tories back to where they are most comfortable – being the Nasty Party.

After last weeks moral outrage at Jimmy Carr, this week he has chosen to focus on that bête noir of Daily Mail readers – Benefit Scroungers. You know the ones, heroin addicts, dozens of adorable but violent children, never done a good days work in their life. What do you do? Give the money to the scroungers or let ‘hard-working’ families keep a little more of theirs. It’s a no-brainer.

The problem is it is a false choice. Less than 1 in 20 of those who claim benefits have any form of substance addiction whilst 7 out of 8 are in work – that’s right, those hard-working families Cameron says he speaks for are the very same people who are going to see their household income plummet should Cameron’s ideas ever come to fruition.

The policy ideas come thick and fast however – from time-limited benefits linked to average earnings (after all if the middle-classes see their wages stagnate why shouldn’t the poorest?) to zero housing benefit for the under-25’s. Under-25s you see should be living at home with their parents – fine of course if you live in Chipping Norton and your parents can afford to keep you rent free whilst you plan out your future career, not so fine if your parents live in rural Cornwall or inner-city Bermondsey and are already struggling to pay the bills (thanks in large part to their benefits being cut). It also directly punishes those young people who want to move away from their childhood home in order to look for work – exactly the type of thing we should be encouraging.

But despite the evidence in front of him – 2.4m unemployed, an economy in recession, the increase in low-paid part-time jobs in place of full-time ones, Cameron cannot quite shake that most Tory of thoughts – they are unemployed because they are lazy. How do you deal with laziness? By beating it out of them.

The real crime is there are positive things he could be doing to help. By reinvesting in sure-start centres he could ensure that young mothers and children get the support and guidance when and where they need it most. A major housebuilding plan that would not only help first-time buyers but also the construction industry. Rather than looking at benefits rising with average earnings, how about doing something about private rents (which have rocketed in the last 5 years)? Finally he could introduce the living wage – putting money exactly where he says he wants it, in the pockets of hard-working families.

He won’t of course, because of none of this will play well to the Daily Mail and, at this point, Cameron is thinking more about his short-term survival rather than the long-term future of the country he purports to run.

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.