Monday, April 30, 2007

Lib Dems: Greens are a far left party who hate our freedom, want to abolish British nationality and stop you having children

The week before a closely fought election is not always a time of highly civilised and non-partisan debate. But the Green Party normally escape from the worst of the mud-slinging, with their 'nice' reputation and relatively low national profile.

The Liberal Democrats, however, are increasingly concerned that the Greens are taking support away from them. Rather than try to counter this by making the case for their environmental and progressive credentials, their strategists decided on a more promising approach - go negative. So over the weekend they have been putting out a specifically anti-Green leaflet where I live. Amongst other claims, it says that:

*The Greens want to abolish British nationality.

*You might like what they say about the environment, but what about their loony ideas on the economy and personal freedom?

*Some people say that the Greens are a 'Far Left' party - like Militant.

*The Greens can't win here - voting for them just helps Labour run the council.

*They support reducing the population, meaning less people can have children.

*They want to ban all traffic round Sefton Park.

Amusingly, the initial response I've picked up since this leaflet has gone out is that people who were wavering are now convinced that the Greens have a real chance, and so are switching from the Lib Dems to support them.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Great Teaching Crisis

News that the Tories are trying to target the votes of teachers reminds me to write about the Great Teaching Crisis.

The Great Teaching Crisis was much discussed (particularly in households with at least one teacher) in the mid 90s. Teachers were being placed under increasing strain with more and more admin to do on top of the time spent in the classroom, and no support to help them manage the workload.

University graduates enjoyed much higher salaries and status working in the private sector, and as a result fewer and fewer people were choosing to train as teachers. And a huge proportion of teachers were baby boomers who had entered the profession in the late 60s and early 70s, who would all retire within about 10-15 years, with no one to replace them.

But like the Millennium Bug, the Great Teaching Crisis never happened. Unlike the Millennium Bug, the reason for this was because the Labour government took action and sorted it out.

A survey from 'High Fliers' identified that teaching and journalism are now the two most popular destinations for recent graduates - teaching is a high status option and much more attractive career option than ten or fifteen years ago, with higher pay, adverts on the telly encouraging people to think about becoming teachers and particular schemes for Fast Track teaching and courses for teaching assistants who want to qualify as teachers. Almost every class now has two adults in it - a teaching assistant as well as a teacher, and quite apart from all the other good that teaching assistants do, this has helped reduce the admin burden on teachers. And while there are ongoing problems in some subjects - particularly sciences, no one now thinks that there is likely to be a shortage of teachers overall in the future. They are also more likely to be teaching in recently refurbished buildings and less likely to have to rely on inadequate facilities or temporary and unsuitable classrooms.

This isn't to say that all is perfect for teachers now, many teachers find that they have to quit because of stress, some face physical abuse, and schools vary considerably in what they are like to work in. But life as a teacher would be very much more difficult and stressful if the Tories had been in charge for the past ten years. No politician ever gets credit for avoiding crises, and the irony is that all the new teachers will never know what it was like to have no admin support and little preparation time. But the Great Teaching Crisis shows how determined efforts by a government can boost the status of the public sector, help the people who work for it, and avert a crisis which seemed almost inevitable. And that is a lesson well worth knowing.

Two Minute Hate #1

One of Orwell's best ideas was the Two Minute Hate. Rather than Emmanuel Goldstein, today's subjects of Two Minute Hate are commentators from the BBC's 'Have Your Say' , responding to the decision of a branch of HSBC to limit its services only to wealthy customers:

"And about time too. Why should I have to queue behind some addled old pensioner who wants a 30 minute chat as the price of her meagre pensions deposit?

It's hardly as if they're only talking about the rich- I imagine that £75,000pa is not wildly above most Dorset people's salaries."

"The trouble is that some poor people expect to be treated as if they were wealthy and this is absolutely ridiculous. If being wealthy doesn't give you priviledges, then what's the damn point of being wealthy?"

"In both banks and Post offices they should ban pensioners and the unemployed from 12 until 2. These people have all day to cash their giros or witter on about nothing to the person behind the counter. I only have a limited time to attend to my business."

"The so called poor get lots of services the rest of us can't get like tax credits, welfare charity handouts so why can't those with cash who are supporting these people anyway have a few perks?"

"I have an ingenious idea. To get served in a bank between 12noon and 2pm on a weekday you need to be dressed for work. This means NO OLD PEOPLE dithering, NO STUDENTS drawing out £5 and NO PEOPLE CASHING THEIR BENEFITS (a different HYS altogether).

These people hold up the queue so that workers have to use their WHOLE lunch break to pay in a cheque"

"If anyone wants to outlaw that they can relocate to North Korea and live there happily everafter."

"More banks should do this. It would cut the queues at lunchtime.

I am constantly amazed at the number of people who apparently don’t understand how business works or are prejudiced against the sucessfull, or both."

"Im fed up in this country of the attitude that everyone that has money is corrupt and doesn't deserve extra priviledges.

One word to most people posting here. Jealousy."

"why should those with a lot of money have to mingle with the riff-raff of society who use the banks to cash their giros."

"Quit taking up my bank's time with paying in benefit, and leave us serious investors to the real banking (i.e. that which HSBC welcome and actually need, unlike your business)."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Morecambe Bay Victims Fund

Three years ago, twenty three people drowned in Morecambe Bay while working as cockle pickers.

What I didn't realise until reading the Morecambe Bay Victims Fund website was that as well as the loss of their loved ones, this left the grieving families with the debts to pay to the moneylenders. Having borrowed to enable the workers to go to Britain, they were left without the main wage earner, and have been facing beatings, intimidation and in some cases their children being forced into prostitution.

There could hardly be a more stark and sickening example of the effects of people-trafficking and unregulated and dangerous work. The Fund is trying to raise £500,000 to pay off the debts of the families, and to help others in a similar position.

Something you don't hear every day

Out canvassing last night, I was speaking to someone who had made her mind up who she was voting for on May 3rd.

"But there's only one reason I'm voting Labour", she said.

"Tony Blair. I think he's done a brilliant job, like we've had billions more for the health service. It's different from when the Conservatives were in, they never cared about people like us. I really don't want the Conservatives back. Tony Blair isn't perfect, but I think he honestly does his best."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

An intelligent comment on Comment is Free

Intelligent comments in response to articles on the Guardian website are few and far between, but the response to Polly Toynbee's article from 'companya' is a rare exception:

Unlike most of the ranters here I have actually being out on the stump in the mid nineties (for Labour). It was a strangely soul destroying way of spending time. Some of the stereotypes were there - one guy in a large house going red in the face telling us how Labour would let the unions run riot and wreck the economy. A nice surprise when a few people brought up the Scott Report and were waiting for its results. A lot of racist opinion on 'them' taking jobs and houses (our constituency has a very very low ethnic minority population). Lots of complaints that they never see anyone from the party and lots of complaints of being sick of being bothered by us.

Unlike the angry brigade on here I can see that Labour has spent on new schools, new hospitals and has brought more people in to work than ever before. These were the things that I wanted back then and they've happened. However, people don't generally vote out of gratitude for what you've done to them they vote in their grievances against you (however unreasonable they are). If it's the war - it doesn't matter that the Tories might have done the same - Labour will still suffer for making that choice. Crucially people vote on what they think you might do in the future and unfortunately as of today Labours cupboard of ideas appears bare.

How not to launch a campaign

The Oxford Mail reports that Peter Tatchell has been selected as the Green candidate for Oxford East. Judging by the report, though, he's got quite a steep learning curve ahead of him:

"Mr Tatchell told the Oxford Mail he would move to London Road in the city if he were successful.

He said that the key issues he will be campaigning on are saving Radley Lakes, the Jericho Boatyard, against the Westgate shopping centre expansion and to try and stop the upcoming 600 redundancies in the NHS."

When he moves to Oxford, he might find out that Radley Lakes and the Jericho Boatyard are not, actually, in the constituency. And what happened to climate change being a key issue for the Green Party to campaign on?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Good Old Boy #28

A repeat winner this time.

Ken Livingstone has helpfully offered to stand as a joint Labour and Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, saying that he 'feels David Cameron's pain'.

via Bob Piper

Being helpful

Returning from holiday on Tuesday, I found a number of political leaflets waiting for me, including two from the Liverpool franchise of the Liberal Democrat Party. I'd been expecting the Lib Dems to be fighting their usual positive campaign based on their record of achievement and ideas for future improvements, but instead I was surprised to discover that the headline story in the leaflet was criticising Labour for apparently considering the introduction of alternative weekly collections of rubbish to boost rates of recycling, which they dubbed a 'Rodent's Charter' (complete with a picture of a rat wearing a red rosette).

I know that my sadness in reading this would have been shared by some of my former colleagues on Oxford City Council, Lib Dem Oxford franchise managers Cllr Tall and Cllr Dr Rundle, who (along with their colleague Cllr Fooks who is sadly not yet a blogger) have written extensively and eloquently about their disgust about partisan bickering over recycling and the great success of the introduction of the alternate weekly rubbish collections under their new regime.

They will be relieved to know that in the last few days I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of concerned citizens who have mentioned this issue. I have been able to pass on to these people copies of the Liberal Democrat arguments in favour of collecting non-recyclable rubbish once a fortnight (with the most important points highlighted), and reassured them that it is this, not the scaremongering of the most recent leaflets, that best reflects the tradition of Asquith, Lloyd George, and their party's concern for the environment rather than scoring party political points. I am pleased to report that everyone that I have spoken to has found this most illuminating and instructive.

Recommended Reading: American political thrillers

As everyone knows, the main purpose of going on holiday is to read books. If you want a series of books which are stay-up-late to read just one more chapter, ignore-your-friends because they are interfering with reading time, and get-up-early to read another chapter, then I recommend books by Richard North Patterson, who writes American political thrillers.

I've read Conviction, which is a standalone, and the trilogy, No Safe Place, Protect and Defend, and Balance of Power. It's good in the same way that the West Wing is good - liberal American comfort-reading/viewing, with the idealistic Democrat hero struggling against the Republicans (boo!) and the big American political issues like abortion and gun control.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Locking up the Holocaust Deniers

The EU is considering making denying or trivialising the Holocaust a criminal offence punishable by jail sentences. There's a debate to be had about whether this is the best way of tackling the problem of Holocaust Denial - I think it probably is, as it offers a way of putting neo-Nazis in prison, which is a useful weapon against fascists. Also, if it is better to take the Holocaust deniers by exposing their arguments (as is often argued by opponents of this law), the courtroom has been proven as one of the best forums for doing this, as with case involving David Irving (which was only made possible because Irving was fool enough to bring a prosecution - Holocaust deniers are normally more wary about engaging in debate with expert historians). Equally, using the legal system must not be a replacement for education and research about the Holocaust to make sure people know what actually happened, and locking neo-Nazis up is just a small part of making sure that their ideas don't get supported more widely.

For Iain Dale, hearing of this law brings to mind the phrase 'first they came for'. Is it just me, or is quoting Pastor Niemoeller in support of the right of people to deny that the Holocaust happened just a little bit tasteless, and missing the point?

The Nazis were able to pick off in turn each of the groups which could have stopped them - the Communists, the Social Democrats and the trade unions. Either Iain is arguing that neo-nazi Holocaust deniers are a threat to the totalitarian European Union, and that the loss of their liberty is the first step on a route which threatens us all, or he hasn't understood the point that Niemoeller was making at all. The fact that he thinks it is a slippery slope leading to the criminalisation of climate change denial (though it is far from clear why anyone might think that) suggests the latter is more likely.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at either end

There was an all time classic letter in the Guardian the other day, castigating the British government for not thanking President Ahmadinejad for releasing the captured British sailors. It was interesting how little enthusiasm amongst the people in either Britain or Iran there was for escalating tensions during the period of their captivity.

The letter to the Guardian is based on the idea that there are two sides - the British, who have been behaving provocatively, and the Iranians, who have shown great tolerance. I think this is just as misguided as the idea that everything Britain and America does is right and that the Iranians are all behaving wickedly. Instead the real difference is between those in all of these countries who want conflict - including the local commanders who seized the British sailors and mistreated them, and their counterparts in Britain and the USA agitating for military strikes against Iran, and the people who want their governments to stop trying to build up to a conflict and concentrate on sorting out the real problems facing the people they represent.

It's always worth reading Harry Barnes, who is always well informed and sensible and writes a lot about the Middle East. He sadly reports that one of the people on our side, the one of peace and international solidarity, Najim Abd-Jasem, was kidnapped and murdered a fortnight ago because of his non-sectarian trade union work in Iraq. Just because the people who want violent confrontation don't represent or speak for the majority doesn't mean that they can't inflict great harm, or that they might not prevail.

As a perennial optimist, I think that reading the stories of the captured sailors will help make people see why mistreating captives and flouting international law is wrong, and make the opposition stronger if our government tries to do so in future. It's just a shame that the story of Najim and others like him isn't also told.

What happened to rapid rebuttal?

The Blair Era has a blog from a Millbank staffer working in the campaign team in 1997, which is entertaining and well worth a read.

One thing that we used to do but seem to have given up on is rapid rebuttal, where a response to any negative story or pronouncement by the Tories was devised and circulated within hours. I was wondering why this was. For example, when the Times did the story about Gordon Brown taxing the pensions, it was days before the rebuttal (it was to encourage firms to increase investment, and anyway pensions are in trouble mostly because of the 'pension holidays' which companies took when the funds were in surplus). I get that rapid rebuttal can be harder while in government than when facing John Major, but this story had been around for years and years.

The theory I have which worries me is that we used to do rapid rebuttal because we wanted to win really badly, and now we don't do it because it is more fun to play at internal fighting and blaming scapegoats for when we get beaten. This is especially bad when the Tories and the newspapers appear to have rediscovered the benefits of co-ordinating their attacks on Labour.

Monday, April 02, 2007

How to lose an election

I am interested in examples of how a centre-left government which has been in power for a while can win an election in which it has a new leader, and is facing a challenger who is a 'compassionate conservative'.

One unfortunate consequence of Al Gore's defeat to George Bush is that the lessons to be learned from that are more about what not to do than what to do. Two lessons often cited are that Ralph Nader cost the Democrats the election ('why voting Lib Dem could let the Tories in'), and that Gore made a mistake by sidelining Clinton until the very end of the campaign ('why Gordon Brown should not reject Tony Blair's legacy').

I think there is a much bigger lesson than either of these, though. It's how Welfare Reform cost the Democrats the 2000 election.

Welfare Reform is often discussed, politically at least, as a Good Thing. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Republican bill to 'end welfare as we know it', introduced time limits for welfare support, in so doing stopped Republican attacks about welfare dependancy. Millions of people, in a booming economy, got jobs and were lifted out of poverty (though the longer term effect is that after six years of George Bush and recession, there are now millions of Americans who are out of work and not entitled to benefits).

The consequences for the Democrats of being tough on a group of people who tend to support them, however, were much more mixed. In 1996 Clinton got 59% of the vote amongst people earning less than $15,000, and this group made up 11% of the electorate. In 2000 Al Gore got 57% of this vote, but it made up only 7% of the electorate. Part of this was due to rising incomes, but to look at it another way, the proportion of the electorate earning $30,000 or less went from 34% to 23%. At the same time, the proportion of the electorate earning $75,000 or more was 18% in 1996, but 28% in 2000.

In 1996 and 2000, the biggest reason given for not voting was that people were 'too busy', due to increased demands of employers. So what is happening is that the government is getting people into low-paid work through a mix of a growing economy and greater sanctions for people on benefit, and turnout in elections is falling amongst this group, who are reporting that they are too busy to go and vote.

Four years of economic boom, and the biggest shift in American history of people from being unemployed to finding work, did not lead to any noticeable electoral benefit for the Democrats, but instead to a fall in the number of people in this situation voting for them. Al Gore would have won the Presidency quite comfortably if as many people earning $30,000 or less had voted as the number earning $75,000 or more.

This should at least give Labour something to ponder ahead of the next election. The danger of people on low incomes not turning out is at least as significant a challenge as that of marginal, middle income voters switching to the Tories. In some areas, we don't even canvass people if they didn't go out to vote at the last election - makes me wonder why exactly we would expect them to go and vote. It should be made easier for people who are working all day and also have children to look after to find the time to go out and vote, especially as levels of employment increase. And crucially, we need policies and messages which help people on low incomes, which show that we care about the issues that mean most to them, that we are listening to their ideas, and which give people a reason to go and vote for us and show how we are different from and better than the Tories.

Good Old Boy #27

The Director of the Libertarian Alliance is someone with whom I agree about almost nothing. But this review (via Tom), of a book by leading Tory thinker Danny Kruger, is absolutely savage and hilarious.

"Our politics may be degraded from the level even of the late 1970s. But we have yet to sink entirely to the level of America, where elections seem to be decided wholly by money and competing armies of drum majorettes. It is still expected that political debate in this country should proceed from an intellectual basis. The Conservatives have no intellectual basis that they dare honestly explain to us. They must at the same time convey the impression of one. They have, therefore, put Dr Kruger up to write a whole book about Conservative principle, but to do so in a way that will allow almost no one to understand him.

The language of his book is in all matters of importance pretentious and obscure.
German philosophy is notoriously a learned gibberish. For nearly two centuries, it has been used to justify every imaginable lapse from humanity and common sense. Dr Kruger is supposed to be an expert on Edmund Burke. It is worth asking why he has, on this occasion, avoided all attempt at imitating the clear English of the Enlightenment.

The likeliest answer is that enlightenment is not among his intentions. As said, that must be to express himself in a manner that almost none of his readers will understand. This book has been sent out for review to hundreds of journalists and general formers of opinion. It is hoped that these will all skim though it and scratch their heads. "What a bright young man this is" we are all to say. "What he says is all above my head, but I do not wish to look stupid, so will join in the applause at his erudition and profundity."
His book is not only pretentious and obscure. It is also incompetent. If he were one of my students, and he were to offer this to me as a long undergraduate essay, he would have it thrown straight back in his face.
Dr Kruger went, I believe, to an expensive public school, I to a comprehensive school in South London. Perhaps the classical languages are not so well studied in these former places as they once were. But anyone who wants to quote the ancients should make at least some effort to do it properly.

Is this pedantry? I do not think so. The quotation should be familiar to everyone of moderate education - even to people who do not know Latin. Its use is not absolutely required for the meaning of what Dr Kruger is trying to say. Like much else, it is there to impress. And he gets it wrong. And the fault is not confined to him. This book has gone through many drafts. Remember that it has been read and discussed by every intellectual close to the Conservative leadership. Even so, this glaring error on the second page was not picked up and corrected. This says more about the intellectual quality of modern Conservatives than anything else in the book."