Monday, January 18, 2010 

The Tory education class war.

At the weekend Peter Oborne treated us to a treatise on how the Conservatives have put together the most radical program for government since Oliver Cromwell, or words similar to that effect. Cameron is far more prepared for government than Blair ever was, and he'd make Margaret Thatcher look like an, err, Conservative by comparison.

Back here in the real world, when you can put a cigarette paper between Labour and the Conservatives, it's invariably the Tories that have the more stomach-turning ideas, as well as those which are simply wrong-headed, or indeed those that are openly reactionary, somewhat strange for a party that claims to now espouse liberal conservatism, whatever that is. Hence we have the pledge to openly redistribute from the single, engaged and everyone else to the married, those who are truly the most in need. Or as today's launch of the party's education policies showed, somehow managing to be even worse than Labour at reforming our benighted education system.

After all, it really ought to be an open goal. Even after almost 13 years under New Labour, still barely 50% manage to get 5 "good GCSEs", a record so appalling that it can't be stressed often enough. There have been improvements made, although considering the amount of money pumped in it would be incredible if there hadn't been, and diplomas as introduced by Ed Balls with the mixture of vocational and academic work contained within is one of the few reforms which has been a step in the right direction, but on the whole Labour has been too focused on the league tables, the incessant examination of students and the continued reforming of schools purely it's seemed at times for the sake of it, with academies being the obvious example, which in equal measure have failed to raise standards while at the same time imposing the kind of discipline and rigidity which seems to actively sexually arouse certain individuals pining for the corporal punishment and being seen and not heard of their own childhood. Oh, and the lessons in working in call-centres, the kind of aspirational teaching that the Conservatives seemingly want to build on.

When Cameron then immediately decides that the most important thing which will decide whether or not a child succeeds is not their background, the curricula, the type of school or the amount of funding it receives but the person who teaches them, he's on the verge of talking nonsense on stilts, with Chris linking to some research which is in disagreement with that which Cameron quotes. Ignore that for a second though, and just consider Cameron's thought process: because the teacher is so important, only the very finest should be funded. How are we judging whether the teacher will be any good or not? On the basis of err, the university which they received their degree from and on the grade on the paper they received at their graduation. Surely if the type of school isn't important from the start, it also shouldn't matter which university the degree came from? Obviously not.

For a party which has been crying about Labour's piss-poor supposed class war, the thinking behind the proposed education policy is openly elitist, and also openly discriminatory in favour of the middle and upper classes: when only the top 20 colleges are likely to be considered good enough for those applying for the funding scheme and for their student loan to be paid off, colleges which are overwhelmingly populated by former private school students and which most state school applicants are actively discouraged from applying to for that very reason, this is the Tories' very own class war, their prejudices writ large in the same way as they claim Labour's to be. Even then it's contradictory: only a few months back Michael Gove wanted ex-service personnel to be fast-tracked into schools; now only the "best professionals with the best qualifications" need apply.

Others have pointed out that there is no correlation between the degree you get and the ability you have to teach. In fact, as Chris again suggests, the most academically gifted can potentially make things worse for those with lesser ability. I'd go as far to suggest that there are three groups of teachers out there: those that know what they're doing, those that can connect with those they're teaching, and that far rarer group, those that can do both. The exam results you get in your early twenties are no indication of how good you'll be at either of those things.

Not that the contradictions stop there: on discipline the Tories want to hand all the power over to the teachers themselves, ensuring that they can't be overruled by independent panels on exclusions, while at the same time wanting to ensure that schools can be held to account. Except on the former presumably? Alongside this, we have all the usual promises on cutting bureaucracy, on defeating waste, empowering everyone and all, as is likely, under the constraints imposed by cutting the deficit. Missing, as always, is the realisation that the number one thing parents want is a good local school which they can just send their offspring to in the knowledge that they will receive a good education, not the option to set-up a new one if it isn't good enough or they decide it isn't good enough. This however simply won't float when you can instead introduce your own pet projects, or prove to the newspapers that you're going to do something through even further shake-ups. Just letting the current system settle isn't an option when you've got to put your own imprint onto it, and if anything is likely to make things worse, Cameron's prescription is likely to be it.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009 

Dumbing down Michael Gove style.

I'm not the biggest fan of Ed Balls, but anything that makes Michael Gove look like an utter tit is fine by me, via John B:

While over at Lib Con we're promised a series of articles on immigration, which look set to be essential reading.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009 

The shape of the Tories to come part 2.

The plan for the Tory conference has been both obvious and has worked: ensure that Osborne and Cameron get all the coverage and limelight and hope that the underlings stay in the shadows, or at best don't make any horrendous gaffes. This was clearly what was in action yesterday, hoping that only the faithful or interested would notice that both Michael Gove and Chris Grayling were making speeches on their specific areas and announcing either new or somewhat new policies. As it turned out, this was further helped when Grayling himself gaffed by describing the appointment of General Dannatt as an adviser as potentially a gimmick, not realising that it was err, his side, not Labour, that had done so.

It was Gove's proposals though which were clearly the more ghastly. Alix Mortimer thinks of him as a prep school teacher circa 1965 and it's clearly a description which fits. His proposals for what should be in and out of education when the Tories come in are so overblown it reads like a an old reactionary's wish-list. What's wrong with our school system, it seems, is that the kids aren't dressed archaically enough. Just as much of the rest of society decides that suit, blazer and tie aren't perhaps the most practical or comfortable of clothes, in comes Gove, who thinks that as adults are giving up on it, children should wear it instead. His other great wheeze, setting by ability, is just as old and hoary. Listening to Gove you'd think that state schools haven't so much as tried such a thing. I hate to break it to him, but at my bog-standard, at times failing comprehensive we had setting by ability, and all it did was further entrench those in the particular sets at that level of knowledge, not stretching them or helping them, just leaving them to get on with it, failing everyone. Adding to the sense of nostalgia, rote learning was the next thing to be mentioned. He also wants "the narrative of British history" taught, without mentioning whether or not history will be made compulsory post-14, and which in any case Alix Mortimer demolishes. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, he also wants soldiers to be brought into instil discipline, which is just the thing that we need in general in schools: ex-military personnel with a high opinion of themselves thinking that all the children of today need is regimentalism and a shared bond which develops in the line of fire.

Chris Grayling didn't have much of a chance of living up to such a litany of pure bollocks. He did though have a go, further broadening the mind-bogglingly stupid policy of taxing strong lager and cider as well as "alcopops" because of their link to anti-social behaviour. There is a case for taxing the likes of Special Brew and the ultra-strong ciders which have never seen an apple for the simple reason that the only people who drink them are alcoholics and those looking to get drunk as quickly as possible, but the downsides are obvious: when an ordinary can of Wife-Beater isn't going to cost any more, you might as well just downgrade slightly, and it's what people will do. You have to challenge the behaviour, not the drink itself. I've also lost count of the number of times I've said it here, but it needs stating yet again: those meant to be targeted by this tax do not drink alcopops. The people who do are those might get drunk, but are not those who specifically go out looking for trouble; it can be best described as a tax on those who don't like the taste of other drinks. Despite all the mocking, Grayling also still believes in the "21st century clip round the ear", now examining "grounding" as an "instant punishment". We laughed when New Labour proposed taking yobs to ATMs; now the Tories, that party of the family, wants police officers to take over parenting. Finally, once again the Tories want to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group which although reprehensible and may have incited hatred in the past, most certainly does not incite violence. If we're going to ban every group alleged to do both, why focus on HuT and not the BNP or EDL, who are the number one current threat to community cohesion? Answer came there none.

All everyone was interested in though was the main event. There is one thing to be said for Cameron's speech, and that's at least that it was a speech rather than just a series of connected thoughts, as both Brown and Clegg's attempts were. It was also a good speech in another sense: that it at least partially showed what Cameron does believe and think, and quite how wrong his interpretation is of what has gone wrong, primarily with the economy:

And here is the big argument in British politics today, put plainly and simply. Labour say that to solve the country's problems, we need more government.

Don't they see? It is more government that got us into this mess.

Why is our economy broken? Not just because Labour wrongly thought they'd abolished boom and bust. But because government got too big, spent too much and doubled the national debt.

It is indeed putting it simply, and also not accurately. Labour may have massively increased the size and scope of the state, but to break this down to saying that Labour's only solution is more government is nonsense. If it was, it wouldn't have spent the last 12 years trying to insert the private sector into every public service or continued with the horrendously wasteful private finance initiative, to give but two examples. More gob-smacking though is that Cameron seems to be suggesting that the reason our economy's broken is because of the size of government and because it spent too much: this isn't just wrong, it's politically bankrupt. The reason the economy's broken is primarily because there was too little regulation of the financial sector, not too much. Even if we had saved for that "rainy day", we'd still be in the same recession even if the deficit could be dealt with quicker, and considering that the Tories would have hardly done anything different on the economy to Labour until very recently, this is hindsight of the lowest order. He continues:

Why is our society broken? Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility.

This is even more nonsense. Even if you accept that big government has and does undermine responsibility, and even if you accept that society is broken, the real thing that broke it was the undermining and even open destruction of economic communities over 20 years ago. Labour has tried and mostly failed with its initiatives, but at least it has tried. All Cameron offers, and continues to offer in this speech, is the firm smack of responsibility and the recognition of marriage in the tax system, something just bound to cure problems at a stroke and not just provide the middle classes with a helpful cut. And so it goes on:

Why are our politics broken? Because government got too big, promised too much and pretended it had all the answers.

Cameron on the other hand doesn't pretend to have answers, as he doesn't offer any specific reform of politics in this speech except for the cutting of some ministerial salaries. All the talk of a new politics has completely evaporated, and who could possibly be surprised? Cameron doesn't need to change anything to win, and so the status quo is far more attractive.

Again, like Osborne on Tuesday, Cameron also offers precisely nothing on economic recovery. It's presumably just going to happen magically, while all we need to worry about is getting the deficit down. As Chris Dillow and an increasing numbers of others are now arguing, the preoccupation with the deficit is potentially dangerous when there are other threats and decisions to be taken. The Tories have focused on the deficit because this is one of their very few selling points, yet it's also a point on which they could be attacked if Labour was reasonably sure of itself, with even the potential to turn everything back around. While trying not to be triumphalist, what is clear is that the Tories themselves are now absolutely certain of their return to power. From his mention of Afghanistan at the very beginning to the condemnation of the EU at the end, this was also a speech written to touch every hot button on which the Sun newspaper has recently focused. Nothing is being left to chance. The irony of it all is that on the one thing that the Tories are significantly at odds with Labour on, they're wrong. The sad thing is that it seems it won't make any difference.

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Friday, June 19, 2009 

Hardly the end of the affair.

When it comes to shooting yourself in the foot, the parliamentary authorities have done the equivalent of blowing the entire appendage off with a sawn-off shotgun. The expenses scandal was finally begin to simmer down, the Telegraph having already deciphered and disseminated all the most outrageous claims, with the full release of the documents in full threatening to be a damp squib, only of interest for those who really wish to know exactly what their MP's favourite taxpayer-funded meal is. By censoring almost the entirety of some of the claims, all they've succeeded in doing is bringing the bile back to the very front of the throat of every phone-in ranter in the country.

At times since the Telegraph first splashed on their ill-gotten gained CD/DVD, I've felt like the only person in the country not to be demanding that MPs be summarily executed with their heads then displayed atop spikes on London Bridge. Of course, that MPs have turned out to be such humongous hypocrites, evading tax, whether it was "allowed" under the rules or not, claiming that they live with their sister and spending our money on duck houses and cleaning moats is certainly disreputable, but I find it hard to summon any great fury mainly because except in a very few tiny cases, there seems to have been no actual rules broken, let alone fraud. As much as some claim to be whiter than whiter, most of us will probably admit to trying it on at times; at worst, what most have done is simply stretched the rules as they existed, while some went further and did so to absolute breaking point, such as Gerald Kaufman with his attempt to charge the taxpayer for an £8,000 Bang and Olfsen TV. That I find for some reason far more enraging than some of the more notorious claims. Equally, the opprobrium hasn't fallen on those most deserving of it: those that have other highly rewarding interests that still didn't think that claiming for "seagrass", mugs from Tate Modern and "Elephant lamps", as Michael Gove did could possibly be objectionable. Then there's just bitter, wormwood-esque irony, like George Osborne claiming a staggering £47 for 2 DVDs featuring a speech of his on "value for taxpayers' money".

Mostly though, as I've mentioned before, there just seems little reason to get angry when there are so many more important things to be livid about. We are talking at most, of millions of pounds being improperly spent or claimed; at the moment we're currently paying around £30bn simply on the interest from our current debt. There's the millions, if not billions being spent on management consultants; the billions being wasted because of the government obsession with the private finance initative; and the countless billions being poured into the toilet which is this government's repeated, incessant, hapless IT schemes. These though are mindboggling sums, which cannot be directly linked to any one individual, hence there's no one to blame. Whether it's bankers, where Fred Goodwin rapidly became the biggest hate figure in the country, or Margaret Moran or Hazel Blears, we can instead put a face to the fury. It's the same with benefit fraud, where the newspapers always have a field day. It doesn't seem though that anything other than money could have caused such a scandal, or at least one which has inspired such rage and gone on for so long. It isn't the case, as Anthony Steen put it, that people were envious of his big house; it is however those whom have failed to benefit from the boom years who are now falling even further behind are fuming at how MPs could kit out their houses and pay their food bills without even a thought for how their own constituents are having to live.

More depressing is how the momentum which was behind the moves towards reform, which went hand in hand with the revelations in the Telegraph for some time, has suddenly dropped off. Partially it fell away as attention turned to whether Gordon Brown was going to survive as prime minister or not, but it also seems to have failed because MPs were only ever paying lip service to it, and as the race to be the next speaker has shown, as attention has turned away so has the belief that there has to be change. The House of Commons is a notoriously conservative institution, overturning even Robin Cook's minor reforms to the working hours because some MPs felt it had ruined the "atmosphere", and as the everlasting cliche goes, turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas given the choice, but you would have thought that even they would have realised that something has to be done. It does remain whether or not the public themselves ever were really behind such wide-ranging reform, but it is still quite clearly what is needed to re-energise politics. The exchanges of the last week, with the nonsense on stilts which has been the portraying of Cameron as "Mr 10%" and the general refusal to even be slightly straight with the public on the cuts which are going to have to come have only reinforced that. The European election results were both a warning and an opportunity: they showed politics at its worst and best, with the BNP victories because Labour voters stayed at home, and the successes of other minor parties showing the breadth of political dissent and debate which is stifled in the three party consensus which is Westminster. Only those that are prepared to end that monopoly deserve to be supported at the next election, and whatever our thoughts on the expenses furore, we will have them to thank if it does eventually lead to the change which is so desperately needed.

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Monday, May 11, 2009 

The Nuremberg defence and democracy following it.

In The Thick of It, probably the closest television has come to getting close to the reality of being an MP since Yes Minister, the politicians are almost uniquely portrayed not as venal, corrupt or stupid, although Hugh Abbott is certainly close to being incompetent, but caught in-between the spin doctors, the media and the public at large, all of whom are shown in a far more negative light. From the outraged woman who wants to know what Abbott is going to do about how she has to clean up her own mother's piss, to those who leave insults on the Conservative MP's blog about his sexual predilection for cats, you can't help but feel sorry for the MPs who work incredibly long hours only to be abused by all and sundry around them.

Sadly for the few honourable members who have not made outlandish expenses claims, and there are indeed some who haven't, it's now going to be a long time before anyone feels sorry for the political class as a whole. If things seemed bad when the Telegraph first unleashed the leaked disc sold to them for around a six figure sum on Friday, on Monday night, with still more abuses to be revealed tomorrow and presumably over the coming days, it's the continuous drip drip which is now in danger of doing lasting, long standing damage not just to this parliament, but potentially to democracy itself for some time to come.

The last time parliament felt under siege like this was when there seemed to be "sleaze" stories concerning the last Conservative government emerging week by week. This went from the highly serious, concerning Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken to the sex "scandals" which we have since rather stopped putting so much importance on. The difference was that these were almost uniquely affecting the Conservatives, and New Labour was doing its utmost to gain from them. No one is pretending now that any party has been more "pure" than the others, although it remains to be seen whether the Lib Dems and the nationalist parties (Sinn Fein apart) will have as many apparently on the take in their ranks as the two main parties seem to. The cliché used to be that it was the Conservatives caught with their trousers down, while with Labour it was money. Despite a recent Daily Mail story that suggested that the expenses would reveal affairs and that Labour whips were on suicide watch, such was the fear of what was to come among some on the backbenches, it now seems to be money, or rather claiming both for property and for the furniture to fill it that dazzles all.

If anything, some of the claims by the Conservative frontbench look worse than that of their Labour counterparts. Some are defending Michael Gove from the accusation that he was one of the politicians who "flipped" his second home, but claiming £7,000 for furniture still leaves a bad taste in the month when you consider that Gove has not just the one salary, but undoubtedly another if not others, continuing to write a column for the Times, serving on the board of the hilarious Standpoint magazine, often appearing on Newsnight Review and also writing the equally laughable Celsisus 7/7, which makes Melanie Phillips' Londonistan look like a paragon of research by comparison. Andrew Lansley, who appeared recently on Question Time and let everyone know that he earns £24,000 a year for 12 days' work serving as a corporate director on the board of a company, renovated a Tudor cottage on expenses, sold it, then switched his second home to a flat in London. Francis Maude, another man with lucrative secondary income, tried claiming mortgage interest.

Apart from John Prescott claiming for two toilet seats and panelling for the front of his house, Barbara Follett (another hardly impoverished individual considering she's married to the novelist Ken Follett) claiming £20,000 for security, Margaret Moran with her second home in Southampton, because without it she wouldn't be able to see her husband who works there, Hazel Blears seems to the Labour MP most deserving of having ordure thrown at her, with both Sunny and the Heresiarch outlining in detail exactly why. Not only did she "flip" her second home three times in one year, claim furniture for them and then apparently avoid paying capital gains tax when she sold one of the properties, earning herself a tidy £45,000 profit, but she is the most prominent individual who seems to find the whole scandal to be frivolous; it isn't her fault, it's the system, she intones, all the while beaming in the same crooked smile which never seems to leave her face. Even today's Guardian leader, having described Blears in such beaming terms just last Monday, suddenly finds that she perhaps isn't the "decent, well-motivated and genuine" person it thought she was. It is of course nice to find that those MPs whom we most love to loathe for their loyalty and lack of independence are not just lacking intellectually but also in the honesty stakes, but those who aren't guilty, such as the Ed Milibands, Alan Johnsons, Philip Dunnes and David Howarths will be dragged down with them.

Although the politicians themselves have been pointing towards them by means of creating a distraction, there is no doubt whatsoever that those most likely to benefit from parliament as a whole being dragged through the mire are the extremists, and the British National Party must be regarding the Telegraph stories as manna from heaven, coming so close to the European elections when they were already likely to do well. How can any party, not just Labour or the Conservatives, try and campaign on the actual issues while this is going on? True, most might just declare a plague on all their houses and not vote at all in what would already be a low turnout election, but the worry must now be that those seats which the BNP could potentially grasp are now theirs for the taking.

The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the politicians themselves can now no longer have any control over their own expenses or their salaries. That not a single one of the 47 MPs named so far by the Torygraph was willing to go on Newsnight to defend themselves was just not a display of cowardice, it was also that they know they simply can't blame a system and not apportion blame on themselves as well. The new regime will have to be overseen by a completely independent committee, otherwise faith in parliament might never return. The second home allowance has to be scrapped altogether, or at least far more heavily policed or regulated, as does the John Lewis list. Those earning £64,000 or more a year simply cannot expect the taxpayer to furnish their homes for them. The tax breaks also have to be ended.

One of the few boasts that could be made about our political system was that compared to some of our European neighbours, not to mention the banana republics and kleptocracies around the globe, ours was remarkably free of corruption, and when it comes to out and out buying of votes, or payments for policies, that still mostly holds true. No one could have predicted that it would be bath plugs and bags of manure which would bring politics into such disrepute, but now that it's happened the shovels have to be brought out. The worst culprits need to be held to account in some way, and as the only way might well be the ballot box itself, there's now even more reason than ever to vote tactically. Ensuring that the likes of Hazel Blears and Michael Gove are not MPs in around a year's time might well be the only way we can hope to restore parliament to even a shadow of its former standing.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008 

Scum-watch: Watching the Sun on the fringe.

Cross-posted at the Sun Lies

Being one of the supposed politics editors on the Sun Lies blog is difficult for one short reason: the paper very rarely actually "does" politics. This doesn't mean that the Sun doesn't feature political stories; that it does. Rather, the Sun presumes that its readers aren't interested in politics as reported by say, any of the ex-broadsheets, but they are interested in policies, albeit ones which the Sun pre-decides they should be interested in and that have already been defined by the editorial team themselves. Hence the Liberal Democrats hardly receive any coverage at all, except when they're mocked or insulted; they are an irrelevance. When it comes to crime and law and order however, that's something the Sun knows its readers deeply care about. They deeply care so much about what their readers think about law and order that they provide the exact remedy which they themselves think would solve all our problems in a flash. Whether the readers actually agree or not is something entirely different.

It's therefore well worth pointing out that this year, for the first time ever, the Sun newspaper has been holding fringe events at the Labour and Conservative party conferences. These have long been dominated by the broads, holding stiflingly boring meetings with stiflingly boring politicians, never meeting a real actual person except the delegates themselves who turn up and become stiflingly bored as a result. They deserve something approaching credit for this, because the Guardian for example has been holding truly dismal sideshows where politicians make the case for their greatest ever respective member. No surprises to learn that Labour voted for Keir Hardie while the Tories chose Margaret Thatcher.

The theme of the events, in case you couldn't guess, is "Broken Britain", the Sun's now long-running theme on how the country bends over backwards to allow every armed chav to knife crime your son/daughter/husband in the face while the police and judiciary doing everything in their power to instead persecute the victims. I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly. There's no dispute that we have endemic, deep problems, especially in some of our inner cities, with gangs, crime, drugs and poverty, both of aspiration and wealth. The toll of teenage lives in London is undoubtedly sickening. There are however no quick solutions to any of these things, and the constant demands for immediate action, of which the paper never supplies any real point plan except to rip up the Human Rights Act and install zero tolerance only increases the chances of bad policy being made on the hoof. Politicians shouldn't give in to such demands, it's true, but the relationship between the media and the government has become so essential to the management of every day life that now those in powers have little choice but to take heed.

The first of these meetings, at Labour's conference last week, did not actually go especially smoothly from the Sun's point of view. Only one member of the actual panel - Michael Gove of the Conservatives - unsurprisingly considering the party's own views, agreed with the Sun that the country is "broken". Just so that the argument was not completely lost, the newspaper took the precaution of arranging for the relatives of those recently involved in some of the most notorious murder cases to be in attendance. Perfectly acceptable, of course, but what is not is the idea that this was their first opportunity to speak out or speak to politicians, nor was it all thanks to the Sun. It also distorts the true picture of crime, which almost everyone agrees has now fallen for the past decade, with rises in certain offences, but with the chances of becoming a victim of crime actually the lowest since the early 80s. The Sun never though has any intentions of being representative.

I've written previously about the tyranny of grief, the power of emotion and how it is almost unanswerable without coming across as ill-feeling or not grasping the full scale of what has happened to the individual - and the Sun knows this perfectly well. Politicians can do nothing but spout platitudes, pretend to feel their pain, and all it does is come across as false, which is because it is. It is impossible to know how they feel without having experienced a similar tragedy. Overwhelmingly though, emotion and anger are not good starting points to make policy from. This is obvious when you read what some of these traumatised individuals want to be done:

In an impassioned plea she called for tougher sentencing, more police patrols and earlier action to identify potential yobs.

Brooke [Kinsella, whose brother Ben was stabbed to death], who later met Prime Minister Gordon Brown, added: “We need to get through at the grassroots. We need to get these kids before they even think about committing a crime.”

And just how exactly do you do that? Without exactly the kind of nanny statism and surveillance which is so decried, especially by the Sun, how are you meant to identify those likely to commit crime before they even think of doing it?

Apart from back-slapping, about the only real controversy at the Labour meeting was that Cherie Blair and Jack Straw clashed over why George Michael had only received a caution for possessing crack cocaine.

More stormy was yesterday's at the Conservative party conference. Like at the first, there was the outpourings which if anything suggest that some of those still involved ought to be attempting to move on:

Marcia Shakespeare – whose daughter Letisha, 17, died in Birmingham gang gunfire – said: “The police try their best but what about the rights of victims? I don’t get answers to my job applications because I am stigmatised as the mother of a murder victim.”

I'm not sure that the government can be blamed for someone continuing to in effect stigmatise themselves.

The headline though was the merely inscrutable:

VIOLENT thugs who kill and maim should forfeit their human rights, The Sun’s crime summit was told yesterday.

Grieving Paul Bowman – dad of murdered model Sally Anne Bowman – called for a shake-up of Broken Britain’s liberty laws at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham.

Paul, joined by Sally’s mum Linda, told the meeting: “In this country animals have animal rights and a dog has every right to be treated well and kept healthy. If that dog decides to act outside what we regard as acceptable – for instance bites a child – its rights are taken away and it is destroyed.

“When somebody decides, like the perpetrator of the crime against Sally, to go out armed with a knife to murder, leave it till the coast is clear and then rape, bite and desecrate the body of an 18-year-old girl, I believe that man’s human rights should be waived to a degree."

“I think there should be an amendment to the Human Rights Act where someone, if they step outside being a human being and commit an inhuman act, then the Human Rights Act does not apply.”

When then should someone lose their human rights? When they're accused of the crime? After they've been convicted? After a number of appeals? And what exactly is an inhuman act? How will we define it? The Human Rights Act has never affected the Sally Anne Bowman case in any shape or form: Mark Dixie is appealing against his conviction, but considering that the case against him was almost as straight-forward as they come, he's hardly likely to succeed. With a minimum sentence of 34 years passed, he'll be 70 before he can apply for parole. It sometimes has to be asked: how much more do they honestly expect the state to do? Bowman supports the death penalty, but you only have to look to America to see that it is no deterrent, especially against crimes such as those committed by Dixie, and it simply is not going to be brought back, however much a minority would like it to be.

There also seems to be a complete lack of perspective of what prison life is actually like, especially for those who commit crimes like Dixie:

Paul blasted the “worry-free” life brutal offenders can lead in jails.

If worry-free is getting beaten up, excrement and spit put in your food and being in constant fear, then you have to wonder what sort of regime would be preferred. It hardly seems like Dixie will flourish in prison - the police officers who arrested him after an altercation in a bar were surprised he was crying over such a minor incident, until the DNA results came back.

It was again though the involvement of Blair which made headlines outside the Sun, with Cherie quite rightly calling the Tory MP Chris Grayling "specious" for offering the ripping up of the HRA as some sort of solution. The Tory pledge to bring in a British bill of rights has always been a joke, as all repealing the HRA would do is mean that applicants would have to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights rather than a British court, as the Tories would hardly be likely to withdraw from that institution also.

The Sun's job though had been done. It's presented, via those who have suffered the most from indiscriminate violence which can almost never be wholly prevented, the same simplistic solutions which it has been pushing from the very beginning. It points to Bill Bratton and his success in bringing down violent crime in New York and Los Angeles without mentioning that the number of murders in both those cities is far higher than the toll in London. It doesn't mention that part of what helped bring down crime in those cities, apart from zero tolerance, was the crime mapping that has just been recently introduced in London. He's quite right about the targets which do burden the police, and possibly about local accountability, but that also raises the spectre especially over here of the BNP effectively seizing control of neighbourhood policing. It also completely ignored the aspects of the debate which it rather wouldn't present to its readers, such as Blair's strong defence of the HRA, and Jonathan Aitken, along with Charles Clarke, robustly denouncing the Titan prisons plan which the Sun supports, as it does any prison enlargement. This is how the Sun's politics works: it comes to a predefined conclusion and sells at as if that was the one that was came to naturally. And that's partly why the newspaper has such control over politicians as a whole.

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Monday, August 04, 2008 

Right motives, wrong targets.

Via the Daily Mash.

As New Labour decides whether or not to overthrow the leader it only installed this time last year, the good ship Cameron continues to sail on with the sea calm and nary a cloud on the horizon. While any half-decent historian will tell you that the notion that history repeats is a fallacy, it's difficult not to see the Conservatives if not repeating New Labour's pre-1997 detoxification of the "brand" then certainly following it closely.

A case in point is Michael Gove's speech today to the left-wing IPPR think-tank. First, confront the "enemy", or at least an organisation that has traditionally been either critical or exercised undue influence, head-on. Labour did it with clause 4 and then the unions, and while Cameron's Conservatives have so far not achieved a similar high-publicity example of themselves either repudiating their past or moving on from it, it's certainly happening in a much more guarded fashion. Second, while in front of this organisation, make clear you're not going to repeat the "mistakes" of the past, or openly criticise past policy. Gove therefore highlights past Conservative hostility to homosexuality as indulging prejudice and missing the point. It has to be said that the party could hardly do otherwise when a good proportion of it recently celebrated Alan Duncan's civil partnership, but it's still making the separation point. Next is to rehabilitate single mothers - those of Peter Lilley's "little list", whom far from being sponging layabouts getting knocked up to get council houses are in fact mainly being abandoned by the fathers.

So far, so good - Gove might be angering the Melanie Phillips' of this world, but few others. This being modern politics however, and certainly the modern Conservatives, something has to be attacked for the speech to get noticed. Hence we look for something that is politically acceptable to attack and which can't bite the party back in any meaningful fashion - the notion that magazines such as Nuts and Zoo influence young men to not take their responsibilities seriously - and Gove sets about them. Headlines follow, everyone tuts about how awful the lads' mags are, and who, after all, except for their editors and publishers can pretend otherwise, and Gove's job is done.

This covers the fact that Gove doesn't really offer any substantial policy difference whatsoever to the government's, except on the bung of up to £20 a week to families that live up to the nuclear idyll. Some will doubtless welcome this as the Conservatives turning over a new leaf, accepting that society has changed, that blaming the most vulnerable doesn't achieve much in the end except raising the blood pressure of the good burghers of middle England, but it doesn't do much to disprove the accusations of vacuity. That moaning about modern politics being vacuous has become almost akin to moaning about all Status Quo songs sounding the same doesn't alter the fact that it's true - and even politicians themselves have got in on the act, Miliband's vacuous article last week apparently the response to a vacuous George Osborne Grauniad article, Tony Blair having the temerity to accuse Gordon Brown's policies of being vacuous - next we'll have John McCain comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

It also conveniently covers up for this remarkably hilarious line from Gove which follows his denunciation of Nuts and Zoo:

The contrast with the work done by women's magazines, and their publishers, to address their readers in a mature and responsible fashion, is striking.

I'm sorry, what? What women's magazines is Gove talking about? It can't be Cosmopolitan and these other equally cerebral titles, informing their readers of the "latest" blowjob techniques, 50 ways to the best orgasm and all the latest things to waste their money on while worrying endlessly about the effects of ageing. It can't be those almost exclusively marketed to women celebrity titles like Heat and Closer, which can't make up their minds which celebrities are fat and which are skinny and which hate and don't hate their bodies, which promote instant self-fulfilment just as much as the likes of Nuts and Zoo, and are similarly obsessed with cosmetic surgery. It also surely can't be the likes of Take a Break, Love it! and all those others, which combine horror stories of abusive boyfriends, murdering husbands and deformed children, with again, continually uplifting stories about how cosmetic surgery has substantially improved someone's life. How about those teenage girl magazines, Cosmo Girl etc, which not so long ago were horrifying politicians with their tales of promiscuity and open sex advice?

Attacks on the above, with the exception perhaps of Heat etc are strictly off limits mainly because the Take a Break reader was recently identified as the latest substrata voter who can be made more malleable through touchy-feely sessions with the leader, and Cosmopolitan and others have on occasion also featured articles on Cameron and how, like Blair before him, he sets the bar in being both personable, reasonably pleasing to the eye and of course, well-dressed. It's also apparent now that young women aren't the enemy, but perhaps young men are. They're probably the least likely to vote in any case, and going by past impressions with Cameron, they don't seem to impressed by him. The most easily disposable demographic therefore gets it in the neck. It's also worth noting that Gove attacks only Nuts and Zoo and not the more "up-market" men's titles, like GQ, with their positive coverage of Cameron.

Gove could, if he or his party had the guts, have extended the argument even further. It's not just the men and women's magazines, it's the tabloid newspapers too. After all, they increasingly resemble a daily edition of Heat, and the Star and Sport are lads' mags dressed up in daily newspaper clothing. Don't they too "reinforce a very narrow conception of beauty and a shallow approach towards women" and "celebrate thrill-seeking and instant gratification without ever allowing any thought of responsibility towards others, or commitment, to intrude"? Shouldn't Gove be asking Rebekah Wade, Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch and Lord Northcliffe what they think they're doing "revelling in, or encouraging, selfish irresponsibility among young men" (and women) seeing they too profit out of it? Considering Gove was formerly a hack on the Times he might be more likely than others to get an answer out of Red Rupert. Reply? "Rack off and mind your own business," most likely.

The very last thing Gove and his party could afford to do, obviously, is to annoy either the Mail or Murdoch too much. The biggest irony is that those that have long professed to be public barometers of morality have abandoned it in pursuit of profits outside of editorials, columns and self-justification for their exposure of sex scandals. They are far, far more widely read than any of the lads' or women's magazines and have a far more corrosive effect on our culture, yet their power means they are almost unimpeachable outside of the courts.

This is why the idea that the Conservatives will be less authoritarian than New Labour runs so hollow, as the usually excellent Jenni Russell believes. The current sops to more locally devolved power, the abolition of ID cards etc are window dressing until the party is once again in power. No one seems to have noticed that on prisons, on welfare, the Conservatives are still to the right of New Labour, and the abiding impression is that they intend to out-Blairite the ultra-Blairites, and unless you haven't noticed, they don't tend to be either liberal or believers in the idea of local autonomy. The exceptions, such as parents being allowed to set up their own schools, is to defuse the row over grammars, while the emphasis on the private and voluntary sector over the public is because it's cheaper. On the things that matters, the Tories will be just as right-wing and managerial as New Labour, and just as bad in selecting what needs to be criticised as Gove is today.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007 

Something positive for a change?

It's not often that this blog (or indeed, many others) praise government policy or legislation, so let's break a habit and give Ed Balls' 10 year children's plan a cautious welcome. Some of it, inevitably, is old measures being re-announced and given a lick of new paint, and some of the reviews seem to be happening just for the sake of it, but for the most part the new initiatives proposed for example on money for new playgrounds and youth centres are long overdue.

The SATs testing regime, which over the years has become vastly more important than they really should be, and attracted the ire of teachers as a result, is to be looked into if a pilot of flexible testing that has shown favourable results so far reports in the affirmative. More important, and understandably overlooked has been the development of teaching to the test, which becomes much more of an issue post 14, where almost everything not likely to be on the exam paper is discarded and simply not taught. Far from being based around learning, lessons are being turned into endless repetitions of facts, and in some cases subjects are no longer even resembling what they once were supposed to be teaching. It seems unlikely this will be changed when such ambitious and most likely unachievable targets as 90% of students getting 5 A-Cs at GCSEs by 2020 are still being considered.

More favourable are the well-rehearsed recommendations for schools to become centres of the local community, with social workers, police, libraries and sports hall all being available in one location making good sense. The insistence sadly on the continuation of the academy program, the results from which have so far been less than conclusive, with Lord Rothermere and even BAE Systems considering sponsoring such schools, but not any Oxbridge institutions as the government hoped, undermines it somewhat. Also yet to be explained is how this will function in reality, with the funding necessary for such err, centralisation, yet to be forthcoming.

Also promising are the proposals on parental involvement and on one to one tutoring, which are vital if underachievers are to be focused on and given the help when they need it most. Teachers can no longer be relied upon to do everything - parental attachment and interest into what their children are doing is often stifled simply by how kids hating talking about what they do at school, or at least how some do. The policy on reintroducing foreign languages at an early age, rather than starting them at some point in the middle of schooling is also a sound one. Trying to interest a class of 28 14-year-olds in speaking French or German is a little like attempting to teach a fish to ride a bicycle - pointless and cruel. The whole reason why those in continental Europe have been so successful in teaching English is that they start early, while with our advantage of speaking it in the first place we imagine ourselves to be superior and not needing to bother with other languages when it's a skill that's as vital as ever.

Some of this might be undermined if the government doesn't drop its ideation about schooling being compulsory until 18, or at least until it properly sorts out secondary education from its current woes over the divide between the academic and vocational routes. Tomlinson's recent report might have achieved it, and the introduction of the new diplomas might also, but I'm not holding my breath over that. Of all the things the tabloids decided to pick up upon from the report, the one they did was that "yobs" who said sorry would get off scot free, or something similar to that effect. The report actually suggests "restorative justice" to deal with first-time offenders, getting them to meet with those who they offended against, i.e. supermarket managers or similar if they shoplifted, the owners of the house they damaged if it was vandalism etc, schemes which have already been operating in some areas for a while and which have been on the whole a success. It's not going to apply to those who assault people or otherwise, who'll still get charged. As always, reporting some scandalous new insult to justice comes above the actual reality.

On the whole though it was a decent package which with minor changes would have been a lot better, such as the abandonment of the child database, ContactPoint. It was certainly far more authoritative than anything the Conservatives have come up within years, whose main policy up until Blair left was supporting whatever he did, but then the most annoying MP in the Commons in the form of Michael Gove was never going to say anything that might be considered complimentary. Ed Balls it seems is a lot better at putting policies together than actually advising Brown on what to do in the here and now.

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