Archive for January, 2013

The damage has been done. Inside the coalition, it’s now personal

31/01/2013, 07:00:51 AM

by Peter Watt

Relations have been strained for some time now, but events on Tuesday in the House of Commons have now made it personal.  In essence, as far as the Tories are going to be concerned, the Lib Dems have increased the chances of them losing their seats at the next election.  And the numbers of Tories on the government benches assuming that the next election is now lost will rise further.

But think back.  Both the Lib Dems and the Tories had proposals to reduce the size of the House of Commons in their manifestos.  The Lib Dems linked this to a change in the voting system.  For the Tories though it wasn’t just about principle it was also a matter of pragmatism.  For election after election they had been screwed by the electoral arithmetic of uneven constituency boundaries.  The result was that it took far fewer Labour votes to get a Labour MP than Tory ones.  It made winning elections even harder for the Tories and it made them pretty cross.  To be fair, from their point of view you can see why!

So unsurprisingly the Coalition agreement contained a commitment to introduce a referendum on AV, a commitment to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 members and to equalise the size so that there were approximately 76,640 voters in each one.  It also contained a commitment to reform the House of Lords.  And the stated assumption was that both sides in the coalition would support all of the measures it contained.

To risk incurring the wrath of John Rentoul and his ‘banned list’ – the coalition agreement wasn’t a pick-n-mix.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 duly introduced the referendum on AV and also the aim of reducing the number of constituencies to 600.  It all started to go a little wrong when the Lib Dems felt let down by the way that the Tories campaigned against AV in the referendum.  The referendum was lost but at that point the Lib Dems could still point to House of Lords reform as a sign that their constitutional reforming zeal was far from being finished.


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Bristol needs a better deal for buses

30/01/2013, 03:57:42 PM

Last week Amanda Ramsay won the “top of the policies” vote at Pragmatic Radicalism’s top of the policies event in Bristol, chaired by Maria Eagle MP, shadow transport secretary. The winning proposal was for a “Better Deal on the Buses”, to bring buses under a new regulatory framework

People like me who live in Bristol would like to be able to leave our front doors, walk just a few minutes to a bus stop and easily reach work, meetings, job interviews, the main shopping areas, visit friends or just explore the outskirts of the city. That’s what Londoners enjoy, so why can’t we in Bristol?

I want to see cities like Bristol negotiating better deals with the likes of First Group, to deliver more routes, better reliability and lower prices.

It’s time to use the powers granted to metropolitan cities like Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow and Bristol by the last Labour government, to regulate fares, routes, frequency of services and improve customer relations.

Private bus operators outside London enjoy a whopping £2 billion a year in tax payers’ money, but in Bristol it’s often cheaper when two or more people are travelling to take a taxi than to ride a bus. It causes traffic congestion, more dangers for cyclists and a weaker bus system itself, as customers vote with their feet and often only freedom pass users are passengers, meaning no income stream.


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A sensible report from the EU? On media regulation? Wonder if it was reported fairly by our press?

30/01/2013, 10:43:58 AM

by Horatio Mortimer

A group of experts convened by the vice president of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, this week published its report on media freedom and plurality. An EU report “calling for media regulation?” You can just imagine the frothing in some newsrooms.

The group was initially convened for several reasons :

  • firstly the fear that in certain countries, the media was not as free and diverse as it should be, and did not conform to the principles of freedom and democracy expected of members of the EU;
  • secondly, as part of the effort to make the institutions of the EU itself more democratic;
  • and thirdly to consider ways to protect the vital democratic functions of the media from potential damage caused by the technological earthquake that is reshaping the industry.

The EU is a union of democracies that have agreed to open their markets to each other to increase trade, prosperity and peace.  The single market requires universal standards to be applied in the production of goods and services so as to avoid regulatory arbitrage where firms move production to wherever they have the fewest obligations.

Each country must therefore trust the others to do their part in the governing of the EU, and also to implement the rules that have been commonly agreed. In order to trust them, we need confidence that they are properly governed, and democratically accountable. If we fear that governments of other member states have been captured by special interests and no longer faithfully serve their citizens, then we begin to lose faith in the governance of the whole union.

Some of the eastern states, which made such astonishing democratic progress during the process of gaining EU membership, have begun to slip back. Once a country has its membership, there is much less pressure to maintain those standards. The situation in Hungary is an example of how bad habits can die hard.

Meanwhile in Italy a mogul gained a position of such dominance in the media that after the fall of the government he had corrupted, the best way he could protect his business and personal interests was to get himself elected prime minister.


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Labour history uncut: Labour gets conscripted

29/01/2013, 10:53:57 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“Conscription? Why would we need that? Who wouldn’t volunteer for a free trip to Europe and the chance to shoot foreigners?”

This was the comforting assurance given to Labour leaders, by prime minister Asquith as they trooped into the coalition government in May 1915. Surely a Liberal leader wouldn’t make a pledge and then do the absolute, exact opposite?

To be fair to Asquith, whatever he personally believed was largely irrelevant. Losses were outstripping recruitment at a staggering rate thanks to the British army’s patented “run through that withering hail of bullets and bombs would you old chap?” technique for conducting modern warfare.

At the start of the war, Britain was the only major European power to not have conscription in place. Having to compel your army to maintain an empire seemed a trifle arriviste, un-British and, frankly, the sort of thing the French would do.

Then again, as the war dragged on, it was clear more men were needed, and losing a major European war was definitely un-British too, and most certainly the sort of thing the French would do.

In the press, calls for conscription were growing in volume, with the Times leading the charge condemning Britain’s “great army of shirkers,” identifying, even then, the mortal threat to national well-being from a fifth column of skivers undermining the strivers.

At the end of September 1915, worries across the Labour movement that conscription might become reality prompted the party’s national executive committee (NEC) to summon a special meeting. Labour Parliamentarians and union officials were addressed by prime minister Asquith along with Lord Kitchener, the chief of staff and, quite literally the poster boy for World War One.

Lord Kitchener models Edwardian smart casual


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Labour must stand up for victims of sexual and domestic violence

29/01/2013, 10:30:08 AM

by Sarah Rabbitts

Many of us are still shocked by the brutal abduction, gang rape and murder of a female student on a bus in Delhi.

And closer to home, we’re also coming to terms with NSPCC’s confirmation that Jimmy Savile, was “without doubt one of the most prolific sex offenders we have ever come across”. The “Giving victims a voice” report states that Savile repeatedly abused girls, women and boys over six decades. The abuses happened in 13 hospitals, 14 schools and on BBC premises – institutions that should have been a safe place for both children and adults. Most worryingly, none of the victims or witnesses successfully exposed Savile’s widespread criminality before his death in 2011.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper responded to the report by asking for a proper overarching review led by child protection experts into why everyone failed to stop Savile and what should be done now”. However, it is not only people in positions of influence who are a problem.

Last week, the ministry of defence, home office and office for national statistics released a joint review into rape and sexual assaults. This damning review states that only one in ten victims will report a sexual assault in this country, despite 90% of victims knowing the perpetrator. It also has to be a wake-up call for the home secretary that only 15,670 rapes are reported each year which only equates to a quarter of victims. In simple terms, this means that on average 47,010 rapes aren’t reported.

What these reports demonstrate is that first, a staggering number of women and men are still victims of sexual assault and that second, the British judicial system continues to generate very few convictions.

On the 14th February, or V-Day, a campaign called one billion rising will actively demand an end to violence against women across the world. They ask women to walk out, dance, rise up and demand an end to this violence by activating women and men across every country to organise local events. (more…)

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To EU or not to EU: that is the question

28/01/2013, 08:34:43 PM

by Sophie Lambert Russell

In October 2011 David Cameron, along with Ed Miliband, voted against and straight in or out of the EU referendum so why now the change?

Support for the Conservatives is falling; with many disillusioned Tory voters leaning towards UKIP, now arguably the third most popular party in the UK (according to YouGov in the Sun last week anyway). In a rather desperate attempt to claw back support, Cameron has performed yet another U-Turn: possibly the most talked about of his time in office.

Unsurprisingly the Tory right have welcomed this move but others have criticised the prime minister for being weak and driven by the eurosceptics in his party, not by the interests of the country. Undoubtedly the Conservatives will appear united for a short while but this will not last, the backbenchers will not be placated for long by the referendum pledge and will soon ramp up the pressure, creating a more divided party than ever and forcing Cameron’s hand.

However we mustn’t jump the gun. Cameron’s promises of a referendum comes with so many ‘ifs’ and yesterday’s speech left crucial questions unanswered. He is likely to have a bigger fight with other EU members than within his own parliament. Ed Miliband characterised the in/out referendum as ‘a huge gamble designed to keep his fractious party together’ and he is not wrong. We need to work with EU members, not dictate from upon high as Cameron wants to do. Although Merkel said that she is willing to discuss a reform both France and Germany have made it clear that the UK cannot “cherry-pick” the EU laws which suit them and I am not in the least bit surprised.

It seems to me that when it comes to Europe, Cameron wants to have his cake and eat it too and while there is no problem with being ambitious there will be a lot of resistance along the way. The question of what will happen if the EU leaders do not give Cameron a new deal on the UK’s role in Europe still remains unanswered.


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Adam Afriyie. Who?

28/01/2013, 02:57:56 PM

by Kevin Meagher

What does Tory backbencher Adam Afriyie think we should be doing to boost the economy, reform public services and deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Until I read yesterday’s newspapers, the thought to ask had never crossed my mind, but judging by yesterday’s Sunday Times it’s clear the MP for Windsor is the coming man; the saviour of a post-defeat Conservative party. A future prime minister. “Black MP is hot tip to be next Tory leader” ran the headline. I searched in vain in the subsequent story, (as bemused Tory MPs may have), for any indication of what Mr. Afriyie thinks, well, about anything.

Nevertheless, the paper reports “a secret operation is underway” to propel him to the party leadership. More than 100 Tory MPs have been approached to this end. A “friend” of Mr Afriyie explains that his cadre of backers are “very concerned” about the long-term direction of the party and believe that Afriyie is the best man to succeed David Cameron. “He has a fantastic back story and is very impressive.”

I admit to knowing the name and knew a bit of his biography, but to be honest I had quite forgotten Afriyie was there. He’s pretty low profile, but that’s not really an excuse as he’s been in parliament since 2005. Brutally, I assumed he had missed his mark and like Archie Norman and other business people who realise too late that the rough and tumble of Westminster is not their bag, led a quiet life before, inevitably, shuffling off back to business.

How wrong I was. What I did learn is that Afriyie is very rich and has a gang of eight fellow MPs pursuing his cause among Tory backbenchers in the expectation (hope?) that David Cameron will blow it in 2015.

I wrote last week that Cameron gives some of his troops the belief that he is weak and vacillating because he understands the compromises that are needed to make a coalition work. But within his own party he should be assured of more loyalty than he is clearly getting. A Thatcher, Blair or even a Brown would not be so sanguine about a well-heeled upstart flesh-pressing the backbenchers to build his on powerbase on the assumption of defeat for the party.

Where was the counter-briefing to knock holes in the Afriyie veneer once it became clear the Sundays were running with this story? Did Downing street do nothing to prick the bubble of arrant pomposity surrounding him with a pair of clod-hopping size 12s?


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Gove’s narcissistic dogma 1 – Evidence 0

28/01/2013, 08:57:26 AM

by Kevin Brennan

Last week’s announcement by Michael Gove that AS Levels would no longer count towards an A Level grade was a classic example of making policy based on dogma not evidence.

Back in 2010 Michael Gove announced his intention to get rid of AS Levels. They were originally introduced to give students a chance to study a broader range of subjects in year 12 (the old lower 6th). Students could decide to specialise in year 13 by dropping one or two subjects, but still have a good AS qualification to show for it. If they carried on, their AS mark could contribute to the final A Level grade in that subject.

One objection to AS Levels was that because of modular testing students in year 12 faced exams very early on, before having matured sufficiently. This was dealt with by getting rid of such early assessments which also discouraged entering early assessments just to ‘bank’ a mark. This was a reasonable reform to AS.

But Michael Gove was left with a problem that despite his stated intention to scrap AS Levels altogether, it was clear that he had very little support for his plans.

The right thing to do would have been to retain AS Levels as modified, but instead he has chosen to render them largely irrelevant by removing their ability to act as a building block to A-Level.


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Labour history uncut: Labour gets its first taste of government

25/01/2013, 06:48:07 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

It was the start of 1915 and something wasn’t quite right. Contrary to the confident predictions of the press, the government and most of the Labour party, Fritz had not been sent packing and the government began to regret printing quite so many invitations to “1915’s big victory conga through no man’s land”.

In fact, to the uninformed bystander everything seemed to have ground to a halt in a bloody stalemate of trench-based slaughter.
Fortunately, the British public were very well informed by a national press that was still insisting victory was just around the corner.

For example, when the British attacked Neuve Chapelle at the start of March the Daily Express headline boomed “German’s routed…great victory at Neuve Chapelle”.

Which was sort of true, if your idea of victory was the loss of 13,000 men to gain two pocketfuls of French gravel. The offensive advanced 2km and then was abandoned due to the catastrophic losses.

Who could resist this upbeat plea to join the fun at Neuve-Chapelle?

With successes like these, it was no wonder the worry-o-meter in government was swinging towards the red. No-one had planned for war that devoured resources at such a rate. Not only were more troops needed, demand for munitions was outstripping production.


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Tackling racism is important but we can’t just see minorities as eternal victims

25/01/2013, 11:04:21 AM

by Dan McCurry

When I was a child, a lad in our street threw a stone through the window of the first Bangladeshi family to move into our street. We were rounded up by the local vicar and taken around to the family, and they gave us biscuits and lemonade, and made friends with us. Other Bangladeshi families arrived over the next few years, but they didn’t get their windows smashed.

More recently, I did some community work on the Boundary estate, near Brick Lane. One of the issues was the relations between the new middle-class white residents and the existing Bangladeshi community.  Leila’s cafe and shop, which sold organic food, had her windows smashed by the local Bangladeshi teenagers. Her response was to make friends with them, and these days they treat Leila with great respect, because they all want jobs in the cafe.

As one wave of migration gives way to another, similar tensions occur. Today is a different world to the 80s, bananas are no longer thrown at black players on the football pitch, but as socialists, we still hold some of the views that were developed in different times. These views are outdated.

It would be difficult to imagine the socialist movement mobilising to defend the Shoreditch web designers in Leila’s organic cafe. The Labour party are not going to arrive en masse to chant “fascists out!” at the Bangladeshi teenagers, even though the many issues are the same, just a different time and place.  Why is that?

There’s an experience I had as a teenager that is worth recounting here. It was rather like when Huckleberry Finn asked the question, “What’s a feud?” In my case, I asked “What’s Paki bashing?” I was told, “Aw, it’s brilliant. You get tooled up, then go about with your mates till you see one, and everyone shouts out “Paki!” He runs, and you all leg it down the street after him, and you catch up and….”


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