Tag Archives: #Liberal Democrats

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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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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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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Only business will profit from free schools

When it comes to ‘free schools’, there seems to be a pretty significant difference of opinion between the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and his boss, Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Between them they can’t seem to decide whether schools should be able to make a profit or not.

‘Free schools’ are Gove’s big, bold – and ever-so-slightly bonkers – idea for reforming education. The plan is to allow parents, teachers and businesses to set up their own schools, resulting (supposedly) in a more diverse education sector. If Gove has his way, free schools will emerge in their hundreds over the next few years.

There are some major flaws in all this.

I set out some of the arguments against free schools here, but to cut a long story short: free schools don’t raise standards; they increase social segregation; they lower the standard of school buildings (do you have a problem with your child being educated in an office block? Nick Gibb doesn’t); they cost a lot of money; and they divert resources away from existing schools.

So, I hear you ask, what’s the point?

I have a theory. Free schools are not really about education at all. They are part of a revolution the Con-Dems are planning. And the revolution is this: profit.

Many Conservatives have long looked at the state with a sense of antipathy bordering on rage. They are now ably supported by the Orange-Book Lib-Dem brigades, who are shaped by their hostility towards the state – particularly where it provides universal public services funded from the public pocket.

They look at schools and think: couldn’t we spend a bit less? Isn’t there money to be made in those classrooms?

Now, the Con-Dems are being cute. They know they weren’t elected in order to dismantle the state. So they are engaged in a concerted effort to do two things: first, denigrate what the state does, with endless talk of ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency’; and, second, dress up the alternative in the seductive language of ‘choice’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘fairness’.

That’s exactly what they’ve done with free schools, arguing this gives parents the ‘choice’ to set up a free school. I have yet to see any published research or survey which suggests there are anything more than a handful of parents who would want to do such a thing. Most, I expect, would consider the idea with incredulity, baffled at the idea their lives are so time-rich they have the scope to add ‘set up and run a school’ to their daily to-do list. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

I’m more persuaded by the idea that charitable foundations may run some schools, particularly faith-groups (which is a whole different blog), but the reality is that the only institutions interested in moving into education in a big way are businesses. They would find the economies of scale appealing (a thousand schools means you could negotiate some real cut-price catering contracts), but they would only be interested if they could make money.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Nick Gibb, has said quite clearly – unequivocally – that companies should not be able to make a profit from schools. In fact he has said profit-making schools take vital funds out of education and move it straight into a companies bulging balance sheet. You can read the full interview here, but these were his exact words:

“The trouble with allowing companies to make a profit from providing schools is that it take money out of the education system, significant sums of money out. We want to make sure that all that money is retained within [the education system] and if it [profit] were necessary, fine but it’s not necessary…”.

The difficulty is that Michael Gove has said the complete opposite. He doesn’t have a problem with schools being taken over by schools and run at a profit. As he says himself, he is after all ‘a Conservative.’

I find myself thinking: I agree with Nick.

But there’s only going to be one winner isn’t there? No doubt Michael Gove will have his way.

The slow death of state education has begun. It will be allowed to wither on the vine, while it’s made easier and easier for business to get their foot through the door.

So, profit-making schools here we come! And, remember this: if you don’t like it, you have a choice – set up your own. Then if it all goes wrong, it’ll be your fault. Nice, eh?

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Lib-Dems: Building Problems for the Future

It looks like there will be an announcement, early in the coming week, that will bring the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme to an end. Some projects will continue to a finish (they are too far down the line to halt) but there will be a number being curtailed before the first foundations have been laid.

Putting aside the impact this has on our nation’s future (for the moment), some of the disappointed losers look like they will fall within the constituencies of prominent Lib-Dems. They will have some explaining to do to their constituents, many of whom will be rightly baffled at how a school can be ‘vital’ one minute and unnecessary the next. And this is not, it seems, a saving in the name of deficit-cutting – BSF funds may be re-allocated to the Academies programme (or worse, free schools!)

A quick look at the areas where projects are incomplete – and therefore most likely to be for the chop – suggests Ed Davey (Kingston), Sarah Teather (Brent) and Paul Burstow (Sutton) – among others – will have to hastily consult their well-thumbed Lib-Dem guide entitled: ‘How to avoid taking responsibility for anything mainly by shifting the blame to other relevant parties, particularly Labour but sometimes the Conservatives depending on the situation’.

In this case, they can’t, unfortunately for them, claim they didn’t know (or say this has been sprung upon them because of the deficit in Greece or a drop in the Turkmenistani Manat; or whatever improbable excuse they are now wheeling out for shifting, within hours, from a party that thought immediate spending cuts were disastrous to one that was happy to grab the other end of Osbournes two-man public-sector-chopping saw). No, this was a cut they knew was going to come because the Conservatives said so before the election.

Sarah Teather (the Lib-Demmer who is now Minister for Children and Families), now happily working alongside Nick Gibb (the Conservative Schools Minister), may find it particularly difficult to explain away these (and future) cuts: she made some remarkably bold claims about a ‘massive’ cash injection for schools, if the Lib-Dems had their way. As James Powney points out, she didn’t mention BSF cuts in any of her election leaflets. If I was a constituent, I’d be watching closely to see whether this ‘massive’ spending injection materialises and I would be very sceptical about the impact of the pupil premium in areas like Brent (fodder for another blog post, I think).

Of course, we should not underestimate the ability of Lib-Demmers to twist their way out of a tight spot and, as is their wont, peer down on the murky reality of decision-making from their high-yellow ground. We only have to look to David Laws (remember him?) for evidence of this ability to sing different tunes to different audiences. In a classic bout of pre-election Lib-Demmery, Laws managed to describe the BSF as ‘crucial’, express concern that those nasty Tories would take money out of school-building and – get this – also say the Lib Dems would be ‘reviewing’ BSF anyway. It’s the talent for simultaneously holding all possible positions on a single issue that makes the Lib Dems such an infuriating bunch.

How long will they be able to sustain this “you name it, we’ll sing it” approach to politics? Their abandonment of Building Schools for the Future may well leave them struggling to hold their note; their previously forgiving audience may well start to heckle with the cry: “we didn’t vote for this!”.

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