Category Archives: Clegg

Where’s the Liberal Democrat voice in education?

Looks like this week’s election results have changed little for the coalition, at least for Nick Clegg who – aside from a little more public flexing of Lib-Dem muscles – plans to stay at Cameron’s side for the next five years.

A few days on from their bad night at the polls, the one gear change from Clegg seems to be the conclusion that the public wants to hear a louder Liberal Democrat voice in the Government.

That’s one way of looking at it. And a risky one too.

The Conservative right have been emboldened by their relative success this week; cages are being rattled.

They seem to be tiring of their junior partners, particularly their claims to be a ‘moderating’ force, keeping those nasty Tories in check. If I were of this ilk, I wouldn’t want to hear more from Clegg; I’d want him to pipe down.

There is a sense from the Liberal Democrats, a year too late perhaps, that the Tories govern ruthlessly and that the friendliness of the first twelve months perhaps now seems more like entrapment. They have manouvered Clegg and his team into the firing line, made concessions, but kept the good ship HMG steaming right-ward.

They have allowed the Liberal Democrats their totems and their pet projects, but there is no doubt the Tories are in charge of digging up the foundations.

Education is in many ways a perfect example of this.

All the key jobs (the ones that are actually doing the digging) belong to Conservatives – the Liberal Democrats have just one seat at the table, taken by the close-to-anonymous Sarah Teather.

They have, cunningly, allowed the Liberal Democrats their totem – the pupil premium (which, by almost any analysis isn’t anything close to being a ‘premium’. Notice how it is now being spoken as a ‘better’ deal for schools, rather than ‘extra’ – they have accepted the cuts are coming and this is, at best, a sticking plaster).

On the rest – Academies, free schools, EMA, curriculum reform – it’s all coming from the Conservatives. There seems to be no Liberal Democrat voice here at all (a crude measure, admittedly, but at Education HQ, Conservative Ministers have made 45 speeches in the last year, Sarah Teather has made just 6).

This is not to say this is the same as inaction – Sarah Teather is working away on pre-school initiatives – but this appear to be done in isolation and at a very different pace to the rest of the Department. There are Green Paper’s rather than White, warm words rather than clauses in a Bill. It seems separate from the big stuff, the things that are actually happening right here and right now.

You could say the same for health care and policing – what are the Liberal Democrats in these Departments actually doing? Their own thing, in a back-room somewhere, is my guess – or up-front, like Clegg or Danny Alexander, agreeing with every word.

This leaves the Liberal Democrats in a difficult position. To remain credible to their core vote, they have to assert themselves more widely, impacting on the flagship policies, not just sideshows.

Yet they aim to do so in the context of declining support at the ballot box, a Tory party who may think they need their partners less than they did a year ago, and signs that dissent is bubbling within the ranks. By any stretch, that’s quite a conundrum.

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Looking to the horizon is no good if your feet are on fire

Despite being roundly punished for their collaboration with the Tories, it looks like the Liberal Democrat response to a pasting in the polls – both local election and AV referendum – is to perform their very own version of Groundhog Day.

Somehow we’ve come full circle and returned to last May. Every sound-bite from the Liberal Democrat leadership is laced with a reminder that they did their coalition deed ‘in the national interest’. Reference to the ‘mess’ left by ‘Labour’ is obligatory (as if the banks are child-like innocents).

No interview with Clegg or Huhne is complete without the macho-man rhetoric – ‘we knew this would be difficult but we are in it for the long-term’. Thankfully, at this point, they stop short of roaring loudly, baring teeth and ripping off those nice yellow ties.

I suppose, for them, it makes sense to talk about the the long-term, particularly when the immediate future looks so apocalyptically bad. But it’s all very well looking to the horizon; if your feet are on fire, you need to lower your gaze a touch – and quick.

Yet there seems little sign of any genuine re-evaluation of plans, strategies or tactics (aside from Huhne throwing his weight around). What is genuinely odd, is that this seems to have come as something of a surprise. Wasn’t it obvious this was going to happen? Yet the boy Clegg seemed genuinely chastened by the events of the last few days; as if he thought people would still deep, deep down be agreeing with Nick.

Surely (surely!) he has known for a long time – about a year, say – that he and his Party are now seriously damaged goods? Has he really not noticed Cameron and Osborne looking calm amidst the fray, while the kicks and blows reign down in his direction?

For those of a yellow persuasion, the way out from this mess seems unclear. The current course seems untenable, yet that seems to be the plan – there’s talk of nothing more than ‘dusting down and moving on’. Is this really the strategy?

I see the Tory vision: to get to the next election with a deficit brutally cut to nil, a generous tax-cutting hand-out in the Budget before polling day and a clear message that the tough choices taken will now lead to glorious economic revival.

Tory voters will stick with this plan – they will look past the likely social devastation brought about by such an approach. But will Liberal Democrats? Will they really swallow bitter pill after bitter pill for four more years?

If Clegg is right on this – that this is a hiccup and, come 2015, people will thank him for all he has done ‘in the national interest’ – then he is truly a politician of extraordinary foresight. If Clegg is wrong, he may well have destroyed a political party – his own.

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King Canute, social mobility and the Education Endowment Fund

As today is designated ‘social mobility day’, where Nick Clegg darkens our screens to explain that what he is saying now, he actually truly believes in – as opposed to everything he said before, which he said to get elected – it’s worth looking again at one of Michael Gove’s bright ideas: the Education Endowment Fund (to be run by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust – see here for details)

The Fund has been set up with grand aims. It is designed to address the monumentally complex problem which is routinely explained by Gove as follows: only 40 pupils out of 80,000 on free school meals end up going to Oxford or Cambridge. This often-aired statistic is a crude measure, but makes the obvious point well enough – poor kids don’t do as well as rich kids.

Odd, you may think, that ‘social mobility day’ comes from a Government that has trebled tuition fees and all-but knocked education maintenance allowance on the head, but let’s stick with them for a moment.

After all, Gove has raided the piggy bank to put £125 million into the Fund, to pay for innovative ideas which will help disadvantaged children.

But, slow down, don’t think for a moment that this is £125 million coming to a school near you. Far from it – this is an Endowment Fund, so the hard cash is limited to the interest earned on the investment. Assuming a safe and steady return of about 5% – this amounts to a pot of £6 million or so a year.

Without wishing to appear cynical, it would take a blinkered enthusiast – like those who believed Canute could turn back the tide – to think that 6 million quid will somehow reverse the very deep-seated educational inequalities Gove identifies.

To illustrate the merest drop in the deepest ocean this Fund represents, here’s a comparison (crude, I’ll admit, but if it’s good enough for Gove…):

Her Majesty’s Government rustle up £125 million to spend on the nation’s needy – Eton School holds an investment portfolio of about the same amount.

So, the Government’s collective will to address educational inequality equates roughly to the financial strength of one private school (remarkably, a few years back, a loss of £4 million on the private school’s investment was described by the bursar as ‘a pity’. And aside from being extraordinarily wealthy, Eton benefits from tax exemptions, courtesy of their charitable status. Puts the Endowment Fund in some kind of context, doesn’t it?).

No doubt something good will come of the Fund. My guess, two years down the line, there will be somewhere for Clegg to visit and grin for the camera – just to show he cares.

But will it address the fissures that run deep through our society? Will it turn the relentless tide that piles opportunity on top of wealth? King Canute proved his point, he showed that words are not enough. Nor, unfortunately is £6 million – if the Education Endowment Fund is as good as it gets, Gove and Clegg will end up in deep and choppy seas.

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I agree with Nick

One hundred and fifty five words from Nick Clegg at the Yorkshire Post Question Time Event on 19th March 2010:

“I would say this, look: the decisions about how we govern this country shouldn’t be decided by fear of what markets want. Let’s say there was a Conservative Government and they announced, in a macho way: ‘We’re gonna slash public spending, slash this, slash that. We’re gonna do it tomorrow because we have to take early tough action.’

Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in south-west Sheffield. I represent a constituency that has more public servants as a proportion of those working than any other constituency in the country – lots of people working in universities, hospitals and so on. They have no Conservative councillors and no Conservative MPs as far as the eye can see in south Yorkshire.

People like that are going to say: ‘Who are these people telling us they are suddenly taking our jobs away? What mandate do they have? I didn’t vote for them; no-one round here votes for them.'”

Yes Nick, I agree: that’s precisely what they’ll say.

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Lib-Dems turn it up to eleven

The Liberal Democrats are the political equivalent of the guitarist in Spinal Tap who added an extra digit to his sound control, so he could ‘turn it up to eleven’. Rather than sound, their scale measures bare-faced political audacity and, this week, they cranked it up to new levels.

Remember this is the Party that claimed, with some force, that they were at the vanguard of a new politics. They gained the votes of many who were persuaded by the idea that they were different from ‘the reds’ and ‘the blues’. Political and electoral reform – bringing fairness to Westminster – was central to the pre-electoral pitch from ‘the yellows’.

Of course, much was jettisoned by the Lib-Dems in the name of coalition Government (there is a file gathering dust in Cowley Street, Lib-Dem HQ. It’s marked ‘proportional representation’).

Yet one thing the Lib-Dems doggedly clung on to – as they entered Government for the first time in donkeys years – was the idea that they were still in Opposition.

This takes some doing, but since forming a coalition, the Lib-Dems have also been trying to claim (unsuccessfully it turns out) £1.7 million in ‘Short money’ which is provided to Opposition parties (it helps them oppose Government, to carry out their own policy work and to question and challenge Government plans. Good, vital, democratic work).

The Lib-Dem claim to be both friend and foe is utterly nonsensical.

‘Short money’ simply does not go to the Government. For the simple reason that Government has the Civil Service – just shy of half a million of them – to do their policy development for them.

But in the land of ‘the yellows’, new politics means you can somehow be both Government and Opposition, simultaneously. Extraordinary. It marks a new summit on the ‘bare-faced political audacity’ scale.

At least we knew there wasn’t a dial marked ‘twelve’ on the Spinal Tap amp. I wonder just how high the Lib-Dems can go?

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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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