Category Archives: Lib Dems

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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Lies, damn lies and the Pupil Premium

When does a misrepresentation – a gentle tweak at an accepted truth – tip into something more serious: a deception, or a lie?

It’s hard to say precisely where the line should be drawn, particularly in the cut and thrust of political argument, where partial cases are routinely presented as fact, but Lynne Featherstone – MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and Government Minister – is pushing hard at the boundaries of honesty.

The problem is her repeated claim that the Pupil Premium represents ‘extra’ money for schools when, unfortunately for Featherstone, it doesn’t.

The stakes are high on this one. It will be critical for the Lib Dems, come election time, to identify their wins and their impact. Having nailed their colours to the mast of ‘social mobility’, the Pupil Premium will be their flagship. It will be plastered on election leaflets and churned out by keen canvassers – ‘extra, extra extra….read all about it.’

What goes unsaid is that the inappropriately named ‘Premium’ comes from within the existing spending pot. Leaving aside whether or not it is a welcome re-distribution of the schools budget, the fact (accepted by Michael Gove) is that it’s just that – a re-distribution; cutting up the cake differently, not baking a bigger cake.

And what makes things worse is that that she’s a repeat offender. Twice this week she has posted on her blog that the Premium gives £625 million ‘extra’ to schools, including £4.5 million ‘extra’ to schools in her constituency. Previously she has described this as ‘additional funding on top of the national funding settlement’. Similar claims pop up throughout her posts.

So, this is no slip of the tongue – it’s calculated and deliberate. The aim is to confuse and misrepresent the reality of what is happening to schools over the next few years (see Sunder Katwala’s comment for a comprehensive run-through).

Featherstone, of course, is following the party line – Clegg made similar erroneous claims about the Pupil Premium in interviews this week – but the tactic is an odd one. It would be credible and convincing for Lib-Dems to argue that they have secured a better settlement, within the existing pot, for children on free school meals. Why not leave it at that?

No doubt, the truth on this will out when schools are faced with the reality of shrinking budgets over the next few years. The Lib Dems, if they stick to their current line of ‘extra money for schools’, will find this impossible to explain. Come election time, they may well realise a simple truth: honesty is the best policy.

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New improved EMA is not something for Lib-Dems to celebrate

It doesn’t take a master strategist to figure out what’s happening. The Lib Dems are taking a pasting for being too cosy with the Tories. So every now and again the boys in blue cut them a bit of slack and take one for the team; they allow the Lib Dems to say they have made a difference to Government policy. The Tories even allow them to imply that, without the odd splash of yellow, Cameron’s lot really would be getting away with murder. Cue a grateful populace.

Except, so transparent is this tactic – so obviously manufactured to appease the ego of Clegg and his team – that it manages to achieve the exact opposite: contempt rather than gratitude. Part of the problem is the preposterous enthusiasm with which the Lib Dems greet anything that they have had a say in.

Take the curtailment of Education Maintenance Allowance – funds to help keep cash-strapped 16-19 year olds in education. It started off as a £560m pot – and today, in it’s Lib-Dem moulded form, amounts to the considerably more modest amount of £180m. Given the money is already targeted on poorer teenagers, you’d be hard-pushed to celebrate this as a victory for fairness and justice.

Unless, of course, you are a Lib-Dem in which case you have ‘fought’ and ‘won’, ‘extra’ cash (even though the whole EMA was scaled back and today’s money is coming from an as yet unspecified cut from within the Education budget). The spin machine ramps this up, claiming the Lib Dems have achieved a ‘boost’ of £1200 for the poorest children, despite the fact that they would have got this under EMA anyway – well, all except a genuine ‘boost’ of, hold your breath, 77p.

The detail of the scheme also questions whether the Simon Hughes-driven back-patting is a tad premature. Namely, much of the new Fund will go to colleges to support their students – the risk here is that those most in need of this cash will be deterred at the prospects, and won’t enrol in the first place.

At best, this is a modest rearguard action to salvage something from the wreckage of endless Tory cuts. And, despite the oh-so-obvious political manouvering, this was achieved as much by the reality of student voters turning against the Lib Dems in their thousands (tipping many Ministerial marginal seats into the red), as it was by Clegg and the gang. So, sorry, don’t expect me to be grateful.

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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, damn Lib-Dems and statistics

Ok, they’ve gone and done it. The Lib-Dems have outdone Spinal Tap. If you haven’t seen the film, the guitarist has a special dial which ‘goes up to eleven’. On the newly configured scale of bare-faced political audacity, the Lib-Dems have hit eleven already. Now, though, they’ve gone beyond…

Take a look at Ed Davey’s blog. If you don’t know Ed’s political patch, he’s a Lib Dem in what twenty years ago was Tory-land. He’s carved out an empire for himself by presenting himself, over many years, as a palatable alternative to the boys (and girls) in blue.

Now, there have been all sorts of remarkable justifications from the Libs for jumping into bed with the Cons, but Ed Davey’s is the most audacious. In a truly remarkable piece of political number-shuffling he claims ‘87% of voters’ in his constituency ‘chose’ the coalition Government.

Wow, you might think, that’s virtually everyone. Hurray for the Lib-Cons!

Or you could think: how on earth did he get this figure?

It wasn’t by interviewing a random sample of constituents and asking them the question: did you, with your single vote, choose a coalition Government and, in particular, a Conservative-Liberal coalition with the Conservatives as the majority party?

Oh no, of course he didn’t. Davey went further.

He devised a whole new branch of mathematics: LibDemAddition.

This allows the total Conservative vote to be added to the total Liberal Democrat vote. The new total, according to LibDemAddition, is precisely equal to those in favour of the coalition. So even ‘votes against’ are now actually ‘votes for’

I know the election was a few weeks back, but where was the box marked ‘coalition’? Where, indeed, was the box marked ‘Lib-Con’ coalition? How can it be possible, in any kind of poll, to combine two separate responses and claim them as an endorsement for a third, previously unspecified, option? (And this remember is the party of ‘new politics’, who were supposed to be above this kind of thing).

It’s like a drinks company saying 50% of people like beer, 50% like lemonade…therefore everyone loves a shandy.

Although, come to think of it, shandy is pleasant enough; unlike the Liberal Democrats who are starting to leave a nasty taste in the mouth. A taste which resembles naked political opportunism.

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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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