Category Archives: Cameron

Cameron’s privatisation plan is big society by coercion

For those of us who think this Government’s direction of travel on public services is the political equivalent of going for a midnight drive the wrong way down a dual carriageway with car lights turned off and eyes scrunched firmly shut, the prospect of David Cameron’s latest initiative presents an intellectual challenge, to say the least.

It seems the new plan emerging from the Conservatives is to privatise just about everything. Intriguingly, he does mean literally everything – except where, according to Cameron, it wouldn’t make sense (he cites just national security and the judiciary as the sacred turf to be kept out of private hands).

Remember that this comes from someone who, just days ago, said the Government had been gung-ho when planning to privatise large chunks of woodland, yet with this new plan he now seems to have said it’s all up for grabs. The grounds for deciding what constitutes ‘sense’ seem to be entirely his.

This doesn’t feel like steady ground on which to hurl our public services violently into the air. Beyond what Dave tells us, it seems there’s no clear basis for establishing what should best remain in public hands, let alone asking the public whether they are up for a revolution of this kind. Certainly there’s nothing so vulgar as whacking the idea in your manifesto and asking people to vote for it. Heaven forbid!

It’s hard to view Cameron’s intention as anything other than a dismantling of the welfare state as we know it, wrapped up in the cosy, ‘fear not’ language of localism (he skips over how having my local school run by a multi-national with a HQ in a different time-zone serves to increase accountability, but there you go).

Rising from the gut, the instinctive reaction from many who describe themselves as being a bit to the left of things is to condemn and oppose. And quite right too.

Never before has there been such an assault on our public institutions. They are correct to ask what this gross social experiment will actually mean, particularly for those that actually rely on the services that will be thrown into the free-market melting pot. Hurrah for those that swim, but what about those that don’t?

Beyond this, as the bile settles, there is a greater challenge for those who disagree with the Conservatives. It involves the acceptance of a grim reality, imagining a scenario in the not too distant future where Cameron gets his way; the presumption that public services are public is completely inverted so that private ownership of schools (and hospitals etc) is the norm.

What then? Opponents could stick to the barricades and man them to the end. The big worry for me is that, while flags are being waved and tubs being thumped, the corporates (and the creationists) move in and sweep up all the schools it likes the look of and those that don’t fit the bill are left to wither and die.

Perhaps a wiser course of action is to not only oppose, but also to conspire: what if, when these schools are placed on the open market, they were taken over by parent and teachers and run not as free schools, but still as part of a maintained sector. That, at least, is the suggestion made here.

Contentious stuff, no doubt, as it effectively means engaging with a much-despised Conservative plan for schools. However, if Cameron does get his way, those who believe in the values and principles of state education may have to face this unpalatable truth.

The result of Cameron’s plan, in effect, is big society by coercion, making a mockery of voluntary local action being the catalyst for change. Yet, when the state is forcibly removed from education, parents and teachers may have to fill the vacuum; unless, of course, we are happy to see the letters ‘PLC’ on our local school signs.

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Cameron should embrace his inner socialist

Wandering around The People’s Supermarket the other day, in (yet another) attempt to make it clear what he means by the Big Society, the Prime Minister, with cameras whirring and microphones in range, let something slip.

It happened when he turned to the founder of the supermarket. With what appeared to be genuine curiosity – a real attempt to unearth the secret of this particular endeavour – Cameron asked him: “where did you get the idea from?”

At this stage it is necessary to reveal, in case you’ve missed the Channel 4 programme of the same name, The People’s Supermarket is a co-operative.

The founder, of course, was very polite and chatted about wanting to make a difference, helping out in the community, and the like. All very pleasing to the Prime Ministerial ear, I’m sure.

But, with a little time to prepare, and a deep breath, the answer to Cameron’s query may well have run something along the lines of:

‘Well, Prime Minister, it’s based on the principles of 19th century co-operation, shaped by one of the founding fathers of socialism, Robert Owen; it draws heavily on the principles set down by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 who gave birth to the modern co-operative movement in this country and world-wide, thereby establishing many thousands of voluntary, democratic organisations which are set up to meet the needs and secure the welfare of their members and the community in which they operate.’

A missed opportunity, perhaps. It would have been worth good money to see the look on the old Etonian face had that been the response, particularly if there had been time for a few words on the long-standing affiliation between the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Party.

The fact that Cameron asked the question reveals a certain ignorance of (one of the) origins of his supposed ‘big idea’. It also shows that his interpretation of it – of what constitutes the Big Society in action – is highly selective, based on political principles, rather than anything like objectivity.

This allows him to endorse an enterprising ‘one-off’ like the People’s Supermarket, but prevents him from seeing the obvious connections between the model being used by the supermarket and the co-operative (labour) movement as a whole.

It allows him to argue for more voluntary association – people banding together to provide services or to improve their environs – but prevents him from recognising anything of worth in a rather popular association that goes by the name of a ‘trade union’.

It allows him to argue for free schools – to be set up, he says, by parents determined to make a difference to their community – but prevents him from ever recognising the remarkable, selfless contribution parents already make to their community schools; raising funds, organising fairs, reading with children, helping out at clubs.

That said, much of the Big Society rhetoric is hard to contest, a statement of the obvious (who would ever say that people should take less responsibility for their own lives?).

But the real problem comes when he picks and chooses what passes the Big Society test; his political prism distorts what is right before his eyes. Such a shame: if Cameron should shake off his prejudices and embrace his inner socialist, he may win more people over to his Big Society plan.

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Cameron is right: it is time for change

Interesting, isn’t it, the way David Cameron dodges – or perhaps more accurately, pre-empts – criticism of his policies by portraying those same critics as being not only opposed to the particular policy, but somehow against the very notion of change and reform? He has done it to explain any number of spending cuts and did it today with his NHS plans. His team are always up to the same game – Michael Gove uses this tactic to counter questions about free schools, Eric Pickles deploys it to swat away worries about funding for local authorities…

It’s both devious and effective, immediately casting Cameron (or Gove or Pickles) in the role of radical and impatient reformer, making difficult choices to preserve our public services – while manoeuvring anyone who has anything approaching doubt into the position of unambitious, nay-saying ostrich. Even worse, if even the faintest clearing of the throat is mustered, to ask if they’ve really thought through the x, the y or the z, then you are damned as, wait for it, a ‘deficit denier’.

One can begin to imagine, in the very vaguest sense, how a 17th century witch (alleged, of course) may have felt; agree with what we say and you are sane, but doomed; disagree and you are clearly mad and don’t deserve a hearing (I know, the witches had it much tougher, but at least they didn’t have our Education Secretary to contend with. If the choice was between an hour with the unctuous smarm-machine that is Michael Gove and decision-making Salem-style, I’d take a kangaroo court and a head-first dunking every single time).

Strange in many ways, that those who want to preserve and defend (and, note the word choice: conserve) certain aspects of our public sphere are being rubbished by a Conservative Party which was founded on opposition to radical reform. Thatcher was a break from this tradition, and no surprises that Cameron is seeking to emulate the big-haired one.

The challenge now though, in this clever-clever debate where only the posh boys win, is for opponents to reclaim some of this ground as advocates of reform and change. Difficult, I’m sure, when all the troops are being marshalled to defend sacred turf, but essential if the coming months aren’t going to be presented in simplistic terms with the Government as change-bringers and just about everyone who questions them as head-scratching buffoons who just don’t get it.

Cameron has one thing right; the world isn’t perfect and change is necessary yet that needn’t mean that all that we have is flawed, damaged or worthless. In fact, nine times out of ten – the community school, the local library, the hospital – is well worth looking after and protecting. Opponents of the coalition do need to do just that, but in order to win the arguments, they are going to need to fight back with the fiercest weapon there is: ideas.

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Nick Gibb adds confusion to uncertainty

Poor Jim Rose.

After months of consultations on a new curriculum for primary schools, the writing of a lengthy report and the adoption of his proposals by the last Government, his plan to enliven and simplify the curriculum have been scrapped. Not revised or amended: scrapped.

It’s not surprising in the least and he must have known it was coming. The ‘Rose Review’ was derided by the Conservatives and the legislation to enact his Review was blocked in the final few days of pre-election ‘wash-up’.

His main idea was to bring together different strands of learning and to group the content of the curriculum into six key areas (his report addressed other pertinent issues, such as improving the transition from primary to secondary; making greater use of ICT; giving dialogue a more central role in the curriculum; and possible changes to school start-times for summer-born babies).

For many teachers, his ideas were an extension of what many schools were beginning to do: moving away from the excessive prescription of some elements of the National Curriculum (and the various strategies which followed it) and towards more creative, flexible teaching.

This meant, for example, the at-times artificial barriers of ‘history’ and ‘geography’ or ‘art’ could be softened (not always, of course, but Rose’s curriculum made allowances for this to happen if it aided learning) – children could then immerse themselves in a different theme or topic; teaching could focus on deeper understanding, rather than having to rush from one subject to the next.

Just to be absolutely clear: Rose did not mean (and this is where the Conservatives had got themselves a bit worked up) that history or geography would not be taught. Instead, these subjects would (or could) be taught as part of a bigger theme. An example of this might be a term-long focus on the Egyptians which, at different times, would cover art, numeracy, literacy as well as history and geography. When done well, it works brilliantly. Learning becomes memorable to children in the way a plain-old history lesson struggles to.

While suspecting that Rose would be for the chop, schools have been waiting to see what Gove and Gibb would say about the curriculum. There’s been radio silence for almost a month. Even allowing for the negotiations and compromises a coalition inevitably involves, this is a long time to leave schools in the dark. Given what was finally announced by Nick Gibb, it’s a mystery what took them so long. Here’s the section on the primary curriculum:

“A move away from teaching traditional subjects like history and geography could have led to an unacceptable erosion of standards in our primary schools. Instead, teachers need a curriculum which helps them ensure that every child has a firm grasp of the basics and a good grounding in general knowledge, free from unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy. It is vital that we return our curriculum to its intended purpose – a minimum national entitlement organised around subject disciplines.”

That’s it – much of this is down-right meaningless. So, ‘subjects’ are back in vogue – I get that bit. But what does ‘a firm grasp of the basics’ mean? Is that literacy and numeracy? In the 21st century, surely this must include ICT? What about a foreign language? Is science a ‘basic’? Without any explanation such a statement is useless – it would be rude to a man in a pub to say a man in a pub could have come up with about the same.

The plot thickens though: what does ‘a good grounding in general knowledge mean?’ Unless his aim is to help the man in the pub with his quiz scores, this is pretty vacuous.

But what is genuinely confusing is his stated aim that schools should have ‘freedom from prescription’. Presumably that still allows schools to develop their curriculum along the lines Rose envisages? Or does it? Who knows…

Don’t watch this space though: if it took a whole month to devise this announcement, I dread to think how long it will be before the emergence of any kind of meaningful message on the primary curriculum.

As I said: poor Jim Rose.

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Con-Dem cuts – the cloak of the deficit

David Cameron’s speech on cutting the deficit was a softening-up exercise, in preparation for harsh times ahead and for an unprecedented scaling-down of the public sector. And, on this measure or preparedness, he did a very good job.

The necessity to cut – and to cut hard, harder than ever before – is now the prism through which all political decisions are being viewed and judged. Cameron – ably supported by Clegg and his mercenaries – has carefully nurtured in the public mind, the sense that we simply cannot go on like this.

While we all get the need for a shake-up, this presents a real risk that, given the generous mood of the media, an unquestioning acceptance of this logic emerges: the public sector is over-blown, we have a big deficit, therefore everything on the public spending tree is ripe for a brutal prune.

This is a dangerous hop-skip-jump: from identifying waste, to trimming expenditure, to what is fast-becoming an attack on the public sector as a whole. It is motivated as much, if not more, by ideology and by a long-held Conservative (and, apparently, a Liberal Democrat) belief in a small state, than it is by deficit reduction.

One section of his speech yesterday was unsettling, particularly for those, like me, who are of the view that alot of what the public sector does is much-needed and endlessly challenging. Here Cameron fell back on the hackneyed (and deeply flawed) contention which crudely and thoughtlessly runs: ‘public sector bad, private sector good’. This is a snippet what he said:

“…while the private sector of the economy was shrinking, the public sector was continuing its inexorable expansion. While everyday life was incredibly tough for people who didn’t work in the public sector…with job losses, pay cuts, reduced working and falling profits…for those in the public sector, life went on much as before”.

You don’t need to be an expert in semantics to see what Cameron is driving at. I don’t want to downplay the recession, but his picture of unrelenting gloom for the private sector is a falsehood (I could name a few businesses who have made a mint). His ‘inexorable expansion’ shows how the Tories still resist a truism of economics – that when the private sector shrinks (i.e. a recession) then Governments have to act (spend) to stimulate growth. At heart, the Tories still subscribe to the ‘if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working’ theory of economic management.

What really appals though, is the implicit message that the public sector contributes next to nothing to the public good – according to Cameron it just expands and continues ‘much as before’. This is a deliberate slight. Think of a social worker dealing with a child protection case; a police officer confronting a violent offender; a nurse caring a patient back to health. Difficult work, David, worthy of respect? Or work to be belittled and undermined? Where is the compassionate Conservatism now?

Look back to an interview Cameron gave in 2008 when he was fully immersed in his campaign to convince us the Conservative had changed. Read the words carefully.

“The point of modernising the Conservative Party was not so that we could then, under the cloak of respectability, introduce even bigger privatisation programmes….This modernisation wasn’t just so we could produce unpalatable rightwing policies and stuff them down the throats of the unsuspecting British public.”

Cameron reveals himself by protesting too much. Read his words again – to uncrack the code: delete ‘not’, exchange “respectability” for “the deficit”, swap “wasn’t” for “was”. His true colours revealed.

Here he donned the cloak of compassionate Conservatism to convince us his party has changed. His current trick is to use the cloak of the deficit to do the work he and his party have always dreamed of; finishing off the job Thatcher started.

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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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Nick and Dave go all M and S

You certainly can’t accuse the Lib-Con’s of false modesty. They seem to have taken their lead from the M and S ad – the one with the lingering shots of gooey chocolate and the sultry voice over – ‘this is not just…’.

So this isn’t just a coalition Government, like the one that’s working fine in Scotland or in any number of countries on the continent. No, this – they claim – is an entirely ‘new politics’.

Their constitutional policies are not just a mix of stopping projects that were underway, retracting others and introducing some very sensible reforms. No, this – they claim – is reform on a par with the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Their coalition agreement was not just a set of compromises and commissions, mingled with policies from each manifesto. Heavens, no. This was, wait for it (cue the sultry voice over) an ‘era-changing’ agreement.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-confidence, but this level of self-aggrandisement tips things into another realm.

After 1997, Blair struggled to live up to the demands which go hand in hand with a landslide. With hindsight, expectations should have been kept on a tighter rein. This was certainly the case with education. We are a long way from perfection, but it’s true to say that what people want from their schools has accelerated faster than any rise in standards.

Clegg and Cameron have pulled this deal together quickly and deserve a pat on the back. It’s been helped of course by a meeting of minds; there is common ground in their own understanding of liberal conservatism. What brings them together is a move towards smaller Government and they will get much support for trimming back some of the excesses of the state. But, this makes it doubly-odd to make overblown claims about what their administration will bring about. You would think the days of smaller Government would mean a similar reduction in the claims about what will happen as a result of anything emanating from Whitehall. But, so far, quite the reverse.

They came to office without the pressure – or expectation – a landslide brings. There was a mood for change, but none of the parties were backed by the electorate to deliver this change. The Lib-Con partnership is a deal; an agreement. Time will tell whether it is an effective one, but just days into their partnership, they risk getting carried away with their own rhetoric and the excitement of power.

They’ll need to keep this in check. Confidence can become arrogance, passion can become pomposity and – as the latter days of Blair’s era show – a sense of certainty about ‘what will be’ can soon spill into hubris. M and S make the claims, but they back them up with the goods. Can N(ick) and D(ave) do the same? You know what they say about the proof of the pudding…

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