Archive for September, 2012

Moral reform: what it should mean for Labour

26/09/2012, 10:08:14 AM

by Jonathan Todd

The moral reform that I see as vital to Labour would not abandon the traditions of mechanical reform that politicians like Roy Hattersley upheld. It would, however, recognise and adapt to the limitations of this mechanical approach. Matthew Taylor’s concept of pro-social behaviour and Marc Stears’ of active equality could be crucial to this adaptation.

But what is not needed is preachy piety. Moral reform might conjure notions of Labour politicians reaching for self-appointed hallows and demanding that others do as they say. There may be latter day Beatrice and Sidney Webbs who think they know best what people really want. This isn’t how I see Labour’s future. Nor I do hanker for my political leadership to come from the “moral arbiter of the nation”.

I do, though, think it matters that parents support their children in doing their homework and take seriously their other family responsibilities; that we take sufficient exercise and eat well enough to be physically well; that we take the actions needed to be mentally well; that we take up employment when we are physically and mentally able to do so; that instead of littering we reuse and recycle where possible; and that we avoid anti-social behaviour and destructive drink and drug taking.

It matters, in sum, that we adopt pro-social behaviour, which might be thought of as behaviour that minimises or eliminates where possible the social costs of our behaviour (“the negative externalities”) and maximises the social benefits (“the positive externalities”). The blunt truth is that we will not have the thriving schools or safer neighbourhoods or any of the things that voters say they want until more of these voters or citizens themselves behave pro-socially and become the change that they profess to want.

To recognise the responsibilities that we all have to build change is not to extricate the state of its responsibilities. Roy Hattersley noted Douglas Alexander’s praise for the minimum wage when reviewing The Purple Book, while claiming that the minimum wage is “a product of the ‘heavy-handed centralist approach’ that many other contributors to The Purple Book excoriate”. But would any of these contributors favour the abandonment of the minimum wage?


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Labour needs to choose freedom

25/09/2012, 05:18:38 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“The success of Thatcherism did not lie in the immediate popularity of its programme, but its ability to command the cultural landscape of Britain … The most enduring threat faced by the left is not only to be perceived as an incompetent manager of the economy, but to be out of touch with major cultural advances and the contemporary zeitgeist.”

Roy Hattersley was one leading Labour figure in the 1980s with some sense at the time of the Thatcherite threat identified by Patrick Diamond.

Freedom was coming to mean whatever Margaret Thatcher wanted it to mean: freedom from regulation; freedom from taxation; freedom from any “interference” by the “tentacles” of government.

It was all about freedom from the state and, in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s well-known dichotomy, a wholly negative concept. Taking no account of what individuals were free to do, it lacked any positive content.

The alcoholic may be capable only of begging, steeling and borrowing to their next drink. But, as long as they are unhindered by the “long arm” of government, they are free. And the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose yuppie owes them nothing. They, too, are free and the freedom of all is maximised when the role of government is minimised.

Obviously, a culture that comes to understand an idea as powerful and widely attractive as freedom in such terms is predisposed to policies that are contrary to Labour’s ends. Hattersley appreciated this. As distasteful as the yuppie and as troubling as the alcoholic are, they weren’t directly his target. This was the Thatcherite account of freedom that legitimised their conduct and circumstances. What was necessary was to reconceptualise freedom.

The freedom Hattersley articulated in Choose Freedom (1987) was a Croslandite freedom. This recast freedom in positive terms and aligned it, not with a minimalist state, but with equality: enough equality of opportunity for all to be free to achieve their potential; enough equality of outcome for all to be full social participants. There is such a thing as society and a redistributive, equalising state is needed for all to be free.


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The real scandal in education is the inequality in schools’ funding

25/09/2012, 07:54:28 AM

by Robin Thorpe

Education is widely regarded as the single biggest factor in lifting people out of poverty, it is also the most influential interaction that many people have with the state. Yet the way that schools’ funding is dispersed is not widely known and if the Labour movement is truly about breaking down inequalities then the huge disparities in funding across local authority boundaries needs to be acknowledged and changed.

Massive changes are currently being implemented to the way that schools are funded and these changes are being effected largely because of the extension of the academy system.

Most schools that changed to academy status in the last few years did so voluntarily and did so because they were offered the carrot of increased funding. This carrot will no longer be available to academies, as from 2013/14 all schools will have control over their entire budget.

The maintained schools still have their budget set by the local education authority  (academies receive their budget from the education funding agency), but all funds are now to be delegated directly to the school.

Under the current system the LEA retains part of the budget for maintained schools in return for providing core services such as payroll, CRB checks and contingency funding. The new system will see schools having to buy back into the service (or they can choose another provider).

This is part of a large (top-down) re-organisation of schools funding that seeks to remove local authority control over schools’ funding formula and replace it with a national funding formula (centralizing schools funding policy). The main reason for this seems to be that the EFA has to benchmark its funding formula for schools nationally and it can’t rationalize the differences between authorities to maintain parity for academy funding across county boundaries.

They are therefore seeking to simplify the system; however the system they are seeking to simplify is very complex. The current funding formula is based on actual school circumstances and has been developed over several years to direct funding to schools for a specific purpose; for example in Dorset there are several schools near army stations that have a number of children leaving and joining each year, this inevitably adds an administrative burden to these schools.


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The Labour party: why do we bother?

24/09/2012, 03:52:13 PM

by Jonathan Todd

Are we members of a socialist party, a social democratic party or neither of these things? Did we start self-identifying as social democrats when socialist ceased to be acceptable in polite society and progressive when social democrat too passed beyond the pale? Do any of these terms retain any meaning? And does it matter if they do or they don’t?

My focus here is not the etymology or present understanding of these terms. Nor do I seek a revival in the number of party members describing themselves as socialist (though, like Clause 4, I’m proud to still do so myself).

What I want to explore is the clarity and strength of the Labour party’s mission. Call this socialist or social democrat or what you will; it is its force and lucidity that concerns me, not the name that we attach to it.

Some of the motivations of party members are inevitably not always as pure as might be pretended. Deals are brokered. Backs are scratched. Noses are browned. This is the currency of politics from the branch meeting to the shadow cabinet.

If party conference is, as David Talbot observes, a family gathering, is this a family held together by any more than utilitarian calculi of effort and reward?

We must surely hope that it is. To conflate family and army metaphors, only so many of us can ascend to be generals. But the generals will get nowhere without foot soldiers, who must certainly know that they will never themselves be generals, no matter how many doors they knock on and how many interminable meetings they endure.

If not, then, the promise of advancement, why do the foot soldiers bother?


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The Lib Dems are down, but they’re not out

24/09/2012, 07:00:48 AM

by Kevin Meagher

As the Lib Dems try to put their best foot forward during their annual conference next week they grapple with two pretty fixed opinions about them nowadays.

The first is, of course, that they are a dead duck electorally. An analysis of 28 opinion polls taken last month from the venerable UK Polling Report website shows an average level of support of just 9.5%. In comparison 10 opinion polls taken in August 2007 (again, two years into the 2005 parliament) shows a figure of 15.6%.

A biggish 6-point gap then, hence the commentary of the Lib Dems’ perpetual, irredeemable decline. But the same analysis of just ICM polls gives pause for thought. As Mike Smithson from UK Polling Report explains: “ICM…make an educated guess as to how the don’t knows would vote, assuming that 50% of them will vote for the party they voted for in 2010.

This normally gives the Liberal Democrats a significant boost.” Between June and August 2007 the Lib Dems averaged 18.3% in ICM’s polls. June to August this year shows them averaging 14.3%. Now take out the usual margin of error of plus/minus 3% and that leaves a potential 1% gap from where they were at the same stage in the last parliament. (more…)

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Wanted: a Labour government with a Tory PM

21/09/2012, 07:00:16 AM

by David Talbot

“Poll gives Labour lead of 15 points over Tories” thundered the front page of the Times. The only reliability about polls is that they are inherently unreliable. But here was tangible evidence, at the first glance, that the voters are seriously thinking about putting Ed Miliband in Downing Street – and with a thumping majority at that.

But dig a little deeper and the poll unearths some visibly disheartening results for the Labour leader. The Labour party might be a full fifteen points ahead of those dastardly Tories, but its leader remains a detriment to the ticket.

The poll, and subsequent polls at that, finds a clear and rising majority of the great British people who would prefer David Cameron in Downing Street over the Labour leader. When forced to choose between the two leaders, 31 per cent want Miliband to replace Cameron. However, a rather eye-watering 60 per cent want Cameron to stay in Downing Street and, particularly painfully for Miliband, the other 37 per cent say they are dissatisfied with the job the prime minister is doing, but still prefer him to Miliband.

Miliband’s personal ratings are dire. There truly is no way to skirt round this issue any longer.

The top five “qualities” listed for Ed Miliband were given as: “out of his depth”, then “weak”, “out of touch” and “indecisive”. The fifth most chosen attribute was “weird”. If those are his qualities, the list of his weaknesses must be frightful. It will be interesting to see how the much-fabled, and oft quoted, “party strategists” smooth out this manifest concerns.

The ironic conclusion is that, as John Rentoul pointed out from his eagle-eyed perch, the British public want a Labour government, but with a Conservative prime minister. It’s easy to see why. British politics has a sweet spot. It is found by combining fiscal conservatism with a tough stance on law and order and a programme of public service reform. It’s Labour compassion with Tory toughness.

Election after election, though with notable anomalies, the electorate seeks out the party that comes closest to a combination of Conservative stolidity and Labour compassion. In 1997 and 2001, Labour got it right. In 2010 neither party convinced the people they were in the right place, so the electorate conceived a coalition as if to remind the political classes just who is in charge.


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Finland offers Labour an education model to challenge Gove’s retreat into the past

20/09/2012, 02:59:38 PM

by Robin Thorpe

Regardless of whether Michael Gove had any influence on the recent GCSE results, education should be a major area of debate between the incumbent government and a Labour party aspiring to reduce inequality. Yet the parliamentary Labour party has been remarkably quiet on this issue and seems content to pick fault only with the way that Gove handled the exams debacle.

What I would like to see the PLP do is challenge the coalition on issues that are of real importance to the full spectrum of stakeholders within our public education system; for example a clear definition of what education is for and transparently defined objectives for any reforms that are undertaken.

Let us first consider the issue of examinations and so-called grade inflation; in 2010 the Cambridge Assessment Group reported that

“we found there were different challenges associated with different types of exam but that these are related to the changing purposes of examinations, not a simplistic matter of ‘too easy’ or ‘too hard’.”

The Cambridge Assessment Report was undertaken by a large group of educators, inspectors and assessors over a period of months and considered, amongst other things, the issue of ‘grade drift’.

The report states that “grade drift probably existed, although so many confounding factors made it difficult to isolate and identify. How this might have come about was extensively discussed.

One cause was the constant change to qualifications. Tim Oates suggested that

if you effect continual or inappropriate and unnecessary change of qualifications, it makes holding standards over time extremely difficult”.

Yet despite this report Gove has proceeded to attempt to further modify examinations without first forming a cohesive plan of what and how is to be reformed. One of the first acts of Gove as secretary of state was to cancel the issue of the new (skills-based) national curriculum that was written under the previous government. He then also removed the modular element of GCSEs; a decision that may have been made for good reason but it goes counter to the findings regarding grade drift.  Gove’s most recent proposed change is of course the E-Bacc; a sure-fire way of ceasing grade drift – change the qualification.

The review of the national curriculum now being undertaken is to be welcomed, although I fear I won’t agree with the results. The signs are that a renewed emphasis is to be placed on examinations instead of coursework and that these examinations are to be harder. In Finland, the top-performing European nation in the PISA results, the emphasis on testing has been much reduced; no external testing takes place and schools are free to set their own syllabus from a very simple national core curriculum.


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People might be in two minds about the parties, but Cameron is still edging it for their vote

20/09/2012, 07:00:52 AM

by Peter Watt

Nearly half way through the Parliament and inevitably we are all reading the runes and making predictions.  Who will win in 2015?  Who will lead {insert name of party} into the next election?  Will the coalition survive?  For those of us who like this sort of thing there is a raft of political and psephological soul searching with theory and counter theory argued out on political forums across the media.  It is all good stuff and the narrative for the time since the last election can be summarised as:

  • The government had a good first eighteen months or so and have been a shambles ever since
  • The budget this year was a particularly big and nasty disaster for the government and as a result Labour have had a poll lead ever since
  • The economy is stubbornly refusing to recover
  • People generally like Ed Miliband but David Cameron remains people’s preferred choice as prime minister

What you think might happen next basically boils down to four things:

  • To what degree you think that Labour’s poll lead is soft
  • To what extent you think that Ed Miliband/David Cameron are assets for their respective parties
  • How much the economy recovers over the next couple of years
  • Whether the public trust Labour on the economy and can see Ed Miliband as prime minister.

But almost everyone thinks that the Liberals look down and out.  And increasingly most people seem to think that a Tory majority is unlikely and are now contemplating a possible Labour victory of some kind.  Certainly lots of Labour people seem increasingly confident that this will be a one term Government.  And equally lots of Tories and Lib Dems are a little nervous about their prospects with their respective current leaders.

But I think that all of this analysis may be more than a little flawed.

It is predicated on a cosy assumption that people are still broadly wedded to the party system.  That on the whole some people are broadly “leftish”, some people broadly “rightish” whilst a few electorally influential voters are a bit more promiscuous.  Appeal to enough of the promiscuous and you win.


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Westminster needs to learn from the City

19/09/2012, 03:19:26 PM

by Alex Glasner

Banking is, perhaps, one of the few careers that is less popular than politics. However, having made the leap from political researcher to the world of investment banking, what has become clear is that, far from being the seat of easy money and privilege, investment banking is hardworking, innovative, and meritocratic.

Can the Westminster village boast that it shares these characteristics?

I have no doubt that the world of banking needs to be better regulated, that banks should make clear their social value, and that banking needs to be more open, more accessible.

However, while issues such as excessive pay do need to be addressed, there are equally pressing problems in politics: – not least the fundamental ignorance of many politicians I have met to who struggle to discern the difference between investment and retail banking.

Politics has a lot to learn from and about the City.

Firstly, politics should imitate many of the practices of banking.

My last week in Parliament involved as much intrigue, drinking, and the use opinion not fact to mould speeches as my first week in banking required long hours, little sleep and using facts to write reports and inform opinion.

And yet politicians, especially in our party, like to use the City as a punch-bag. It is now with unadulterated irony that I view Westminster’s view of banking: they see it as privileged, avaricious, and socially barren.

To progress in banking, image is secondary to performance. People progress not so much through whom they know, so much as what they know and how they practice it.

In politics, I am sorry to say that I was struck by how the conviviality and friendship struck between MPs underpinned business and how insincere it could be.


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Respect: the case against allowing extremists into the Labour party

19/09/2012, 07:00:31 AM

by Rob Marchant

Last week there was much speculation about whether or not Salma Yaqoob, the former leader of Respect who understandably resigned rather than share a party with George Galloway, might join the Labour Party, should she so desire. Indeed, local Labour MP Richard Burden on Thursday extended the hand of friendship, saying she would “be an asset”.

Yaqoob is a young, articulate politician about whom we know relatively little, given that she is, in terms of real administrative power, an ex-backbench Birmingham councillor and has had few years of exposure to the national media.

But as a former party leader she still has political weight and, unlike her erstwhile colleague Galloway, she has not had time to make many serious gaffes or enemies although, as Dan Hodges pointed out, describing 7/7 as a “reprisal attack” came pretty close.

On a brief examination of her party and her politics though, the vast majority of us, if we bothered to do so, would probably find that our gut reaction would be that we didn’t care very much for either.

But that is not the point. Everyone has rather been asking the wrong question: instead of asking, do we want this person in Labour, we should be asking, is it in any party’s interest to invite people in from the extremes of national politics?

In other words, a grown-up political party should not be in the business of opining on specific cases, but have a robust, general policy; some universal principles about why it would or would not want to engage with another political group’s cast-offs. Not to do this makes us look at best subjective and, at worst, cronyish – arbitrarily picking and choosing only our mates for our party, and throwing out anyone who dissents. Not a good look for a democratic party.


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