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.


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

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.