Monthly Archives: May 2007

School vouchers: the new Tory approach

It would appear that my post on Tuesday about school vouchers was timely. The second in Direct Democracy’s series of Localist Papers is on precisely this topic.

I haven’t read the pamphlet yet, but my knee-jerk reaction is indeed negative. On first reading their proposals sounded like the Monty Python right for men to have babies. Allowing people to claim the cost of education from their local authority to spend however they choose, rather than a wholesale voucher system, does indeed sound like a simple exercise to subsidise public schools while offering everyone else almost nothing. New independent schools would struggle to get started under such a system.

The analogy to the right to buy scheme is unfortunate: while I don’t have a problem with the ‘right to buy’ the Tory scheme was actually a ‘right to subsidy’ and a ‘prohibition for local authorities to reinvest in housing stock,’ the socially regressive consequences of which we are now suffering from in terms of a dramatic plunge in social mobility and racial tensions caused by a lack of social housing. So much for localism.

I can’t help but think that if you’re going to introduce such a system you should introduce it wholesale. The piecemeal approach will simply cause more pain over a longer period of time. Nevertheless, I need to read the whole paper. Another one to add to the list.

“Heirs to Blair” give job to “Uber Campbell”

You really couldn’t make it up, could you?

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson is to become the Conservative Party’s Director of Communications.

Mr Coulson quit his job with the tabloid after one of his reporters was jailed for plotting to intercept phone messages left for royal aides.

I bet Simon Hughes is delighted for him.

Doughty news values (UPDATED)

Originally posted May 29, 2007 @ 18:16

Despite coming from a different political galaxy, I wish 18 Doughty Street every success if nothing else than for the fact that if it works, it opens up the possibility of other, more politically sympathetic, rivals. It really needs to work out what its agenda is however. One minute they are producing rightwing attack ads, the next they are bending over backwards to improve the political balance of their programmes.

A related problem is highlighted by Iain Dale’s recent outburst about Greenpeace refusing to share studio space with Dominic Lawson. Now, personally I’m a bit of a Greenpeace-sceptic and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is wryly amused to hear them pontificate about refusing to debate with people who do not accept the “scientific reality” (Greenpeace, and FoE’s agenda is only tangentially related to scientific fact and always has been). But the tactic is sound: in debates where there is no common ground there is little point in taking part and legitimising your opponent’s views. If Greenpeace don’t want to waste their time, why should they? There are certainly times in my own life where, retrospectively, I’d wished I’d done the same. When I went on the Daily Politics with Laurence Boyce last week, I made this very calculation (and concluded that the cat was already out of the bag).

I fear that Iain gives the game away by criticising this decision by labeling Greenpeace as “Enviro-fascists”. Leaping from wanting a ‘balanced debate’ to slamming one side as being ‘fascist’ rather suggests that Greenpeace were being set up. Their biggest crime was to call Iain’s bluff.

The big irony is that the BBC, that most hated of media empires, do this sort of thing all the time. It is epitomised by programmes like You and Yours which regularly features articles in which an issue that is plainly barking mad is given large amounts of airtime, justified purely on the basis that they have a token rational human being on as well to declare it to be nonsense. More recently of course there was that Panorama about Wi Fi which was ‘balanced’ only in as much as the fact that it had people arguing both sides of the argument. This sort of lopsided ‘balance’ – where you claim that the views of an individual are of equal weight to the established scientific consensus – only ever has one purpose: to undermine confidence in that consensus. Sometimes it is due to simply sloppy thinking; sometimes there is an agenda behind it. Either way, the effect is the same. At its worse, we have examples such as the MMR scare, which has brought back near-extinct childhood diseases with a vengeance (I write as someone who caught the mumps – the fucking mumps! – aged 30. Thanks a bunch, Andrew).

What I don’t understand is why 18 Doughty Street are pursuing this BBC definition of ‘balance’. Polemic I can understand, genuine balance which looks at the weight of evidence and recognises the scientific consensus would be even better. But surely this mealy-mouthed, insincere “one the one hand… on the other…” drivel is precisely what 18 Doughty Street was set up to fight?

My suspicion is that a lot of people who rail against the BBC’s news bias have a very selective analysis. Where the BBC’s news values correspond with the Daily Mail’s (and they do, increasingly so), they are all for it.

UPDATED: Iain has now moderated his tone following a chat with Greenpeace’s Ben Stewart. Not by much though. I confess this para may have been in the original, but it did stand out to me this morning:

Anyone who seeks to constrain debate on this hugely important issue is adopting the tactics of crypto-fascists. They act as if scientists are in one hundred per cent agreement. They are not. The hubris and condescension in this email is almost beyond parody.

No they don’t. They do act as if the scientific community is in 90% agreement, which it is, a fact which people like Lawson and Iain Dale consistently downplay. Ben Stewart stated in his original email that he would be happy to debate the issue with Bjorn Lomborg and Dominic Lawson isn’t a scientist. Finally, it is the standard tactic of anti-fascists. Why hasn’t 18 Doughty Street had Nick Griffin on yet if they are so concerned about no platform policies?

School vouchers: convince me

Here’s the thing. I like the simplicity of school vouchers, they appeal to my sense that policy is at its best when it is simple. Events over recent weeks have got me thinking about how we sort out the mess that is school admissions, and they seem to have a lot going for them.

However, that isn’t to say that I don’t have concerns about the system, and I’m not sold yet. Worse, the attitude of most school voucher supporters have is that anyone who doesn’t already support them is either an idiot, an unreconstructed socialist or most likely both. At the risk of exposing my inner-moron, here are my concerns. Can people convince me?

Sweden is always being cited as a socially-progressive country which has made a success out of vouchers. There are two problems with this model however. For comparisons with Sweden to work, any UK voucher system would have to give parents the same purchasing power as Swedish parents. How much is the Swedish voucher in UK money, and how does it compare with the existing spending on each child in the UK? How much extra would the UK have to spend in order to have a similar system? This is particularly significant in rural areas as the size of the voucher would be directly related to the minimum viable size of a school. Set it too low, and all talk of competition and choice will be irrelevant.

Secondly, Sweden would appear to be an overwhelmingly white, Christian country. I’ve been there, and while walking through the streets isn’t anything like as strange an experience as Finland (where seemingly everyone is white), it doesn’t appear to be a country with the same multi-cultural experience that we have. How then would a voucher system work in a country where we already already have mass voluntary segregation in our inner-city schools? Wouldn’t the voucher system simply make this worse? Would you accept some kind of quota system to moderate this? Or is segregation a price worth paying?

Related to that point is how religious schools will be helped by the voucher system. We already have Vardy Schools out there teaching science in permanent ‘quotation marks’ and trying to slip in creationism wherever they can, and there are plenty of religions scrabbling to get their hands on public money. Supporters of the voucher system appear to accept that it will open the floodgates for this sort of thing. This happens in Sweden, but the secular consensus seems to have taken hold much more strongly there than here (due again in part to it being less multicultural). What is the argument for leaving children so much at the mercy of their parent’s belief system? What are the benefits, and how do they outweigh the problems?

As I said above, I want to believe. In 2005, I blogged about how I feared that a truly free market on education might lead to gigantism, but I’m not so convinced now as I can see why people would be distrustful of McSchools (like the scary one being build in Peterborough). But I remain concerned about how such a system would work in the UK in practice. Either way, we should be debating this rather more than the staid one about grammar schools, and we certainly need a better answer to academies, particularly now that Cameron has decided that his response should be little more than “me too!” Seriously though: convince me.

The Great Wi-Fi Swindle (redux)

Last week I blogged about Panorama’s then upcoming programme about the supposed dangers of wi-fi. Nich Starling castigated me for criticising the programme before having watched it, which was fair enough. So, having watched to programme this lunchtime, what do I think?

What I think is that TV programmes that investigate potential health risks ought to spend at least 25% of the time explaining the science behind the issue. What I think is that the motto that should be plastered above the monitors of the whole production team should be ‘remember the MMR scare’. What I think is that they should avoid using loaded terminology, such as insisting on the sensationalist word ‘radiation’ instead of the more mundane ‘radio waves’ (same number of syllables, natch) and shouldn’t use hyphenated portmanteau nonsense words like ‘electro-smog’ which were coined by the anti-lobby. What I think is that you shouldn’t question the independence of one scientist while swallowing whole the agenda of another, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out.

I don’t think you should use an alleged health condition like electro-magnetic sensitivity as proof of another alleged health condition that radio waves give you cancer. I think that you shouldn’t take the isolated results of one woman who appears to be able to sense radio waves as proof when the whole study has not been published yet. I think you should take note of the researchers of that study who appear to think that the best ‘cure’ for electromagnetic sensitivity is cognitive behavioural therapy. I think that if 3% of the UK population suffered from electromagnetic sensitivity, we might have noticed before now.

And finally, I agree with Guy Kewney: Sir William Stewart (not to be confused with William G Stewart, lest Will Howells accuse me of blasphemy) should indeed ‘shit or get off the pot‘. Yes, by all means have another review. In fact, with new technology like this, it is probably a good idea to have a review every five years or so for a good half-century. But let’s have a bit of perspective, eh?

Twisting in the Welsh wind

In Wales, it would appear, it is all over bar the shouting. The Welsh Lib Dem Executive voted down the deal hammered out between their negotiating team, Plaid and the Tories and even though the special conference called to approve any coalition deal is happening anyway, it is hard to see how the parties can row back from this, at least in the short term. Having said all that, I wouldn’t have predicted the last 24 hours turning out how they have, so attempting to predict the next 48 may be an exercise in futility.

There are a huge number of issues here and in many respects the main ones that I’ve seen highlighted in the media and on the blogs are the least relevant. For starters, it would be nice if there was a little bit of balance. Both the media and the other parties have had fun presenting the Welsh Lib Dems as everyone’s bitch. The orthodox view has been that it is the role of the Lib Dems to climb into bed with someone and that for them to not do so is horrendous. But this is four party politics and there is more cross-party consensus in Wales than anywhere else in the country.

Put simply, all four parties are, to use the lazy definition, centre left. The Welsh Conservatives were Cameroons before Cameron was a twinkle in Iain Duncan Smith’s eye, and the removal of their token rocker David Davies gave the mods like Jonathan Morgan a free hand. The fact that the Tories were even mildly tempted to go into coalition with Plaid (nevermind frothing at the mouth at the prospect, as they have been) shows that there is no simplistic spectrum of parties in Wales. That being the case, there are no fundamental issues of principle barring either a Plaid-Labour coalition or a Plaid-Tory one, only political ones. The fact that the Lib Dems have, it seems to me, mainly partisan reasons for walking away from any coalition does not make the party worse than the other parties, merely as bad as them.

But we should explore those partisan reasons. The reasons I have heard are, variously, that a coalition (particularly with Labour) would hurt the party electorally in next years’ local elections, that the party would have to make compromises yet would struggle to receive credit for all the policies it achieved in government (it is felt that this happened in 2000-2003) and that the party needs a ‘period of reflection’. The latter is a result of the election results which were undeniably disappointing, but the first two were predictable months ago. This being the case, what I find hard to understand is why the terms of reference were not clearer from the outset.

Compare the Welsh experience with the Scottish one. In Scotland, the Lib Dems also had a disappointing set of election results, although they at least had the excuse that they were being heavily squeezed (and squeezed out of the debate) by a resurgent SNP and Labour. Many people have criticised the Scottish Lib Dems for walking away from coalition, yet Nicol Stephen repeatedly stated in the run up to the election that independence was a deal breaker and that they would only support the party that won the plurality. The terms of engagement were crystal clear, and the party has steered through a difficult period with very little acrimony.

In Wales, and forgive me if I’ve missed something, I’m not aware that Mike German articulated any red lines whatsoever in the run up to the election. If the party had them, they certainly weren’t articulated to the public. The impression I had during the campaign and during the talks, was that German was determined to get a deal no matter what, yet this wasn’t a view universally shared by the Assembly group, let alone the wider party. Indeed, the forcing of a special conference on Saturday suggests that German is determined to do everything he can to get a deal, even at the risk of splitting the party in the most public way imaginable (I should add a caveat: in my experience conferences which are predicted to be bloodbaths usually are anything but – the party has an incredibly potential to pull together at moments of real crisis).

It seems to me that this acrimony was predictable and should have been worked through as far back as 2005. Unlike elections under first past the post, the most likely scenario of an election held by PR is a balanced assembly and thus such talks are not damaging in the way that such talks in the run up to a Commons General Election would be. Instead of giving the negotiating team vague terms of reference and subjecting any deal they broker to a special conference, they should have been given clearer terms of reference in advance (although I seem to recall the Scots had a rather elaborate system for consulting the membership in 1999, I don’t recall either their 1999 or 2003 deals being subject to conference approval – again, happy to be corrected).

Fundamentally, what stopped anything like this from happening appears to be rooted in a lack of shared vision and a lack of self-confidence. Ask a dozen Welsh Lib Dems what they would want a coalition government to achieve and you’ll get a dozen different answers, if you get any response at all. The reasons for opposing coalition I outlined above are all rooted in the perception that with power comes the risk of unpopularity and that the party is certainly not the master of its own destiny; the theory is therefore that not taking power will be popular in the long run. This may be true – the past 24 hours suggest that it isn’t – but even if it is, it is a prescription for permanent opposition.

Where the lack of self-confidence is especially pronounced is in the attitude towards Plaid. Having heard Leanne Wood speak at length last year about her personal politics, and having seen the intervention of her and the other hard left Plaid AMs during the coalition talks, it is clear that there is a significant body of opinion within that party that really is only interested in permanent opposition (she extolled at how she didn’t seek power because that always meant compromising your principles). In all honesty, I can’t see how any deal with them would last longer than a year as their own headbangers would not allow it. That being the case, it begs two questions. Firstly, why did the party pursue coalition in the first place with a partner that is so clearly unstable? Secondly, having entered those talks, why did the party run screaming from entering into such a deal despite the fact that if they had entered into an agreement there is a strong possibility that Plaid would ultimately be the wreckers? I strongly suspect that this is the calculation the Tories made, which is why they were so quick to accept the deal. That the reflex reaction within the Lib Dems appears to have been that they themselves would have been the ones to get the blame once again suggests the party has become afraid of its own shadow.

In terms of the deal itself, Betsan Powys has added a summary to her blog. My understand of this is that much of it is uncosted, and certainly much of the Plaid contributions look gimmicky (free laptops?). Grants to first time homeowners look gimmicky AND uncosted AND economically illiterate (using taxpayers’ money to artificially inflate house prices doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me). I admit, personally I would have had trouble walking away from the prospects of a referendum on giving the assembly law making powers and PR for local government and a review of the Barnett formula. But what I don’t understand about the deal is why most of the concessions appear to have been to Plaid, rather than to the Conservatives. I’m not saying that Plaid should have been offered nothing, but with so many uncosted policies, why is the language in the document so distinctly unwoolly and unambiguous? It does look as if the Tories weren’t driving a particularly hard bargain, which again adds to my theory that they were happily giving Plaid enough rope to hang itself with. But was the Lib Dem game plan? If we had the hardest task of getting the deal approved, why wasn’t German driving a harder bargain? Knowing the tough job German had, why weren’t the other coalition partners making it easier for him?

What I suppose I’m driving at in a roundabout way is this: the party has fucked up here big time, but at almost every point the problem appears to be at the top of the tree, not at the roots. The leadership went along with an open system for approving the coalition, then did nothing to ensure it could deliver one under those circumstances. The leadership failed to agree the terms of engagement with the wider party. The leadership failed to offer vision both before and during the election. The leadership failed to negotiate a robust, costed settlement. And having failed to persuade the national executive of the deal’s merits, it has embarked on a strategy of ‘double jeopardy’ by calling a conference anyway, rubbing salt into some already angry wounds in the process, despite the fact that the horse will probably have long bolted by that point. As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Lib Dem grassroots is willing and capable of being led, but it needs to be dealt with with respect and honesty. One of the tasks of leadership is to spell out some unpalatable truths long before they begin to bite: what the party got instead was a pig in a poke.

Can the Welsh Lib Dems survive this? Well, it would have to do very badly indeed to actually go backwards in the next Assembly elections, and there will be a lot of water under the bridge by then. It is time for a fresh start, and a fresh start means a new, single leader (no more double headed monsters a la German and Opik). But that leader can’t just be a fresh face with new ideas; she or he has to work on developing a new compact between the centre and the membership and work to create a ‘can do’ attitude within the party. They have a tough job ahead of them and I wish them luck.

Is Cameron actually leading the Conservative Party?

I’m really starting to wonder. Readers might recall earlier in the year that I pointed out that Cameron could not command majority Tory support for their manifesto commitment for a substantially elected House of Lords and failed to persuade them to back his stance on the Sexual Orientation Regulations. This week, we find party’s MPs running riot over the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, and going bonkers over David Willets repudiation of Grammar Schools.

Most bizarrely of all, Cameron has chosen to take a firm line on the latter, but go all soggy and wet over the former. He might not have deliberately set out to make the showdown on Grammars a “clause 4 moment” but he isn’t backing down. Nor should he: neither Willets nor Cameron are arguing for anything that is particularly distinctive from views of the Blessed Milk Snatcher and the fact the Tories are so ready to go to war over such a totemic change is ludicrous.

In terms of Freedom of Information, he has firmed his position up to the extent that he is now, cautiously, suggesting that he wouldn’t vote for the Maclean Bill and that he “will act to stop the bill in its current form in the House of Lords,” (my emphasis), but he has given himself enough wriggle room to fit an aircraft carrier inside.

All this despite the fact that the Lib Dems and pretty much all of the media are roasting his ass on the fire on the subject. Why won’t he simply stand up to Maclean and slap the more reactionary elements of his party down?

The answer is, it seems, his Parliamentary Party would just laugh at him. Those cynics among us who always thought this “change to win” guff was empty rhetoric are finding new evidence that the Tories are still the same old reactionary, swivel eyed loons on a nearly daily basis. Cameron’s great achievement of the last 18 months has been to distract the public’s attention from this, not to introduce meaningful change.

It all bodes pretty ill for these disparate policy reviews that are now just weeks from being published. I don’t believe that the edifice that Cameron has constructed can survive many more weeks like this one before coming crashing down, and I’m not at all clear what he can do to prevent it. Will the Conservative Party pull themselves back from the brink and, at the 11th hour, sign up en masse to Cameronism? The portents don’t look good.

HIP with Lib Dem policy

Having read Polly Toynbee’s spiteful article attacking the Lib Dems and Tories for opposing Home Information Packs, I took no small amount of pleasure to find Ruth Kelly capitulating and putting the scheme back.

What annoyed me most about Toynbee’s article was that it stuck religiously to the rote of “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done”. In short, if you oppose HIPs, you oppose tackling climate change. The truth is though, while the energy reports are a step in the right direction, they will only scratch the surface in terms of promoting the energy efficiency of homes.

Unreported by Polly, Chris Huhne and Andrew Stunell have published their own details proposals for what to do about greening the existing housing stock (pdf). If she thinks these are terrible plans, she should say so. Instead she has simply attacked them for failing to back the government’s woefully inadequate proposals. Whatever you might have thought about her in the past, she used to be an independent thinker: now she’s become a polemical government speak-your-weight machine. It’s sad.

Connecting with Clegg

I attended a speech by Nick Clegg in the Commons this evening to a nascent group of thrusting young politicos. Mostly I tended to agree with him: the party is to focussed on the minutiae of policy and not enough on how it presents itself; the party does have to develop distinctive ‘surprising’ positions on topical issues; we do need to have another look at how we run conferences; the party’s shameless pitch for the grey vote was both scandalous and dreadfully ineffective. Much of what he said has already been covered by the likes of Duncan Borrowman, Chris Keating and Rob Fenwick so I won’t repeat it here.

My big concern was that the party has been debating all of this since 2005 – we set up the Meeting the Challenge process, held a big one-day conference on it, passed a policy paper on the subject (pdf)… yet we are still asking the questions and not answering them. Like a lot else, Nick didn’t have answer for why this is either.

What he did say, and I agree with him up to the point, is that part of the problem is the party’s love of committees and internal democracy, which has got in the way. I agree that the party’s practice of having setting up a working group which has a year-long, genial deliberative discussion on the subject and then puts its findings up for approval by party conference lacks the urgency and the flexibility that we need in a lot of areas. The party simply doesn’t need the level of policy that it passes year after year and could put much of the space on the conference agenda to better use. The problem I have with what he had to say however was that to an extent he was encroaching onto the ‘blame the party’ territory that frontbenchers are prone to make in the party from time to time, most famously Charles Kennedy himself when he attacked the party for passing “specific and controversial policies on the basis of a brief, desultory debate in a largely empty hall“. To be clear, when I challenged on this, he did row back and accept the front bench has a responsibility to be pro-active, but with almost the same breath suggested that people like me were the problem because, and I’m paraphrasing here “if someone came out and made a big announcement like this, you’d be the first person to complain about it on your blog”. My answer to that is: try me.

Last year, when the leadership sought to get the party to drop the 50p rate, I not only agreed with the substance of the proposal, I supported the fact that the front bench took such an assertive lead on the issue. I wasn’t at Harrogate, and remain sceptical about Ming’s “wait-and-see” approach to Trident, but I am completely unfazed by the fact that the leadership so aggressively promoted its stance. This is what leaders do. Caricaturing this as “engineering Clause 4 moments” in the way that Liberator does is simply daft. Personally, I’m much less worried about what our elected politicians and elected leader does than what our unelected party bureaucracy gets up to. We suffer from too little leadership from the front, not too much. And I write that as someone who last week was saying leadership was a necessary evil.

None of that is to say that Lib Dem party democracy is a bad thing: indeed, the tax and Trident debates show what a valuable forum conference can be. I happen to think that Nick over-egged the pudding by suggesting that the Tories have made all the running on making their conferences more relevant to the public. A one week flash in the pan, maybe, but does anyone take “Dragon’s Den” style sessions with Ann Widdecombe seriously? I think the public knows when it is being patronised.

The trick for the party is to integrate campaigning and policy development better. We don’t need detailed policy to convey our principles. So long as the latter remains firmly under the control of the party, we should be less afraid at opening up our development of the former. I lobbied, and failed, to convince the party that the Meeting the Challenge exercise ought to borrow heavily from Labour’s experiences with the Big Conversation. Despite our much-vaunted democratic constitution, Lib Dem local parties generally take less of an active role in policy development than their Labour or Conservative counterparts (plug). I wanted to see us using the exercise to get local parties feeding into a national consultation via their focus leaflets and surveys. It could have been a fantastic opportunity for us to communicate our core values, while at the same time opening the door for people to join. We will have similar opportunities in the future and should take them. But such a system needs the membership, campaigns and policy departments working in unison. They require the Parliamentary Party to commit to going around the country encouraging it. We already have the core infrastructure for such an initiative, but it needs leadership to make it happen.

If Nick, or Ming for that matter, have better ideas, let’s see them. Using the excuse that nasty people like me might criticise them on our largely unread blogs is simply not good enough. My suspicion is that it is not me, or even the dreaded Federal Conference Committee that are preventing the party from the sort of radical rebranding exercise that it needs, but a lack of self-confidence which is stifling imagination.