Thursday, 16 December 2010

Thoughts on Cameron at PMQs - fazed and confused and all too arrogant

A rather interesting slip of the tongue (not quite a Freudian slip) from Cameron today at PMQs.  Perhaps his minders have advised him (quite correctly) to tone down his tendency to be nasty, and patronising verging on arrogant in his put-downs.  So taken a-back was by Ed Miliband's opening gambit of paying tribute to the troops in Afghanistan at this festive time, (a clever ploy by Ed to show the initiative in showering praise on the troops when the PM hadn't and there hadn't, thankfully, been any deaths to announce), that he responded by saying:

"Can I join the Right Honourable Friend in paying tribute to our forces in Afghanistan, who I visited last week..." - watch here at 2m42s.

Minutes later, the pressure again seemed to be getting to Cameron.  Perhaps he was rattled by Ed's much better performance this week, for he then managed to refer, twice, to the very clearly female Labour MP Joan Ruddock, as male -  "the Honourable gentleman" (13m54s) and "than in his" (13m48s).

 I admit (uncomfortably) that Cameron is a very capable Prime Minister (indeed a little bird at No 10 tells me that he is exceptionally professional, courteous to staff and collegiate in letting Ministers take decisions).  However, counter-intuitively, the very ease with which he does the job of PM is a potential weakness.  There's no doubt that he's an assured performer in PMQs, yet when he's rattled, as he was last week by Ed's 'Bullingdon Club' put-down, his instinctive reaction is to be extremely patronising, verging on nasty.  Tony Blair mastered wit and humour at the Despatch Box.  He was rarely, if ever, nasty to his opponents.  Such a talent served him well.  In Cameron's occasional nastiness there is the danger that seeds are being planted in the public mind that he is a little too clever for his own good.  Arrogance is not an endearing human attribute and it is one that he is particularly vulnerable to, given his personal background.

Arrogance, added to a sense that he and his senior colleagues are out of touch with ordinary people (including ordinary top tax payers who are to lose what little state benefits they receive) could prove particularly dangerous to the Tories.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

New becomes old

Anyone who voted Lib Dem in May might like to reflect on the words Nick Clegg spoke to the Lib Dem Spring Conference in March when Nick still dreamed the dream.  Now he's living the dream and it's looking more and more like a nightmare for all those voters who believed the rhetoric.  Labour activists have known for decades that the Lib Dems like to appeal to all voters, often saying one thing locally, while another nationally.  This time their crash course in 'the difficulties of government' has pricked the bubble of self-righteousness that we all had to endure during the leadership debate. 

Nick Clegg, March 2010:

...No wonder people feel let down. No wonder people feel they shouldn’t expect too much. The old parties have drained our ambition to do things differently. They seem to say: we’ve been in charge for decades – don’t now start hoping for more. That’s just the way things are. No.

...No courage. No honesty.   Just a miserable attempt to save their own skins.
...People say all politicians are the same. They are not.

...A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a commitment to hope and opportunity.

It’s a vote that says: I want government to be honest and open.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

My letter in The Times: the alternative to "no alternative" on funding universities

This letter appeared in today's Times.

Sir,

Professor Smith’s argument that “without extra funding student numbers will be slashed” is based on the false premise that the Government’s cuts to the higher education budget are inevitable and therefore the slack must be taken up by students through higher levels of debt.

As a nation we could afford to fund the HE sector properly and prevent an increase in fees if we just choose different priorities than, for example, international development or Trident. If we cut the NHS budget by a huge amount to pay for new fighter jets, would it be acceptable to ask patients to start paying for their treatment because, as the Government is prone to say, “there is no alternative”?

John Slinger
Rugby

Sunday, 5 December 2010

'Pennies for the poor' on tuition fees are a political ploy for unprincipled Lib Dems

When I started at University College, Durham University in 1993, one of the more drunken fresher's week nights resulted in me and my friends witnessing a group second year "rahs" (short-hand for Hoorah Henry), throwing copper coins down onto the cobbled street below, amidst shrill cries of "pennies for the poor".  It is hard to think of a worse case of 'gown' insulting 'town'.

The reason I mention this is that it sprung to mind when I read of the Coalition's recent fop to the Lib Dems - the claim that 18,000 of the most deprived university students will ave their tuition fees paid by the Government for two years.  This ploy is designed to allow Clegg and co. to claim that the policy of making students pay for their higher eduction is somehow socially progressive because of the assistance that is offered to those at the bottom of the proverbial heap.  It would be like the assertion that a hospital which charged most of patients was somehow socially progressive because it didn't charge a few paupers. 

Could a private general hospital (thankfully we don't have such monstrosities here, as they do in the US) be regarded as socially 'progressive' for bestowing some of its wondrous services on the needy - pennies for the poor - or should the concept of charity or fairness go beyond the mere offering of assistance to some, and look at wider principles?

And so it is with the offer by the Government to pay the fees of the 18,000 'lucky' students.  It appears, on the surface, a 'socially progressive' measure, as is the raising of the threshold at which graduates must repay their debt from £15k to £21k.  But this is at best window dressing, and at worst a deliberately misleading ruse.  For the paying of fees for 18,000 is but a drop in the ocean, but pennies from on high.  Out of the record 482,000 university students enrolled in 2010, 18,000 represents 3%.  If someone were to tell me as I drove my young daughter to casualty, that I had a 3% chance that the hospital may decide to treat her for free, I doubt I would be much impressed by this indication of the benevolence of the socially progressive government. 

The Lib Dems campaigned noisily in the 2010 General Election for more honesty in politics.  So let's just be honest about tuition fees shall we?  A socially progressive policy would be one which sought to ensure that there was equality of opportunity for students at age 18 as they decided upon first, whether to go to university and second, which.  Anything which makes students from less well-off backgrounds have any doubt about whether they or their families can afford to attend university is socially regressive, not progressive.  Labour sadly broke the bond which society previously had with its young people that if they succeeded at school they would be supported through university.  This government has not merely opened the door a little further, it has kicked it down. 

'Pennies for the poor' in previous centuries may well have helped feed a few poor people and assuaged the guilt of the well-off.  But such 'charity' was opposed then and should be opposed now for being no more than a token, designed not to make society fairer or even to allieviate poverty.  The Lib Dems are discovering, much to my amusement, that principles must be fought for and defended - they cannot be paid for with pennies.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Frank Field's report on poverty and life chances - unthinkable and essential

Today, former Labour minister, once pushed out of the Blair government for thinking the unthinkable and coming up against Treasury conservatism, has published the report of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances which he was asked to lead by David Cameron.

The report,'The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults' sets out, according to Field's website to "prevent poor children from becoming poor adults" and proposes "establishing a set of Life Chances Indicators that will measure how successful we are as a country in making life's outcomes more equal for all children." This is truly radical, and that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have welcomed both these recommendations is welcome and bold.
I hope that what Frank Field's report is heralding is an openness to taking policy steps which genuinely seek to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and poor life chances in Britain, rather than merely deal with the symptoms through a bloated and ineffectual welfare state. Frank Field, above all other politicians, has the moral courage and intellectual fire-power to undertake this challenge and it was an inspired move of the Prime Minister's to give him this task. I am no supporter of Cameron or the Government, but it is highly unfortunate that the previous Labour Government saw fit to leave Frank Field on the backbenches ever since his sacking in 1998. The fact that the Labour Party ignored the abilities of the MP who is one of, if not the most respected public intellectuals in the area of pensions, poverty and welfare reform, was shameful and is shocking testament to the petty rivalries and discourtesies which litter the British political system.

Frank Field's report tackles the early years. I would like to see work now done on how we might make Britain a genuine meritocracy. It would be unfortunate if the very young people who would benefit from his measures being implemented, found that they were unable to make the most of their lives when they reached teenage years due to the incredible iniquities of the British school system, in which a tiny minority of children whose parents happen to be wealthy are able to leapfrog over their compatriots into the best universities and then into the best and most influential jobs (up to and including Prime Minister). I talk, of course, about private schools - the single most significant impediment to making Britain a country in which people can rise up as far as their talents take them. It is impossible perhaps, in a free society, to abolish such schools. But until more is done to overcome the structural inequality of opportunity made possible by private schools (and as identified by the Sutton Trust and by Alan Milburn's ground-breakingreport), Britain will continue to languish.

Elites are inevitable and indeed necessary. It is not inevitable, nor is it necessary that they must largely be formed by those whose parents are wealthy. Britain will not be a truly civilised society until there is equality of opportunity, and that is, perhaps the next stage that must be addressed following this report. It will, of course, be much more unpalatable for the ConDem Government. But that is another story.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Howard Flight and unspeakable truths

Howard Flight is in trouble for two reasons: he used insensitive language and he expressed a sentiment that is still taboo yet is felt by many people.  John Rentoul's recent blog on speaking the unspeakable is good on this.  Most people would agree that It is only responsible to bring children into the world if you can afford to bring them up.  

As a so-called middle class parent of two young children and a stepson, in a relatively well-paid job, in a household with two incomes, I am, shall we say, feeling very 'squeezed' financially. This is not because of profligate spending but thanks to the ludicrously expensive rail fares for my commute (£7000 pa - meaning I must earn £10k per year to pay for this) soon to rise thanks to the Government, the vast sums we must fork out on child care each month and because my mortgage repayments on a very small house account for over 50% of my disposable income. 

If people in good jobs, who are not asking the state to support them are unable to make ends meet and are about to be squeezed even further, surely they are less likely to have children.  This is not to say that poorer people should not receive benefits, merely to point out the ridiculous nature of modern British life in which families with two good incomes struggle to bring up a family.   Mr Flight should have emphasised this rather than make provocative statements about 'breeding' amongst the less well off.  However, he should not be condemned for expressing the frustration that many so-called better off people are feeling.

Of course people in genuine poverty struggle much, much more than we do and of course the state's resources should be directed at assisting them.  This equation works in normal circumstances - ones where those who work hard, aspire to earn more money and pay their taxes are able to live in a comfortable manner.  But there is a significant danger, in the present climate, that many politicians are either deliberately ignoring or singularly failing to understand that for vast swathes of working Britain, it is increasingly hard to make ends meet and yes - to bring up children - even in households with one or even two good salaries.  Iain Martin brilliantly summarizes these themes in his Wall Street Journal Europe blog and shows how Cameron et al are seemingly oblivious to the concerns of this group of electors.  Perhaps because of their own privileged backgrounds, or perhaps a result of political hubris, they don't appear to "get it", if we judge them by their inept handling of the changes to child benefit.

Ed Miliband, whom I did not support for the Labour leadership, but whom I wish well, is very definitely on to something when he talks about the "squeezed middle".  John Humphrey's inability to understand the concept is not sufficient reason to condemn it as vague.  If Miliband can link up his thinking on the "squeezed middle" with the ideas he espoused in his conference speech about improving people's quality of life, then we in the Labour Party could start to put some clear water (neither red nor blue) between us and the Government.  Cameron's happiness index is a welcome innovation on the surface, but where Labour can show true vision and attract new support is by exposing that the Government is proposing nothing which will actually enhance happiness.  For example, I doubt that reducing or limiting the working week, or increasing flexible working is high up the Government's agenda.  Where are the government initiatives calling for couples to be able to share childcare?  It seems unlikely that they'd take steps to allow more building on green belt land so as to gradually lower house prices and increase the supply of housing, both private and social.  Yet these are the very things that might enhance happiness - they might even help with bringing about the Big Society!  These are areas which are ripe for new thinking from Labour supporters, members and politicians as the party develops its new policy under the policy review announced by Miliband at the weekend.





Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Letter to The Times (unpublished) on Citizen MPs

The Editor
The Times

Sir,

Vernon Bogdanor makes a persuasive case for the election of a proportion of local councillors by lot. By emasculating political parties while simultaneously empowering citizens by offering an equal right to participate in executive power and legislating not just voting, such a system would greatly enhance our local government.  

I agree that local government would be a good place to "begin" and argued on these pages in 2009 for a system of lots to select 'Citizen MPs' who would comprise a third of each House of Parliament, serving one-year terms.  When compared to the present system of selection, which is based to a greater or lesser extent on patronage and preferment, the injection of 'the people' into the heart of our Parliament need not be regarded as radical.  Many will argue that a system of lots is impractical and morally questionable.  I imagine these people would also be the first to defend trial by jury should they be accused of a crime.  Democracy, as with justice, is guaranteed not merely by the existence of elections or trials, but the active participation of citizens.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Vince Cable's denial of tuition fee betrayal is a gift for political dissemblers

Vince Cable yesterday added to the sophistry of his boss Nick Clegg.  First, stung by the virulence of the student anger, Clegg declared, in an unashamed display of political duplicity worthy of a Lib Dem election leaflet, that


At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.

Within days, Cable too had to delve deep into Aristotle's toolbox of rhetorical devices (spin to you or me) in order to declare, with a straight face no less, that

We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour.
Of course, he can hardly say what most intelligent observers would think to be nearer the truth, i.e. that his party knew it was highly likely that they would have to countenance increasing tuition fees but the temptation to secure a sack-load of student votes in marginal constituencies trumped the danger of holing below the water the Lib Dems' repution for straight-talking (many in the political world knew this particular vessel had long been sinking). 

Not only can we now say that the Lib Dems' hitherto successful tactic of assuming the moral high-ground is dead, but it is fair to say that Cable has single-handedly re-crafted the much cherished tradition in Britain that politicians ought to be held accountable to their manifesto commitments (not least to explicit pledges signed in the full media glare to buy-off a particular constituency of opinion).  Or to put it another way: if you promise something at an election, then do a U-turn months later, don't be surprised to find the voters manning their U-boats.

What Cable is essentially saying is that once the Lib Dems assumed office in May, they discovered that the conditions on the ground had changed (as Israeli generals routinely say about Palestinian land) and therefore all previous promises can be annulled forthwith and without the necessity for the politician concerned to take any moral or practical responsibility.  The annulling of such pledges is therefore not in the slightest the responsibility of the politician doing the the annulling.  The moral power of a promise can thus be swept away without any feeling of guilt or remorse.  No apology need be offered.  Thanks to Clegg and Cable, politicians in future any future will feel less need to defer to convention when tempted to promise one thing to parts of the electorate, in order to secure their support, while knowing full well that the promise cannot or will not be kept.  As long as he or she is able to say that the changed material conditions they discovered at some time in the future were unanticipated, they should, in the Cable/Clegg view of politics, be home and dry.  Ahh the sweet smell of New Politics.  Next you know, a Tory adviser will have to resign for telling the country that they've never had it so good.

This is a highly dubious development not just for the Lib Dems but for our politics as a whole.  It is important that we prevent this Lib Dem-inspired contagion  from nfecting the age old principle that politicians be held to account for the promises they make at elections.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Prime Minister's jokes at Commons Liaison Committee plus we may get wedding bank holiday

***NEWS FLASH*** Cameron used his summing up at the House of Commons Liaison Committee hearing which has just finished to suggest that the Government was considering a special Bank Holiday for the royal wedding, even if the Royal Family choose to hold the wedding on a Saturday.

For all serious political hacks, I'm not going to give any real political analysis here, but thought readers might be interested in some amusing asides from the PM.  To be fair, the questioning was lame (even from my side) and he is, although it pains me to say it, a very assured performer in these circumstances.  Perhaps most notable though was that Andrew Tyrie, Tory Chair of the Treasury Committee, used his main block of questions to ask about the CSR and the decision to scrap Ark Royal and Harrier.  I think it's a little remiss of him not to at least ask about an issue such as bankers' bonuses and reform of the financial sector, at a time when this is very high up the political agenda.  He really allowed Cameron off the hook on this subject.

Here are some of the more amusing/revealing/offensive (delete as appropriate) comments the PM made:

Re whether he could provide the BAe contract for the aircraft carriers to the Treasury Committee:

Cameron: “You find out in this job that you don’t make quite as many rules as you’d like.”

Re universities and science funding:

Cameron: “If ‘two brains Willetts’ can’t answer that question I don’t know what hope there is for me.”

Margaret Hodge asked whether social unrest is a price worth paying for the reductions in housing benefit?

Cameron: “People earning £20 - £25k per year who find out that their taxes are going to subside rents for unemployed people of £30, £40, £50k per year - I think that is more likely to lead to social unrest than our changes to housing benefit.”

A question from Richard Ottaway MP about where bilateral agreements such as the recent Anglo-French one fits in within the framework of multi-lateral ones:

Cameron: “We’ll get more bang for our buck, or should I say franc.  I’m sorry, I should say euro?  I don’t want to contribute any more to our euro woes!” [laughter].

Re a NATO strategy document:

Cameron: “In this job you read enough boring strategic documents which are completely impenetrable, but this one was clear” [and he told the author].

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

PMQs today - Cameron may have slandered Alastair Campbell over sexing-up dossiers

A howler from Cameron in PMQs 5 minutes ago, answering a question from Harriet Harman about his employment of Tory staffers on the Government payroll:

"We won't be employing Alastair Campbell to sex-up dossiers making the case for war".

Given that the Hutton Report cleared Alastair Campbell and the Government of this particularly pernicious charge from Andrew Gilligan, doesn't this place the PM in difficult waters in accusing him of sexing-up dossiers?

I'm no lawyer, but f it weren't for Parliamentary Privilege, this would be slanderous, wouldn't it?

Simon Hughes and hypocrisy over Phil Woolas

I just sent this letter to The Guardian about Simon Hughes MP, Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems...


Sir,

You quote Simon Hughes MP ('Phil Woolas launches court challenge to decision to strip him of his seat', 16 November 2010) as saying of Phil Woolas that he made "statements which were not about Liberal Democrat politics but personal attacks on our candidate's character and conduct which he had no reasonable grounds for believing were true and did not believe were true."  Is this the same Simon Hughes who defeated Peter Tatchell using shamefully homophobic leaflets in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election?

The hypocrisy of the Lib Dems, and Hughes in particular, knows no bounds.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Times publish my letter on tuition fees

Sir, 
I take issue with your leading article (“Politics and Pantomime”, Nov 11). In emphasising that many do not or cannot go to university you obscure what should be our priority: that anyone suitably qualified, irrespective of the wealth of their parents, ought to be able to attend university without fear of huge and rising debts. Second, graduates are not the only beneficiaries of university study, so are the economy and wider society.
Your narrow, economic case chips away, perhaps deliberately, at the core principle behind other key areas of state provision. Only recently, the idea of encumbering graduates with £30,000-plus of debt would have met with howls of derision.
How long before the same thinking is applied to the NHS? After all, some people benefit more from its benevolence than others.
John Slinger
Rugby, Warks

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Letter to The Times (unpublished) on Tony Blair and his Iraq accusers

The Editor
The Times

26 October 2010

Sir,

Having finished reading Tony Blair's autobiography, I was struck by how compellingly and forcefully he refutes the specific allegations made against him over Iraq: namely that he lied about WMDs, misled Parliament and that Dr David Kelly's name was released maliciously.  Given that such serious allegations against him were levied by people so utterly convinced of his guilt I am surprised by the dearth of articles by his many critics rebutting the precise arguments deployed by Blair in A Journey.  Their silence now speaks volumes and is in stark contrast to their volubility several years ago.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 22 October 2010

Letter to The Times (unpublished) re nuclear vs renewables debate

The Editor, The Times


Sir,

I wonder whether Chris Huhne factored the estimated £70 billion cost of storing Britain's nuclear waste into his equation on the comparative unit cost of generating electricity by new nuclear stations or the now-cancelled Severn barage?  Now that Huhne has predictably reversed the previous government's cast-iron pledge that no taxpayer money would be used in the building of the new nuclear stations, it is plain for all to see the green credentials of this government are but flotsam floating in the Severn Estuary.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The ones that failed to get in - some recent letters to the nationals

Here are a couple of letters I sent this week which didn't make it into print:

11 October 2010

The Editor

The Times

Sir,
Sir Philip Green's admonitions on public sector waste could be taken more seriously if he promised to start paying full tax on his income once his recommendations are enacted. For an increasing number of people in the "squeezed middle" there is equivalence between Green and the average benefits cheat in that we are required to pay more tax due to their deliberate decision to avoid paying what they owe. We are all in this together, after all.

Yours faithfully,
John Slinger

----------------
The Editor
The Guardian

11 October 2010

Sir,


Julian Glover's Guardian article ('The left should recognise that equality is undesirable') fails to mention two glaringly obvious and related concepts which deal with his concerns: equality of opportunity and meritocracy. It is doubtful that the modern left actually seeks equality, for this usually equates with some form of communism. Equality of opportunity is however a much more powerful and practical concept for the left. It allows elites to form and for people to aspire to be successful but it insists that unfair barriers such as private education be removed so that people rise to the top based solely on their abilities rather than their parents' wealth. Such a system would be a genuine meritocracy. The reason it never comes about is that the intergenerational vested interests of the wealthy and powerful, dressed up as freedom, obstruct its path.

Youurs faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 1 October 2010

Ed Miliband' charts new course against big business


Labour Conference was totally dominated by the election of Ed Miliband has new leader. Here I look at his leader’s speech on Tuesday and the implications for business and banking in particular.  

New Leader, New Generation...New Direction?
David Miliband’s graceful shuffling off the stage of front-line politics is the defining image of the Labour Conference and symbolises a number of dilemmas for both party and country.  Does David’s political demise symbolise the death of New Labour?  Does this represent a necessary break with the past and new beginning infused with the optimism of a New Generation able to chart a more progressive course, redefine the centre ground and defeat the ConDems?  Or does Ed Miliband’s rise to the throne represent the recapturing of the party by the trade union movement and an imminent lurch to the left leading inexorably to the electoral wastelands?

A new ‘centre-ground in politics?
For many Labour members, the answer to these questions is dependent on where they stand in the internal political spectrum of Labour politics.  While the two Milibands and their followers are not as far apart in policy terms as many commentators have claimed, they have a different view of the location of the fabled ‘centre-ground’ of politics and more importantly, how it should be reshaped.   This is crucial, as Labour under Ed’s leadership will “fight for the centre-ground and not let it be dominated or defined by our opponents”.  

David largely took the Blairite view that the over-riding priority being the need to listen to, understand, at best to attract and at worst not terrify the aspiring middle classes on whose support electoral victory is normally dependent.  The basic premise of this approach is that ‘Middle England’ is a conservative place and hence seeking incremental progressive change is the best tactic.  He was seen as a leader who would speak more to the national interest, avoiding being in hock to the trade unions or even to the demands of Labour’s more radical activist base – as such he was the leader the Tories most feared.

Ed’s stance is markedly different.  He believes that there is a natural constituency of people who either agree with currently, or who are philosophically predisposed to more radical positions, be they on social policy, political reform and the economy.  He also seeks to redefine the ‘centre-ground’ in the image of his own political philosophy and hopes that through rhetorical power the doubters will be won over.   Aside from the obvious concerns of many in the business community that the support of union members in securing his victory makes him in hock to organised labour, external observers in business will be interested in key trends that are already emerging, particularly with regard to his approach to business and employee rights.   

A radical, idealistic, change-making leader of the New Generation
His speech begun with the declaration that a “new generation” leads Labour – a clear pointer that New Labour was dead.  His method of burial was as respectful as possible, diplomatically praising its scions Blair and Brown as having been at their best when showing “the courage to take on established attitudes and institutions” and when being “reforming, restless and radical”.  In a nutshell, these will be some of the key attributes of his leadership.   In addition to its radical zeal, his speech was suffused with idealism.  From the references to his family’s past fleeing Nazi persecution to find sanctuary in the “freedom and opportunity” of Britain, to the insistence that rather than “accept the world as we find it”, we have “a responsibility to leave our world a better place and never walk by on the other side of injustice” this is a leader who is unashamed in infusing his politics with a sense of moral purpose.  Change was also a key theme – the new generation he leads “thirsts for change” and the speech sets out a “direction for change”.  The break from New Labour orthodoxy was summarised by his statement that the new generation would not be “bound by the fear or the ghosts of the past.”    

Implications for business
He moves from praising New Labour’s reforming zeal to criticising it for ending up looking like the “new establishment” with wrong-headed positions on immigration, regulation of the City, tuition fees and MPs’ expenses.  It is interesting that when he begins setting out the “direction for change” his first target for reform is the economy, which he says should be changed so that “it works better for working people and doesn't just serve the needs of the few at the top”.  This is the first of a series of broad philosophical statements which can either be regarded as hostile to business or merely sympathetic to the “mainstream majority”.  He does tip his hat towards the business community, but note that he is “determined to make Labour the party of enterprise and small business again” – that’s small businesses.   He promises to “support the small businesses and entrepreneurs who are the lifeblood of this economy”. Almost everything he says about large businesses is less than favourable.

Deficit reduction – Keynsianism on the march
On the deficit, he disappointed Ed Balls’ supporters by reaffirming the Darling plan to reduce the deficit by half during one parliament, while emphasising his Keynesian credentials by referencing the previous government’s now-cancelled loan to Sheffield Forgemasters and the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme against the backdrop of the Atlee government which paid down debt while simultaneously creating the NHS and modern welfare state.  Here he praises the role of government in creating “the good society”.   His view can be summarised in his insistence that the Coalition’s emphasis on rapid and deep deficit reduction risks growth – “no plan for growth means no credible plan for deficit reduction.”

Bank-bashing and banking reform
Much of the commentary has referred to the question of whether Ed Miliband is in hock to the unions, it is entirely clear that he will not show deference to the banking world.  The last two Labour leaders would not have said: “What does it say about the values of our society, what have we become, that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker earns in a year? It’s wrong.”  

The conclusions he draws from the global economic crisis are not flattering to bankers.  He suggests that we need to avoid the “same old thinking that will lead to the same old results” of “an economy too dependent on financial services” which he describes in the same breath as “too many people stuck in low pay and growing inequality”.

Morality, in the guise of “fairness” is a key backdrop to his views on the banking crisis.  In saying that “the people who caused the crisis and can afford to do more should do more”, before specifically linking his policy of a “higher” bank levy public services, allow us “to do more to protect the services and entitlements on which families depend” comes very close to explicitly punishing ‘the bankers’.

Although entirely vague on details, he does state that this all requires a “plan for change”, central to which is “a plan to reform the banks”.

A philosophical stance on business
His socially progressive views clearly inform his emerging thinking on the business world in general and his comments about it reflect his broader concerns about the quality of life of “mainstream majority”.  Hence, the importance of changing “our society so that it values community and family, not just work, because we understand there is more to life than the bottom line”.   A throwaway piece of sentimental posturing designed for the audience in the conference hall, or a bold statement of intent to the public at large about rolling back some of the excesses of 21st century capitalism?    

His views on the business world and the economy cannot be seen in isolation from his view of the impact of economic factors on broader society, quality of life and communities.  While an emphasis on community, family and individual volunteering lies at the heart of the Coalition’s Big Society ideas, Miliband’s critique takes him into completely new territory more akin to the thinking of ‘Red Tory’ Phillip Blond, where the traditional obsession of the political class with business interests and economic growth is turned on its head and the question is asked of the status quo, “conventional thinking” or “old thinking” as Ed puts it, as to whether  it acts in the broad interests of the “mainstream majority”.   Hence his assertion that work is a “central part of life”, but “not all that matters”.  Or that “we all care about making a living, but we don't just care about that”.  He describes as our generation’s paradox as being the “biggest ever consumers of goods and services” who yearn “for the things that business cannot provide”.  The specific things which he believes business cannot provide are revealing: “strong families; time with your children; green spaces; community life; love and compassion”.  These are not the sentiments of a man who holds much hope for the transformative abilities of dynamic businesses with their glossy CSR plans.   These are sentiments which are likely to lead to a far more interventionist policy towards business with regards to employee rights (to paternity/maternity leave; pensions; pay and conditions; work/life balance).

Bashing business or speaking to the “centre-ground”?
Peppered throughout the speech is evidence that this is a leader who fundamentally NOT “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” as was his erstwhile colleague Peter Mandelson in New Labour’s heyday.   There is an almost derogatory reference to the “company we kept”, perhaps bankers, when describing how New Labour came to look like the new establishment.    Elsewhere he says responsibility must be shown at “the top of society too”, that the gap between rich and poor does matter because it harms us all, not just the poor.  Neither would any New Labour minister with an intention to remain in post said: “responsibility in this country shouldn't just be about what you can get away with.  And that applies to every chief executive of every major company in this country.  And, just as businesses have responsibility to ensure fair pay...” 

He is critical of the conventional wisdom of the “old thinking” which held that “flexible labour markets are always the answer”.  He also criticised businesses which exploit migrant labour to undercut wages.  In criticising New Labour for being naive about markets, he gave a rhetorical sideswipe against the forces of capitalism, stating that: “we must never again give the impression that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Again he positions himself as on the side of “communities” rather than big business.  Examples include over post office closures; people trying to protect their high street from looking like every other high street and even supermarkets selling cut price alcohol to the detriment of the “local pub”.   Those in favour of the dominance of high streets by shop chains are wrong to imply that this is the “force of progress”.  Many would agree with him, but many in the business community and City would not and such a line is a clear statement of intent.
From idealistic rhetoric to reality
He chooses not to get into specifics, but the lack of detail here and elsewhere in the speech should not lead business leaders to the conclusion that there is a lack of risk?  The area where he came closest to a detailed policy commitment, the living wage, indicates that the direction of travel indicated above will result in costs to business.   In an emotive section about a care worker he’d met on the campaign trail, he should become a “living wage” of around £7 per hour.  He also called for “real protection for agency workers”.

On tax he chooses not to talk about the business interest of creating a competitive environment, rather one which will “reward responsibility” so that businesses pay the living wage, provide high quality apprenticeships and provide “family-friendly employment”.

Unions
Ed’s stance on unions is also crucial to our understanding of the direction of travel under his leadership.  To counter the perception that the crucial role of union members’ support in his winning the leadership, he was careful to caution against “alienating the public” and “adding to the book of historic union failures”.  He held “no truck” with “overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes”.

However, in a powerful section based on his experience talking to dinner ladies, he lists their grievances such as having to buy their own uniforms and having their shift patterns changed at short notice to bolster the sense that he understands the importance of unions.  He described their treatment as exploitation and said that union support helped them get “basic standards of decency and fairness”.  

Changing politics
Miliband stated his view that the change he envisages for the country (to the state, the economy, society and foreign policy) cannot be achieved without changing “our politics”.  For him, the “practice”, “reputation” and “institutions” of politics are “basically broken”.  He therefore supports and will vote yes in a referendum on the Alternative Vote system.  He also supports a fully elected House of Lords.  He also supports the devolution of power to local councillors so that local democracy is “free of the constraints we have placed on it”.

He held out an olive branch to the Lib Dems by admitting that “wisdom is not the preserve of any one party” and saying that “the political establishment too often conducts debate in a way that insults the intelligence of the public”. 

He also rejected his predecessors’ perceived reliance on focus groups, suggesting that “we can’t be imprisoned by focus groups”.

Conclusion
In short, he slayed some New Labour demons (particularly on Iraq); portrayed New Labour as having failed because it lost its radical edge of challenging conventional wisdom; moved in rhetorical terms from New Lab to the new generation (it is important to note that he does not view David Cameron as part of this generation); set out this new generation as being one of values and attitude not age – i.e. sought to rally all to his common cause; set out his ideals of fairness and change - changing the economy, state, political system; begun to define the “good society”, emphasising the need to create better conditions for family life; and set out a far more radical and ideological approach to business and economic policy. 

All of this points to a radical departure from the leadership of both Brown and Blair.  It began the task of redefining the centre-ground, or what all leaders view to be the ‘winning territory’ of politics.   He certainly impressed the conference hall, and many of his detractors who supported his brother in the leadership campaign, with his confidence, with the quality of his rhetoric and with the more ideological, radical content.  The key question that remains as to whether his overall strategy is correct: is it the case that there is a large and growing constituency of voters who share his vision or who will be attracted to it?  Or will what can only be viewed as a move to a more left-wing, pro-union and radical stance regarding the economy, business, politics and society, provide the perfect ammunition for a narrative already developing in the right-wing press and amongst Government ranks of a new, ill-experienced, dangerously radical leader who is in hock to the unions at a time of growing union militancy and believes in more progressive and left-wing approaches to society’s problems.  

The significance for the business community is that a resurgent Labour party under Miliband’s leadership is by no means out of the running to win power at the next General Election, whenever that may come (and it could be sooner than many anticipate).  Miliband’s Labour Party is undoubtedly more hostile to business and more interventionist in the economy than was the party of his recent predecessors.  It is early days yet, and he has only just taken office and started to flesh out “the direction of change”, but Labour has changed tack and is charting a different course.  

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Saint Vince of Shell is a Tory Shield - for now...

Saint Vince Cable of Shell (a small eco-friendly, non-corporate business run by environmentalists in Brighton, I think), said yesterday in his keynote speech to Lib Dem Conference:
"On banks, I make no apology for attacking spivs and gamblers who did more harm to the British economy than Bob Crow could achieve in his wildest Trotskyite fantasies, while paying themselves outrageous bonuses underwritten by the taxpayer. There is much public anger about banks and it is well deserved."
This reminds me of  my letter in The Independent of 25 April last year, in which I wrote:
"I wonder what these people would be saying had the economy suffered the worst catastrophe since the Second World War as a result of action by the trade unions, terrorists, or organised criminals. I imagine they would be calling for at the very least punitive and wholesale legislative and criminal sanctions against the perpetrators of such economic destruction, and possibly the declaration of a state of emergency". 
 Vince Cable has form on this subject and as Mark Peston ably analyses, there is a perfectly sound critique to be made of the current pros and cons of modern-day capitalism.  While it is refreshing to hear genuinely radical voices, such as Cable's, speaking from inside the Establishment bunker, I fear that he is being used somewhat.

While I have no doubt that many Orange Book Lib Dems and pretty much all Tories will have winced inwardly at his description of their dinner party guests and (in the cast of the latter) major donors as "spivs and gamblers", there may be a more subtle game at play.  For while the received punditry is that Vince is a thorn in Osborne's side and will probably quit before long, the wiser Tories are probably willing to tolerate his radicalism for the ideological cover it shields them with.  That is not to say that Vince won't jump ship, just that in a perverse way, he helps Cameron et al further detoxify the Tory brand in the eyes of the public. While most people know that Tories have an eternal love affair with big business, the City, hedge funders, etc (just check who funded the private offices of the Shadow Cabinet), they will surely double take upon hearing Vince, perhaps asking themselves, "if Cameron keeps someone like this in his Cabinet, perhaps they really have changed".

But as many have already pointed out, the devil will be in the LACK of detail.  For Vince was short on specifics.  He didn't tell us how he would control the excesses of the City or big business, just that he intended to do so.  Nearly three years after the economic crisis begun, this is surely a less than radical response.  A Vince launching his missives without specificity is tolerable to the Tory (and Clegg Dem) High Command.  If he wishes to move from rhetoric to reality, the story might be very difficult.  City grandees are likely to call in some big favours with their chums in the Tory party and Saint Vince may decide it's time for martydom. 

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Pope should engage with "pro faith atheists" like Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell blogs today that Baroness Warsi has completely missed the point of his "we don't do God" from the halcyon days of the Blair govenment.  In the blog, he sets out, quite plausibly, that "it is entirely possible to be an atheist without feeling the moral superiority that so many atheists seeem to display, and without denigrating those who do have a faith."

This leads me to wonder whether any of the plethora of 'inter-faith' charities have ever bothered to engage with the 43% of the UK population who describe themselves vast majority of Britons who are agnostic or atheistic (according to the British Humanist Association).  It's perhaps time for for the organised religions to engage more with this sizeable minority of humanists, agnostics and atheists who are, if present trends continue, soon to become the majority.  A world inhabited by humanists is no more to be feared than than our present world, so dominated as it is by organised religions.  We humans make our own utopias and dystopias.  If there is any hope for humanity, it must be that those of different faiths, nations and ethnicities, together with those who do not profess a faith, are able to work together in the shared interest of humanity itself.  So Alastair Campbell is right, it is possible to be a "pro faith atheist".  But it is equally important that more people of faith, even perhaps the Pope himself, become "pro atheist believers".

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Polly Toynbee on top form today about religion

Polly Toynbee, President of the British Humanist Association, deploys all her rhetorical gifts today in an excellent article about religion and secularism in light of the Pope's visit.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Guardian's Diary picks up on my research into Parliamentary Questions

From today's Diary in The Guardian:

There's a war on waste and what a debt we owe the likes of Tory Matthew Hancock. He's a member of the Commons public accounts committee and, more importantly, a star in the area of asking parliamentary written questions. It's a crowded field. In the first two days back, MPs asked 1,900 questions, which at the going rate cost the taxpayer £292,633 to answer. Hancock alone asked 118 of them. He's a stickler and no mistake. "To ask the secretary of state for defence how many chairs his department has purchased in each year since 1997; how much it spent in each such year; and what the five most expensive chairs purchased in each such year were," is a prime example. And this volley of questions cost the taxpayer £20,000. But it wasn't money wasted. For his inquiry into chair procurement across government allowed him to have a moan in the Sun about Ed Miliband's past purchases of furniture at the energy department. That's questioning Hancock-style. You spend a bit, we save a bit; you make a mark.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Mention in The Guardian Diary today re huge cost of Parliamentary Questions tabled by MPs

The Guardian's Diary column gives a mention today to my uncovering the amount of money MPs have cost the taxpayer in asking Written Parliamentary Questions since the General Election. 

POSTSCRIPT:  I'm a staunch defender of the right of MPs to hold the executive to account and one of the main ways they can do this in Parliament is by asking Parliamentary Questions.  All I can say is that there are two problems: 1) MPs who abuse the system to ask spurious questions of each department, such as 'how much does department X spend on pot plants; on trade union meetings, etc, etc'.  2) MPs are currently spending large amounts of time lecturing the rest of society and the public sector on the need for austerity and cuts.  In view of this, it's importnt that the public are aware of what taxpayer costs are associated with the operation of the Parliamentary system.  As my story in The Guardian shows, they seem oblivious to the huge costs to the taxpayer of funding all their Parliamentary Questions.  Many or most of these PQs are undoubtedly legitimate points of enquiry and our democracy is healthier for these MPs holding civil servants and the Government to account.  But at a time of austerity, perhaps even our MPs ought to show a little more economy before they walk off to the Table Office.

Some of my previous tips to The Guardian Diary show the huge amount of taxpayers' money which had to be spent as individual MPs tabled over a hundred PQs in a day (see re Priti Patel; Ian Austin and Francis Maude.)  Today's story shows just how much money they have notched up in PQs in little more than two months of this so-called 'austerity' Parliament.  Hugh Muir didn't mention in today's piece that I'd discovered the Top 10 of MPs tabling the largest number of written Parliamentary Questions, at £154 a pop), and the MP coming in number 1 (Tom Watson), generated costs for the taxpayer of £64,526 - just £1000 shy of the £65,738 an MP earns in a year.

Top 10 for number of Written Parliamentary Questions tabled since the General Election:

1) 419  Watson, Tom (Lab)


2) 347  Evans, Graham (Con)

3) 290  Austin, Ian (Lab)

4) 224  Nandy, Lisa (Lab)

5) 207  Wishart, Pete (SNP)

6) 201  Amess, David (Con)

7) 201  Anderson, David (Lab)

8) 187  Bain, William  (Lab)

9) 181  Wright, Iain (Lab)

10) 172  Davies, Philip  (Con)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

5 Reasons To Vote DAVID Miliband

I support David Miliband for the following reasons:

1) He's the only candidate for the leadership who has the skills to reach out beyond our core vote to parts of the electorate whose support we need if we are to win the next election.
2) He has the strength of purpose to challenge his own party and indeed the country about what is necessary to rebuild Britain's strength in the coming years.
3) He truly understands Britain's place in the world and our role for good. Being Prime Minister is about more than domestic politics. We need a statesman able to engage internationally. Unlike some of the other candidates, he has not disowned decisions such as the liberation of Iraq, which indicates he is a man who stands by his decisions. International relations are unlikely to be calm in the coming years.  We need a leader of substance who both understands the international system and has the strength of his convictions to take the tough decisions that may be necessary.
4) He is the most credible alternative Prime Minister.
5) He understands that while many in the Labour Party may feel in their heart that now is the time to move leftwards, such a move would be disastrous electorally. The public will only take us seriously if we resolutely hold the centre ground of politics, while developing what I call PRAGMATIC IDEALISM.

More on Pragmatic Idealism at a later date.

VOTE DAVID MILIBAND FOR LABOUR LEADER!

Friday, 27 August 2010

Weddings and the ONS make me optimistic about the future

I got married a couple of weeks ago in Durham, where I'd been a student all those years ago in 1993-96 and 2001-2.  Mrs Slinger and I (and our children) had the best day of our lives.  But this isn't the forum for honeymoon snaps.

I just wanted to draw readers' attention to the news from the Office for National Statistics which has today revised UP its estimates for growth in the British economy (from 1.1% to 1.2%).   Which party can claim credit for the policies which helped British businesses expand our economy - why it's Labour of course.

I agree with Ed Balls who said that: "Those figures are for the period for April, May and June, which are absolutely determined by what was being done in the previous year."   It is important to remember the doom and gloom being shovelled by Mr Cameron et al throughout most of 2009 and early 2010 about the huge risks the Labour Government was taking with the economy.

Statistics like these from the ONS show that Alistair Darling and Labour were right all along with their assessment of the speed and depth of cuts to public spending necessary to reduce the budget deficit.  While it's frustrating that we're not in power to show how this could have been achieved, I'm heartened by the impartial evidence which is increasingly showing that the Labour plan was not reckless.  Instead, it was FAIR and PROGRESSIVE.  With evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the ConDem Budget was regressive, we in the Labour Party must hold our heads high and hold them to account for the recklessness of their plans on public spending.

My wedding makes me even more optimistic about the future.  With my party about to rejoin the fray with a new leader, I'm sad for those who are being hit hard by the regressive ConDem Budget, but I'm optimistic about the future.  As we've shown throughout our history, only Labour is the truly progressive party.  Virtually all our major social reforms, such as the NHS, welfare state, etc, were opposed by the Tories.  As for the Liberals, they're often irrelevant.  If their poll rating keeps on its downward trajectory, they are likely to become so once again.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Ministry of Silly Offices

So our illustrious Chancellor, George Osborne, today announces the creation of his latest non-quango guango - the gloriously titled "Office of Tax Simplification".  It could come straight out of a Yes, Minister script, or even better, Monty Python.  This announcement follows hot on the heels of the independent Office of Budget Responsibility, whose independence from ministers is guaranteed by it being situated in, you've guessed it, the Treasury.  And whose first head, Sir Alan Budd, quit amid rumours that he felt his independence was being threatened.

So now we have the "Office of Tax Simplification". The Big Bad State is dead..."Long Live the Big Bad State"!  It seems the only way the Government can deal with problems such as complicated taxes, is by setting up an official 'Office'.  If it were that easy to solve the alleged problems of an over-weaning state, I think that someone might have thought about setting up new offices.  It seems that quangos and their ilk are only bad if the other side created them.  Good quangos can actually reduce bureaucracy, increase efficiency and make the world a better place.

But I'm all for giving our new government a fair chance.  I have some suggestions for them as to some new bureaucratic solutions to some of our nation's most pressing problems: the Office of Ending Badness; the Office of Social Responsibility (aka the Work House); the Office of Goodness; the Office of Fair Play; the Office of the Big Society (watch this space, this one's coming, for sure); the Office for Bureaucratic Excellence and Reform; the Office of Hard-Working Families; the Office of New Offices.

That's enough sarcasm for one morning.  Over and out.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Times publishes my letter on the implications of the Raoul Moat case for British policing

Sir,

Andy Hayman is right. It is likely that the tactics used by police in the Raoul Moat case mark a dangerous turning point in modern British policing.   Such disproportionate and overwhelming force should only be deployed in exceptional circumstances, such as a national crisis, not due to one lone gunman yet to attack the general public.

Short of declaring a state of emergency, it is hard to conceive of how the tactics in this case could have been intensified further, from which we might conclude that a gang of criminals or terrorists could prompt a declaration of martial law without the public being consulted.   The police should remember that they police our communities only with our consent and in the manner of our choosing.  However well-intentioned, we must not allow the pursuit of police and community safety to overturn these centuries-old and precious principles which form the bedrock of our democracy.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Over-reaction in Raoul Moat case?

Is it an over-reaction when the police summon up hundreds of highly armed police,  dressed like soldiers, to deal with a man who while dangerous, is not targeting the general public but the police themselves? How is it that police can summon up such a huge presence at such short notice and such huge cost, turning an area of Britain into a virtual war zone, when cases like that of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter shows how difficult the police can find it to deal with the wanton anti-social behaviour that blights so many of our communities and affects so many more lives than Raoul Moat ever will?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Housing benefits vs commuting

I believe in the welfare state and want to protect it.  But when I read comments by Karen Buck, Labour's MP for Westminster North, saying that the Coalition Government's proposed cap on housing benefit will  "lead to social cleansing on an unprecedented scale, with poorer people shipped out in large numbers to the outskirts" I am a little dumbfounded.  I work in Westminster and earn a good (though not immense) salary.  My wife-to-be is a school teacher -our family has two professional salaries.  And yet we can barely afford to live in a small terraced house, in the town of Rugby - some 85 miles away.  I spend 3 hours hours commuting daily, at great expense, to London.  What I resent is the argument that housing benefit ought to help people on low incomes live in expensive areas at a time when the fiscal deficit means there is less money available for public spending.  I'm sure I would love to live within walking distance of my place of work.  But I simply cannot afford it.  I cannot even afford to live in the outer boroughs to which Ms Buck and others believe the Government's reforms will consigned people in a "mass exodus".  Surely there are higher priorities for our money than ensuring that lower-income people live in some of the most expensive post-codes in England, if not Europe.  It's amusing that recent mentions by Government ministers of Norman Tebbit's "get on your bike" to find work argument causes such outrage.  I get on my train every day for three hours so that I can work in a suitable job.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

This blog in The Guardian Diary today over Cameron's dodgy 'joke' about the German footie team

I got a mention today by Hugh Muir, editor of The Guardian's Diary column for my spot of David Cameron's rather dodgy joke in a speech on Wednesday.  Let's just put it this way, "progressive" Dave wouldn't have got away with his joke if he'd said, "you know, half the English players are actually African, or Dominican".....

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Cameron's new version of Tebbit's 'cricket test'

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think anyone's noticed an extraordinarily ill-advised joke that David Cameron made during his speech yesterday at The Times CEO summit.

According to 10 Downing Street, he said:

I have to say, she is one of the politest people I have ever met; every time the German – or, as I kept pointing out to her, mostly Turkish and Polish – players managed to slip another one past our lads, she would turn to me and say, ‘I am really very sorry.’
Imagine the uproar that would have ensued had the German Chancellor 'joked' with David Cameron that England's players were actually Dominican or African?

The quote which gave rise to Tebbit's infamous 'cricket test' moniker is: "A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are [sic]?"

Many people thought this was a highly provocative and unreasonable thing to say.  But under Cameron's new "football test" it seems that even when players are legally a particular nationality and are so patriotic as to choose to play for their country's national football side, their nationality, and by extension, loyalty, can be impugned, even if in jest, by a foreign Prime Minister.  And no lesser Prime Minister than our new, sparkling, "progressive" kid on the block, David Cameron.

I don't doubt that David Cameron is opposed to racism nor do I doubt his integrity (although many from my party would).  However, he needs to watch what he says after future long-haul flights, and he needs to have words with the person who proof-read his speech for not pointing out that what he said will be offensive to many Britons, whatever their ethnic origin.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Telegraph columnist hits right note on dangers fabric of society of today's Budget

Read Mary Riddell's excellent column here.  It's good to see that The Daily Telegraph, not known for taking a left-of-centre stance on things, is willing to put forward the case that the Condems' Budget may well make ordinary people suffer too high a price.

Friday, 18 June 2010

My letter on private schools published in The Times

If you subscribe to The Times website you can see it here.


The Cost of Fees

Sir, The school that Vicky Tuck is leaving for being made to feel “slightly immoral” is one, like all fee-paying schools, that favours the life chances of its pupils over other children on the sole basis of their parents’ wealth (“Top school head quits ‘hostile’ Britain”, June 17).

Some people regard this as a human right, others as “slightly immoral”. You report that she feels “beaten up” by bureaucracy over visas, etc. I am sure teachers in inner-city comprehensives, drained as they are of more academic children often by the lure of private schools, find this comment hard to take seriously.

John Slinger
Rugby

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Legrain reminds us of a cracking idea to take on the landlords and landowners - a land tax

Philippe Legrain writes an excellent column today in The Times calling for Churchill's long-forgotten proposal from a century ago for there to be a land tax.  This is the kind of radical thinking that the Labour Party ought to be engaged in.  Politicians of the left must rediscover ways in which to tackle vested interests and in so doing enhance the rights and quality of life of ordinary people.  A land tax ticks these boxes.  If you subscribe to The Times, you can read the article here.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Andy Burnham's lack of an entourage speaks of strength not weakness

SiƓn Simon (ex-MP and minister) writes a very funny piece today on Labour Uncut about Andy Burnham's lack of an entourage in the power-play that is the Labour leadership contest.

These are my immediate thoughts:

There's a serious point to it I think and that is that the most unassuming candidate (i.e. the one who doesn't barge around with a ridiculous entourage of self-important wannabes) is almost certainly the most genuine and less egotistical of them all.  I remember from when I worked in the Commons that about the only minister (let alone Cabinet minister) who didn't walk around with his own homies was Alan Johnson - routinely regarded as perhaps the most decent, friendly, straight-forward and genuine senior Labour politician (oh, and polls suggest most liked by the public - I wonder why?)  I used to see Alan Johnson chatting to the canteen staff as did we researchers.  I used to see him walking back to his department ON HIS OWN and walking around the House of Commons ON HIS OWN.


You have to ask the question: what kind of person feels the need for an entourage?  Do they have a narcissistic personality disorder?  Are they insecure?  Are they overly ambitious?  Are they obsessed with image?  Are they power hungry/mad?  Conversely, what does it say about a politician who eschews such an entourage?  I think it says they're definitely none of the above and for that, they're all the more likely to win my vote come polling.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Time to end the hereditary principle in education says Financial Times - good for them!


Here is a leading column in the FT which should be much welcomed. It describes the challenge for the two public schoolboys who now rule Britain. The question is, are they serious in their efforts to reform education so that it is no longer the case that the better-off can feather the beds of their children, giving them life chances that far exceed those whose parents have less money. I sincerely hope so, because until they do, Britain remains well short of the meritocracy it must become in order to fully realise the talents of its young people.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Coalition invents a new colour - Yelblue - for Coalition Agreement document

Ah, the wonders of the new political dawn.  'New Politics' as opposed to 'Old Politics'.  And so it seems from the long-awaited Coalition Document, published today, a new colour is born - Yelblue.  This new colour is used throughout the new document and even gets an entire page to fill (page 2 in case you're interested). I'm sure readers with children will appreciate that when a toddler mixes two paint colours together, the result is an unappealing looking mess.  I suspect we may be witnessing the modern political PR equivalent of such a mess.  For when two incompatible colours are forced together the result isn't harmony, it is mess.

But apart from the creation of a new colour, the coalition has been busy setting out how it will be the most reforming government since the 1832 Reform Act.  In this brave new world of privately-educated people running the country, Nick Clegg said in yesterday's over-hyped speech on political reform:  "...as we tear through the statute book, we’ll do something no government ever has: We will ask you which laws you think should go."  Ermm...how about the laws on the punishment for murder?  I'm sure the majority who want to bring back the gallows will greatly appreciated Nick's new openness.  Hang on a minute, Clegg also said that “CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people’s DNA."  Yet the majority of the population supports the use of CCTV in the fight against crime and supports the storing of DNA from people who have been arrested.

Yes, they may be innocent, but if they go on to commit a rape or murder, as a tiny number have, I certainly wouldn't want to be the politician who had to look the parents of a dead child in the eye and say "sorry, we could have caught your child's murderer years ago, before he struck again, but the 2010 new government destroyed his DNA record because he was innocent at the time of an earlier arrest."  Opposition is so much easier than government.  Self-righteousness is so much more satisfying than calm, sober application of principles to the reality of difficult and complex situations.

I honestly wish the new government well, but I have to say I can't get the image of my toddler's messy paint-mixing out of my mind.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Millenniumitis strikes the Tube

Do you ever get that feeling that you've become a sucker?  You've allowed a marketing craze, or a word-of-mouth craze to pull you in, extract your money and spit you out?  It can happen almost imperceptibly.  You start seeing images of a girl's naked back with a dragon tattoo while walking past what constitutes a book shop these days - a third of an aisle in Tesco.  Then you start seeing people reading said book with image of naked girl's back.  Then you hear the odd piece on the radio about a "literary phenomenon".  Perhaps you Google the author to see what all the fuss is about.  Next a friend mentions on Facebook that they're reading it...the word-of-mouth phase is under-way...the rest is predictable history...

I knew I'd become another willing victim of this particular literary whirlwind when I got on the Tube this morning and in the single section by the double doors I was one of three who were reading a book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy.

Fortunately, unlike the last time this kind of thing happened - the Harry Potter craze - we needn't hang our heads in shame or disguise our covers with the sleeve of an Alain de Botton book in order to retain credibility...

No, we share a strange sense of brotherhood.  We know we're reading a great, intelligent, rip-roaring story of relevance to our fragile times, by a tragic author who died before he realised just how commercially successful is writing would become.  We are willing victims of Millenniumitis and I thoroughly encourage you to get infected as soon as possible.

Oh, and I'm only 67 pages into the first novel...

Monday, 17 May 2010

The private classes of the class of 2010 - so much for change!

There's been a lot of talk about change recently (most of it hot air). In one key respect, British society hasn't changed at all and the recent election proves the point. 

That is the dominance of private school-educated people in the highest echelons of society - the judiciary, professions such as the law and medicine, the armed forces...and YES, PARLIAMENT TOO. See this superb research by The Sutton Trust -  showing that even though private schools teach only 7% of the population, 35% of MPs received a private education. 54% of Tory MPs and 40% of Lib Dems were privately educated (15% for Labour). 

The dominance of Oxford and Cambridge is also troubling, given that these universities themselves are disproportionately dominated by private schools. 38% of Conservative MPs were educated at Oxford or Cambridge compared with 20% of Labour MPs and 28% of Liberal Democrat MPs. You might think that the new 2010 Parliament would a smaller proportion of privately-educated MPs. It was after all much trumpeted that the class of 2010 would be new brooms to sweep away the 'old politics'. Yet the proportion of 2010's newly-elected MPs who went to private school is 35% - exactly the same as for MPs who were re-elected to their posts. 

So much for change! You won't hear the Clegg or Cameron saying that they'd seek to end the institutionalised predominance in society of the children of better off people, even in the Parliament which is supposed to represent the whole of society. 

If we're serious about those buzz words that tripped out of both their mouths so frequently during the election campaign: "change", "fairness", "poverty", "opportunity", "renewal" and so-on, then we as a society must think about what these statistics say about our society in 2010. Before people say "it's the fault of poor teaching state schools" this is untrue and unfair. It is largely the result of the continuance of the structures that create inequality of opportunity in the education system. Put simply, in the UK, if you have money, you can improve the chances of your children. This is not fair and and means that Britain fails to offer the best opportunities to countless thousands of our young people.  But then people in positions of power and influence often do not like change, particularly when it threatens their privileged position in society.

Letter to The Times (not published) about Arpad Busson and chums and their charity ball

Sir,

Although I'm not a believer, when reading of Arpad Busson's latest charity ball ('Richest and most glamorous bid for glittering prizes at Ark fundraiser') I was reminded of Jesus' parable that the poor man who gives his last penny is more valued by God than the rich man who makes a great fuss of giving a financially more 'valuable' gift.

It'll no doubt be viewed by many as churlish to say this but I wish newspapers would give equal coverage to the thousands of acts of real charity enacted each day by ordinary people who are not rich and who do not receive the benefit of a grotesquely luxurious night out for their efforts.
Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Why we must have a Lab-Lib Plus coalition by Polly Toynbee (and some minnow thoughts from yours truly)

Polly Toynbee's analysis sums up my take on the recent political developments far, far better than I could myself and can be read here.

All I would add is that we are at a critical juncture at which point it is plain to see how desperate is the largely right-wing media for Cameron to become Prime Minister and how outraged their chief lieutenants are that he may not (see right-wing Cameron-supporting Sky News chief political hack Adam Boulton showing his colours in this hilarious spat with the excellent Alastair Campbell here).  Or indeed the leading article in today's Times, a superb newspaper, whose editor James Harding is first class and fair-minded.   Their article states boldly that "It is quite possible that we will look back on yesterday as the moment the Liberal Democrats demonstrated they are totally unsuited to the serious business of government."  And why?  Because they had the audacity to consider negotiating with Labour about the possibility of forming a coalition rather than conform to the narrative already long ago written by the right-wing media (and the so-called "markets") that their man David Cameron should move into Number 10.  

The Times leader continues: "Mr Clegg has been taught a depressing lesson by his party. They are constitutionally unready to govern. Ideologically, they were caught out with policies — such as ditching Trident and an amnesty on immigration — that were not those of a government in waiting."  Why such a blatant and over-the-top attack on a party which was lauded only weeks ago?  In what way are they constitutionally unfit to govern?  They are merely doing what they have every right to do under our antiquated unwritten constitution - namely negotiate with the other parties in order to seek a solution which allows on party leader to command the support of the House of Commons.  

Neither Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg are doing anything which in any way goes against the grain of our political system.  David Cameron did not win the election in the British sense of the word.  He won the most seats and a slightly larger share of the popular vote.  But he was not elected as Prime Minister by the British people. Our system is simple - the incumbent PM has the right to remain in office unless and until he can no longer command the support of the House of Commons.  He has correctly given the party which won the most seats the opportunity to seek to form a coalition, but it seems that right wing party cannot offer to the Lib Dems what they require.  Therefore, they are playing their hand well in talking openly to Labour and Labour has played its hand very well in keeping out of it for the first few days and in removing the main stumbling block to negotiations (i.e. Brown's continuation as Labour leader).  

What happens from here on in is in the lap of the Gods (or perhaps I should name the specific politicians!).  But it is certainly not undemocratic for the Lib Dems and Labour to seek to form a so-called 'progressive alliance' with the tiny parties.  

The debate about our system of voting and our unwritten constitution can be had another day.  But until now, I'll declare my hand as resolutely in favour of my party (Labour) doing all it can to ensure that progressive policies, strong management of the economy and economic recovery, radical change to our discredited political system and a commitment to fairness remain at the heart of the next government's programme.  They will not if the Conservatives were to take power with or without the Lib Dems in tow.

Those who favour a 'brief period of opposition' may well have a point: a Tory-Liberal coalition may take the flak for the inevitable tough spending cuts that they must introduce, the coalition may be inherently unstable, it may provoke huge instability within each party as the grass roots object to the indignity of working with the enemy.  Yet this may not transpire.  David Cameron is an astute and occasionally brave leader.  His negotiating team have shown poise, dignity, generosity and a spirit of compromise towards the Liberal Democrats.  This indicates to me that in this so-called 'new politics' the Tories may actually be willing and capable of making such a coalition work.  Many in Labour's ranks seem to think that opposition is preferable to the undoubtedly difficult period of coalition government that we may be about to enter into.  I fear that this may be the comfort of a bed in an open prison, watching the world go by but unable to participate.  The only question would be how long is the sentence that must be endured.  We know from past experience that Labour is often sentenced to long periods by the public under the first-past-the-post system.