Tuesday, December 19, 2006

One Butt, Two Hands, No Joy

Reporting of little local difficulties (as the Foreign and Colonial Office might once have had it) is not really within the remit of this blog. However, as it’s Christmas and my creativity is taking a hit, my next three entries will ostensibly be reports of goings on at the local level. I should be excused however, as they serve as excellent case studies of a more general problem.

Our first voyage of discovery takes us to Saltash, which for those with slightly lower standards of cartographical knowledge is the first town on the Cornish side of the Tamar, which thanks to its location at the end of the road and rail bridges serves as a suburb of Greater Plymouth. Indeed, the western side of Plymouth is somewhat blessed in transportation terms, retaining as it does one of the few suburban rail services outside the major conurbations. Perhaps the most important site served by that service is the naval dockyard at HMNB Devonport, one of the area’s major employers.

With its own station perched at the end of the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash was thus an ideal location for many of Devonport’s employees, who for many years enjoyed an early service that delivered them to work nicely on time. Until the latest timetable revision, however, when that service was retimed so it now delivers everyone to work late. While commuters on the Devon side of the Hamoaze can still use the train (as a separate service runs up the Tamar Valley instead), the Kernovians are left high and dry, in this case literally as they are forced onto the road bridge.

The economically enlightened amongst you might speculate that the demand for the service at that time was not actually high enough to justify its running and that it was removed on that basis, reducing the economic suicide that such a decision might ostensibly appear to be. My response to that would be to point out that the local rail franchisee in Devon and Cornwall is First Group, and the bus franchisee in Plymouth is… First Group!

Integrated (n.) any system in which alternative service providers are owned by the same company, allowing the anti-competitive destruction of one provider for the benefit of the other.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Activity: The Politician's Substitute For Accomplishment

Blog etiquette is clearly a still-evolving concept, but I suppose it’s only fair to my readers (theoretical though you all are) to give some apology for my recent sabbatical; unfortunately I’ve been discovering that the old adage about moving house and stress is all too accurate. That’s not to say that I’ve been completely inactive party-wise, and it seems a fitting time (both from my current state of creativity-sapping exhaustion and from the progress of things) to fill you all in on what I’m doing on the LDYS side of things.

But first, let us be frank and admit that, on policy matters, LDYS have in recent years dropped the ball. That’s not to say that this is anyone’s fault; turnover of activists has not helped, neither has the institutional single-mindedness generated by what I shall call, in order to protect those who should be shouted at/sacked/shot (delete as applicable), the Royal Festival Hall Incident and the Black Hole Plot.

Equally, solving those issues is not exactly within the remit of a Policy Officer; I can’t exactly be held responsible for the fact that ***** ******* is a complete ******* ****** who should be ****** *** ** *** ****, after all! What I can do is ensure that the process is right, which for fear of sounding unbearably grandiose is a massively important role in a youth politics organisation simply because the vast majority of its members will consider such things to be fundamentally boring.

The plan, then, is to completely revamp LDYS’s policy management systems. Instead of the current mass of policy motions, Policy Committee will maintain a constantly evolving policy book, building into what will essentially be a complete manifesto for the organisation from which the committee can build motions to Federal Conference. Moreover, shorn of the onerous nature of the current management system and empowered by a new, bolder development remit, LDYS Policy Committee should become a commissioning body in the role of FPC.

My point in mentioning all this is to remind the rest of the party that LDYS’ days of lying down and taking it are over; we are, to coin the delightful West Wingian phrase, Roberto Mendoza, and we’re coming to rob your house…

Monday, November 20, 2006

Everything You Learnt About Schools: The Sequel

Loathe as I am to get bogged down on specific subjects, the breadth of responses to last Thursday’s piece on grammar schools merited a full response, not least because an uncharitable mind might think that some of the respondents hadn’t read it. So let’s start again by restating the fundamental conclusion I put at the top of the last piece;

What makes you think that that is the result of selection by ability in and of itself?

Take for example the accusation that selection by ability closes off opportunities to children who don’t get into the “top” school. Now it’s true that if children have to stay in the same school for five years on the basis of the selection, those who do well may be held back by what they are able to achieve in the particular environment selected. But isn’t that a problem with it being five years? In reality, we do need to look at the split of years between different schools; the current 3/4/5/2 split should at least be 3/4/4/3 or maybe even 3/4/3/4. In that way, selection can be at 11 and 14/15, giving everyone two bites at the cherry.

Then again, the lack of logical diagnosis is not the real problem. In terms of grammar schools, there remains this ingrained concept that it is about “good” and “bad” schools, much of which relates to the idea that there are somehow vast swathes of children who aren’t particularly intelligent at 11 but by 18 will be off to Oxbridge to read biochemistry or nuclear physics. If someone would like to provide me with statistics showing that these people do exist, I’d be happy to publish them, but my suspicion is that they are a very, very small but vocal group.

Rather than expend enormous time and money trying to prevent a relatively rare occurrence, we should honestly state what education is there to achieve. I for one believe that education must be designed to maximise the potential of every child by providing tailored resources and teaching within an integrated framework that does not discriminate between academic and vocational training. You might be able to provide that within the comprehensive system, but it will be vastly more expensive to do so.

Above all, in education it is far too easy to be sentimental about things; rather than assuming that every child is born with the divine right to go to Oxbridge, let’s rise above the emotional attachment and actually consider what education should be achieving and how it can best be arranged to accomplish those goals.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Everything You Learnt About Schools Is Wrong

Are grammar schools liberal?

I ask because it rather bizarrely came up on Question Time when Ming was on and it prompted him into one of his leftier rants about social divisiveness and so forth. (I also ask because I enjoy sticking grenades under bits of policy we hold as sacrosanct, but that’s just my own particular perversity…)

The principal argument against grammar schools has remained unchanged for quite a while now; that by forcible dividing pupils at age 11, grammar schools established a fundamental divide between those who passed and those who failed, and that these attitudes dogged those who failed throughout life. Which is all very fine and splendid, but then it does raise another question;

In what way was any of that the fault of the grammar schools?

It should always be noted that the original specification of the 1944 Education Act had three tiers rather than two. The catastrophic nature of the failure to adequately fund the Technical Schools as an alternative to the Secondary Moderns cannot be overstated. In a three-tier system, your position in the grand scheme of things can be considered to have some connection to your ability; in a two-tier system, your position is the result of some arbitrary line in the sand that will never be acceptable to people, and with very good reason.

So let’s rephrase the question; is selection by ability liberal?

Now that is a relevant question, since what we are being offered at the moment is the very opposite, i.e. selection by anything but ability. First there were the specialist schools, designed to allow some selection by aptitude. Now let’s be very clear, specialist school status is bullshit; I’ve known this ever since Katharine Lady Berkeley school (taught French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Chinese) was refused Language College status in the same year my own school (taught French and German but was a grammar and a Beacon school) was granted that status. The net result is that specialist school status exists not to improve bad schools but to improve good ones.

Then Blair and co. come marching in with their big size nines and load on City Academies, Trust Schools and now Faith Schools. Again, let’s not beat around the bush; City Academies exist to give a mechanism whereby government can foist PFI rebuilding on any school that’s even so much as mediocre, to which I refer you to my previous comments about rail privatisation and how making the trains look shiny never solved the fundamental issue. Trust Schools exist to allow the schools that were good in the first place to ensure that status by letting them cherry-pick, and since in order to placate Prescott that cannot be by academic selection it will almost certainly be on the basis of teachers liking the look of people or liking the look of where they live. And as for faith schools, well, let’s just say, anyone stupid enough to come up with that idea deserves everything they get…

Thankfully, that whole system is so legally unworkable that it will collapse around the government’s ears. I can even tell you exactly where and how; it’ll be somewhere in East Lancashire or West Yorkshire, when a Muslim family with a son with a gift for cricket discover that their local Specialist Sports College is the local Roman Catholic High School. The cricket angle will get them pro bono legal work from some crusty old barrister who just happens to be an MCC member and the whole edifice will end up in the European Court of Human Rights.

In a way, we as a party have the solution already, in that we support full implementation of the Tomlinson Report. And yet Tomlinson remains an incomplete article in that it fails to consider the downstream implications of its own suggestions; ultimately, Tomlinson breaks the final division in education, that between academic and vocational subjects. The importance of that cannot be understated, not least when you consider it in reference to Bernard Woolley;

“Who wanted comprehensive education? Parents? Pupils? No, the National Union of Teachers wanted it.”

My point is, if there ceases to be a stigma around vocational subjects, then not only can pupils be allowed to specialise but teachers can be too. Once that happens, does it make any sense to coop them up in the same building as the Oxbridge candidates?

And yet, the best argument I can give against the idea that grammar schools are inherently socially divisive is my own. As I said, I went to Sir Thomas Rich’s School, one of the remaining state grammar schools. And yes, it was quite middle class as things go, but it was middle class in the 80’s way, middle class through people who had worked their way up not banked on the fortunes of others. In sixth form, a good proportion of people had done GCSE’s at comprehensives (including the worst of the lot, one so bad it’s now become a faith-based City Academy) but they’d met the standard and moved up.

But here’s the clincher; many of the best and the brightest were from Gloucester’s Asian community. Had I gone to one of my local comprehensives, I’d have had little to do with any of them, because I lived in the suburbs and they didn’t and catchment areas exist. But my school (which, by the way, had a strong moral ethos, a strong Christian ethos at that, but never felt the need to be badged by it) didn’t care if they were black, white, asian or anything; they only cared that they were talented. A world of faith schools, trust schools and city academies will ghettoise everybody; a system that was allowed to be truly meritocratic would not.

And there’s the rub; a grammar school system, with a full system of tiers, is ultimately the only truly meritocratic system going. It’s the only system that allows people to concentrate on and improve their talents in the right way for them, individually. Try and tell me that that’s not liberal? I shake my head, I really do…

Monday, November 13, 2006

Are We Really All That Bad?

As I trekked round most of the North of England today (specifically, York - Harrogate - Leeds - Settle - Carlisle - Preston - Manchester) a question dogged me; what does the party really think of LDYS policy?

I ask because it has now become something of a professional concern; as an LDYS Executive Member I've taken on a portfolio loosely entitled "Policy and Education" concerned with improving policy generation and management within LDYS and regaining some of our influence on Federal Party policy. But equally, as someone who has never attended Federal Party Conference (though only because it's always the same week as Manchester Freshers Fair and it's now become something of a protest for me) I can't really gauge the true feelings of the party at large.

Obviously I know we've something of a reputation for radicalism (I have after all at least read the pornography motion so that was ever so slightly obvious!) But is the dismay at our supposed irresponsibility real, or do people secretly take Paddy Ashdown's view that what LDYS thinks today will be mainstream in the party in five years?

In fairness my interest is only really academic; I certainly have no instinct to reel our radicalism in and I would hope that a democratic party would at least take it on the chin as an inevitable consequence of our nature. Still, it would be good to know exactly how mad people are at us before stepping in with me big size 12's...

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Ftr's Dim, The Ftr's Purple...

And no, I’m not belatedly referring to Nigel Farage and the UKIP Conference (although I would like to belatedly thank Nigel personally for placing into the public domain proof of what we as Liberal Democrats already knew, that the hallowed “centre ground” means authoritarian, racist pandering to the Murdoch/Desmond agenda)

No, I refer instead to one of the great threats to the environmental aspect of English transport policy, ftr. For those lucky enough not yet to have encountered it, ftr (pron. f’ter, text speak for future) is the supposed next step for bus travel being piloted in York by First Group. (And yes, I am aware that York is Lib Dem run and that York Lib Dem councillors are on Lib Dem Blogs, but there comes a point where the level of the cock up is so great that party loyalty must take a back seat…)

Specifically, ftr is a standard Volvo bendy bus with an “improved” (read: slightly curvier than normal with an unnecessary rear spoiler and wheel covers) body shell and “futuristic” (read: grim and impractical) interior fixtures. It also has the following “features”;

  • Greater capacity (means: one more seat than the bus it is based on)
  • Fast automatic ticketing (means: automatic ticket machines on the bus that are unreliable and difficult for anyone with even mild mobility restrictions and don’t give change in order to make it pretty much impossible to use the bus unless you’ve bought a season ticket, hence more money flowing to the bus company)
  • Convenient payment options (means: tickets by mobile sounds so cool it doesn’t matter that it’ll never work while we jack up the prices)
  • New dedicated route (means: uses the same old route but with priority traffic lights that you won’t notice because the effect is statistically insignificant to anything but the most expert observer, and the same raised kerbs that only every council in the country has been installing for the last five years)

The real problem, however, is the motivation for it all. York got the pilot scheme because it is one of those places that could never use light rail (in York’s case, because of the historic centre and city walls). Then First Group show off their lovely computer-generated impressions of ftrs whizzing down priority bus lanes and the politicians squint and tilt their head and imagine it looking a little bit like a tram, and the rest is history…

Which is fine, and only a terrible waste of money in places like York. But First’s motivation is not York, it’s Leeds, it’s Bristol, it’s Swansea, it’s all the places that had light rail plans all ready to go until HMG decided to abandon light rail without telling anyone. If First can convince those places that guided busways, priority traffic lights and silly plastic body shells are as good as trams, it could kill light rail in England and ensure that the bus companies maintain their excellent record of increasing profits while reducing passenger numbers.

The environmental cost of such a decision would be despicable. With domestic energy, decentralisation is justifiable because recycling of exhaust heat increases the efficiency of the process. In transport, however, electric trams using overhead power lines supplied by the grid will always beat the efficiency of diesel engines venting that heat to the air. That the government are acting so cravenly and irresponsibly is disappointing but not exactly unexpected; that Lib Dem councillors locally are helping them do so is just embarrassing.

(Incidentally, one final note to any Labour or Conservative campaigner who thinks this entry is an excuse to have a go at York Lib Dems; if you have the unbrazen temerity to even imply that you wouldn’t have approved ftr yourselves, you’re big, fat, stinking, lying liars!)

Friday, November 03, 2006

LDYS: Winning How?

Of course, if I'm going to sit here all week being critical of things going on within LDYS, at some point you'll have every right to ask me what I'd do about it. And to be honest, I've spent all week struggling with it, until just now I realised that actually I have a get-out clause (but more of that anon...)

Meanwhile, I think it's only fair that I tell you what I disagree with;

  • We must not drop the word "Democrat" from our name. This is something that the whole party needs to be made aware of; LDYS is considering changing its name (which is fair enough, LDYS isn't exactly memorable) and there is a strong body of opinion in favour of only using "Liberal" as a descriptor. Even without the PPERA problems that might arise from such a change, it is fundamental that we not seek to deny our status as the youth wing of a political party. The moment we cease to have pride in the party we seek to represent, we cease to have any right to do anything.,
  • We must not allow the accountability situation to get worse. LDYS Conference has its problems, true. And yes, the idea of having one annual Convention with a greater focus on workshops and blue-sky thinking is good and should be pursued. But we must not allow our desire to get a convention in place to ride roughshod over the need to have an accountable executive.
  • We must not have a Sabbatical Chair. LDYS has suffered in recent years from only having one full-time staff member, but the problem has been a lack of skills and a lack of time to apply them, not a lack of political leadership. Yes, we need a second staff member, but that person should be a stable, professional presence with the skills we need to do the things we need to do.
But what, you may well ask, of my get-out clause? Well, put simply, we must have an open process. LDYS has an enormous range of stakeholders; parliamentarians, local parties, university branches, youth branches, ordinary members... and so far the efforts to engage them properly have been negligible Until we're getting that bit right, I'm not going to feel guilty sniping from the sidelines.

Either way, the lesson to those on the outside is clear; if you want a strong youth wing, if you want to take advantage of the clear advantage Lib Dems have among young voters, don't wait for it to be delivered on a plate. Get informed, get involved, and help us get it sorted.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

LDYS: Winning Soon?

As with anything else at all, when discussing the present state of LDYS, context is everything.

Since what can only be described (in order to protect the guilty) as the Royal Festival Hall incident, the attitude of those charged with running LDYS and in particular of its Chairs has been that the only solution to LDYS' problems is the political equivalent of carpet-bombing; complete overhaul of every section of the organisation's activities led by a completely new constitution.

Now that in itself is fair enough; even those in the constitutional wonk end of the organisation (or as it has come to be known, for reasons that will hopefully soon be obvious, the Committee for Public Safety) agree that the organisational structure is by no means perfect. The idea in and of itself continues to have little to do with what is holding LDYS back.

For that, we must turn to the mentality evidenced by the actions of those pursuing reform. The last two LDYS Conferences (Spring 2006, Leeds and Autumn 2006, Colchester) have essentially been dominated by the reform debate, and in both cases the approach of the ringleaders has been the same; propose your reform as late as possible, ram it forcibly onto the agenda and railroad conference into accepting it before anyone can really consider the implications of it all.

The reason for this approach is simple; the perception is that somehow the whole of LDYS is being held back by a small group of reactionaries who are implacably opposed to any form of change and will use any form of constitutional manipulation to have their way. As a result, successive Chairs have deemed it necessary to conduct business without the involvement of even their own executives, in the hope that the reactionaries will not notice until it is too late.

So far, this approach has been pretty successful, but only because of the nature of LDYS's membership; it's easy to sell the idea that the ends justify the means to young people who are slowly discovering their political identity. In any case, the idea that procedure might exist for a reason is one you learn through bitter experience rather than teaching.

The irony, of course, is that this is a classic chicken-and-egg problem, in that the reactionaries do not foster the attitude so much as the attitude fosters the reactionarism. As Liberal Democrats, we instinctively believe in free and open debate followed by measured decision making; so long as people will insist on trying to make changes in secret and at the last minute (often using the very constitutional procedures they criticise in others), there will be people who will oppose them for the undemocratic way they have pursued things.

My point is, we cannot guarantee that proceedings inside LDYS will meet the standards of accountability and inclusiveness that the Federal, State and Local Parties should expect of us. The consequences of that could easily be disastrous, both for LDYS and for the rest of the party. Now more than ever, we need people outside LDYS to be involved and informed as the future of the organisation is thrashed out.

Monday, October 30, 2006

LDYS: Winning Where?

The passage of LDYS Conference understandably draws my consideration to the state of our youth wing (not least as at this one I was elected to the LDYS Executive!) This week, I'll be offering a few perspectives on where we are and where we might be heading.

In youth politics as a whole two trends dominate debate; single-issue campaigns and the "rise" of Conservative Future. The first is an issue at all levels of party politics and one I've no real insight into solving. The same cannot be said, however, for the second.

As much as anything, it all depends on your idea of success, and that very much depends on the party you are referring to. From the point of view of the Conservatives, Conservative Future is hugely successful, in that the traditional route to becoming a Conservative MP or Association Chair is through being an utter socialite. All Conservative Future is thence required to be is a social organisation with a broad but not necessarily committed membership, and it does that very well.

Similarly, advancement within the Labour Party has always been about your hack rating; you become a hack in Labour Students, then a hack in the NUS, then a hack in your Trade Union of choice or within the party itself before finally reaching Westminster.

But for the Liberal Democrats, the aim of the youth wing is very much different. To become an MP, you must learn your trade and the benefits of hard work. From the point of view of the local parties, then, the aim of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students is to produce activists, men and women with motivation and skills ready to fight the good fight.

It's tempting to believe that any form of success is something to be pursued. But success is about doing the right thing, not doing anything and then claiming it was right to begin with.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Inexorable Call Of Duty

And lo the tax proposals came to pass. Amidst all the media bluster about the amendments and the challenge to Ming, no-one really mentioned that the proposals themselves were always going to sail through.

But the whole thing did leave me wondering what the endgame would be. Big ticket flat taxes are surely the way to start, but what do we want or need environmental taxes to turn into?

So allow me now to open a debate; I’ll describe a reasonably comprehensive environmental tax system, then you can tell me why it’s a load of twaddle that would never work. I’ll probably lose, but you’ll have to ask yourself the question, which is probably the more important thing.

The mechanism I would choose is VAT. Yes, it’s regressive, but it is a tax directly levied on behaviour and behaviour is what we are seeking to modify. Moreover, the regressiveness can, at least politically, be tempered by the process.

In my system, we consider all goods and services according to three criteria;

  • Delivery – This considers everything that gets the goods or services to the point of sale. Primarily this will be the energy cost of producing and transporting the item on the manufacturer’s and vendor’s part and the resulting environmental impact.
  • Utilisation – This considers the environmental impact of using the product as sold. In some cases (e.g. petrol) this will be a direct emissions impact, but it largely refers to waste output and the cost of disposal.
  • Social Impact – This considers the cost to society of the use of a particular product. Through this category, things like alcohol and cigarette duty become empirical quantities rather than political footballs.

For each quantity, a points score is assessed, initially on a rather generic basis (for example, Delivery = Production Energy + (Mass x Distance Transported)), and these are added to produce the VATable rating. The government then assigns a percentage value per point to give the rate of tax levied on any particular item.

Once the generic study is completed, companies may then apply for specific certifications where their products are better than the assessed standard; for example, if the average car is 40% recyclable but the car I produce is 80% recyclable, I apply for recertification and the VATable rating of my product goes down.

The result is a VAT system that, far from being flat and arbitrarily regressive, is scientifically assessed and socially, if not academically progressive. It provides a direct financial incentive to consumers to improve their behaviour and to producers to improve their products.

The primary downside, from a liberal perspective, is obvious; the initial assessment and management of the scheme requires an independent agency on an unimaginable scale using an IT system that would make the iSoft debacle look positively puny.

But the question remains; what is the endgame? President Bush loves to tell us that technology is the way to beat global warming. This is a solution where we have the technology; can we rebuild him?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ed Balls Thinks I'm Stupid

It’s been a good year for political quotes, particularly my favourite kind, the ones that reveal a deeper meaning to the usual diet of spin and drivel. But with the conference season out of the way, it appears unlikely that my quote of the year award will be going anywhere other than the prohibitive favourite since February, everyone’s favourite Brownite lackey, Ed Balls MP, for this classic from Question Time;

“You can’t claim to be a progressive and simultaneously oppose tax credits”

Edward, (says he adopting the Noel Coward-esque condescending tone of voice at which he excels), I have a bachelor’s degree and will soon have a master’s degree from the University of Manchester, plus I’ve won University Challenge and am currently ranked British #45 competitive quizzer. And even if that weren’t true I would only need the intellect of a boiled cabbage to construct an argument that would allow me to claim to be a progressive and simultaneously oppose tax credits.

Posit; you’re in government and want to help parents in work avoid the benefit trap. What is the most direct way to do this? By reducing the tax burden on the lower end of incomes that is the primary cause of the poverty trap. To achieve this, you could raise the income tax threshold above minimum wage, increase the personal allowance for qualifying families, etc.

Which is all well and good, except that for New Labour the original question is wrong. Posit; you’re in government and want to help parents in work avoid the benefit trap in the most visible way possible. You could raise the income tax threshold or the personal allowance, but that only gets you a few stories in one news cycle. If, however, you institute a system where people get their tax repaid to them, every working parent in the country gets a cheque every month that is subconsciously signed G.Brown.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it does require the government in question to be able, say, to recognise a well-run IT contract when it whacks them in the face. Suffice to say, if there’s one thing New Labour know how to cock up, it’s IT contracts. What we have instead is a vicious system that ruins the lives of families across the country every single day.

My point is, this is exactly the sort of thing we need to be whacking Labour on every day; not only is it cynical vote-grubbing of the very worst order, but we just happen to have passed a policy that would do what tax credits do without destroying lives. When we are the best, most progressive option and can prove it, we should be shouting it from the rooftops. And I can guarantee that the parliamentarian who has the gumption to stand up and do it will be the next leader of this party.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Joined-Up Government Requires Joined-Up Brain Cells

Despite my earlier post as to her muppetry, you have to love Ruth Kelly just for the entertainment value. After all, it is a rare minister who manages to make two separate statements in one day that have no appreciation of their own irony. Forgive me for failing to beat around the bush, but;

1) Ruth, you are a member of Opus Dei, an official branch of the Roman Catholic church whose aim is to support the promotion of Catholic dogma through the working lives of its members. If you truly wish to tackle extremism, you should leave this organisation and distance yourself from it forthwith. It should also be noted that you have denied that membership of Opus Dei affects your work as a minister, which means you are either lying to the electorate or lying to God.

2) Ruth, you are a member of the Labour Party, an organisation that believes that local government should operate under firm guidelines from central government and that local government should have control over almost none of its budget, with all funding coming from the centre. If you want local government to have any chance of tackling extremism, you should join a party that believes that local government should source more of its own finances and should be allowed the freedom to make its own policies and innovate. (Okay, we wouldn't let you in, but that shouldn't stop you trying...)

If there's one thing that annoys me about how we deal with the media as a party, it's that we don't offer this sort of exposition. We must start beating down the door on this sort of hypocrisy if we are to make a real impact on both the government and the electorate.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

And I Got 75% On That So They Let Me Right In…

Living as I do as an ex-pat in the North, most of my information about goings on in the south comes from the view from train windows. And if my experience of station platforms from Winchester to Wolverhampton is anything to go by, there is a least one trend that has bridged the North-South divide.

I refer of course to the incessant marketing of universities. In Granadaland we’re very much in peak season for it, which is great because no university has yet produced an advertisement that wasn’t unintentionally hilarious. To wit;

  • Salford – It’s bad enough that their official slogan is “A Greater Manchester University”, but now they’ve produced a poster that’s meant to be a painting-by-numbers key to why there are 30 great reasons to study at Salford, half of which boil down to, “Salford; It’s quite near Manchester”
  • Huddersfield – I’m sorry, I don’t care if he is the Chancellor, but it is impossible to take seriously an advert in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard tells me I should go to Huddersfield.
  • Lincoln – This advert basically shows every single building the university has with various graduates in front of them. I’ve been to that campus, and I swear it was so nondescriptly modern I didn’t recognise it till they told me where it was at the end.
  • Edge Hill – In fairness Edge Hill have updated their ad, but not so much as to remove the two key flaws it has, namely 1) that if you want me to be impressed by how many courses you offer, name-checking Sports, Business and Performing Arts isn’t going to cut it (and by the way, way to go reinforcing the stereotype!) and 2) flashing the words Liverpool and Manchester in front of me will not disguise the fact that you are in Ormskirk.

But what really gets my goat is this sudden craze for having university signs in train stations. I can think of two universities that have a legitimate excuse for this; Salford and Birmingham, and then only because they have stations on campus. For anyone else in university administration who thinks it’s clever, get your butts on the seats, zip your lips and listen hard…

In the first instance, marketing is a powerful force but it has not yet managed to raise anyone from the dead. There are only three groups of people going to university; those who want to get as far away from home as possible (there are reasons why I ended up at Manchester and this is one of them), those who want to stay as close to home as possible, and those who only bother at the last minute. The first two will research where they want to go and make an informed decision, the third will go to the university closest to where they live. Your sign on the station will matter to precisely none of these people.

Secondly, I have £14,000 worth of debt because I went to university, people starting now are likely to develop £23,000 and if you all have your way that number will be £35,000 (seriously, the Russell Group want fees to go up to £7,000), so trust me when I tell you that seeing that money pissed away on tacky signs makes me rather angry, and you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…

More importantly, however, no-one is going to decide to both go to university and to go to a particular one because they see a sign in a station. And if they do, it might be suggested that needing to see a sign in a station to realise that the University of Reading is a higher education facility in Reading to which one may apply is a pretty good indicator of incapability as far as academia is concerned.

I am not one of those who would seek to belittle graduates of the likes of the University of Gloucestershire (not least because my sister’s at that one right now doing Early Childhood Studies, a by no means unworthy choice), but we must understand that urging universities to become ad hoc ad agencies to meet an arbitrary target is folly. Yes, we need more graduates, but the problem is not that, say, Poland is producing more graduates than we are, it is that it is producing graduates with qualifications in science, in engineering, and yes in plumbing. No degree is meaningless to the person who obtains it, but it is the government’s duty to ensure that degrees are not meaningless to the nation, and right now it is a duty they are spectacularly failing to meet.

PS I should make a special mention of the University of Southampton, who manage to have their grubby little paws on three stations, at least one of which is quite rude, as I’m fairly sure Winchester has a university of its own (not least because one of my friends is at it right now too!)

PPS There’s a special prize to anyone who can identify the two comedy references (i.e. not the Incredible Hulk one) in this entry. I have to have a little fun with it sometimes, nerd-like or otherwise!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Keeping Up With The Joneses

You ignore the trends of political life at your peril.

I mention this in view of the delight shown by Conservative activists at another poll showing their vote up at the expense of the Lib Dems (supposedly). The national swing will smite us down and put us back into our place as the nowhere men of British politics, so goes the theory.

But again, you ignore the trends of political life at your peril. And I say this as someone sitting in a Lib Dem constituency, the gaining of which had nark all to do with the national swing. Indeed, Manchester Withington was so far outside the bounds of the national swing equation that at least one guide to the election held it up as the exemplar of a former northern urban Tory stronghold that was now impregnably Labour.

Nevertheless, an 11,000 majority was overturned in a result so sensational the BBC’s analysts pronounced it a mistake and stopped talking about it so as not to dent their psephological pride. Labour’s shock was such that the cries of dark practices continue to this day (though it’s rather difficult to claim that your opponent lied about the existence of something when its existence was reported on BBC Television!) Then again, as the party in power, they can be forgiven for not facing up to reality; it’s not as if any previous government has had any real idea of what reality was…

Beyond the self-congratulation, however, there is a serious issue for the part as a whole. In Brighton there was a discussion about the siting of future party conferences that noted that the membership of the party has a 60-40 bias towards the south of England. It is a statistic that one should always have in mind when having these discussions that are supposedly about the soul of the party; as a southerner living in the north, I have discovered if nothing else that the ideological split in the party is not left vs. right, it is north vs. south.

The reason is, of course, the historical electoral imperative. With so many MP’s defending against an allegedly rejuvenated Conservative party, we have a policy process with a raging undercurrent of not pissing off middle England. Indeed, two things about the tax amendment debate stunned me; that it was a southern MP leading the charge, and that the media didn’t pick up that the north-south issue was the main driver for it.

Strangely, the solution is staring us in the face. Ming’s favourite line for some time has been that the other parties are managerialists, solely concerned with the administrivia of the country as it stands. Indeed, Labour and the Conservatives have basically established a status quo, where the only differences are in degree, be it on the NHS (where Labour want to mortgage it and the Tories want to sell it outright), on law and order (where Labour want to lock people up for a really long time and the Tories want to lock them up for a really really long time), and so forth.

The liberal firebrand response to the status quo, meanwhile, simply isn’t up the job; it basically boils down to “the status quo would work if only there was more of it”; that the status quo is the right way to go but we must fill in the gaps in personal and corporate liberty to make it work at maximum efficiency. To the trained economist it may be a valid viewpoint, but to the politician, to the person living in the real world, it is patently ridiculous. At a time when Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition are offering the same tired old gruel, we cannot be the voice of radicalism if our only response is, “Please Sir, may I have some more?”

My point, finally, is this; people do not vote Lib Dem just because they want a better way, they vote Lib Dem because they believe a better way must be a different way. It is not merely enough to show, as an economic or moralistic exercise, that your way is better; you must demonstrate that it is different. Moreover, while there are plenty of socialists (or at the very least people who behave so loutishly that the difference is difficult to tell) in this party, a desire for a different way is not evidence of communist tendencies, stupidity or thoughtcrime.

Making this party a potential party of government does not require us to abandon our principles, on either wing or from either end of the country, but it does require that we use our principles in the way our electorate (not the electorate, not that subset of the electorate tarred with the “middle England” brush, but our electorate) want us to.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Nuclear Option

Blogging on energy policy is a tricky business for me; I have to declare in the register of interests that I’m currently finishing an MSc in Nuclear Reactor Technology and have worked previously for both British Nuclear Group and National Nuclear Corporation. In any case, if I were to post an extended pro-nuclear polemic, the grief received would not be worth it.

Instead, I thought I’d offer a few of my favourite insights into the underlying science. Because if anything strikes me about coverage of energy matters, it’s that no-one in the political or journalistic spheres really understands how energy production works. So, in no particular order;

  • Installed capacity is not the same as available capacity. Actually, I can’t stress this one enough; Installed capacity is not the same as available capacity! The easiest argument in the world is “nuclear makes up 20% of our electricity generation, we have 20% overcapacity, so if we close the nuclear stations it’ll be fine”. Installed capacity represents the maximum generation potential of a power station, but a reserve is required to allow for planned shutdowns, faults, climate factors… 20% overcapacity is probably okay, though 25% would be preferable.
  • Foreign interconnectors do not count as installed capacity either. In recent years we have boosted our capacity to take electricity from grids in continental Europe, but this should not be considered as if it were just another power station. Italy had major power cuts in 2003 because they did just that, then found that a heatwave left both Italy and France with low reserves. At that point, the French told the Italians just exactly where they could shove their interconnectors and shut them off. Even if we had a European electricity market (and we’re so far away from it it’s laughable), no politician in their right mind is going to risk power cuts in their own country by helping out another country.
  • Again, one I really can’t stress enough; It’s not that “we” don’t know what to do with nuclear waste, it’s that “you” don’t. Technically, long-term storage of nuclear waste is a solved problem, the argument is merely political. And if you doubt it, here’s the measure. Assume we do what we currently propose, namely vitrify, pack in grouted steel canisters, bury in a concrete-lined chamber 500m underground, then concrete up the chamber itself. Then assume that on the day the chamber is sealed, all civilisation on Earth is brought to an end by an earthquake of unprecedented global, let alone British, magnitude. Then assume that this earthquake breaks the chamber and all the canisters and exposes them all to the water table. Then assume that a person establishes a farmstead on the 1km square around the point where the flow from the chamber hits the surface. Then assume that that person never leaves the farm and only eats things grown in that 1km square area. Then consider that that person’s chance of contracting cancer from radiation is increased by the same amount as that of a person who moves house from London to Truro
  • The largest source of uncertainty in the economic case for power stations has nothing to do with the stations themselves, it is a function of the way the government has decided to structure the market. Under BETTA (British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements), generators must sell half-hour tranches of capacity onto what is essentially a commodities trading market. Now, dairy farmers get screwed by supermarkets because they cannot control the timing of the milk supply and they must sell it during its shelf life; electricity has an even shorter shelf life, so the transmission and supply companies can screw them in exactly the same way. The tranche system also screws renewable generators, who cannot with 100% accuracy predict how much capacity they will have in any half-hour period, leaving them often having to buy make-up capacity at inflated prices.
  • Despite what I’ve seen some bloggers try to argue, nuclear does help security of supply and lessen dependence on foreign resources. In the first instance, the majority of the world’s oil comes from the Middle East while the bulk of the world’s uranium comes from Australia and Canada. In the second, a 1000MW coal-fired power station requires between 3 and 9 million tonnes of a coal a year, depending on quality; a similarly sized nuclear plant requires 27 tonnes of fuel a year. This just in; stockpiling of uranium is practical, stockpiling of fossil fuels really isn’t…
  • On the matter of security, how feasible is it that terrorists will intercept a nuclear fuel transport and extract the plutonium from it? Well, even if we assume that they can evade all the spy satellites ever built with sufficient forces to overwhelm a fully armed transport vessel in the middle of the ocean, break open the thick steel transport cans and remove the fuel, consider that in order to remove plutonium from uranium, Britain has constructed a factory bigger than most cathedrals. Are we really to believe that while it costs us £2 billion, they could do it with the chemistry kit they got at Toys ‘R’ Us?
  • Hydrogen is not the great saviour of all renewable energy sources. Hydrogen production by solar energy and biomass may well prove possible, but for wind, wave and tidal power the only feasible production process is electrolysis. Unfortunately, electrolysis of water for hydrogen requires temperatures approaching 1000°C as well as electricity, and wind, wave and tidal are never going to get there. In reality, hydrogen production is best suited to systems that produce consistent high temperatures, allowing the thermal output to be used directly for electricity generation during high demand or for hydrogen production during low demand. Gee, I wonder if we have anything like that at present…
  • Energy efficiency is not the great saviour of anything. If nothing else, we must remember that energy savings themselves are not 100% efficient; if new technology makes something use 10% less energy, the cost of doing that thing reduces and hence people do it more (the Khazoom-Brookes hypothesis). You cannot escape it by restricting what you make more energy efficient; if you make an industrial process more energy efficient, the product of that process becomes cheaper so more people buy it so production increases so more energy is used. In an economic world, energy use is always going to be a function of energy cost.
  • Uranium is only a scarce resource if you ignore just about everything. Current estimates of available resources assume something like 3% utilisation of fissile uranium; with reprocessing, utilisation in the high 90’s is possible. As the cost of uranium mining increases with scarcity, reprocessing becomes economical and your reserve lifetime goes up thirty times (from around 50 years to around 1500). Then factor in breeder reactors that convert uranium from its inert to its fissile form, increasing overall utilisation from 0.7% to the high 90’s again, giving another factor of around 125, increasing the lifetime estimate to 187,000 years. Then factor in thorium (four times more abundant than uranium, can be converted to fissile uranium with existing reactors, hence your resources go up from 187,500 years to 937,500 years). Would anyone like to argue that that constitutes scarce?
  • There’s nothing worse in this debate than the ton of arguments that blindly ignore the rest of existence. Ed Davey recently said that no nuclear power plant in Europe had ever been built on time and on budget; would he like to identify for me please the vast swathe of buildings of all types across the continent that have?

My overarching point is this; the 21st century will be the energy century. The decisions we make now, about energy for industry, energy for domestics, energy for transportation, will dictate our position on climate change, on geopolitics, on commerce, on industry… Whatever we do, we must make the decision on the facts; at a time when we face such threats from one group of religious zealots, we must not allow another group of religious zealots to dictate the future of our society. Particularly when (and this is my favourite of the whole bunch…)

  • If you lived one mile from both a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant, which would give you the highest radiation dose? Coal contains uranium, thorium, radon and carbon-14, all of which is ejected directly to the environment when it is burnt. The answer, counter-intuitive though it may be, is that the coal station gives you a higher dose.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Don't Look At Me In That Tone Of Voice

Wikipedia is a dangerous thing for me; it works far too much like my brain does. Occasionally the temptation is too great and I am lost to the world. Sometimes, however, that journey dredges up a priceless nugget of information, as it did today.

Francine Busby is the Democratic candidate for the California 50th Congressional District. She was also the Democratic candidate in a special election held in June to replace Duke Cunningham, a six-term Republican who had resigned after pleading guilty to bribery and fraud charges.

Busby was favourite to win until, five days before the election, she spoke at a senior citizens centre and was recorded as saying, "
Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help."

I've always been a firm believer in the importance of semantics, but here the problem is even more subtle. The Republican candidate won by claiming that Mrs Busby had encouraged illegal immigrants to vote; for that to be the case, the stress in the phrasing has to be on "papers". If, however, the stress fell on "voting", the meaning of the comma changes and it is just a note that non-voters can still help with the campaign. Semantics are one thing, but losing an election campaign on the interpretation of the stress in your phrasing is quite another.

Semantic battles or otherwise, this is an intriguing race for Liberal Democrats as it represents so much of what we believe, both at home and abroad. Brian Bilbray, the victorious Republican candidate, is a former lobbyist who has represented in both roles organisations that favour draconian immigration controls. Mrs Busby runs a shelter for homeless pregnant women,
is a school board member in the delightfully-named Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and is supported by EMILY's List and Democracy For America.

It's easy to loose faith in America, but races like these are going on across the country and we're not going to hear about them until polling day. Francine Busby and her colleagues can be sure that she has the support of Liberal Democrats across Britain in the fight for the soul of America.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Strains Of Topicality

I'm quickly learning that there really is no rest for the wicked in the blogosphere. I mean, there you are, drawing together a mass of thoughts on some subject or other, and before you're ready one of the broadsheets does a story about it. Then, just in case anyone missed it, the blogosphere publishes the link to the online version so everyone gets the heads-up and your carefully considered analysis gets swamped.

Nevertheless, I'm indebted to Femme de Resistance on Forceful And Moderate
for drawing my attention to a couple of recent pieces that pre-empt me; a Grauniad editorial on the uncertain future of modern graduates and a Times review of the latest book decrying environmentalist hostility to nuclear power. I'll save my comment on them until it's ready.

PS Last week, I commented on some of the speeches at the Labour party conference, but only because the speeches had some content and that content annoyed me. In the unlikely event of the Conservative conference acquiring anything so gauche as content, I'll be sure to tell you all why it annoys me. This is an equal opportunities blog, after all...

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Revenge Of Society

It is always worth recalling that Margaret Thatcher never said “There’s no such thing as society”. After all, what she actually said is much more interesting…

“[People constantly seeking government intervention] are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

When considering the Thatcher legacy, one must always keep in mind the foundation of her belief system, namely a romanticised view of the English middle classes. In Thatcher’s world, a middle class freed from the shackles of over-taxation and imbued with a renewed entrepreneurial spirit would “rediscover” their spiritual (i.e. Christian) calling towards philanthropy and general neighbourliness.

For a generation of radicals, both leftist and centrist, used to thinking of Thatcher as the latest avatar of unalloyed authoritarian evil, it is surprising to discover in Thatcher what is essentially a social liberal ideal. Liberal or otherwise, however, it is an ideal that fails my primary test of political theory; it does not understand why things are as they are.

Thatcher’s Britain does exist, in a way. The trouble is, the places it exists are amongst the poorest in the world. A world based entirely on neighbourliness cannot sustain anything much beyond the smallest village; Thatcher’s Britain lives amongst the herders of the world.

Beyond that, government was and is the only option. In the early stages, monarchy sustained a larger society by giving the strong power over the weak. Later, democracy emerged to protect the weak from the strong and, as a consequence, the strong from themselves. In either case, neighbourliness was not something that could be depended upon; greed was, as ever, the only human driver one could rely on with any certainty.

Ultimately, society is not the natural state of affairs between humans; it is a situation that we have decided to arrange to be so because it is beneficial to us. Of late, we have been constantly reminded that the first role of government is the defence of the people, but history shows that it just as equally refers to defending the people from each other as from any other group. Indeed, my response to Mrs Thatcher’s pronouncement would have been in this form;

“Society does exist, and it does so primarily to prevent the poor from rising up with flaming torches and shoving pitchforks up the arses of the rich.”

My point is, the real debate in any political system is in the trade-off between liberty and society. Socialists believe in overdoing it; sacrificing too many liberties to give society a big margin. Capitalists believe in tactically underdoing it; allowing society to be dangerous iniquitous by gambling all their chips on a draconian justice system. Liberals have always plied the middle way; only we have chosen the difficult path of striking the right balance.

The danger for the Liberal Democrats is that Mrs Thatcher was the first leader of either party to really try the capitalist approach of dangling precariously on the edge of the cliff being held up by the police. Before her, both Labour and Conservatives erred on the side of caution; Labour by curtailing economic liberty, Tories by curtailing social liberty. With Blair, both parties have now swung wildly off the cliff with little to hold them in place.

As I have said before, liberalism is the beginning of wisdom; knowing that the desired solution is right on the line of that balance is the start of the solution. But it is not the end of wisdom; you have to know where you are relative to the line and how you got there to move in the right direction. The path to the liberal ideal is not necessarily liberalism in all its glory. Only when the pure liberals can show that they know which side of the line they are on will I be convinced.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Musings From The Window Of A Virgin Train

Sitting on a train between Macclesfield and Stoke-on-Trent heading home to see the parents inevitably turns my thoughts to transport policy. My relationship with the railways is an unusual one; my father has worked for BR/Railtrack/Network Rail pretty much since I was born, and as a result I have enjoyed free rail travel throughout the United Kingdom. That freedom allows you to do things no sane person would ever seriously attempt (the nine-hour journey I took from Plymouth to Gloucester via Reading and Birmingham in order to ensure that I saw England beat Germany 5-1 being just the pinnacle of a long list of strange trips undertaken).

The one drawback to such a relationship is that it rather removes the moral right to complain. But then, to be honest, I’ve not had much to complain about. Equally, a lot of that has been down to flexibility and forward planning rather than actual performance on behalf of the train companies.

Ultimately, however, the analysis of railway privatisation has to come back to how the system has performed against the promises of 1994. Are the trains cleaner and more modern? Yes. Are the stations cleaner and more modern? Yes. Are the trains better? No. Have we saved the billions of pounds of subsidy we used to give to British Rail? Not on your nelly…

Now, I’m not so left wing as to believe all privatisation was evil; my main objection to most privatisations is that the model used was fundamentally flawed (an argument to which we’ll return to in later episodes). In the case of the railways we get double trouble; not only is the model the worst of the lot, but after the chaos of 2001 it could almost appear that things are all right now. Instead, we are paying an enormous premium for the illusion of stability.

The real issue is that rail privatisation contravened Aubrey’s Law of Responsibility; namely, government should never give up managerial responsibility for any service the absence of which they will get the blame for. I’m sure that one of the ways in which privatisation was sold to ministers in the early days was that people would quickly understand that any problems were now the fault of the private company and not the government. That was true when the system was in good condition when everything was sold, but in the case of the railways, not only was the system in crisis, but the privatisation was specifically designed to make things worse.

The train operating companies spotted the problem very quickly; under the system as originally designed, Railtrack made a profit from track use fees, the companies made a profit from the tickets. However, with the infrastructure in such a state of decay, Railtrack had to raise the track fees to make the necessary investment in renewal. Doing that reduced the profits of the companies to the point where they had to consider reductions in services. As the blame had not moved from government to operators, reductions in services were not an option politically, hence the government had to step in and subsidise both Railtrack and the operators.

Then Hatfield happened and the whole system crashed down on Railtrack’s head. The post-Hatfield settlement ostensibly removed the critical issue from the system whereby Railtrack became Network Rail and ceased to need to make a profit. The trouble is, Network Rail still needs to get more money out of the operators; the only difference now is that the motive is not that of profit, but that of politics, i.e. the requirement of the government that it cease to have to subsidise the whole thing.

The result, then, is a settlement that is essentially no better than the original one, with the exception that it is now underwritten by HMG. What’s more, the government’s efforts to withdraw are now doomed; by stepping in, they have essentially admitted that they will always have ultimate responsibility under the current system. Responsibility has moved, but the blame is simply never going to. Under those circumstances, it may not even be possibly to simply reform the system as is; we may have to consider the nuclear option as the only temporary fix.

The answer, to my mind, is essentially the South Eastern Trains solution; renationalise for a short period, then re-privatise under a fundamentally different model. Whatever that model may be, it must recognise that the aim of railway privatisation is not that the railways compete against each other; it is that the railways compete against the roads and, particularly, against the enormous and environmentally catastrophic rise in internal air travel. Only when we accept that truth will we finally start working to a truly integrated transport policy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I Want To Go To A Ranch, Please Can I Go To A Ranch?

So Prezza won't face a criminal investigation over the Philip Anschutz affair. In other news, bears continue to prefer the woods for their toiletary needs...

Nevertheless, there remains one question that needs answering. During the height of the media storm, Prescott's primary defence was that, while he had visited Casa Anschutz, he had had no intention of discussing the casino bid at any time. To which the obvious response is, "Well you may not have intended to discuss it, but it was the only thing he intended to discuss!"

The question is, why did he believe that this was a reasonable defence? Is it possible that, despite 35 years as an MP, he retains the naïvety of one who just came in on a turnip truck? Or is it possible that, despite 10 years of incompetence and sleaze, Labour still believe they can deflect all attacks by professions of piety?

Either way, the electorate should be under no illusions; whether led by Blair, Brown or (God help us all if it should come to pass) Milburn, the disconnect between New Labour and reality remains as strong as ever.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I Want It All And I Want It When The Convergence Criteria Are Met...

The slogan of this Labour conference is obvious; "Working With People's Aspirations" (Hilary Armstrong just invoked it once again). As a slogan it's fair enough, sounds nice, very democratic. But as ever in the New Labour experiment, it depends upon a semantic leap of faith that is thoroughly unjustified.

What they actually mean, of course, is "Working With What We Think People's Aspirations Should Be". All the evidence suggests that the New Labour answer to that question is, "The poor want to work at all, the rich want to get richer". And fair play to them, the rich have got richer and the poor are working more.

But equally, the poor are getting poorer. People do want to work, but they want to live first, and this government has failed abominably at making jobs liveable. No matter how many flashy ad campaigns you have for all the tax credit systems, it doesn't solve the fundamental issue that tax credits are simply a bad way of doing things, even if they're run well (and what chance is there of that?)

Whatever happens with the leadership, there appears little chance that Labour will actually get to grips with their failure until they are booted out. It is essential that we as Liberal Democrats get out there and win the battle on poverty; unlike Labour, and the Conservatives for that matter, we have the policies that can make a real difference in the fight against poverty.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Whose Regeneration Is It Anyway?

I would imagine that many of the speakers at the Labour conference will match Gordon Brown's valediction for Manchester's Labour council and the regeneration of the city centre after the IRA bombing of 1996 (any resemblance between this valediction and campaigning for the council by-election next month is entirely co-incidental, of course...)

The regeneration is one of the big challenges we face as Liberal Democrats trying to take the Town Hall; how do you convince people that the city is in decline when all around them is glass and steel? But you do have to ask yourself why the regeneration happened; whose fault was it?

Are we to believe that a Labour party that believes that devolving power to local communities should never involve anything so gauche as elected councillors gave Manchester a unique exemption to actively produce a miraculous economic and architectural turnaround through local endeavour?

Or is it more likely that a powerless council took advantage of benevolent economic conditions by metaphorically removing their trousers and asking property developers to take them roughly from behind? (And man, are you going to wish I'd never put that image in your head...)

If any firm evidence were needed of the ludicrousness of claiming Manchester's regeneration as a Labour achievement, one need only look at URBIS, the one building actually built by the council itself.

As well as being one of the ugliest of the whole bunch, it sucks up over a million pounds a year to be a "Museum Of Modern Life". Or at least it would, except that it doesn't qualify legally as a museum at all, so it just sucks up the money.

The point is clear; we are the party of democratic, local government. Whatever our philosophical direction, we must follow through on our advantage and destroy the credibility of the other parties in local government.

Bathing In The Warm Glow Of Incompetence

In a strange sort of way, I feel rather nostalgic about the Major years. I entered them as a bright-eyed eight-year-old and left a wiseass fourteener, with a political consciousness born in a time of parliamentary strife and political impotence. And yet, looking back, there is one element of those times I yearn to regain; the evil.

Work with me on this one; in the nineties you knew you were getting screwed, but at least you knew the people doing it were working day and night to make sure that you were. There was something perversely honourable about the whole thing; our fates were the result of tireless dedication, and beating the system was both a noble and achievable goal.

In the naughties, however, things are much different. We’re still getting screwed, but only because our ministers of state can’t find their butts with both hands. Occasionally that Hammer-esque sense of all-pervading evil creeps into the frame, but now David Blunkett has gone through his second resignation there appears little hope of his returning to darken our door.

It’s a development that has done much to fuel cynicism and apathy towards democratic politics in this country, but I can’t help but feel that there has been a greater casualty. Through the sixties, seventies and eighties, we saw the rise of a small but significant class of strong political women. You may not have agreed with the politics of Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher, but you knew they were able, intelligent politicians. New Labour were meant to take things even further, with the Blair Babes sweeping all before them in the march for equality…

Beckett. Hewitt. Jowell. Harman. Blears. Kelly.

Now name six connected people who are more incompetent.

Discounting sporting answers, it’s difficult to do. Okay, so Mo Mowlem did well and Clare Short had her moments, but they were in relatively minor posts and were quickly shunned by the Millbank mafia. It is these six who have led the way for women in government, and they have done an abominable job of it.

But I hate to leave on such a dour note, so here’s an alternative list;

Willott. Swinson. Teather. Kramer. Goldsworthy. Featherstone.

See? It is possible to find six competent female politicians. I’d offer you a third list from the ranks of LDYS, but as the girlfriend’s on it I’ll tactfully refrain…