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?

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. 






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.

Tory plans keep me awake at night – but where is the opposition?

So here I am sitting on a train that is currently winding it’s way to London from Glasgow. I should really be catching up on sleep but every time I start to doze an uncomfortable thought jolts me back to reality. The thought? That the Tories are in complete control of the political agenda, they are already drawing up the battle lines for the next election and by the time the other parties wake up to the threat it may be too late.

The dominant Conservative element of this coalition government are determined to learn from the mistakes of the 1997 Labour Government. Not for them a timid first term, patiently fighting one battle at a time whilst all the while keeping one eye on the polls and focus groups. We are witnessing an object lesson in the exploitation of power by a party that sees the last 13years as an aberration, a temporary lapse in the electorates collective judgement.

Crippling cuts in public expenditure, the effective decoupling of education from LEA’s, the largest overhaul of health provision since the inception of the NHS. Promises of prison reform and welfare reform, not to mention a proposal to significantly reduce the size of the House of Commons and of course a referendum on AV. All this, and it is only August. Once Parliament returns from the summer recess it is time for the spending review and that is when the real fun begins. Don’t let yourself fall for DC’s easy charm – this government is working with an ideological zealotry that Thatcher would be in awe of. Under the cover of ‘necessary cuts’ we are about to witness a dramatic and permanent cut in the size of the state, with those on the margins of society hit the hardest.

And what of the other parties? Nick Clegg and his band of Lib-Dems have gambled all on an AV referendum, ceding all power and voice in an attempt to make progress on their most treasured policy. I fear for a party that now has no identity beyond the coalition itself and could suffer a catastrophic demise at the next election. Regardless, they are in no position to do anything but offer tacit support to the Tories for now. As for Labour, could there really be a worse time for a long drawn out leadership battle that is struggling to maintain interest from it’s own membership let alone from the wider electorate? What we need are Labour’s biggest and best minds working together to build public campaigns, raise the level of debate and hold this un-mandated government to account.

The Tories and their agenda have stolen a march and currently there is no one to stop them. That thought alone is enough to keep me from sleeping.

A dire warning for School leavers – there are no jobs, no training and no university places left.

Well £6.2billion down – only £887bn to go. But what do the coalition decisions to date really tell us about the direction of this government?

Well first, they are serious about protecting and enhancing civil-liberties – which is something we can all cheer about. Secondly, the other thing that is keeping Lib-Dems happy (or at least quiet) right now, there is to be significant constitutional reforms – with a likely elected second chamber and a referendum on AV for the commons. So far, so good.

But listening to George Osborne and David Laws yesterday my thoughts turned to another area – that of the future of our current crop of school-leavers.  Already worried about the unenviable choice between going to University and facing a mountain of debt on graduation, or entering a jobs market where 1 in 6 of their peers cannot find work, yesterdays announcements should come as a dire warning that things are going to get a lot worse.

We already know, or at least fear, that the Lib-Dems are likely to drop their long-standing opposition to tuition fees – preferring to preach from the safety of the fence, rather than risk undermining the coalition. Early indications suggest that not only are differential fees here to stay they are likely to face sustained increases, particularly if you fancy studying on a popular course at a decent university. However, cuts to the Education, Business and Work and Pensions budgets now mean that the next generation of workers (the ones that will be looking after us in our old-age) are now hit with substantial cuts in the following areas:

The training and development agency for schools – saving achieved by cutting the scheme to attract the brightest and best graduates into teaching.

Efficiencies in the university budgets – actually this is just a nice way of saying that 10,000 university places will be cut in September.

Higher Education Funding Council for England – inevitably leading to a drop in the grants given to our Universities – so, even if you do manage to get a place at University, chances are that less is going to be spent on you.

– Cuts in reforming vocational qualifications – a long-overdue piece of work looking at how best to deliver high-quality vocational training at a level perceived to be equivalent to that of a degree.

– The Future Jobs Fund – cuts of over £1/4 billion in a scheme which finds work for unemployed 18-24year olds.

In all over £500million of the proposed £6billion directly impacts on programmes that help to educate, train or employ young people. This isn’t the end however – both Osborne and Laws made it clear that yesterday’s announcements should be seen as a statement of intent rather than a one-off cut. It can be easy to pull funding from schemes and programmes that many people have not heard of, but we should be aware that there is nearly always a consequence to it. Taking money away from educating, training and employing young people now does not just impact in the immediate term but risks leaving us with a lost-generation similar to the legacy left by the Thatcher and Major years.

It is true that there is a need for a grown-up debate around what we  as a society are willing to pay for, and how much we are willing to pay in tax to get it – but in the absence of that, I like to finish with just one thought – yesterday, at the same time as cutting the funding mentioned above the government made a guarantee that no-savings would be sought in the MoD budget this financial year – when did the cost of war become of greater value than that of educating and employing our children?

Progress on Civil Liberties – something all liberals can agree on.

Apologies. I haven’t posted in a few days – I like most of you who are reading this was glued to the TV listening to the cabinet and ministerial appointments and just generally trying to get my head, and heart, around our ‘new way of doing politics’. I still don’t have answers on that front, but having read and re-read the pithily titled ‘Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Negotiation Agreement‘ there are some areas where I can whole-heartedly agree, not least that of Civil Liberties.

As a former member of the Labour Party one of my biggest disappointments was the gradual but continual attack on our civil liberties. Over 13years the last government chipped away at our freedoms – curtailing the right to protest, holding DNA profiles of innocent people (including children), the introduction of ID cards, even the finger-printing of children at school. It is a depressing fact that we are now the most watched country on earth – with more CCTV cameras per head than any other nation. Liberals, by definition, have to abhor this state of affairs – and now, with liberals in government, there is an opportunity to do something about it.

It seems likely that later this month the Queen’s Speech will announce the Con-Lib coalitions intention to put forward a ‘Great Repeal’ or ‘Freedom’ act to parliament. Not all details of this act have yet been finalised, but it seems likely that it will include the following.

  • Scrapping the ID card scheme – along with the National Identity register and the next generation of biometric passports.
  • Scrapping the Contact Point Database – a register of all 11million children in the UK
  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission
  • Extending the remit of the Freedom of Information act to improve transparency of all public bodies
  • Ensuring that only those found guilty, or charged with a serious sexual/violent offence are placed on the DNA database
  • Ensuring that trial by jury remains at the heart of our justice system
  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
  • Safeguarding freedom of speech through a review of libel laws
  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • Further regulation of CCTV.
  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.

Not bad for a first bill and, in a stroke undoing much of the negative legislation brought in by successive home secretaries over the last decade. True, there is more to do – I would like to see a commitment to cutting the number of days suspects can be held pre-charge as a start. It is however an example of what a Liberal-Democrat government can do in office – and an answer to all of those who argue they have not ended up with what they voted for.

Angry with Labour; Depressed about the Tories; Hoping for a Clegg masterplan

So there we have it, a full-blown Tory-Lib-Dem Coalition. David Cameron in office and his boy George already installed next door. Having read through several papers and been glued to the BBC website my first emotion has been anger at the Labour Party.

Anger that Labour Party MPs and Peers did not have the discipline to stay silent until at least the negotiating team had an opportunity to do their work; anger at the Labour negotiating team for being so arrogant as to not offer any real concessions to the Lib-Dems (particular venom here to whoever decided to send Ed Balls into the mix) and, most of all, anger that the Labour party just did not want it enough – after a strong grass-roots campaign, activists were let down by a parliamentary party that had got arrogant and lacked the desire for power the Tories clearly have, figuring some time for renewal in opposition was preferable to taking the hard choices that any future government would need to make.

Depressed at seeing David Cameron on the steps of Number 10 and feeling sick at the thought of George Osborne in Number 11. The Lib-Dems might have softened the blow, but still we are going to see drastic cuts to public-sector spending in this financial year – costing tens of thousands of jobs and untold misery to so many families in need; an unneeded and unenforceable annual cap on immigration; not to mention a patronising and regressive tax break for married couples. In short, regardless of the positives brought about through coalition, we should not forget that this is a Tory government and we should expect it to act as such.

And so to Clegg – Huge credit should go to him and his team for squeezing every last drop out of the Tories desire for power. 5 seats in the cabinet, the title of deputy PM and significant concessions on tax, education, civil liberties and, of course, electoral reform. But PR still seems a distant goal for the House of Commons and foreign policy, particularly Europe looks likely to be dominated by the Tory side of this arrangement.

So what is the long-game for Clegg? He is currently committed to a 5-year fixed-term parliament, but it seems unlikely that the coalition will last that long. Although his MPs are happy with the new arrangement, many voters and activists are far less comfortable, some have already jumped to Labour – expect more to follow. This alone could be enough to undermine confidence in the current arrangement. Clegg is a smart guy and would have calculated all this during the negotiations – he clearly believes that the opportunity to deliver some key planks of Lib-Dem policy will be enough to give him lasting change at the ballot box. Only time will tell on this.

In the meantime, people like me are rather left in limbo – willing the Lib-Dems to show they have not sold-out cheaply for a shot of power, but not yet convinced. A detailed policy document comes out later today, perhaps this will reassure us all.

The Scores on the Doors – Election Day+4

Well it certainly hasn’t got any less tense. The negotiating teams from what we now are all 3 main parties must really be starting to feel the pressure. The stake are high – for the Tories this is their best chance to govern in over a decade and they are not going to give it up lightly; for Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular, this is about short-term survival. For the Lib-Dems however the stakes are even higher… the opportunity to usher in electoral reform and with it the birth of a 3-party system in the UK or the return to 2-party politics and the end of the Lib-Dems as any kind of significant force.

So here we are, 4 days after the election and what are likely outcomes? Although it feels that not much has changed since Friday, it does feel that some of the alternatives are working themselves either in or out of the equation.

Let’s look at the possibility of a Lib-Dem/Tory pact first – It is highly unlikely that Cameron will (or indeed can) offer an explicit promise of a referendum on voting reform. In turn, this means that Clegg will not (or be able to) agree to a formal coalition between the two parties – if he did the Lib-Dems membership would go into meltdown. So at best the Tories get to run a minority government with a supply and confidence arrangement with the Lib-Dems.

Where would this leave electoral reform I hear you ask? Good point… Well it seems fair to assume that Nick Clegg could not enter into any agreement without the Tories giving at least something away on this issue. My bet would be the all-party inquiry on electoral reform that was promised by Cameron, but with a formalised and relatively short time-line attached to it. This would be followed by a free-vote in the Commons and, if the Lib-Dems could get the votes,  a possible referendum after that.

Now for Lib-Dem/Labour – From a negotiating position this feels more simple. Most Lib-Dems have more in common with Labour and they have already been promised both a referendum and a number of seats in cabinet, they agree broadly on economic reform and I imagine Labour could be forced into burying the ID card scheme and giving way on asylum. The issue here is purely political and revolved around one major issue… Leadership. No-one, not even Labour people want Gordon Brown to stay… that much is clear. But when should he leave and, once that is sorted, who should replace him and how do you respond to the inevitable claims that the new leader will have no mandate from the public. That said, if (and I appreciate it is a big ‘if’) this could be sufficiently dealt with I think both Plaid and the SNP would jump aboard this train and a stable, fixed-term, government would emerge.

Regardless of my views, with the Lib-Dems meeting now and the Tories meeting at 2pm it looks like we are going to see at least some movement today. My heart still suggests a Lib-Lab pact is possible but my head thinks that Clegg will find it hard to reconcile the issues around leadership and will ultimately plump to prop-up a Tory government.

What that will do for electoral reform in this country and the future of the Lib-Dem is something for us all to think about.