Five things we learnt from Tristram Hunt

29/10/2014, 04:49:26 PM

by Jonathan Todd

Having derided Ed Miliband as “a vulture” in his column, David Aaronovitch is not an uncritical Labour observer. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, was last night brave enough to sit down for an hour of conversation with him at a Progress #InConvo14 event.

We can only wonder what an hour of conversation between Miliband and Aaronovitch would tell us. But five things to take away from last night’s event were:

Labour loves teachers

Blowing smoke up the bottoms of teachers is a Hunt speciality. The policy chat was of lessons to be learnt from Finland and Singapore where a focus on teacher quality has driven improvement in school performance. The political pitch was also clear: for the support of teachers bruised by Michael Gove. Where Gove sought to bend them to his will, Hunt wants to put them on a pedestal. And if the Finnish and Singaporean experiences can be replicated, children and parents will thank Hunt.

Labour doesn’t love faith schools as much – but isn’t going to abolish them

Parental choice and school diversity become Labour virtues under Tony Blair. Last night, though, we debated what kind of divided society we might become if this choice is exercised to create a diversity of schools centred on different faiths and ethnicities.

Hunt recognised the concern but argued that school challenge and collaboration can overcome it. He claimed that these characteristics were present in the successful London Challenge, while their absence goes some way to explaining recent problems in Birmingham schools. A diversity of faith schools, on this argument, is unproblematic if they are challenged by Ofsted and integrated into local networks of both accountability and collaboration.

Labour wants to make a big play out of being pro-EU

“The thing,” according to Chuka Umunna’s recent GQ interview, “business fears most is exit from the EU, not a Labour government”. Umunna made this argument when it was put to him that Labour is anti-business. Hunt did the same last night when similarly pressed. Labour cannot be anti-business, so the story goes, because business values the UK’s EU membership and Labour government guarantees this membership, whereas Tory government doesn’t. Having cast around for business pitch, it appears that Labour has disembarked on what it thinks is a winner. (more…)

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Ed Miliband’s position on immigration is incoherent and will hand Labour votes to Ukip

29/10/2014, 02:26:39 PM

by Atul Hatwal

Is Ed Miliband a Ukip sleeper agent?

At PMQs today, the Labour leader parroted Ukip’s lines on immigration at David Cameron: broken pledges to cut numbers, a system out of control, the need to be tougher; it was a miracle Miliband didn’t rehash talk of being swamped.

All the while, the Labour leader seemed blissfully unaware of the staggering, juddering, dissonant incoherence at the heart of the case he was bellowing, across the despatch box, at the prime minister.

Here are some basic facts: out of total net annual migration of 243,000 into the UK, 131,000 came from the European Union. That’s a significant chunk and represents a rise of almost 40% in the past year.

Europeans can come to the UK because freedom of movement across the EU’s member states is a central pillar of the union.

If Ed Miliband is going to make cutting immigration a centre-piece of Labour’s electoral offer, he will need to cut EU migration and that means either a change to freedom of movement or accept that Brexit is inevitable.

We can discount the former, because here’s what the new President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, had to say on the matter last week,

“We have a treaty. Freedom of movement since the Fifties is the basic principle of the European way of co-operating. These rules will not be changed.”

So presumably, Ed Miliband is about to announce that Labour is prepared to leave the EU?

Er, not so much. Here’s what the Labour leader had to say on British membership of the EU in March this year. (more…)

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Could Labour lose the South Yorkshire police commissioner by-election?

29/10/2014, 10:58:25 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Tomorrow, Labour faces a massive electoral test that hasn’t, so far, garnered much publicity. Forget Heywood and Middleton, if Labour loses the by-election for a new Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire, deepest red Labour territory and the political backyard of Ed Miliband and a swathe of the shadow cabinet, the fallout will be immense.

Twelve months ago, the concept of Labour faring badly here would have been unthinkable. In the 2012 Rotherham by-election, caused by the resignation of Denis MacShane for fiddling his expenses, Labour held on comfortably, with more than double the share of the vote of second-placed UKIP.

That was then. Now, with the Rotherham child grooming scandal still reverberating – in all its three-dimensional awfulness – bookies have UKIP hot on Labour’s heels as we enter the last day of campaigning.

As I wrote at the time, the party’s initial response to the Rotherham scandal was slow and uncertain. Not much has changed since. Indeed, there have not been, as far as I am aware, any visits by Ed Miliband to reassure people there that this bleak episode in the party’s management of the town will not be repeated. Contrition has been thin on the ground.

Let’s be clear: the systematic abuse of children and young girls by gangs of Pakistani-heritage men in the town was unforgivable. Girls in care were thrown to the wolves by inept council officials who put political correctness ahead of decency and common sense. Grooming was seen as girls making “informed choices”. The police couldn’t have cared less. There is no other way of dressing it up. There is no missing context. This was a vile episode. Some heads have rolled – and deservedly so. Others should follow.

Professor Alexis Jay’s report made clear that there were at least 1,400 victims. This is her conservative estimate, as young Pakistani girls and boys were also abused, but are less like to report it for cultural reasons.

And the shame for it rests squarely at Labour’s door. The ‘wicked’ Tories weren’t to blame. Neither were the Lib Dems or UKIP. Between them, a Labour council and Labour-controlled police force created this mess. Meanwhile, the town’s MPs were apparently blissfully unaware.

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Will the Pro-European Labourites please stand up?

29/10/2014, 09:28:14 AM

by Callum Anderson

Just when you thought that the subject of the EU would, at least, momentarily take a place on the back-burner, it came screaming back onto Twitter, our newspapers and television screens.

First, there’s been the case of the EU budget and the UK’s prospective £1.7 billion surcharge, an additional contribution to the EU budget – whilst the likes of France and Germany are set to gain rebates of £801 million and £614 million respectively. The prospect of the UK coughing up more money to the EU, when it is already one of the biggest contributors already, as well as effectively handing over money to equally rich Member States is undoubtedly a difficult one.

The prime minister has taken the opportunity to appear as morally outraged as possible, taking a progressively harder line, stating in the House of Commons that Britain would pay ’no way near’ what the European Commission wants them to.

But the emerging facts are yet again highlighting David Cameron’s school boy approach to EU diplomacy. It is beginning to become clear that the prime minster, the chancellor and HM Treasury knew of the likely additional payment that would be required of them. Furthermore, not only did it appear that the Dutch government, who are also required to contribute an extra £506 million to the EU budget, would pay their own surcharge, but that they had also made contingency plans in preparation for their likely additional contributions.

Second, the topic of immigration was brought into the limelight, with the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon stating that he UK could be “swamped” by EU migrants – ignoring the fact that Kent, where Mr Fallon’s constituency lies, was according to the 2011 census 89.1 per cent White British. Not exactly swamped.

Yet it has become clear that there is little appetite among other European Member States for the significant treaty change required to restrict the freedom of movement, with that ever important player Angela Merkel stating that she was wholly against restricting this freedom.

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There’s a big electoral win on trains without renationalising the railways

28/10/2014, 10:40:54 AM

by Kevin Meagher

I must confess to being entirely unfamiliar with the concept of a “super off-peak ticket” until the other day when the attendant at St. Pancras Station pointed out that I had one and, given it was after 3.15pm, I was ineligible to travel on the train I was just about to hop on to.

If I’d had the forethought to buy an off-peak ticket (which I thought I had), I could have travelled until 4.00pm. That’s the point when the cheapo riff-raff (like me) are chucked off the system altogether for the full fare brigade and have to wait until 7.00pm.

And what pleasure lay in store!

All I can say is “thank you” East Midlands Trains. Thank you for the ancient, rattling rolling stock.

Thanks, also, for the uncomfortable seats, with spongy cushions and itchy coverings.

For the fixed armrests and legroom designed for Snow White’s pals.

For the hair-trigger vestibule doors, which fling open with every gust of wind.

For the depleted buffet trolley, with its cold tea and warm beer.

For the blocked toilets and lack of running water.

And, perhaps most of all, thank you for the unmistakable aroma of stale food and bodily gasses, that seems to permeate from the carriages of all of your services.

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If working class apathy with Labour becomes permanent, then the party’s over

24/10/2014, 03:00:29 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Twenty years ago, I took my father to hear John Prescott speak at Bolton Town Hall as part of his Red Rose tour. This was one of those “ra-ra” events on the road to the triumph of 1997. Optimism was high. Promises were easy. The Tories were a shower and New Labour had the answers.

In his inimitable podium-thumping style, Prescott told the packed hall that the capital receipts from council house sales of the 1980s – that local authorities were banned from spending – would be released in order to build new houses.

This was one of the party’s big policy promises at the time. It would address housing shortages, (that were already apparent), as well as putting hundreds of thousands of building workers, like my dad, back to work after the deep recession of the early 1990s, which had hit construction particularly hard.

It was the kind of rooted, common-sense measure that spoke directly to millions of voters like him at the sharp end of a Thatcherite economy that had left the North in the deep freeze. Now, it was our turn. Fast forward a decade though and things didn’t quite work out as planned.

By then, Prescott’s capital receipts pledge had turned into the Decent Homes Programme. A £19 billion pound effort to renovate dilapidated social houses with new bathrooms, kitchens and roofs.

In reality, it saw expensive contractors soaking up oodles of public cash. According to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, costs of the programme doubled to £38 billion by 2010, without creating extra new homes or the scale of jobs that sort of public investment should have done – (or, indeed, that Prescott had promised would happen that night in Bolton).

What the last Labour government did deliver was the lowest rates of new house-building since the Second World War. Unfathomably, Labour ministers were more concerned about helping Middle England’s property values to appreciate than they were in tackling housing shortages for first-time buyers or putting construction workers back to work.

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Labour needs to be straight about its plans for the NHS

24/10/2014, 01:38:13 PM

by David Talbot

“The NHS is on the ballot paper in May” declared the Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions as he sought to solidify his party’s clear advantage on this most important, and emotive, of issues. That the NHS is set to be centre stage at the forthcoming general election is partly due to naked politicking, and partly due to the dire forecasts for our health service. Both main combatants are well aware of the financial and demographic peril the NHS is in, but both continue to besmirch the debate with clichéd attacks on how the Tories can’t be trusted on the NHS or, a new variant of the same line, Labour are ruining the NHS in Wales.

It is essential that politicians are honest with the public about the scale of the challenges facing the NHS. This is particularly true of the Labour party who are prone to nostalgia and playing on sentiment, invoking the spirit of Nye Bevan and having a nonagenarian address party conference, for instance, but specifically because the party is making pledges which, deep down, it must know will be difficult or nigh on impossible to deliver. The NHS matters too much for short term electoral considerations; it is better that the party is frank, and dare say unpopular, with the public now rather than risk alienation, anger and a disintegrating NHS later.

Ed Miliband’s flagship announcement at the party conference last month was an eye-catching commitment to establish a new £2.5 billion ‘Time to Care Fund’. This unravelled not long after some fairly rudimentary scrutiny; it will be not be implemented in full until 2017/18 and Labour would need to first pass a Budget and then enact legislation before the mansion tax, levy on tobacco firms and tax avoidance levies would yield any income. And even then there are serious doubts the revenue raised would come anywhere near the £2.5 billion quoted.

It is not to say that the party is not coming up with a better vision for the NHS. Labour’s plan for a combined health and care service is unquestionably the right direction of travel, but it is not a cost or pain-free option. Andy Burnham may deny that there will be large-scale reorganisation, but unavoidably, and undoubtedly, there would be heavy financial and structural costs. A messy structural reorganisation of the administration of healthcare would clearly get in the way of healthcare delivery. What is important, what the public should not be fed, is the idea that it is not a reorganisation. It is exactly that.

The King’s Fund Barker report estimated that even after introducing a combined health and care service, spending would need to rise to around 11% of GDP to meet demand. This would still leave our health spending trailing the highest European spenders – but it would require double the spending increase that Labour is currently proposing.

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Gough Whitlam: Australia’s Attlee

23/10/2014, 09:51:32 AM

by David Ward

Australia mourns the passing of one of its Prime Ministers this week, with the death of Gough Whitlam. Chiefly remembered in Britain for the 1975 constitutional crisis, he was an iconic figure not just for the Australian Labor Party but for the nation itself. A radical proponent of change, passionate about culture, and with a ready wit in parliament. One old right winger chided him “I am a Country member”, “I remember” Whitlam shot back.

The wartime Labor administration of John Curtice had perhaps proved the ALP capable of governing, but with 23 unbroken years of rule by the centre right Liberal-Country coalition Gough’s election was a defining moment in Australian left wing politics. He was in many ways Australia’s Attlee: elected with a nationwide sense of optimism and of the possible. In three years he changed the face of a nation and his achievements stand on their own merit.

In foreign affairs the end of conscription for Vietnam and release of prisoners who had refused to fight was a huge contemporary issue, which formed part of his 1969 campaign. He also opened relations with China, a step towards an independent foreign policy and away from one of Empire and Commonwealth. Made, of course, against the backdrop of UK entry to the EEC in 1973.

But it was in domestic politics he effected most change. Free higher education opened a new future for many. Medicare took the first steps towards comprehensive free healthcare in Australia. Motorways were built between state capitals for the first time and rail links vastly improved.

Whitlam understood the power of culture to forge a nation and its identity. An Australian version of Britain’s Arts Council, the Australia Council, was made a statutory body with great reserves of funding to end the migration of talented creatives to the UK or US. It allowed an artistic renaissance for Australia, complemented by his commissioning of the country’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The playing of which he attached as a condition to being the first PM to attend an Australian ‘soccer’ match.

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Labour now has a northern discomfort to add to its southern discomfort

22/10/2014, 12:13:01 PM

by Rob Marchant

For some time, people have spoken about Labour’s “southern discomfort”: its seeming difficulty in making any headway in the critical marginals of the South-East.

As the dust settled after the by-elections two weeks ago, it became clear that the net results were as bad, if not worse, for Labour as they were for the Tories, who had never really expected to hold onto Clacton anyway. But in Heywood and Middleton, Labour only narrowly held on to a seat in its northern, industrial heartlands.

Labour’s conclusion seems to have been a vague realisation that “we need to do something about immigration”. We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.

But it is also tempting to apply a nationally-uniform explanation for UKIP’s electoral success, where it does not fit. That is, it is important to look at the North and the South separately.

The caricature of UKIP is that it is gaining votes from Little Englanders, who traditionally have a mistrust of foreigners and Europe dating back, quite probably, to 1066. And there is a lot of truth in that: in the South.

In Clacton, where UKIP won its first by-election, the percentage of the population which is 92.8% “White British”. While one imagines that enough of its voters might have sufficient mistrust of immigrants from outside Europe, as well as inside it, to vote UKIP, the “outside Europe” part signals a mistrust largely born of ignorance. By definition: there is clearly not a great variety of skin colour to be seen on Clacton’s Victorian sea-front.

However, in the old mill, steel and coal towns of the M62 corridor, the story is different, many have large Asian populations. Voters in different communities form opinions of others not through ignorance, but through the knowledge of living side-by-side, in what have sometimes become parallel, rather than integrated, societies.

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