Archive for June, 2010

All power to the quacks

June 29, 2010

In Commons Health Questions this afternoon Tory MP David Tredinnick was disgusted by the suggestion of one of his Liberal Democrat colleagues that homeopathy should not receive NHS funding.

Tredinnick, who has a loony reputation in a most appropriate sense, decried the criticism of his beloved homeopathy as “illiberal”. Despite what the cynics claim there was plenty of annecdotal evidence that homeopathy works, he declared. In other words, damn those scientists and their pesky science!

The complementary-enthusiastic Conservative then pointed out that no-one was forcing anyone else to use homeopathic medicine so why not just leave it alone. But Tredinnick is of course in favour of forcing us taxpayers to pay for this nonsense as part of the NHS budget. As with hospital chaplains, I spy some sensible public expenditure cuts!

In a two fingered defiance to sanity and reason Conservative MPs recently put both Tredinnick and Nadine Dorries on the Health Select Committee. Yes, that’s the same Nadine Dorries who, as part of her anti-abortion crusade, allied herself to Andrea Williams of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, an evangelical who believes that the world is only 4000 years old.

Would it not be more sensible to establish a harmless All Party Parliamentary Flat Earth Society and then let Tredinnick and Dorries help run that?


Delayed Budget reaction

June 23, 2010

It was predictably unpleasant. I don’t have much to say that isn’t better said by the Fabians, Anthony Painter, the TUC Touchstone blog, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Labour’s reaction was also fairly predictable. I thought Harman’s response was barely adequate.

The party has a few problems in providing proper opposition at the moment.

Firstly, there’s no leader to act as a figurehead for Labour’s response to the Budget.

Secondly, there’s no clear policy programme to push as a viable and attractive alternative to Gideon Osborne’s cuts.

Thirdly, even if there was a distinct Labour alternative there would be an issue with credibility, as only a few months ago when our party was in government many of the big economic policy cheeses spoke of imposing cuts worse than Thatcher’s.

Unfortunately we are stuck with this coalition Government for the next few years. Fortunately, Labour will have a new leader in place by the autumn. Having had a few months to consider the situation and to debate with Labour members about the party’s future, hopefully the new leader would be in a good position to push for that credible economic alternative and to reinvigorate Labour as an effective opposition.

Gove versus Governors?

June 21, 2010

Our Government – which just lurves localism – hopes to fundamentally undermine the influence of democratically-elected local authorities in the education system by encouraging as many schools as possible to become academies.

Once a head decides they quite fancy getting academy status, governing bodies represent one of the few potential obstacles. Parents, councillors, the public do not need to be consulted – governors do. For those of us concerned that Michael Gove’s academy-enthusiasm will result in more organisations seeking profits from running schools, education becoming wholly unaccountable to local communities, and state schools competing with each other even more so than they do already, it’s very important that governors do their job properly.

The problem is, being a governor isn’t a job. Governors aren’t professionals. I should know – I’m one! Being an active governor could be a full-time occupation. Middle-class busybodies though we are, most governors can’t spend every waking hour establishing how each detail of Government policy will affect their school. Governors meetings are crammed full of items for discussion – so much so that I’m sure it can be tempting to try to get home in time for dinner by simply neglecting to challenge staff by asking awkward questions. Plus there’s the instinctive feeling that teachers are the professionals so just trust the head’s opinion.

I am therefore worried that some schools may become academies not because it’s especially appropriate for the school but because the governing body does not fully understand the implications of the academies policy and fails to thoroughly scrutinise the head teacher’s decision.

In the Commons recently Lib Dem Simon Hughes asked: “Could the follow-up to the Secretary of State’s letter to outstanding schools such as ours include a letter to the chair of governors setting out the advantages and disadvantages of academy status to schools, and the advantages and disadvantages, if any, to local authorities and to diocesan boards of education?”

Schools Minister Nick Gibb glibly replied: “I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Of course the advantages of academy status are very clear: this is about trusting professionals to run their schools without interference from politicians and bureaucrats, either locally or nationally. I am sure that all the people he refers to will be aware of that.”

Au contraire, variation in school structure seems quite complicated to me and the possible consequences of encouraging huge numbers of schools to become academies could be very significant. As a governor, I would actually appreciate being provided with as much information on the policy as possible. If the Government truly is so confident that academy mania is on balance a good thing for education, why not be brave enough to honestly set out the advantages and disadvantages?

The fact that Hughes’ suggestion was ignored makes me think that the Government hopes governors will not do too much reading up on academies. Indeed, Gove’s dream governor is someone who has never read the education section in the Guardian, has forgotten the head teacher’s name so is too embarrassed to ask questions,  and anyway hopes to avoid starting arguments because they need to get back in time for Coronation Street.

Academy sceptics will have to engage with governors of their local schools. Well-informed and well-motivated governors are vital to keeping a check on Gove’s Conservative revolution in the state education system.

Saville should not diminish the security forces’ record

June 16, 2010

…according to Harriet Harman, at least!

“May I restate our sincere admiration for our security forces’ response to terrorism in Northern Ireland? Many lost their lives. Nothing in today’s report can or should diminish their record of service. They have been outstanding.”

One of the few advantages of being in opposition is that your party’s stand-in leader does not receive so much attention when she utters such words. Thankfully this means no-one notices Harman’s response in the Commons to Cameron’s unequivocal condemnation of the killing of unarmed civilians by British troops. Suggesting that the Army’s record should not be diminished is an odd thing to say. I think it’s pretty obvious that Saville does diminish that record. Perhaps the Army’s record in Northern Ireland should be looked at further so that more grievances can be settled and lessons learned.

Hopefully Harman’s replacement as Labour leader in September will have more impressive critical faculties. The pressure on politicians to appear unquestionably ‘pro-troops’ must be resisted. Reluctance to acknowledge that soldiers in dangerous situations can act in a disgraceful manner – especially if they are not properly trained, equipped or deployed with clear orders –  will only make such self-defeating occurrences more likely.

Aid to China?

June 15, 2010

From da House yesterday:

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions China and the huge steps forward that it has taken in its growing economy. Its gross domestic product now stands at about 9.5% or 9.6%-growth that compares quite favourably with ours. Is it therefore right that we continue to provide that country with Department for International Development funds to the tune of-I may stand corrected-about £30 million a year?

Jeremy Browne (Lib Dem and Foreign Office Minister): An interesting evolution in the power balance in the world is taking place, with these huge emerging countries. Although China’s GDP is slightly greater than ours, it is worth reminding ourselves that their population is 25 times higher, so their GDP per capita is very much smaller than ours. Hundreds of millions of people in China have yet to benefit from the huge advances that that country has made over the past decade or two. At the moment, we have this slightly strange situation whereby many of the emerging economies are the new powerhouses and yet still have millions of people living in absolute poverty. I think that there will be an evolutionary period in which they are apparently two slightly contradictory things simultaneously: they will require aid and assistance while becoming increasingly significant economic and political players. Over time, that balance needs to be reflected in the contributions that we make in aid.

My two cents:

1) I don’t feel comfortable with the UK giving £30 million of development funds to help alleviate absolute poverty in China when the number of super rich Chinese is ballooning. In a meagre way, aren’t we simply subsidising gross inequality in China?

2) Without wanting to get like too much of an IR realist, why the blooming heck do we want to provide assistance to a nation which is becoming a “significant economic and political” competitor? On top of its lack of democracy, its appalling human rights record and its unhelpful support for regimes such in North Korea and Burma, China recently executed a mentally ill British citizen, thus showing clear disrespect for relations with the UK.

Methinks that £30 million could be better spent elsewhere.

The long line of English radicalism from the Levellers through the Chartists to…Compass?!

June 15, 2010

A bit late I know, but although I wasn’t there it seems that Jon ‘Darling of the Soft Left’ Cruddas gave a stonking speech to the Compass conference at the weekend. Read a transcript of the whole thing over at Liberal Conspiracy.

“We lost the election in England, badly. It is in England that our future will be determined. Let us begin by reminding ourselves who we are.

We are Labour and we are not new. Our roots are centuries deep in the struggle for democracy and justice. We are the light shining in Buckinghamshire. With Rainsborough at Putney. The Levellers Charter was ours. Standing with the crowd at Peterloo. Standing with the Irishman Bronterre O’Brien and William Cuffay.

The People’s Charter was ours. John Ruskin’s rallying cry is our creed – ‘there is no wealth but life’. Standing alongside match girls; dockers; miners. With railway workers at Taff Vale.

With the Men’s Political Union and the Suffragettes.

This is Labour’s gift to us all today.

And in turn Labour’s future is our obligation. Make it once more the defender of society against the power of the state and the market. Organise the powerless. Give voice to the voiceless.”

I’m a sucker for a politician who has bothered to at least open a history book. But did he really mean to say “Levellers’ Charter?” Was that a slip of the tongue, thinking ahead to the Chartists? Would have been better to name check the Levellers’ Agreement of the People.

If I ever get to write a historically literate speech for a politician I will slip in the words spoken by Richard Rumbold, a veteran of the New Model Army and republican revolutionary, as he stood on the scaffold awaiting his execution:

“I am sure that there was no man born marked above another; for none comes into this world with a saddle upon his back, neither any booted or spurred to ride him”.

Although the earlier warning of the danger of popery might need to be toned down.

Dangers of despising the World Cup

June 14, 2010

I’m not particularly passionate about football, I’m not swept away with World Cup hysteria and I’ve always had a soft spot for radical feminist writing…but even I can tell that this article ‘Why I despise the World Cup’ is utterly ridiculous.

“I refuse to get excited about some wealthy misogynist jocks” – Hmm. A lazy generalisation, for sure. Like decrying all New Statesmen journos as self-indulgent Oxbridge wankers would be. Plus bourgeois complaints about working-class people earning too much money can be a bit unseemly.

“The fact remains, however, that there are more pressing things to worry about over the soccer season than the state of Frank Lampard’s admittedly shapely calves. This country is in crisis. Young people are in crisis, poor people are in crisis, unemployment stands at 2.5 million, the Labour movement is still leaderless and directionless, and there’s a brutal train of Tory public service cuts coming over the hill.”  – All true but following that logic all forms of entertainment must surely be condemned for distracting the masses from the political struggle!

“Of course, not everyone who displays an England flag is a fascist, but a few of the flags in circulation will undoubtedly be re-used at the upcoming EDL rally in East London, which plans to process through the same streets where Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts marched in 1936.”  – Criticising people for embracing English/British flags is such a tired cliché of leftie lunacy.

“The problem with football as commodified nationalism is that it leaves the left wing entirely undefended” – The problem with associating leftist politics with a sneery distaste for mainstream culture is that you will alienate the vast majority of the population and leave yourself vulnerable to mockery by the right.

Most of Comrade Penny’s articles seem designed to provoke outraged reactions rather than inspire sober debate. That’s fair enough from her and the New Statesman’s point of view – these polemics certainly make for good reading so will draw in the readers. But they’re hardly constructive contributions for formulating the future of the left. Plus, when I think of ‘radical left’ journalists with a burning desire to gain attention through controversy, my mind conjures up names such as Julie Burchill and Gary Bushell…

Sterilising drug addicts

June 13, 2010

I once visited a residential unit for drug addicted mothers and their babies. The majority of the mothers were crack users. Some of them seemed emotionally detached from life in general, including from their children. It was pretty obvious raising a child in such circumstances was far from ideal.

I was therefore fascinated to read the article in the Guardian yesterday about an American woman making it her life mission to sterilise drug addicts. Cue liberal shock and horror. Actually, her organisation also pays drug addicts to sign up to long-term contraception programmes but that does not sound as dramatic as sterilisation and so did not receive so much attention.

On first glance Barabara Harris is inevitably going to upset liberal sensibilities. Her language seems to focus heavily on condemning women rather than acknowledging that it takes two to tango when it comes to getting pregnant. Plus the vast majority of people she targets are the poor and desperate and she is not actually doing anything to help them overcome their addictions. There’s no escaping that Harris’ work is judgmental of vulnerable mothers.

However, is it necessarily an anti-women position to acknowledge that women have control over their own bodies and to therefore work to persuade them not to have babies whilst they remain drug addicted? Furthermore, Harris also works on drug addicted men. It could be said that the social backgrounds of those taking up her offer simply reflect the demographics of drug users with the most chaotic lives and that the market is already saturated with various charities and agencies trying (often unsuccessfully) to help people sort out their addictions.

The contraception option, not being finite, is obviously more appealing than sterilisation. But should an individual’s right to parenthood take precedent over an individual’s right not to be born with an addiction to heroin? Without wishing to get too New Labour, the right to becoming a parent is less important than the responsibility of being a good parent.

Addaction has released a statement condemning Harris’ Project Prevention. I don’t find their moral disgust entirely convincing. Sure, contraception is already available to these people, but just as cash incentives have been used to encourage people to quit smoking why not use such incentives to prevent crack addicts giving birth to crack addicted babies whom they have no means of supporting?

Her mission is undoubtedly controversial and morally dubious, but  hopefully Harris will get more attention paid to the children of drug addicts – their rights and their welfare – and that at least is definitely a positive.

Labour leadership youth hustings

June 12, 2010

Some Labour yoof obviously made up their minds very quickly. Before the event officially got underway an enthusiastic group of Milipedes (D) were trying to sign people up to the Shadow Foreign Sec’s leadership campaign. I, however, was undecided and without prejudice. Well, not quite, but I had enough prejudice and partiality towards each one of the candidates that I was refusing to identify myself as a supporter of anyone yet.

Soon enough we all sat down and the big five appeared. Clap clap clap. Questions were asked and answers were given. Ed Balls took the courageous decision to tell a room full of young Labourites that he wanted tuition fees scrapped. Unfortunately for Ballsy this imaginative attempt to come up with a policy that would distinguish himself from the others was diluted by just about all the other candidates joining his call for them to be replaced by a graduate tax (only Miliband D was hesitant).

The best question of the hustings came from a handsome young rogue in the audience who pointed out that the Tories are trying to criticise us from the left over the levels of child poverty and wider inequality in the UK today. The candidates were asked whether they thought the Labour Government had made mistakes in this area and how they would renew the party’s commitment to creating a more equal society.

None of the candidates gave entirely satisfactory answers. All of them – including Abbott – were too eager to spend time defending Labour’s record. This wasn’t the most efficient use of their one minute each since they were addressing a room full of Labour members familiar with the social gains secured between 1997 and 2010 and presumably disposed to giving their own party the benefit of the doubt.

We’ve got to be more honest with ourselves and potential leaders should cut to the chase when addressing party members. Labour failed to meet its own targets for child poverty reduction by 2010. The UK remains a country of inequitable wealth distribution and class divisions. Declaring that over 13 years Labour managed to just about stop the Thatcher-initiated trend towards greater inequality from getting much worse hardly makes an inspirational slogan. Not much of a moral crusade – and if we’re not a moral crusade we are…? 

The five MPs did admit that the Labour government maybe should have been more bold on redistribution. Stern criticism was then levelled at the policies of the coalition and at the decision of Frank Field to join them in their shamelessly sneaky efforts to reduce poverty by fiddling with the statistics. Clap clap clap. But this was easy, crowd-pleasing stuff. If I had been chairing the hustings I would not have allowed them to lay into the Con-Dem Government until they had first declared what kind of anti-poverty strategy they would want to implement.

To be fair, Ed Miliband did sound the most impressive when answering the question. He made clear that reducing the gap between the rich and the poor would be central to his leadership. Talking about the gap is definitely welcome – it’s a healthier egalitarian approach than relying upon the language of ‘social mobility’ or ‘equality of opportunity’. Miliband E also highlighted his support for a living wage and a high pay commission. Hopefully all of them will have more time to think about policies in this area over the next few months.

Another (more self-indulgent) question I would like to have been put to them is: We have two right-wing parties in government who describe themselves as ‘progressives’ and have even talked of imposing ‘progressive cuts’. If we are to provide the country with a strong opposition – a viable alternative – should we perhaps stop using this ideologically indistinct term?

Miliband D has claimed he wants this debate to include discussion around ideology. I agree. Talking about future Labour policy without reference to some sort of ideology programme would be bizarre. However, I also acknowledge that banging on and on about ideology at these sort of public events may not be helpful. It could make the party seem too inwardly focused and weird. Therefore, a simple one minute answer explaining what democratic socialism (it’s in the party constitution, they’re all signed up to it!) means in the 21st century would suffice.

You’ll notice that Andy Burnham is the only candidate who hasn’t been mentioned thus far in this report. Well, that’s because he failed to stand out. Apart from in terms of his accent of course. He didn’t seem to butt into the discussion to explain his own point of view as much as the others did. Maybe he’ll get louder in future events (though hopefully for Andy’s sake it won’t be an IDS-style ‘the quiet man is turning up the volume’!).

All in all, I walked off (to the nearest pub) with the view that I’ll probably first preference Ed Miliband. However, there is still a long time to go before any decision has to be made and I’m determined to remain open-minded. It’s all to play for, comrades!

Bonar Law, Baldwin, Thatcher, Cameron – the long line of Tory deflation

June 11, 2010

Top notch maiden speech from Labour MP and historian Gregg McClymont. Even if maiden speeches are inevitably treated as sponges, his was very stone-like.

I look forward to hearing further comparisons between Tory policy today and Tory policy in the 1920s from him in the future!

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab):
May I add my congratulations on your election, Mr Deputy Speaker? I noticed that you have the “Directory of Members” to hand. I hope that you will agree that I do not look quite as bad in the flesh as I do in that truly horrific photo.

I come to this House from Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East-a constituency served with great distinction by my predecessor, Rosemary McKenna. Rosemary’s 13 years in Parliament were the culmination of a lifetime of public service. As teacher, councillor, council leader, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and, latterly, Member of this House, Rosemary served the public with distinction for more than 40 years. Rosemary’s
distinctions are many, but I would like to emphasise her temperament and character. Rosemary’s generous nature, her good humour, and, especially, her serenity served her well. To keep one’s head when all around are losing theirs is an asset in every walk of life, but especially, I suspect, in this place. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing Rosemary well in her retirement.

For those who do not know the geography of my constituency-and I suspect that there are a few-Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East sits at the heart of Scotland, roughly at the centre of a triangle formed by Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling. This central location, along with a work force well educated in our excellent local comprehensive schools and colleges, is attractive to employers both private and public. Indeed, Members unlucky enough to receive a call
from the Inland Revenue will, I am sure, take some comfort in the knowledge that they are likely being called from my constituency, home to one of the largest Inland Revenue offices in the country.

The economy of my constituency is, I think, much like the economy of the country: it reflects a symbiotic relationship between the private and the public sectors. That is why I disagree with some of the speeches I have heard-not today, but in previous debates-from Conservative Members, who repeatedly draw a stark distinction between the public and the private. To me, that is rather artificial. Our economy depends on interaction between these two sectors. No man is an island, and neither is any private sector enterprise. In my view, the
private sector could not flourish without a public infrastructure of roads, rail, sanitation, telecoms or, indeed, a people well educated in our public, by which I mean our state, schools.

That is the perspective that underpins the views of Labour Members on the Government’s deficit reduction plan, with all its implications for poverty reduction. Yes, reducing the deficit is important; yes, it is a priority; but cutting before the recovery is established and before confidence is restored is to flirt with disaster. Badly timed public sector cuts of the kind proposed by the Government will not, in my judgment, damage only the public sector, but the private sector, too, as they will reduce demand in the whole economy.

I urge Members on both sides of the House to read the report released today by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, whose chief economist has revised his forecasts. Looking at the proposed Government cuts, he now believes that unemployment will reach 2.95 million by 2012 and remain close to 3 million until 2015. That would be a disaster for the poor: when the economy retracts, it is the poor who suffer most. Substantial reductions in poverty depend on economic growth, because in the end substantial poverty reduction depends on the creation of jobs. I am sure we all agree that the single best poverty reduction programme is creating well-paid, secure jobs.

That is the context in which I raise my concern about how the Government are approaching the deficit, with all its implications for poverty in this country. I recognise, of course, that it is entirely consistent for the Conservatives to advance deflationary economic policies. As a historian, I can see them having been put forward in different guises for 100 years, whether it be by Bonar Law in the 1920s, Mr Baldwin in the 1930s, Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s or the new Prime Minister in 2010. The object is generally the same-to reduce the financial burden on those who tend to vote Conservative. That is understandable.

More depressing, from my point of view, is the Liberal Democrat embrace of this deflationary strategy. One hundred years ago, the Liberal party broke with that kind of economics. In his “People’s Budget”, Lloyd George rejected as inadequate and likely to increase poverty exactly the kind of approach that underpins the new Government’s strategy. I wonder what Lloyd George, Beveridge, and,
above all, Keynes would make of the Liberal Democrat position. I suspect that those great social Liberals would see the Government’s so-called anti-poverty measures-whether they be fractional tax advantages for a minority of married couples, or appeals to the “Big Society”-for what they are. In my judgment, these are measures designed to ease the consciences of those who wish to feel that something is being done about poverty, while the actual priority is that that something” to be done is of minimal cost.

More positively, I hope the Government can be persuaded that poverty reduction depends, as I say, on well-paid secure jobs. I believe that the minimum wage and tax credits are excellent measures that reward work and have done something significant to reduce poverty in this country. I urge the Government, if I may say so, to embrace them with the zeal of a convert.

I also ask the Government to consider the issue of work that pays not too badly, but too well. I welcome the Government’s commitment to ending excessive salaries in the public sector, but I think that we have to look at the private sector, too. Excess public sector pay is not fair and should be curbed, but it is not actively dangerous, whereas inappropriate incentives in the private sector-excessive and poorly calibrated bonuses in particular-have put our entire economy in jeopardy.

Growing up in the new town of Cumbernauld in the 1980s, I saw with my own eyes the harm done by deflationary political economy. It took over a decade of Labour Government to begin to heal the scars left in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and, indeed, in many other parts of the country. We ask not to be targeted again by a new round of deflationary cuts, particularly when the recession was inspired by the financial services sector. What I ask is that the burden is fairly shared.

In the end, I repeat, it is growth that will reduce the deficit in a way that enables the economy to prosper, thus allowing further reductions in poverty to take place. The best way to reduce poverty is to create work with a decent wage, which depends on economic growth. By cutting too fast, too soon, the Government risk a slump in demand across the economy: the result will be even higher unemployment than at present and thus greater poverty too. For me-and, I am sure, for many Members-that is a grim prospect indeed.