Friday, 30 March 2012

Bradford - Is This The End For Labour?

I’m told that there’s a ‘great vibe’ in my old home city of Bradford today.

I’ll bet there is, and I wouldn’t deny them it for the world. It’s a feeling that any Labour voter old enough to remember 1997 will appreciate – not just the joy of victory, but the warm feeling of a shared voice and joint achievement.

The young voters of Bradford have exercised their collective power and made a statement to the world – well done them. Personally I think they’ve elected a poseur and a dilettante, and I fear that they will come to regret their moment of exultation, but – as a number of tweets are proclaiming – the voters have spoken, and to dismiss them as foolish would be equally foolish.

It’s a gesture – but how significant a gesture?
It was gesture politics, of course, of the kind that by-elections frequently produce. My stomach squirmed when I heard George Galloway proclaiming it to be the greatest by-election result of all time.
Rather, the people of Bradford have seized their moment in the limelight to send a message to the world. And they used him to do so.

So last night was a gesture … but what politicians across the spectrum have to work out
today is whether it is a one-off exception, or whether it reveals underlying developments in politics in Britain to which they need to respond.

Bradford and the debate within the Labour Party
Astonishingly, the right-wing of the Labour Party are coming out to try to spin this result as a vote against Ed Miliband (e.g. here), as a vote against the ‘left-wing’ in Labour politics (e.g.

I think it needs a very long stretch of the imagination to interpret Galloway’s victory in those terms. If anything (as left-wing Labour writers have been quick to point out) the election of Galloway the Labour rebel, the anti-Blairite, pro-Iraqi, anti Afghan War peace campaigner, is a REJECTION of New Labour, and an argument for more radical (and, maybe, left-wing) politics.

Above all, however they spin the election, the Labour right must come to terms with the fact that this result shoots an arrow into the heart of their political strategy.
The New Labour strategy – and Purple/Black Labour’s after it – has always been that Labour does NOT need to appeal particularly to its traditional voters … that it can in effect ‘take them for granted’ (where else have they to go?) and then strike out for the centre ground of politics where the battle for the majority will be won by trying to attract the south-east, upper-middle-class voter.

Darrell Goodlife points out this morning in his blog, that Byrnist/Blairite strategy is in tatters today. Labour’s traditional heartlands have shown that they DO have somewhere else to go, and that they are prepared to go there when and if the opportunity arises.

Galloway’s victory was not, however – as one might try
to infer from Eoin Clark's analysis of the voting statistics – a vindication of left-wing/socialist politics. The voters of Bradford clearly had a specific axe to grind. They were attracted to Galloway because of his stance on Afghanistan and on Islam … as well as the fact that he is an anti-establishment figure and was on Big Brother. If there is one thing that Bradford does not suggest, it is that a more ‘left-wing’ Labour candidate would have done any better. And even if it were proved that he would, the Bradford result does not negate New Labour fears that a shift leftwards in Labour Party politics would extirpate Labour as a political option in the south-east (and thereby condemn Labour to another generation of opposition).

Neither is Galloway’s victory, as Mr Goodlife suggests, a wake-up call to Labour to take more care of its ‘core voters’. To all intents and purposes, Galloway’s victory seems to have been based upon a large turnout of young people – people who may never have voted before
many of whom ignored their imams’ advice-from-the-pulpit to vote Labour. Bradford was not the defection of the ‘traditional voter’ so much as the loss of a traditional area because the young up-and-coming voters rejected Labour … of every hue.

The Terror for Labour
What is terrifying for Labour is that there is no certainty, either, that Bradford is a one-off. There are dozens of communities throughout the Yorkshire-Lancashire belt which mirror the social, ethnic and religious mix in Bradford West, and which might similarly fall prey to charismatic, Galloway-clones.

Should we have seen it coming? It’s only what happened in Scotland, where Labour has been overtaken and replaced by the SNP – offering similar politics, but with a locally-relevant twist.

Thus Labour can no longer take ANY community, however traditionally-Labour, for granted. Those of us working in the north-east must be aware that there is an increasingly coherent appetite for a Trade-union/SWP Party. As he wakes up this morning, Ed Miliband is faced with the prospect that, everywhere north of Northampton, voters could decide that Labour does NOT represent their aspirations, and that they are going to vote for a more vociferous, more radical opponent of the government.

This could be terminal for Labour. It is clear that everybody north of Northampton now hates the Tories and that they want an MP who will stand up and oppose them. What is NOT so clear is whether they will accept Labour as the automatic Party of opposition.
As always, the anti-Right is fragmented. It is not just a matter of Labour shifting its stance and becoming more left or right, more Muslim, more Europhobe etc. to try to ‘hit’ this opposition. Each suffering community is different, and has a different agenda, and will need a different approach.

I tend to agree, therefore, with Mark Ferguson, who today argues that Labour needs to adopt a more community-based approach to politics – that Labour needs its own ‘localism’ agenda, basing itself more firmly in the local community, seeking to be more representative of its aspirations.

But whether it will ever be possible to unite these different local agendae into a single, meaningful manifesto remains to be seen – the big question this morning is whether Labour can continue to constitute a monolithic ‘party of opposition’.
'The Party' has held together really quite well after defeat in 2010; what is the worry is to what degree 'the voters' are fragmenting.

Which makes last night a REALLY bad night for Labour.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Blue Badge Madness

If you’ve never been to Staithes – a little fishing port 11 miles north of Whitby – I recommend a visit. If you go, you will discover that you are not allowed to drive down to the village; instead, you park at the top of the cliff, and walk down an impossibly steep hill to a little harbour. It is a gem, and my wife and I used to go often, until recently.

My wife’s condition
More than two years ago, my wife had a series of severe heart attacks – the last one saw her die a number of times on the operating table, to be saved by Mr Owens and our wonderful NHS. During all this, however, her heart was permanently damaged – the echocardiogram reveals a figure of 43% efficiency.

By contrast, there is nothing wrong with her legs, which are as strong and agile as ever. She could run up the stairs at Whitby and they would not give out. What would give out, of course, would be her heart, which is significantly and measurably weaker than it used to be. In particular, she finds any kind of hill a problem and a worry.

In the first year after her illness, none of this was of any consequence – she was so weak as to be virtually housebound. Our first ‘walk out’ was to the nearest lamp post! But as she grew stronger – as she attended her rehabilitation classes – she grew more confident, and last summer we took a holiday.

It was then, of course, that we were confronted for the first time with accessibility problems. We could drive to Staithes and park up. She could manage the walk downhill into Staithes. But how could she get back up that hill
to the car?
And what was especially and glaringly true for Staithes was true to a degree everywhere. She could walk without any trouble round the town centre, the shopping mall, the park – it was the trek to and from the car that was beyond her.

As a result she was still hugely dependent on me. Wherever we went, I had to run back and forth between the venue and the car, dropping her off and picking her up.

“You need to apply for a Blue Badge”, I said to her. “It’s a human rights issue – you ought to have the same independent ease of access to these places as anyone else.”

Applying for a Blue Badge
The first hint we got that there would be a problem was the form, which seemed excessively pre-occupied with how far she could walk.
‘Unable to say’, she replied.

We have since been told that she should have said ‘less than 30 metres’; this would have entitled her automatically to a Blue Badge.

But it would have been a lie.
It is not just that my wife can walk much further than that on the flat or downhill. The simple truth is that we have never tested how far she can walk.
If you are unfortunate enough to have something wrong with your legs, it may well be that you can say how far you can walk before you have to stop, or before you fall over.
But when there is something, unseen, wrong with your heart, hidden inside your chest, the only way to find out how far you can walk would be to walk until you died … which we are not going to do, are we!

Consequently, reasonably quickly and efficiently, my wife found herself referred to an occupational therapist, a smiling young lady who listened very sympathetically to my wife’s explanation of her condition and situation, and then walked with her to the door.
In doing so, my wife failed her Blue Badge application.

Ultimately, it turns out, the Blue Badge is almost exclusively about how far a person can walk ‘without stopping, being in severe discomfort, or without help from another person’. Under 30 metres is automatic, 30-80 metres a person may be eligible … over 80 metres and you are INeligible.
The nature or degree of your disability is peripheral; it is all about how far you can walk.

What a nonsense!
So my wife failed to get a Blue Badge – it’s not the end of the world.
But (as anybody who reads this Another Rant blog will realise!) it raised a number of issues which need addressing.

The first one is financial.
How much money are we spending, day after day, for that pleasant young occupational therapist to sit and listen, for twenty minutes at a time, taking notes whilst people argue their case, after which she will no doubt have to write it all up as a report … when at the end of the day a Blue Badge application is not a matter for the judgement of a highly-skilled and well-paid professional, but is simply a numerical rule – 79 metres: yes; 81 metres: no.

The second one is practical.
I want to know who ever gets to use these Blue Badges, if none of them is able to walk more than 80 metres.

I am not talking about wheelchair users. To be honest, whilst I would never stop them getting a Blue Badge, once they are in their wheelchair, distance is not the mobility issue. They don’t need to be next to the supermarket entrance; once they are in their wheelchair, they can (and sometimes do) do a marathon.

No. I am talking about those people who experience such difficulty walking that they are unable to walk 80 metres ‘without stopping, being in severe discomfort, or without help from another person’.
80 metres is the equivalent of walking twice round a normal detached house.
So I ask again; who ever gets to use their Blue Badge?

The disabled parking bays at Manchester Piccadilly station are ‘100 metres from the station in the Broad Street car park’. So anyone who parks there using their Blue Badge is by definition unable to walk to the station they are designed to serve.

The disabled parking for Darlington Town Centre, I would guess, is at least 40 metres from the end of Northgate. Which means that any genuine Blue Badge holder will be able to park up, walk to the end of the road, look at the shops … but will then have to return to the car and go home, because they cannot walk more than 80 metres.

And what about the disabled bays outside supermarkets? Although they are often situated right next to the entrance, it strikes me that any Blue Badge holder who parks up there and then goes shopping automatically disqualifies themselves, because it is a damn sight further than 80 metres round a Tesco Extra.

The principle of the Blue Badge
Now I am aware that I am using exaggeration for effect, and I will simply delete any comments which suggest that I am having a go at existing Blue Badge holders – that is palpably nonsense.

What I AM criticising is the criterion for the Blue Badge, and its application, which defines walking distance as the ONLY criterion, and does not allow for different kinds of disability, and sets the maximum distance, ridiculously, at 80 metres.

For me, the issue goes to the heart of what I see as the PRINCIPLE of the Blue Badge, which is to give equal accessibility to people who would not otherwise have equality of access.
In which case, the Blue Badge criterion is aimed at entirely the wrong market.

As my hyperboles above have pointed out, if you genuinely cannot walk more than 80 metres, then a Blue Badge is of little use to you in many situations, because – unless you can park up outside the door and are literally just going into the shop or restaurant etc., – you will need to walk much further than 80 metres when you get there.

So the people who would gain most value from possessing a Blue Badge are those people who CAN walk ... anything up to half a mile, I would suggest.

My wife could enjoy walking round the caf├ęs and shops of Staithes … but she is denied equality of access because she cannot walk back up that hill to the car park. What she needs is to be able to drive down into the village and park up, after which she will be fine on the flat.

Equally, my wife could have a lovely time walking round the Metro Centre. It is flat, smooth, and there are plenty seats where she could sit down and take a rest. As it is, however, she is denied access because, by the time she has parked up and walked to the shops the quarter of a mile from the nearest available normal parking space, she is barely able to walk back to the car.

Of course, my wife will gain access to all these places, because I will act as chauffeur and bag-carrier for her.
But that is just it, isn’t it. Because she will therefore be dependent upon me.

The Blue Badge rules have turned her from an independent, self-determining human being, into a dependent, reliant upon others for mobility … which I had thought the Blue Badge scheme was designed to prevent.

Labour Needs An Economic Plan People Can Remember!

Labour, says Mark Ferguson in his LabourList article, is ‘not in the game’ when it comes to the economy.
I don’t need to rehearse the government’s disasters and injustices, because the opinion polls prove that the electorate overwhelmingly despises the Tories – yet despite everything, voters overwhelmingly still believe that Labour caused the slump, and that the Tories (however brutal) are right on the economy. Mr Ferguson concludes:
"We’re still not in the game. Either there’s a problem with the message, or there’s a problem with the messengers."
I can tell you now, Mr Ferguson, that the problem is with the message.

So what is the message?
The nearest Labour has come to an economic plan is ‘Labour’s Five-Point Plan For Growth and Jobs’.
“This is a really worrying time for families, struggling with higher food prices and gas bills and worried about their jobs and their children’s futures. That’s why Labour has set out a clear five-point plan for jobs, to help struggling families and support small businesses.”
So. OK. I have a challenge for you.
Can you remember them, these ‘five points for growth and jobs’?

The simple truth is that no one, not even motivated Labour activists, have a clue what Labour’s five points for growth and jobs are!
I recently wrote round a number of ‘important’ people in the Party to ask them to tell me if they or their friends could remember them.
- One Labour VIP failed to answer, but I found it telling that he read them out at the next meeting; and he had to look at a crib-sheet for number 4, and omitted 5 altogether.
- Another Labour VIP became quite irate, complaining he knew them, but ‘needed time to think’.
- A student leader shared a recent campaign when he had tried, and failed, to get his campaigners to remember the list.

Everybody else admitted that they found them impossible to recall. When I asked at my Branch, only two people claimed to be able to remember ANY of the five points (and to be honest, their guesses were incorrect). Someone found them on an i-phone, and they were read out to me … but when I challenged that person to turn over the i-phone and recount them again, he was unable to do so.

TRUTH: Labour’s flagship economic statement is UTTERLY UNMEMORABLE.
And if the Party faithful and leadership cannot remember it, what hope have we that it will impact with the public?

(I’m not going to tell you the five points. If you’re desperate to know them you can find them here – but my point is that a policy which you have to look up on the internet is an unmemorable policy.)

The problem with the message – 1. Incohesion
I was a Special Needs teacher for many years, and I regard myself as an expert in presenting information in a ‘memorable’ way.
So what is wrong with Labour’s ‘5-point plan for growth and jobs’ message?

Memory experts will tell you that, to remember something, it helps if you have a narrative which provides ‘hooks’ on which to hang your facts.
But there is no narrative thread to connect the five-point plan.
The points are utterly random and in fact dot around all over the place, from supply-push to demand-pull, from practical to financial, from one area of the economy to another, etc.
They are a mess, not a message.

The team that thought up this turkey came up with a good title – ‘Five-point plan for growth and jobs’ is wordy but explicit, and hits exactly what people want. But when it came to the actual policies, they were too lazy to project them in a way that was memorable.
They thought the slogan would do, and it didn’t.

The problem with the message – 2. Incoherence
The second problem with the list is that it defines a set of economic actions … and who understands the economy?
Most voters can understand ‘debt’ and the idea of a revenue deficit, because these are things they face in their own life. The details, however, apart from the ones that specifically hit their pocket, leave them cold, and the theories totally overwhelm them.

If the intention had merely been to give people a list of ‘five practical things the government could do to help the economy’, then many people would have read them, nodded sagely, and come away with the general impression that this idiot Tory government was neglecting some simple, affordable ‘fixes’.

But if you want people to pick up and internalise ‘Labour’s economic message’, then it needs to be presented in a much simpler way…

The problem with the message – 3. Inconsequence
Which brings us to the third key problem with the message – that it is a list of points not a statement of principles.

Labour’s ‘Five Points’ are a (random) set of ‘things-to-do’. In themselves they are quite minor tweaks to the economy – the kind of thing that would occupy a paragraph in the budget.
Even taken together (and there is no attempt to relate them into a coherent whole) they have a ‘feel’ of ‘tinkering’ – even the most avid Labour supporter would not be able to argue (even if he could remember them) that these measures constituted ‘the solution’ to Britain’s budget problems.

And faced with a set of ultimately inconsequential facts, the brain refuses to be bothered to remember them.

So what would you advise, John D Clare?
Well, you’ve got to smile, because that is the question which no one is ever going to ask, isn’t it!

But if someone did ask me, I would advise that – if you wanted something that people could and would remember – Labour’s message on the economy must have a narrative thread running through it so that each point links to the next, and it must state broad, simple principles, and leave any practical details to the footnotes.

If I was pushed to specifics, my ‘FIVE POINT POLICY ON THE ECONOMY’ would look like this:

LABOUR PROMISES that, when it is re-elected, it will:
1. Resolve the deficit on government spending, stop borrowing, and take steps to reduce the National Debt.
2. Reduce taxes on businesses.
3. Revive the economy.
4. Reform personal taxation by addressing tax avoidance and taxing people according to their ability to pay.
5. Guarantee that it will do all this without damaging the needy and the vulnerable.

I am sure that my ‘five-point plan’ will evoke criticism but you will find that my five principles encompass all five points
– if you can be bothered to look them up – in Labour’s ‘Five-Point Plan’.

But, however derisory your opinion of my suggested policy, I would ask you to do this: read it through three times, wait until tomorrow, and see how many of its ideas you can remember.
Then compare how many of Ed Balls’ ‘five-point plan for growth and jobs’ you can recall.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The ‘Decent Middle Class Pensioners’ Are Being Squeezed Too!

Today in the Financial Times, columnist John Kay has written an article entitled: ‘My generation should repay its good luck’. It argues that to oppose the so-called ‘Granny Tax’ was to ‘aggressively pursue our own interests at the expense of our children and grandchildren: a bizarre paradox of perverse collective action’.

Similarly – although in the event, Mark Ferguson’s article for LabourList on ‘Squeezed Youth’ didn’t even mention pensioners – his advertising tweet echoed John Kay’s sentiments:
“The baby-boomers have sold the family silver – leaving young people with the scraps.”

It is an accusation regularly – and increasingly – aimed at the 60+s. They are the generation who ‘had it all’, but are now bequeathing a world of global warming, sovereign debt, youth unemployment, unaffordable housing, tuition fees and AIDS.
And – as if to plunge the knife even deeper – they are living interminably long, a social, financial and medical burden upon the less-numerous, ‘squeezed youth’.
The day after the budget, the newspapers were full of anger at the ‘granny tax’ on ‘decent middle class pensioners’ … but even then, there were voices pointing out that, overall, ‘the old’ had suffered less under austerity than other groups:
“Screw the ‘decent middle class pensioners’ they'll just have to get in the lifeboats with the rest of us,” tweeted one disability campaigner.

Perhaps, however, we need to careful before we write off the aged as the ‘privileged’ generation for whom we are all suffering.

Strangely, I couldn’t give a fig about the ‘granny tax’. Although it is indeed the removal of a preferential allowance, little has been taken from pensioners – all that has happened is that the basic threshold is rising to meet the Age Related Allowance. When it all works itself out, it will mean a cut of £1 a week for pensioners earning £4,500 pa over and above their pension. Chicken feed.

Much worse things have been, and are happening, to pensioners.

When the recession hit, the government reduced the base rate to unprecedented levels, thereby slashing the income-from-interest that many pensioners had factored into their retirement plan. Interest rates on ‘safe’ investments now fail even to keep up with inflation, so pensioners are seeing their capital sum diminishing too. Since this happened at the very start of the recession, and since middle-class pensioners tend to adjust rather than riot, it has gone largely unnoticed.

Those retired people who had been building up their capital in their homes found themselves doubly hit. A lot is said about how the ‘baby-boomer’ generation are ‘sitting on’ large family houses which their children cannot afford to buy; but looked at from the other perspective, the older generation sees itself rattling round in unsuitably-large houses which it bought as a nest-egg, but which are now unsaleable.

Young people see a generation with ‘savings’ – something they can only dream about. What they forget is that they still have decades of earning-power ahead of them. What a pensioner has saved, has to last – an indeterminate and indeterminable period of time – and there is no more earning, only spending, from now till death.

For those approaching retirement, the world is an increasingly scary place. Equitable Life, of course, collapsed long ago, but endowment policies have all come in way below expectations, and private annuities are yielding less and less as the economy stumbles and base rate remains minimal. Meanwhile, the ‘favoured’ public sector workers on their ‘gold-plated’ pensions have already had one knock-back, are tagged to CPI not RPI, and are currently facing a second revision of payments and yields.

Much has been made of this year’s ‘biggest ever’ rise in pension (£5.30) – indeed, it is more than double the rate of increase in average earnings. But it still falls shy of inflation (RPI) … and at the end of the day, percentages hide absolutes, don’t they – how far does £5 go nowadays?
Gas and electricity costs are spiralling when pensioners are the people most likely to be in all day and to need the heating on. The cost of food is rising when it forms a disproportionately large proportion of a pensioner’s budget. And (on a personal note) petrol costs are rocketing when they are the ones expected to flit round the country visiting numerous grandchildren!

‘Crying the poor tale’ doesn’t come easily to the older generation, and I’m certainly not trying to make a case for preferential treatment. Moreover, any decent grandparent HAS to be terrified for their grandchildren’s prospects (as Mark Ferguson’s article so eloquently pointed out).
But we need to remember that ‘divide and rule’ is a Tory trick – to set the worker against the unemployed, the taxpayer against the disabled, the employer against the unions … and the young against the old.

Labour’s task, by contrast, must be consensual – to unite all those of us who are suffering under this incompetent and kleptocratic government.
And to get rid of them in 2015.

The Answer Is NOT To Fine Schools

So now it is official: the riots were the fault, not of wanton lawlessness, not of societal failure, not of economic deprivation … they were the fault of THE TEACHERS!!

To be honest, few teachers will be surprised. Everything eventually is traced back to being the teachers’ fault – teenage pregnancies, knife-crime, drink-driving, AIDS… I suppose it is a miracle for which teachers need to be grateful that the newspapers have not come round to blaming them for the 2008 financial crisis, but the press seems to have found an alternative scapegoat for that.

In the same way, for years, politicians have announced that the answer to every social problem from anti-social behaviour to unemployment is ‘education, education, education’. It is a lazy avoidance tactic which says ‘We don’t have a clue what to do about this, so we’re going to make it someone else’s problem’.
And then they tell the schools that they are failing (THAT’S the buzz word, of course) to address the issue properly, and that they must educate the children properly.
And then some patronising ‘consultant’ on huge salaries or fees goes round making money out of the ancillary INSET industry that this nonsense has spawned, and half-assed schemes of work are tacked onto already over-stretched curricula all over the country, and another box-that-must-be-ticked is added onto League tables and Ofsted forms.
And the irony of that, of course, is that now it really HAS become ‘the teachers’ job’, and they really CAN be blamed when things go wrong.

Illiteracy and the Riots
Anyway, the panel investigating the riots last year has come up with the utterly unsurprising finding that many of the yobs taking part were illiterate.
There is, of course, no reference to the hundreds of thousands of decent illiterate people who sat at home and cowered in their front room as their rioting peers ran berserk through the neighbourhood.
There is in this, of course, no admittance of the fact that a correlation does NOT prove causation.
There is, of course, no suggestion that educational failure might be a SYMPTOM, not the cause, and that illiteracy might share an underlying cause with the riots … which the politicians have failed to address.

Above all, there is no recognition that many of the youths who were rampaging through the streets were the self-same youngsters whom the teachers had to corral in groups of 30 into their classrooms next day and try to teach about Pythagoras Theorum.

No. ‘About a fifth of school leavers have the literacy skills of an 11-year-old or younger, leaving many with no stake in society and no reason to stay out of trouble’.
So in an awful sleight-of-logic, it is the teachers’ fault again.

I wonder how much this panel cost the country to come up with this lazy, shoddy, second-rate, ‘cheap-shot’ thinking?

A worthless solution
And the panel’s solution?

“Introducing fines, which would then be used to help bring children up to the required standards, would help ensure the risk of future riots on the scale seen last August was ‘significantly reduced’, [the panel] said…
“Every child should be able to read and write to an age-appropriate standard... If they cannot, the school should face a financial penalty equivalent to the cost of funding remedial support to take the child to the appropriate standard.”

It reminds me of the Treaty of Versailles, where we teach the pupils that Article 231 (which blamed Germany for ALL the loss and damage of the war) was an essential precondition for the reparations clauses – in the same way, once you have asserted the schools’ CULPABILITY, you can then move to PUNISH them.

And thus, in some perverse sequence of twisted logic, you have moved yourself round to a situation where we are punishing the teachers for the rioters’ riots.

Punishing the teachers for the failings of the pupils
To teachers, of course, this will come as nothing new. They have been punished, personally and corporately, for the failings of their pupils for some time.
GCSE results day used to terrify the pupils …no longer! Every August nowadays, teachers gather, ashen-faced, to wait for their pupils’ results, because it their school’s success and their careers, which rest on those results.
For the ‘failing’ teacher, who has ‘failed’ to coax a sequence of above-average results out of his pupils over the last few years, they could mean the difference between having a job and not having a job.
For the pupils, many of whom will put the certificate in a drawer and barely look at it ever again, they are much less significant, and every year many cannot be bothered even to find out what results they achieved.

Many people reading this article will be unaware the way teachers’ targets are calculated. Even as the pupils arrive in secondary school in Year 7, a ‘School Improvement Partner’ will be telling the school how many GCSEs-with-English-and-Maths (and a whole load of other targets) the school must achieve with these pupils. That figure is no longer based on the pupils’ prior attainment, but on government and local target figures. The SIP will then return each year during the lustrum to demand increases in those target figures … and then the school (whatever its intake) will be judged against the performance of other pupils in other schools anyway.

The negatives of punishing the teachers
Even on a simple common-sense basis, surely someone has to see the foolishness of fining ‘underperforming’ schools? Here we have a school which is struggling to raise its pupils to an acceptable level of literacy … solution? … let’s take some money away from them, and make their job even harder.
Whether the school is underperforming because it intakes from a particularly difficult area, or because a number of its staff are inadequate to the task, reducing the school’s resources to address the problem is surely a stupid solution?

In addition, however, there are many problems with making teachers responsible for their pupils’ failures in this way.
One is that there is no ‘consequence of failure’ in most of our schools today.
Lazy? Disruptive? Unreliable? Don’t worry; we’ll lay on mentoring and do
all the planning and thinking, and someone will work with you in the hope that we may be able to coax something out of you.

The problems of this kind of approach should be obvious.
On their part, teachers are wearing themselves to a frazzle rushing around after lazy and disrespectful pupils, pleading, making revision sheets and dredging up easier alternatives, so that many staff spend their lives in a state of nervous and physical exhaustion.
Meanwhile, the opportunity exists for feckless and lazy pupils utterly to fail to learn any kind of responsibility during their time at school. Many of them realise that they hold the whip hand and actually decrease their effort as they get older.
And the danger is that an attitude develops whereby the whole caboodle is based on getting through, by hook or by crook, to the end of Year 11 when we can wave goodbye to them (hopefully with some kind of results) and send them on their way and they are, thank God, somebody else’s problem from now on. The current system of League tables and punitive regimes for schools and teachers encourages an approach which defers and defuses … and never seeks a solution to this individual’s glaring inadequacies.

OF COURSE nobody is saying that disadvantaged pupils should be allowed to fail, and to come out with lower results than advantaged pupils.
OF COURSE nobody is saying that teachers should be allowed to be second rate, and that there should be no drive to push up standards.

But what I AM saying is that, if the riots panel could have found a more damaging solution to the societal problems which caused the riots, it is hard to think of one.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

#Budget2012 – The View From Great Aycliffe

All the politicians and pundits have given their verdicts – TV has been full of it.
Down in Westminster, the buzz is all about the political opportunities which the Budget gives the opposition, and whether it increases or reduces support for the government.
But out here in the sticks, the budget is not a political opportunity – it is something which will affect our everyday life and standard of living.

So what do ordinary people feel about the budget?
Well – here’s the response from a small town in the north east.

Before I start, and at the risk of sounding like a ‘moaner’, I have to say that much of this budget will probably leave most Aycliffe people unmoved and unimpressed.

There is 37% worklessness in Aycliffe, which is in a part of Britain hardest-hit by the cuts, so a budget which boasts that it ‘rewards work’ doesn’t really scratch where it itches here.
One third of the people of Aycliffe will simply have noted that the £10bn cuts have not been mollified, and that nothing has been done to address rising rents, which are their main worries right now.

I personally don’t smoke, but there will be a lot of people for whom the 5% above inflation rise in tobacco duty will be the main news and the last straw.

Taxing the rich
Indeed, there is a great deal of the budget which will simply go over the heads of ordinary Aycliffe people.

I don’t think many people will get very excited at the news that – after receiving the toothless Aaronson report on a GAAR (general anti-avoidance rule) – the government does not even intend to implement that, but merely intends to consult on it ‘while maintaining the attractiveness of the UK as a location for genuine business investment’. I think the reaction of most people in Aycliffe will be ‘oh yeah?’

Meanwhile, the 7% stamp duty on homes worth more than £2million simply does not apply in Aycliffe. You can get a three-bed terrace home here for £35,000, and a new four-bed on a posh estate for £170,000. So the idea of a mansion-tax is something for a pub quiz, but won’t provoke much excitement.

I suppose there will be a degree of faux-outrage about the end of the 50p tax for people earning more than £150,000, but the idea of earning so much is so foreign to most people’s experience here that, again, it will be a matter of theory rather than actual experience.
MPs earn at least £65,738, and they get expenses on top of that – I am sure that figures like £150,000 are meaningful to them. But to most Aycliffe people, the idea of bringing in £150,000 a year is equivalent to winning the lottery (and about as likely).
I don’t think I know anyone who earns even half that amount. Many people here would be delighted to bring home the national average £25,000.

You might say much the same for phased child benefit for people earning more than £50,000. Anybody in Aycliffe knows that you are rich enough not to NEED child benefit if you earn £30,000, never mind £50,000.
And the idea of feeling aggrieved for a couple earning £49,000 each and losing their child benefit is laughable.
In Aycliffe, people need their child benefit to buy their child food.

Helping the Poor
There will, by contrast, be large numbers of people in Aycliffe who benefit directly from the raising of the basic tax threshold to £9,205 ‘leaving millions of working people over £200 better off’.

But if Mr Osborne is expecting them to vote Conservative next election he is going to be disappointed.
Putting £4 a week into the family pocket won’t make all that much difference when your rent has just been raised by £8 a week, when the fuel duty rise of 3p a litre has just increased the cost of filling your Ford Fiesta by £1.20, when the price of a packet of cigarettes has just risen by 37p, and when the cost of the weekly shop at Tesco’s is rising by 50p a week.

The Council Tax freeze will be welcomed, but tempered by the realisation that this will mean more cuts in essential services. In Aycliffe, it looks as though we are going to lose CAB, which will be a disaster for many – especially as the cuts bite the poorest people.

Neither will it be lost on most Aycliffe people that, whereas they are gaining £200 a year from the rise in the basic tax threshold, higher-tax earners will be gaining £400 … which will strike them as somewhat ironic – that a measure hailed as helping the lower earners in fact gets to help the higher earners just exactly twice as much.

Tax losers
I know that everyone is supposed to be OUTRAGED at the ‘Granny tax’, and I am sure that Osborne will pay the political price in the blue-rinse counties, but I fear he doesn’t have too much to worry about in Aycliffe, oddly enough.

For a start, there are proportionally more pensioners here who don’t earn anything above their pension, so the concept of an Age-Related Allowance is meaningless to them.
And for those who are and will be affected, outrage tends to dull with age, doesn’t it!
I think that many pensioners will ultimately appreciate that their ARA has not been cut… it’s simply that the minimum threshold has risen to catch it up.

There will be some wistful irritation that earning pensioners are going to be stung for £1bn+ to pay for the cut in the 50p tax for tycoons, and I am sure they will be furious at Mr Osborne’s statement that he has done so because they are too thick to understand about tax allowances … but I wonder how long that will last. Most people here are primarily concerned, not with what others have got and have not got, but with their own personal circumstances.

Which is why a number of our more upwardly mobile earners WILL be angry at the drop in the higher rate threshold, which has drawn them into the higher rate tax bracket.

The boost to industry
Strangely enough, most thinking Aycliffe people – beyond a quick glance to see whether they are a winner or a loser in the budget – will be much more interested to see what is happening to economic growth in the region.

I, apparently, am going to be overall £80 a year better off as a result of this budget. To be quite frank, handing me £1.60 a week in my pocket is worthless.
What I am MUCH more interested in is the state of the local economy.
Getting the economy going, giving local people JOBS – that is the way this Chancellor is going to make Aycliffe RICH, if at all.

So how much do I feel that this budget is going to do that?
Interestingly, there is A LOT in this budget about economic growth.

We positively welcome the National Planning Policy Framework in Aycliffe, and have already begun planning our Neighbourhood Plan for sustainable development.

I am also positively PLEASED that Corporation Tax is to fall to 22% by 2014. I have for a long time advocated that we reduce tax on business. I also note that Mr Osborne is doing a deal with banks to introduce ‘credit easing’ for SMEs, and pricked up my ears at the ‘Growing Places’ fund.
Having said that, I am aware that businesses currently have huge sums in balances, which they are not using for investment or trade, but are choosing to keep as a buffer against setbacks. It seems to me (as a Socialist) that Mr Osborne is too trusting of business – that if he gives them the breaks, they will deliver the business – and I wish there had been more measures in this budget to proactively tie the government incentives to the provision of new jobs.

Moreover, after that, it’s all down hill for industry in the north east.
  • Newcastle is going to get superfast broadband, I suppose, but what good is that to us in Great Aycliffe?
  • The rail improvements mean nothing to us because they get no nearer than York – which seems daft, considering that we are soon to get Hitachi.
  • An extra £150million to help build new homes is to be welcomed (providing any of it reaches us), but most people will tell you that what we do NOT need is more private residential properties, but more social housing, bungalows and affordable starter homes – certainly that’s what we need in Aycliffe. You can’t sell four-bed homes here for toffee.
And I am positively hostile to the announcement of Enterprise Zones in Scotland, which will unfairly advantage them as we are trying to attract industry to the north east.

Overall, when we hear that the Chancellor is suggesting a growth rate of 0.8%, and we realise that is
0.8% nation-wide, this has to be a gloomy Budget – as far as economic growth goes – for the north east.

There is lots more in this Budget, I am aware, and it is not all negative … but please forgive us if we are less than enthusiastic in Great Aycliffe.

I wonder if a Labour government could offer policies which would create more, proper industrial growth in the region?

On Trolls

Trolling is in the news at the moment – and rightly so – and it was only last night that I was saying that I didn’t know how Dan Hodges coped with the level of abuse he gets.

Well, today, I came in for a modicum of abuse myself, so – for reasons which will become clear – I thought I’d tell you about it.
You’re quite welcome to think that you would have dealt with things differently to me, but I hope that, whatever, you’ll perhaps be able to learn from my experience how you will deal with it if/when it happens to you.

The danger of possessing a stick with a horse’s head handle
Now, to be fair, I brought it upon myself.
It was in the moments after the budget. I was feeling smug with myself because I had made a tweet which had been multiply-re-tweeted.

And then I read the following tweet which appeared on my twitter-feed (it had been re-tweeted by someone I follow):
James Max @thejamesmax
Poor @Ed_Miliband sounds like a broken record. Fact is it's the millionaires of which he speaks so disparagingly who are paying for his mess

Now I know – as Mr Max has since pointed out to me – that ‘I started it’.
I realise that I was poking the lion in the ear.
But really!
Given that most of the people who read my blog are lefty-inclined, they will understand why I reacted to that!

James Max is a TV and radio presenter who makes a living out of ‘going head-to-head’ with the big noises of the Left.
When he makes a statement, in the public domain, as controversial (and frankly as muddle-headed) as this, it can surely be argued that he was WANTING people to react.

And so I did:
John D Clare @JohnDClare
@thejamesmax @ANOther Congratulations on a truly gobsmacking lack of grasp on reality.

I thought it was quite droll, and it most certainly is not abuse, is it!
Then I logged off and got on with my job (my job as a writer, not my job as a councillor).

You will see that I have hidden the name of the other participant. To be fair to him, he is a pleasant person whom I have followed good-naturedly for some time, and what followed was totally out-of-character.

Nevertheless, when I got back, this is what I found:
James Max @thejamesmax
Are you referring to me? @JohnDClare Or @ANOther ? Because if you are, perhaps you'd like to explain why you think that.

James Max @thejamesmax
Actilually [sic]. Stop. Having read your twitter feed @JohnDClare Spare @ANOther and myself from your ideologically driven claptrap.

AN Other @ANOther
@thejamesmax @JohnDClare - I re tweeted you, so I assume it is your good self he is referring to,

James Max @thejamesmax
haha thank you @ANOther but I can assure @JohnDClare that I am very rooted in reality. I work in the real world as opposed to the psb.

AN Other @ANOther
@thejamesmax oh that "real world" the one which @JohnDClare feels should pay for everything...

James Max @thejamesmax
@ANOther @JohnDClare including for his pension. Which I'd guess is probably a final salary version.

AN Other @ANOther
@thejamesmax @JohnDClare - well of course, the state owes him a living I expect.

James Max @thejamesmax
@ANOther @JohnDClare but I'm not sure he's grasped twitter. Just trolls out abuse and doesn't bother to engage.

If you read this exchange between Mr Max and my erstwhile twitter-friend you will see it roll in a succession of mutually back-scratching statements
- from a simple challenge (‘perhaps you'd like to explain why you think that’),
- to a dismissal (‘Spare @ANOther and myself from your ideologically driven claptrap’)
- to an impersonal negative assumption about my beliefs (‘that "real world" ... which @JohnDClare feels should pay for everything’)
- to a negative personal allegation about my circumstances (‘including for his pension. Which I'd guess is probably a final salary version’)
- to pure and simple personal abuse (‘well of course, the state owes him a living I expect’ … ‘[He] just trolls out abuse and doesn't bother to engage’).

Pause for reflection
During all of this, I had not even been present to say a single word but – between you and me – I probably would have not said anything anyway. As I have said before, twitter is a dreadful forum for debate. It’s a place for sharing ideas and making statements, not for debating.
I am aware that Mr Max was asking me to explain why I thought his statement was ridiculous … but equally he had offered no explanation for his assertion that it was the millionaires who were paying for the deficit.

What do you do when you are confronted with abusive tweets?
People like Dan Hodges and others re-tweet them as a badge of honour.
I, on the other hand, am a retired schoolteacher with no political career to make.
So I decided to get out:
John D Clare @JohnDClare
@thejamesmax @ANOther You are both unnecessarily rude, and ignorant of my situation. But please carry on reassuring each other.

(To be fair, I am unhappy with the final sentence, which could be misinterpreted, but that’s what I say about twitter as a medium of dialogue … you only have 140 characters, so everything you say is clipped and disjointed.)

Anyway, I said what I said.
I was peeved by the exchange, but neither angered nor upset – anybody who is in small-town politics will appreciate that I have suffered much more venomous abuse in the local free newspaper.
And poor Dan Hodges, Owen Jones and Co. will tell you that what I ‘got’ was small fry stuff compared to what is out there.

I was, however, deeply disappointed at the eagerness with which my former twitter-‘friend’ had joined in with Mr Max … and even topped him.
So I sent a second tweet to him:
John D Clare @JohnDClare
@ANOther Actually, I am disappointed in you, Mr Nother - I thought you kinder. Anyway, I have disengaged now. Best wishes and goodbye.

And I unfollowed him. (To be fair to Mr Nother, he has apologised. He is a nice man. But the damage has been done, hasn’t it.)

At this point I went off to do my other job (I went to a council meeting).

When an end is not the end
Now wouldn’t you have thought that an important media-presenter would have had more to do than pursue little me?
Not a bit of it.
When I returned from my Council meeting, this is what I found:
James Max @thejamesmax
To be fair @JohnDClare you started it! @ANOther Merely commented. I responded to your tweet asking for further detail.

and then!
James Max @thejamesmax
So @JohnDClare you achieved a textbook "troll", berated @ANOther and myself and then left. Seagull management style. Delightful.

Oh for goodness sake!
Forgive me, but I for all the world was under the impression that – certainly after my original tweet – it was me who was being abused.
And to be labelled a ‘textbook troll’ who had 'berated' him rather left me open-mouthed.

I suppose that you, good reader, can decide for yourself who was being rude.

So what have I learned?

1. Sometimes it’s best not to poke a lion in the ear!

2. When you post in a public forum, you are liable to get a reply from any nutcase from anywhere in the world and they may decide to pursue you.

3. Twitter is not a good place for expressing yourself clearly, and it is certainly a poor medium for debate – when you try to ‘engage’, you simply appear a nasty piece of work.

4. ‘Trolling’ may be an internet evil, but it is also a meaningless abuse-word to hurl carelessly at someone who has irritated you.

5. There is a danger that you get to feel you ‘know’ the people you meet on twitter and facebook, but you need always to remember that you don’t actually know them at all.

6. Always leave a way of escape. You can, like I did, ‘unfollow’ someone who is not being nice – and remember that, if someone continues to pursue you, you can block them.

7. Finally, it is worth noting that the law on this kind of thing is going to sharpen up, so we all might do well to watch our words.

And Mr Max?
He just let himself down today, spoiling for a fight where there wasn’t one.
Perhaps he’ll be nicer to the next person.
At least I have now explained myself to him.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Labour MUST Demonstrate Its Distinctiveness By Opposition

I do so very much enjoy Dan Hodges’ blogs for the Telegraph.

Many people don’t. Mr Hodges earns the wrath of those narrow-minded people who cannot see a place for any opinion but their own. Between you and me, I would find it hard to cope with the level of abuse he gets.
It is unwarranted. Mr Hodges knows his Westminster, and for me he is informative and challenging.

That does not mean that I always agree with him, or even that he is always correct.
Today – in an entertaining article about Labour’s ‘Flash Gordon’ tactics on the NHS – he was wrong.

Have Labour’s tactics over the NHS reform bill backfired?
Mr Hodges, not to put too fine an edge on it, thinks that Labour was wrong to oppose the NHS Bill. He thinks – as he admitted explicitly in a later exchange of tweets – that ‘Labour should have done nothing over the NHS bill and just agreed with the Tories’.

Indeed, let’s face it, it is eminently arguable that all Lansley is doing is more-or-less an extension of what New Labour intended to do anyway.
But it is not the alleged hypocrisy of Labour’s position on the NHS Bill which concerns Mr Hodges.
Unlike many critics of Labour, Dan Hodges DOES want Labour elected in 2015.
It is just that he believes sincerely that Labour is going about it the wrong way.

The Labour leadership, he says, is listening to the wrong people. They are listening to their activists – to their rank and file.
Worse still, they are ‘subcontracting’ their opposition of government policies to even more extreme groups – such as UK Uncut.

This, says Mr Hodges – and unless you are a complete idiot you will give what he says very careful consideration – is electoral suicide.
Because what the extremist protest groups, and even what the rank-and-file Labour activists, want is NOT what your ‘average voters’ want or believe.
And the way to win the next election, believes Mr Hodges, is to hit the needs and the beliefs of the general public – to hit the ‘centre ground’.
Like it or not, he avers, the Tories have got a better handle on the ‘centre ground’ than Labour at the moment, and therefore to oppose popularly-accepted measures such as deficit-reduction, the welfare cap and NHS reform is just to convince the ‘average voters’ that Labour is not for them.

This is only what Liam Byrne, and Progress, et al. have been saying all along.
And there is plenty of evidence to suggest they are right.
The NHS Bill has worked in Labour’s favour, but it has NOT been Cameron’s ‘poll tax’. Labour have moved ahead of the Tories in the polls, but only fractionally, and Ken Livingstone is well behind Boris Johnson.
NHS vigils the other night drew only handfuls of demonstrators. Even the Unions’ response has been bewilderingly muted.

Opposing the Tories for the sake of opposing the Tories, says Mr Hodges, is just making Labour look silly. What will Labour do when the NHS doesn’t fall apart? If the economy revives?
Labour, he says, needs to face ‘political reality’.

The REAL political reality
I have to admit that, when he and others talk like this, I suffer pangs of self-doubt.
For I am one of those urging the Party to listen more to its rank-and-file, to move its politics slightly to the left and, most of all, to oppose the wicked, divisive reforms that the Tories are forcing through.

Nevertheless, I am going to stick to my guns here for, persuasive though Mr Hodges’ argument is, it is flawed.
It is flawed primarily in its perception of ‘political reality’.

For the REAL political reality is that Labour IS IN OPPOSITION.
I am convinced that Labour – especially the Blairite right-wing who dominated policy for so long – have simply not yet managed to make the cognitive adjustment to this fact (Mr Hodges with them).
As I have said before, there is no point in declaring gubernatorial policies … because we are not in government! Jim Murphy tried it regarding defence policy – and who can remember a word of what he said now?
The spectre of Labour setting out ‘policies of government’ is risible.

So let’s take a reality check: Labour is the Party of opposition.
Therefore it must oppose.
It was simply NOT AN OPTION to have ‘done nothing over the NHS bill and just agreed with the Tories’.
That would have been even more risible than setting out a purple-skies ‘alternative policy’.

(As an aside, for goodness sake, even Mr Hodges must surely accept that there was enough palpably wrong with this Bill to drive a coach and horses through it. And it is Labour’s constitutional duty to point out such flaws, and to denounce the unfairness in the legislation that, again, even Mr Hodges must acknowledge, sullies and defames every Tory bill.)

The Reality of Losing and the Necessity of Opposition
And here is another reality: Labour WILL lose EVERY time.

“I’ll ask again.” Mr Hodges insists, “What does Labour do now? Ed Miliband said the bill could be stopped. It wasn’t.”

Of course it wasn’t, and no Tory measure ever will be stopped, because the coalition has a majority of MPs, and of course they are simply going to outvote the opposition.
Because that is the nature of government.

And it is at this point that Mr Hodges is proven wrong, and I undeniably right.

Up until this moment, after 13 years of government, the NHS was Labour’s NHS. Anything wrong with it was Labour’s fault.
Today, it became, very publicly, Cameron’s NHS.
And, yes, its successes will be Cameron’s successes (though they would have been so anyway) … but – BECAUSE LABOUR OPPOSED THE BILL – its failures will be the Tories’ responsibility.

It is the same with the economy. After 13 years of a Labour government, the public blamed Labour for the Crash. It’s almost pointless arguing that it wasn’t Labour’s fault, or even that Gordon Brown prevented global meltdown – it happened on our watch, and we picked up the blame.
But as time goes on – as long as we oppose George Osborne’s strategies – it will become the Tories’ economy, and they will be answerable for its successes … and accountable for its failures.

(You will be able to tell when this process has taken place if you listen to Any Questions on Radio 4; it will be the time when the Tory minister blames Labour for the mess and the audience GROANS. At the moment they applaud – but the time will come when that excuse does nor wash any more, because the public realise that any fault in the economy is the Tories’.)

And that, Mr Hodges, is why we must OPPOSE.
Not because we have succumbed to a left-wing internal coup.
But because we need publicly to identify the Tories with their own policies.

All the meagre vigils, the lacklustre demonstrations, the failed protests by medical bodies, the defeated Lords’ amendments, the ineffectual attempts to publish the Risk Register … YES they have failed to stop the Bill, but – as the Tories have lowered their heads and forced it though – they have made it very clear who is forcing this Bill upon the British people.

The alternative – to roll over spinelessly and say that we agree with the Tory laws because we think they occupy the centre ground and we want to do so too – is unthinkable.
Not only would it be morally wrong, but it would be disastrously politically.
For it would then identify Labour with the Tory policies.
It would still be ‘our’ NHS, rather than the Tories’ NHS.

Eventually (and sooner rather than later one would hope) the public will get sick of Tory Britain. They WILL turn against the current government’s laws – they always do.

But when that time occurs, the last thing we need is people saying – ‘and that Labour lot – they agreed with it all too’.
This is not a National Government.
We MUST be distinct from the Tories so that when they – as they inevitably will – crash and burn, we can step in and be the alternative.

And that, Mr Hodges, is realpolitik.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Tabloids support the right to wear a cross to work, but not an Islamic veil -- which is reasonable

‘I know you don't believe me,’ tweets Dan Hodges, ‘But you're going to read this and say the words “Daniel Hannan, you're right”’.
No I’m not. Because Daniel Hannan is clearly wrong.

When I was a teenager I was a sucker for ‘a foolish consistency’ – the kind of argument which pushes an analogy to its ridiculous
logical extreme.
In my young-and-foolish days, I would often argue myself down blind alleys, until I had managed to blockade myself into some undeniably-logical but morally-dubious position.
I can remember being particularly embarrassed one time when I suddenly found myself advocating trial marriages ... at a Church brains trust.

Tabloids support the right to wear a cross to work, but not an Islamic veil – odd, that
In his recent article for the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan tells us that Ralph Waldo Emerson considered a foolish consistency ‘the hobgoblin of little minds’ … which I take as meaning that Emerson thought it a bad thing.
People prefer pragmatists such as Blair and Clinton, claims Mr Hannan, to politicians who remain ‘remorselessly steadfast’.
Indeed, as if you needed any further persuading, Mr Hannan then suggests, as examples of such ‘steadfast’ minds, Enoch Powell (famous for his racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968), and the American politician Ron Paul (according to one authority, the most conservative Congressman in America). Hardly, you might think, the most compelling examples of people-I-would-wish-to-emulate.

Most of all, you would have thought that Daniel Hannan might have noticed the clue in the term ‘foolish consistency’. It is a foolish idea to push ANY principle to its absolute logical extreme.
There is a truth in the saying that the punishment should fit the crime, but we don’t pull our children’s legs off when we find them mistreating a daddy-longlegs.
And God wants us to ‘love our enemies’, but that has to stop short of giving them our state secrets.
Etc. etc.
These are the kinds of arguments you usually grow out of as you leave adolescence.

Not so Daniel Hannan.
Despite the fact that the term calls itself foolish, despite the opprobrium of Emerson, and despite the dubious company of Powell and Paul, Hannan ploughs on with his theory regardless.
‘To those of us cursed with an Enochian insistence on logic’, he asserts, ‘either people should be given a dispensation when it comes to wearing religious insignia or they shouldn't. If citizens are given a special right to wear crosses at work, the same must apply to burqas, turbans and the rest.’
Any attempt to do otherwise, says Hannan, is to apply double standards. ‘The essence of a free society’, he asserts, ‘is the right to wear what you want’.

Have we the right to wear what we want?
It is, of course, utter nonsense. Society, through its laws, has just as much right to impose a code of dress as it has to impose laws of behaviour.
Arguing that ‘freedom’ is the right to dress as I want is as untenable as suggesting that I should be allowed to park where I want, defecate where I want, walk where I want, do what I want.
Would Mr Hannan allow someone to walk past a school playground wearing clothing that breached standards of decency?
Or would he allow parents to bind their daughter’s feet as they did in 19th-century China?
Of course not.

It is, therefore, indeed, a ‘foolish consistency’ to try to argue that we ought to support wearing the burqa because we allow people to wear a cross.
It is an argument akin to allowing Lewis Hamilton to speed through the Metro Centre at 70mph on the grounds that he usually drives much faster at Silverstone.
This is because the two ‘religious insignia’, in fact, have no affinity beyond the term 'religious insignia'. They have different denotations, different connotations, are of different size, are made of different materials, and are 'worn' in different ways.
They are a different case because they are different cases.

Strangely enough, I am not personally convinced that we should ban the burqa – I would at least acknowledge many valid arguments against doing so.
But I can tell you plainly that one such argument is NOT the fact that I am allowed to wear a cross on a chain discretely under my shirt.

Labour’s lost Liberalism - The Right Ideas At The Wrong Moment

In the world of academia, you are wise not to publish in haste. If you want academic respect, you need a text which is factually and conceptually watertight, and that involves redraft, redraft, redraft.
In the world of politics, you need to publish today at the latest. Leave it till tomorrow and it is likely to be already out-of-date – the political realities move on very rapidly.

Labour’s lost Liberalism
My immediate response to Patrick Diamond and Michael Kenny’s recent article on
Labour’s lost Liberalism is that they should have published it last November or December. We were ALL colours then – Blue, Purple, Red, White-flag – and a very interesting debate it was too, about what Labour-in-opposition should stand for. This latest accusation that Labour has not cut a sufficiently-prominent profile on major issues, and the authors' suggestion (for a kind of ‘Orange’ Labour) would have been apposite.

Even after New Year (when the Progress wing of the Party made its big play for a 'Black-book' agenda which admitted ‘the mistakes of the past’ and embraced Tory-style austerity) a message such as this might have been very welcome … not least to we on the Left of the Party, who were left just-a-little reeling and bewildered.

The article's core messages are:
- that Labour should reinforce social progress in women’s, ethnic minorities and LGBT issues;
- that the ‘communitarianism versus liberalism’ dichotomy is a myth; and
- that Labour ought to advocate ‘welfare and equality’, ‘redistributing power from corporate and bureaucratic elites’ and ‘how to reform British capitalism’.
If the authors had published this article in January, these ideas might have been seized on by many on the Left as a realistic basis for Labour Party policy for the next election.

The Victory of Pragmatism
But, to be honest, things have moved on in the Labour Party. In the last couple of months, Andy Burnham has demonstrated that the best and most constructive thing that Labour can do in opposition – as the ‘opposition Party’ – is … to oppose!
To be fair to myself, I had been ranting for months that Labour’s chief task was to STOP trying to pretend that it was the Party setting the direction of government, and to accept that its constitutional role was simply to find the flaws in the government’s proposals … and how easy and necessary was that amidst a Tory legislative programme which truly has sought to subject the poor and the vulnerable to corporativist oppression?

Neither is it just Andy Burnham and the NHS, though that is the flagship campaign. Yesterday, the Eds nailed the Tories by calling for tax cuts and zero-cost economic stimuli as an alternative to the Tory obsession with Austerity. Labour has also dipped its toe into opposition to the Welfare Reform Bill, and is beginning to make its mouth go about things like rents and housing.
Labour has abandoned the navel-gazing, and has buckled down (as it should have two years ago) to a pragmatic policy of opposing the Tories.

And, as a result, we are riding high in the polls with a 4% lead, the Party at grassroots is motivated and campaigning, and the leadership is secure. Spats about Party administration and Eric Joyce’s drunken rampage have come-and-gone without causing any particular PR harm.
Even – to a degree – the Press are on our side, with even the Daily Mail carrying criticism of the Welfare Reform Bill, and Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot crusading to effect in the Guardian.

The Role of Reflection
It will all end, of course.

There will be one campaign which goes too far for the public to stomach (a good candidate will be strikes during the Olympics) and the ‘Opposition-Opposition-Opposition’ approach will falter.
Neither have the right-wing of the Party gone away – they are lying in wait, biding their time and waiting for the moment when the Party turns again to formulating policy … do not think for a moment that the success of left-wing realpolitik has convinced them of the validity of a more left-wing manifesto!
One day, we are going to have to sit down and argue out a specific policy. And when that time comes, it might well be that Mr Diamond’s and Mr Kenny’s ideas CAN be taken as the basis for a united Labour platform.

But, for the moment, people should be too busy trying to save the NHS to bother with all this theoretical ‘insights of early 20th century progressivism’ stuff.

Right ideas? Maybe.
Wrong moment? Certainly.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Why NewBuy Is A Flawed Scheme Which Will Only Cause Damage

Today, the government has announced its NewBuy scheme, with Housing Minister Grant Shapps insisting that it ‘will really help people get on the housing ladder’. Far from it, the scheme will be a disaster.

The NewBuy Scheme
The scheme works like this.
At the moment, numbers of young people are being stopped from getting a mortgage by the 20% deposits being demanded by the banks.
If you want a £200,000 mortgage and your mortgage lender demands a 20% deposit, that means you have to save £40,000 – on top of all the other costs of buying a house – and it is simply beyond most young people.
So no people getting on the housing ladder = no people selling to them and moving up it themselves = stagnation and falling house prices.
The NewBuy scheme hopes to overcome this, basically, by pitching in with help with the deposit.
New-house buyers buying a new house will only have to find a 5% deposit. The rest of the deposit will consist of a 3.5% contribution for 7 years made by the builder, and a further guarantee of 5.5% from the taxpayer.
This will, says the government, help those people who could well afford the mortgage payments but cannot save the deposit whilst they are paying rent.

It is claimed that the scheme will help the construction industry and – to any extent that this is true – then there is cause to welcome it. The building industry provides work, not only for a disproportionate number of unskilled and low-skilled workers (MUCH-needed), but also for lots of local sub-contractors, which pumps a disproportionate amount of money into the local economy, rather than simply making profits for absentee shareholders.
When Gordon Brown wanted to save the economy in 2008, he knew that it was construction he needed to stimulate in order to stimulate the economy.

However, having said that, one has to have massive doubts whether this scheme will do any good and, indeed, the fear is that it will do great harm to the housing market.

The NewBuy Scheme will not help first-time house-buyers
Firstly, will the scheme help first-time house-buyers?
It will certainly reduce the burden of raising a huge deposit, and so there many indeed be some buyers out there who are consequently enabled. According to the BBC, one of Britain's biggest housebuilders, Barratt Homes, has said that 20,000 people have already registered for more information about the scheme.

But will they be getting such a good deal?
A buyer taking a £160,000 fixed-rate mortgage (after a £40,000 deposit) with the NatWest (currently available at 4%) will find themselves paying £850 a month.
That same buyer using the NewBuy scheme will, of course, get away with only a £10,000 deposit, but they are therefore going to have to take out a £190,000 mortgage … at a scheme rate of interest of 4.99% – i.e. incurring a monthly payment of £1122.
Given that the builders are likely simply to slap their 3.5% share of the deposit straight back onto the price of the house, you might well find that a £200,000 house bought under the scheme will be costing you £1163 a month – an eye-watering 37% higher than the £850 a month you would have been paying before.
So you need to be careful.

The second problem for prospective house-buyers, of course, is that the large required deposit is not the only thing holding them back from buying a house. For most of them a much bigger problem is the danger of negative equity, and the dangers associated with not being able to sell the house easily if they lose their job, or have to move for a new job, or for a bigger family etc.
The NewBuy scheme offers such hesitants nothing at all.
The scheme explicitly states that it ‘does not cover the borrower against negative equity or a shortfall between the sale price and the outstanding debt’.

Even worse, since the NewBuy scheme is only available for new-build homes, it is introducing an imbalance in the market in favour of new-build homes.
It is NOT a scheme for first-time buyers.
The problem with this for our prospective NewBuy buyers, of course, is that – immediately they have bought their new-build home – it will cease to be a new-build home. Thus, should they need to try to sell their house (e.g. because they have lost their job), they will find themselves having to reduce the price to compete in the first-time-buyer market with more easily-purchasable new-build NewBuy houses!
The basic fact about buying a NewBuy home, therefore, is that as soon as you move in, you will have to knock at least £30,000 off its value, because the only way you will be able to compete with a £200,000 new-build house offering a 5% deposit will be by offering to sell your house for £160,000.

Thus you have to accept that the scheme will only help a very specific kind of buyer – someone wealthy enough and secure enough in their job to be able to afford a terrifyingly-high mortgage, and someone who intends to buy and stay, and is not worried by negative equity in the short term.
My guess is that anyone with any sense will treat the NewBuy scheme with intense mistrust.

The NewBuy Scheme will damage the rest of the housing market
At the same time, my guess would be that the NewBuy scheme will damage other home owners. If someone selling their non-new-build starter home is going to have to knock off £30,000 in order to match a new-build home under the NewBuy scheme, then that £30,000 cut is going to have to work its way up the market to second- and third-buy bigger homes.

One of the biggest problems in the housing market at the moment is not mortgages or even falling prices, but the imbalance in the kinds of house available.
House-builders who bought land at fantasy-figures during the boom have been building far too many of the kind of house which yields them the greatest return – four-bedroom detached houses. You cannot sell such a house for love nor money.
But of the kind of home that starter-buyers need (the two-bed semi) there is an absolute dearth.

The other problem afflicting the housing market lies in the fact that, for many older people, their house represents their equity … and their saving for their retirement. Whilst wealthy pundits might welcome the fall in house prices to ‘realistic’ levels, many older people are trapped, unable to realise their equity by selling their house, but meantime watching their ‘savings’ drain away as its price falls.

What these people need is not a stimulus to house-building, and EVEN MORE four-bed detacheds coming onto the market – they need a stimulus which will help new buyers buy an existing starter-home, thus allowing that home-owner to ‘move up the ladder’ and buy their home from them.
The government’s NewBuy scheme will do nothing to solve this problem and indeed, by taking 3.5% off the builders for every home they sell, it will tempt them to build EVEN MORE even more four-bed detacheds.
And all that will do is fuel the most massive deflationary crash in house prices.

The NewBuy Scheme will not help the construction industry
Meanwhile, you have to wonder whether the NewBuy scheme will do all that much to help the construction industry.
Yes, it MAY tempt more first-time buyers to buy new houses, but only at the cost of the builders stumping up 3.5% of the purchase price into ‘a special account held by the lending bank’.
Not only will the builders at least forgo that money for 7 years, but if during that time there is a problem with the loan there is a real danger that they will lose it altogether … to indemnify the bank (as lender) against any negative equity. As we have seen, since the NewBuy scheme is introducing into the market an imbalance in favour of new-build houses, this will almost certainly be the case for any ‘now-no-longer-new-build’ house that has had to be repossessed.

So the NewBuy scheme is not really there to benefit the builders – which may explain why the number of builders signing up to the scheme has dropped from an original 25 to just the seven biggest companies.

The Cuckoo in the nest
So, you might be asking, IF the NewBuy scheme is not going to help first-time buyers, and is not going to help the house-builders, and is only going to damage the housing market, who IS it designed to help?

Well – of course – you’ve guessed straight away … it’s the banks!

The scheme is yet another government scam to pour money into the banks in a desperate attempt to bribe them to do what they ought to be doing anyway.

By the time the buyer has stumped up a 5% deposit, bolstered by 3.5% by the builder, and a 5.5% guarantee against a fall in house prices by the government, the bank will still be receiving a 14% deposit on every mortgage … which is quite secure enough against default.
Add to that the fact that they are adding a sly 1% onto the rate of interest whilst joining the scheme, and NewBuy turns out for the banks to be yet another ‘nice little earner’.

The banks really have become the cuckoo in the nest. They have pushed out the public sector, the students, the public sector pensioners, the unemployed and disabled and now the NHS, and they sit there alone, open-mouthed, whilst the government – genetically pre-programmed with some self-destructive instinct to feed them – rushes around trying to find still more juicy morsels to feed their insatiable appetite.

What this country needed was not yet-another-stimulus to get the banks rich quick, but a realistic scheme which would have provided (through both social housing providers and private builders) the cheap starter-homes that young people so desperately need.
And the NewBuy scheme FAILS spectacularly to achieve this.