Monthly Archives: May 2010

Laws: his politics will not be missed

David Laws has made the right decision. Much has been made of his sexuality, with Lembit Opik arguing Laws has been the victim of a witch-hunt. Not so. Given the appalling conduct of some of our MPs and the catastrophic loss of trust between elected and electorate, it is simply impossible for an expenses system, now subject to intense and critical scrutiny, to allow for anything other than openness and transparency. After all, Nick Clegg has said his party is different; part of a new politics, no less.

Laws, himself, has attacked attempts to restrict or prevent full disclosure of expenses, describing proposed amendments to Freedom of Information (which would have restricted disclosure) as ‘sad and shocking’. He damns himself with these words on his website:

“The attempt to ban the public from knowing the details of how taxpayers’ money is being spent will rightfully anger the very people who have to foot the bill.”

Indeed.

This was written in 2007 – one year after a rule change in 2006 which disallowed payments to ‘partners’. This should – with hindsight – have been a signal: he would either have to explain the arrangement with his partner (at that point or in the future) or re-arrange his financial affairs so no public money was not attached to his relationship. The former option would of course have meant his sexuality becoming public, but this would have been much more manageable than the media storm he has experienced for the last 24 hours.

But he did have a choice; paying his way, out of his own pocket. This would have kept his sexuality his own business and, let’s face it, he could afford it. It is – of course – a tragedy that he felt he could not be open about his sexuality and I can only begin to imagine the difficulties he must have faced with this. But it is untenable for an open and transparent expenses system (as Laws wanted) to make exemptions, or allowances, for secret relationships.

His claim that they were not a ‘partnership’ for the purposes of expense claims, as they had separate bank accounts, is a weak one. Living with someone in a loving relationship (for nearly ten years), re-arranging your financial arrangements to help each other out (he re-mortgaged his home to help his partner by a house) – how does that not constitute a partnership? It appears he tried to sustain this arrangement on a technicality – a loophole. That was always going to be contentious.

Indeed, in his statement he accepts that his arrangements were open to interpretation. Given the public mood regarding expenses, he should have anticipated a negative interpretation and acted accordingly. What a strange decision it was to think that this would never, ever become a news story. I am sure he regrets this now. His statements says as much.

A final, political point: David Laws was on the right of his party. He was part of the Orange Book brigade that believed in a small state, low taxes and – bingo! – let freedom reign. His work to implement this had just begun. In just a few days of Lib-Con Government he had helped to establish the direction of travel. In the education field this means: a significant opening up the state education to the private sector; a halt to building new schools; and job losses in organisations working to make better use of ICT in schools (Becta) and on curriculum development (QCDA). I’m sure, in his mind, this was just the beginning.

I have some sympathies for the man, but his politics will not be missed.

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If this is the new politics, give me the old one back!

David Laws is not the only one who has struck a blow to Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’ – his Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, is also struggling to fully grasp the ‘new politics’ nettle. Read on…

This idea – that Clegg is heralding a new dawn, entirely different from what went before – has always sounded over-blown. I’m a big fan of the idea that you should keep expectations in check and then busy yourself to beat them: it’s better, particularly in politics, to under-promise and over-deliver.

The problem with Clegg is that he has done precisely the reverse. With a complete inability to self-deprecate, Clegg has built himself a plinth, adorned it with a shiny plaque which reads ‘new politics’ and placed himself on top for all to see (Clegg, remember, has claimed to be bringing about political reforms not seen since the Great Reform Act – of 1832!).

This leaves him with a long way to fall and, I’m not too sorry to say, Lynne Featherstone is helping to topple Clegg from his rhetorical heights. This may be inadvertent or something more mysterious – Featherstone ran Chris Huhne’s leadership campaign so is no fan of Clegg. During the election campaign, her website barely mentioned him and, instead, was full of Cable-adoration (right up until – you guessed it – Clegg did well in the first leaders debate and then he was all over the Feather-web).

Speaking of her website, it’s well worth a look. It’s very glitzy and slick; cool links to social media and pictures of Lynne looking sultry and incredibly popular. But it’s also fascinating for the almost complete absence of intellectual thought or insight.

This is the woman who announced her Ministerial appointment and then celebrated by, wait for it, having a bath! What was her thought process? ‘Wow, great call from No.10, Dave seems so nice, how exciting, equality – phew – big challenges ahead, what first, I know, where’s the Radox?’ I wonder what would she have done if she’d got a Cabinet job? Gone for a swim?

On the big issues, she can come up short. Her post on proposals for anonymity in rape cases runs to little over 150 words, doesn’t make much sense and contains the phrase ‘tip of the rape iceberg’. It has since triggered an incredibly interesting fertile debate on her website to which she has contributed – (pause to double-check her website) – nothing. You would think the Equalities Minister would have a bit more to say, wouldn’t you? I know she’s busy running the country, but she managed to squeeze in some time to post a message about bats. Yes, bats.

On special needs in schools – she chucks up a post to say how wondrous, fantastic and gorgeous the children are – but backs away from any kind of explanation of how her Government’s policy may, or may not, impact on said children.

I’ve saved the best until last. Coming back to Clegg and his new politics, Lynne starts off bang-on message – I quote:

“For me – the way politics is conducted with jeering and negative point scoring – has always seemed an odd showcase to the world if we want to look like grown ups making and taking grown up decisions”

Excellent, Clegg-ian stuff! She carries on in the same vein:

“In this brave new world – I was/am hoping that perhaps the conduct and manner of politics can keep up with the change.”

New politics indeed! It’s going to be great isn’t it? Civilised, mature, reasoned.

Well, maybe for a whole 12 hours.

Now, you need to know her next post was not weeks after the last one, perhaps when the glow of new politics had faded or following unforeseen events which forced a change of mind. No, her follow-up post was the next morning. She went to bed on May 25th full of the joys of the new, woke up, and immediately posted this:

“I love it!”

Love what, Lynne? An exciting new equalities-type policy that will make a difference to millions of disadvantaged people? Not quite.

The Lib Dems had won a few seats in a local Council by-election (by the way – this didn’t actually take place in Lynne’s constituency. Nor did it alter the overall control of the Council).

Well done to them, I say, but is there no place for grace in the new politics? Or perhaps, dare I ask, some kind of analysis of why people voted Lib-Dem, what were the messages and ideas that won them over?

Nope – with another delicate turn of phrase – Lynne’s derides her opponents: they had been “crowing” and had “bombed” she says. Beautifully put. And that’s about it from Lynne.

If this is the new politics, give me the old one back!

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The new politics is a Laws unto itself

The news that David Laws, the all-but Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has claimed £40,000 over 8 years to rent a room in his partner’s flat, puts paid to the notion that the ‘new politics’ was anything other than a figment of Nick Clegg’s imagination.

This will cause huge embarrassment to the the Lib-Dems. Remember those ‘Clegg gets a bit angry’ moments when he dismissed the ‘reds and the blues’ as ‘old politics’? Remember the oh-so-high ground he clambered to, expressing his deep, deep disappointment – as if he was one of us – about how politics had been messed up by greed? His holier-than-thou act will need toning down from now on (or will it? I’m not sure he’s capable!).

There is much that is wrong about what Laws has done. Where to start?

First up, why does a man with independent wealth not just pay his own rent? Even if he were entitled to every penny, why take money from the public purse unless you need it? He is not alone in this of course. But it’s still greedy and penny-pinching. The fact that he’s agreed to pay it back at the drop of a hat suggests he doesn’t exactly have to scrabble around for the cash. It sticks in the throat that a man with wealth can pocket so much money and then lead the charge to slash and burn public services (and believe me – he hadn’t even begun his dirty work).

Second, if a single penny of these expenses were used to pay off his partner’s mortgage then Laws should also return a share of the capital gains to the public purse (and, yes, at the new higher rate). The flat was sold by his partner with a £193,000 profit. Why should we help his partner make a few extra quid and leap up the property ladder when so many people are struggling to get on the first rung?

Third, as he was in a relationship with the flat-owner, should he have been claiming anything at all? Yes, an out of town MP needs a London-base. But, if your partner lives there, presumably a few quid (out of his own pocket) to cover the bills would have done the trick. His partner would have been paying council tax, heating, lighting and the rest – I don’t see what great expense would be incurred by his partner by this arrangement. Certainly nothing that amounts to £40,000.

But what strikes me as most bizarre about Laws-gate is that he chose to keep this quiet for so long. Even during the collective purge last year – when it seemed that nearly every MP was seizing the moment to get their dodgy deals and peculiar purchases out in the open – he kept schtum. Why did he not quickly – and relatively quietly – explain himself to the authorities and pay the money back last year? This would have given him a much better chance of keeping his relationship secret (or at least well away from the front pages), if that was what he wished to do. Either he made a bad call or he genuinely thought he could get away with it. His Guardian profile this week suggested he is a cool, clear-thinker – apparently, for David, things are either ‘good, bad, or mad’. Well this ain’t good, so that just leaves bad or mad.

So, the big question: will he survive or will he be the first casualty of the Lib-Con Government?

I thought the first departure would be a resignation brought on by a policy dispute between a left-leaning Lib and a right-leaning Con. But it looks like expenses just won’t go away. I sympathise with the ‘personal’ in all this and I know there will be plenty of people lining up to criticise him because of his sexuality. But this, for me, is about the money and the expectations for openness in the light of the expenses scandal – I think it will be very difficult to defend, particularly as Clegg (and Cameron) have made such a big deal of their new politics.

Either way, the ‘new politics’ will enter the political lexicon as one of those ideas that just didn’t really cut it, to be filed alongside ‘big society’, ‘stakeholder pension’ and ‘cones hotline’.

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The greater-spotted Lib-Dem chameleon

I have a confession to make. It’s been a while in the gestation, but I think I’m fascinated by the Liberal Democrats. Maybe I’m being coy. Could it be more than fascination? When I think of them – Clegg, Laws, Davey, Featherstone and the gang – my throats dries and my pulse races. What’s going on?

It wasn’t always this way. I flirted with them in my youth, drawn yellow-ward for no other reason than it was hard to find anything to dislike about them. They had some endearing if slightly overblown ideas, like transforming education with a 1p rise in income tax. They seemed a nice bunch; unobjectionable and unthreatening. Along with Labour, they were a counter-balance to the dottiness of Thatcherism.

The truth is I didn’t quite take the Lib-Dem plunge when it came to ballot box time. But I certainly wouldn’t have minded if Blair and Kennedy had struck some kind of deal in 1997. Equally, I wasn’t that bothered when they didn’t. This probably sums it up: ambivalence.

Oh, how times have changed. Now, they prompt a pretty violent reaction – along with the drying throat and racing pulse, there’s an accompanying sense of nausea.

Perhaps it was the bizarre ease with which the Lib-Cons did their deal, slinging aside years of ideological disagreement and discarding electoral pledges, including the one which more or less defined them as a party (PR, I mean); maybe it was the sight of Clegg all but bear-hugging Cameron on the steps of Number 10; or their ‘public-school boys at prize-giving’ jocularity announcing their deal just moments later.

Where did this come from? The answer lies in Clegg’s in-built conservatism but also something integral to the Liberal Democrats, which has come to the fore with closer scrutiny and will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a local campaign with them; they have a chameleon-like capacity to transform themselves in an instant, drawing on whichever strand of liberal, conservative, socialist, green or democratic thought provides them with the moral high ground at any given point.

This has enabled them to jettison the lefty-stuff they previously held dear and re-invent themselves in the image of both Clegg and Cameron. You can rest assured, if a Miliband had been leader and Labour had held another 20 seats, the Lib-Dems would have been dusting down their ‘progressive-left’ credentials.

It has also allowed them to contort liberalism into whatever suits them, with Clegg claiming recently that this long-established tradition was basically ‘the same as’ the big society. Poor Bentham. Poor Stuart Mill. Such a vast expanse of thought reduced to nothing! It’s the kind of shape-shifting that means they sneer at Labour’s big-brotherish moments, while remaining silent on the removal of a peaceful protestor from outside Parliament, just days into their Government.

And locally, I’ve noticed they have an entirely disagreeable habit of jumping on bandwagons; claiming success for local campaigns where there contribution can best be described as negligible.

Take my local Lib-Dems. A leaflet popped through the door during election time. It was misleading to say the least (deliberately so, perhaps). On one page they claimed success for increasing recycling. Fair enough – it’s a Lib-Dem council after all.

But the same council said they set up Sure Start Children’s Centre’s. It also wanted praise for establishing Neighbourhood Police Teams in every ward. Interesting: both are (were) central Government initiatives and Labour Government commitments. Even better, the Lib-Dem MP said he had ‘won’ extra funding for primary schools, even though every school in the country received this particular boost. So, this was their message in the build-up to the election: whatever went well in my patch was directly down to the Lib-Dem MP and council; whatever was going wrong was down to the big, bad Labour Government.

The problem now, of course, is this line of argument just doesn’t work anymore; they can’t blame the Government any more, as they are it!

Already this has put my local MP in a very difficult spot, as funding for a secondary school is under threat – a school he had previously described as ‘vital’. As he says himself this is ‘something the Conservatives said they were going to cut’, so he can hardly grumble. I expect, chameleon-like, he will slip and slide to the higher ground claiming ‘it’s nothing to do with the Lib-Dems, we believe in everything and nothing, often at the same time.’ One things for sure, my fascination looks like it’s not going to let up…

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The Prime Minister speaks…

An entirely imaginary world ten years from now…

‘The Murdochian Times’ – Wednesday 25th May 2020

‘Gove lets it all hang free’

After almost ten years in Government, Michael Gove has somehow retained his boyish enthusiasm. Bounding down the stairs of Number 10, the new Prime Minister thrusts out his hand in greeting. His grip is firm and confident. This not a mere man; he is the master of his domain. Gove has shaped the landscape of modern Britain more than any other politician of this age. This is the man, described by Conservative Peer Lord Laws as a “titan and a visionary.”

Famously Gove made his name in the early years of Libertive Government (known then as the Conservative-Liberal Coaliton Government, before the Liberal Democrats became a fully subsumed working committee of the Conservative Party).

He pioneered the idea of ‘free schools’; where the state removed itself from their cumbersome responsibilities of educating all children and instead supported the establishment of profit-making schools. A simple idea which led to the highly controversial ‘schools-revolution’.

Gove speaks fluently and eloquently about the way business has found creative solutions in order to offer new market opportunities for their clients.  “Free schools,” he enthuses “have worked a treat. It broke up the ridiculous idea that Government should provide basic services for people as their birth-right. What rot that seems now – so quaint. Can you believe that we used to require schools to actually do their work in school buildings, with fields and the like?”

His face twists and contorts with incredulity as he speaks. It softens as he describes the way businesses have transformed schooling: “Businesses are more innovative, more responsive. I visited a free school, just last week, set up in a disused warehouse. Bit chilly, but when they get the electricity up and running they’ll be able to get 100 children in each class, no problem. Think of the profit-unit ratio.”

The issue of the private sector running schools was once controversial. When free schools were first set up the idea was that they would be run by parents. Gove smiles wistfully as he acknowledges the scrapping of working time regulations, when his predecessor took Britain out of Europe, put a stop to any thought of parents running a school in their spare time. “They won’t have the time, after working a 75 hour week”, he admits “and anyway we are in a big society – big business, big hours, big profits.”

He angrily brushes off the accusation that standards plummeted in free schools. His face reddens as he talks. “Look, we are about diversity of provision in this country. Some schools have low standards, rubbish teachers and poor facilities – others have high standards, excellent teachers and world-beating facilities. That’s diversity. That’s something to be proud of – it’s what make Britain great.”

Comparisons with the Democratic Republic of Scotland – where the state still funds education – draw Gove’s scorn. “Yeah, great schools, but boy you have to pay for them. We’d have to raise the higher rate of tax to 10%, maybe even 15% to pay the bills.” He leans confidently back in his chair and throws up his hands, expressing disbelief: “Don’t forget, not a single school in Scotland makes a profit. Not. A. Single. One. We couldn’t countenance such a thing – schools make profits, just like hospitals and just like the police. Why would we have it any other way?”

This brings us to his stint as Health Secretary where his transforming zeal ripped apart the antiquated concept of providing healthcare for people based on medical need, funded from public contributions. He is proud that every hospital is now a profit-making venture, but his eyes gleam as he describes the way ordinary people have, in his words, ‘stepped up to the surgical plate’: “It’s the epitome of the big society that people now carry out their own minor surgery. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to re-set a fracture. It was like pulling teeth trying to reform the NHS – now it’s easy because people just pull their own. It’s a win-win. We spend less and business makes more.”

With that, he smiles, brings an interview to an end and dashes back up the stairs, plotting the next steps in his big society revolution.

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Lib-Con cracks start to appear

It must be difficult, as many Liberal Democrats must have done, to completely re-evaluate your political philosophy and beliefs and to re-align your policies with people you previously thought were a bit nuts. Even more remarkable to do this in a matter of hours, with the media banging down your door. And, what an achievement to then produce a document which sets out what you and the people you used to think were a bit nuts now wholeheartedly believe. I bet it was great fun (look at us, who’d have thought, we’re Liberal Democrats, in Government!), but it’s hard to paper over the fissures for too long. Those long-held beliefs and differences will soon emerge. And in the unlikeliest of places. Let me explain.

Should you find yourself flicking through a copy of the Lib-Con coalition agreement, turn to page 29 and look very closely at the section on ‘vulnerable children’. Here is the line that got Cameron in some difficulty when he was challenged by a father with a disabled son -it says the Lib-Con governments will ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’.

Now, what this ‘bias’ meant is that if you have a child that has a disability then you can argue and push to have your child included in a mainstream school and the school would be expected to make adjustments to include that child. Not for a second am I suggesting this is easy. Anything but; it needs a determined parent to get what they want for their child and there’s many parents with the battle scars to prove it. But the direction of travel is clear: towards inclusion of children with special needs and away from segregating children.

One example of this – a close friend pushed for their partially sighted son to be included in their local school, with his older brother. They set out their case, his needs were assessed and the school made some changes to include him (in this case, extra adult support and one or two special resources – like magnifying screens to help him see text). Now he can join in with his peers and doesn’t face being shipped off to a distant special school. The benefits are huge – and obvious. I know not everyone has such a rosy experience, but – in this case – the ‘bias’ towards inclusion was incredibly important and meant the right result for parent and child.

The Lib-Cons plan to remove this bias.

Bizarrely, they claim this as some kind of pretence to increase parental choice. What choice will there be if parents don’t have some kind of mechanism to push their local school to include their child? Under the Lib-Cons the choice would be skewed towards a special school. Or – as Michael Gove wants – hard-pushed parents could of course set up their own free school! Imagine that: a country with lots of Gove free schools, setting their own admissions policy: how would a parent of a disabled child get a place?

So – are the Lib-Cons one big happy family on this issue?

It seems not. The new Lib-Dem Equalities Minister loves schools where special needs children are integrated into the mainstream, so much so that she went to see one last week. Her verdict? The school was ‘wondrous’, with ‘fantastic teachers’ and an assembly with hearing and non-hearing children was ‘gorgeous’ (http://bit.ly/aDXHvm).

Aside from the excessive use of superlatives, this does make you wonder why she spent so long opposing a Labour Government, given the wondrous schools produced under their watch.

More to their point, her view contrasts with the coalition agreement. She wants inclusion where it is beneficial and appropriate (to the child, I presume); in other words, to strengthen the bias. But at the same time, she is supporting the removal of one of the few levers parents have to make their case for inclusion.

This doesn’t add up. I can see a crack appearing…

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Education cuts: we ain’t seen nothing yet!

The Guardian has given us a sneak preview of where the Lib-Con cost-cutting axe is going to fall but a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Of the proposed cuts, I find it hard to get too emotional about the prospect of Teachers TV coming to an end (as a project I mean – lots of sympathy for anyone losing their job). I used to flick through their website when I was training and there’s some nice ideas to be found, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of the times I’ve used it now I’m teaching.

You could also make a case, I suppose, for the School Food Trust being wound-down, but what would Jamie Oliver say? Becta – the agency which promotes ICT innovation in schools – looks like it’s on the hit-list too. A shame; in my experience teachers who have worked with them have always come back buzzing with ideas.

Cuts to the clunkily-named, but ‘does what it says on the tin’, ‘Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency’ (QCDA) are more interesting. Somebody, somewhere needs to organise examinations – and the qualifications that go with them; presumably, then, the ‘Q’ bit will be rolled into the Department for Education centrally. However, cuts to the QCDA give a clear signal that centrally driven curriculum reform is coming to an end. Jim Rose’s review – which my school have adopted with great gusto – looks like it’s going to be parked and then scrapped.

The rhetoric from the Lib-Cons is that curriculum will be the responsibility of schools so, what follows, is that the ‘Curriculum’ bit of QCDA can go. While lots of teachers resented the relentless central directives about what should be taught, when it should be taught and for how long, it’s fanciful to say that all the curriculum functions of the QCDA can simply disappear. Can schools really plan their curriculum in a vacuum, without any kind of central repository of information or guidance? The leap from a centralised system to a localised one (whether you think this is a good or bad move) needs sensible management and transition time. So, this is either a recipe for much chaos or it could simply mean a bureaucratic-shuffle, moving bodies from quango to Gove’s Education HQ.

What’s clear from all this is that there are very few easy wins when it comes to cost-cutting. Departments have already offered up their least-favoured and least-successful projects, so the focus now must shift to the more-favoured and more-successful ones. The Building Schools for the Future funding has already been halted. The real question, though, is: what else? To get anywhere near the £6billion extra cuts the Lib-Cons have planned this year, it’ll take more than a shuffling of functions. The truth is – we ain’t seen nothing yet!

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