Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Are our representatives "representative"?

It's a commonly held belief. Our elected representatives simply aren't representative of their constituents. In the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal, this assertion is becoming even more accepted than previously, as many "ordinary people" see MPs and privileged and out-of-touch.

Recently, some Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidates were targeted by the GMB union who listed them as "unrepresentative of the region's workforce". Why? Simply because their main background is finance.

This is a bit unfair on these people, and is the kind of socially divisive tactic that the unions should have left in the 1970s. I don't care what a candidate's employment background is - I'm more concerned with what their ideas are. If the unions are really concerned about certain individuals being "unrepresentative of the workforce" they should perhaps take a look at their own officials before passing judgement on parliamentary candidates on the basis of something as superficial as employment history.

There is of course some substance though to accusations that our representatives are unrepresentative. The Conservative Party have justifiably come under fire for the difficulties they've got themselves into trying to address this problem. But they're not alone. Even Nick Clegg admitted the Lib Dems have some way to go in regards increasing the political participation of women and minority ethnic groups, while the Labour Party has tied itself up in knots over all women shortlists. There is also a notable shortage of gay parliamentarians - something that hasn't escaped the notice of groups like Stonewall.

But it is facile to assess how representative parliament is simply in relation to statistics on gender, ethnicity and sexuality. What makes parliament representative is not its ethnic make-up, but whether its members reflect their constituents' views, beliefs and concerns. A good, "representative" MP should also have a good knowledge of local issues and the challenges facing the area (I imagine the General Secretary of the GMB has a rather limited knowledge of the candidates' prospective constituencies!).

Of course, MPs are elected to represent all their constituents, not merely their supporters. Therefore, a representative MP would be sufficiently broad-minded to be empathetic towards the interests of those who may have an entirely different political outlook.

I recognise the need for parliament to become more representative. It would be a good start if, at the next election, more female MPs were elected, as well as those from ethnic minority groups. But that's not the real issue. If we want our MPs to be more "representative" then we need more candidates who are not lackeys of the established political elite. Whereas at one time parliament was "home" to a whole range of professions from miners to lawyers, nowadays, it is filled with professional politician types who have only ever worked in politics and have been groomed to become MPs.

I am a great believer that all this should start on a local level. It's little wonder people criticise the "unrepresentative" nature of parliament when many of our councillors are so painfully unrepresentative (of the public and their party) as to be laughable.

The GMB presumably want to go back to the days when they effectively selected the candidates, when a nomination from the union meant inheriting a seat for life. It's a bit rich for the champions of undemocratic machine politics to pick out a handful of individuals as "unrepresentative". At least they have worked in the real world, unlike many of our current MPs who have only ever worked in politics.

In a democracy, there is no practical way of imposing quotas on who does and doesn't get elected. When the main parties realise this and instead direct their energies into empowering "ordinary people" from all backgrounds into active politics, there will be the opportunity for a more representative and in-touch parliament rather than one run by the parties' electoral machines.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Royal Mail strikes begin

The promised Royal Mail strikes began yesterday and have already caused significant disruption.

The ongoing struggle between the Communications Workers Union (CWU) and Royal Mail management shows no sign of abating, with the intransigent managers seemingly resigned to further industrial action over their "modernisation" agenda.

At the heart of the acrimonious dispute are concerns about how the final phase of the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement will affect job security. The CWU argues that Royal Mail has not been honest about specific details potential job losses and that it has in fact stopped talking to the union.

There is no doubt that modernisation is necessary. While Royal Mail is clearly a historical institution of which the country has been proud, it can not survive on nostalgia. Largely due to changes in the way we communicate, Royal Mail estimates that its business is in decline and that the amount of mail it delivers is falling by 10 per cent annually. It also has a £6.8 billion pensions deficit.

The Post Office Network is being affected by significant changes which will not be reversed. What is needed therefore are imaginative and creative ideas as to how Royal Mail can evolve to meet these challenges - call it "modernisation" if you like. What is not needed, however, are acrimonious splits between unions and management, an inflexible management position and unnecessary strikes that could further damage the business.

The problems affecting Royal Mail are not unique to our own postal service. The US Postal Service ended its third quarter with a net loss of $2.4billion. Latvian Post claims that mail volume has fallen by 41 per cent and as a result has introduced urgent measures to revise employees' salaries so that they are more performance-related. Even Deutsche Post has been suffering, and has announced that it is to close all Post Offices it operates without a retail partner - this in practice means about 500 post office closures.

The reason I highlight this is to demonstrate the global nature of the problem. Postal administrations across the world are having to take action to ensure the future of their mail services. Royal Mail, in contrast to the above, actually made a significant profit in the last financial year, with the main letters and packages unit making £58million. This gives Royal Mail an advantage in putting into place a genuinely modern programme which will create a fit-for-purpose Post Office network, involves its employees to a greater degree in facilitating change and provides a valuable service to local communities.

As I've stated in previous posts, I strongly believe that key means of tackling some of Royal Mail's problems would be for communities to be empowered and assisted to take control of their Post Offices, reform of the Post Office structure and the provision of a wider range of services. Unfortunately, the narrow debate between the CWU and Royal Mail managers means that constructive political ideas are struggling to be heard.

Let's kick homophobia into touch

Jan Moir, a columnist for the Daily Mail, this week found herself at the centre of controversy after penning what is, to all intents and purposes, a deeply homophobic interpretation of the death of Boyzone's Stephen Gately.

In her piece, "A strange, lonely and troubling death", she pours scorn on the facts surrounding Mr Gately's death, labelling the circumstances as "sleazy" and insisting that "Gately's death...strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships". She suggests that civil partnerships are simply not "the same" as heterosexual marriages and asserts that Mr Gately's "dangerous lifestyle" caused his sad death.

Why is it reasonable to suggest that one young man's death "strikes a blow" to civil partnerships? Would she suggest that the untimely death of a married heterosexual person strikes a blow to the institution of marriage? Of course not. Would she ever make poorly-researched assumptions about the moral value of marriage? No, thought not.

She also managed to have a pop at the relationship between Matt Lucas and his former partner Kevin McGee, who also died recently. Apart from the disgusting lack of respect for the recently deceased, the article highlighted the sad fact that homophobia and socially divisive prejudices are still there and need to be challenged.

Moir's piece was nasty, cruel, prejudiced and woefully inaccurate. Such crude homophobia has no place in a civilised society, let alone in the pages of a supposedly respectable newspaper. Sadly, she is not alone in her views, as evidenced by recent homophobic attacks. While great strides have been made in recent years gay people still experience prejudice and intolerance.

It's time for society to kick homophobia into touch. It should become as socially unacceptable as racism. Society needs to accept the challenge that the likes of Jan Moir have laid down: reject homophobia and intolerance. For ever.

Nick Griffin: a wolf in wolf's clothing

Like many people, I was concerned about the BNP appearing on last night's Question Time. That's not because I think the BNP should have been excluded - free speech is of paramount importance in a liberal democracy. It would plainly be wrong to exclude the BNP and would only play into their hands. However, I was worried that Nick Griffin would put on the kind of performance that might convince some people that he leads a respectable political party that identifies with the needs of working people.

Fortunately, Nick Griffin was unable to pull off the act. Faced with a largely hostile audience, the BNP leader simply confirmed the intolerant and racist nature of his party, was caught out by his own lies and demonstrated a woeful lack of knowledge about either political issues or our country's history.

Question Time was a triumph for the approach advocated by Jack Straw, who believes the best way to deal with the BNP is to allow their views to be publicly exposed and properly scrutinised. It is an approach that I think will work effectively. In a previous post (How do we deal with the BNP?) I suggested that "we need to be willing to discuss these ideas with people, and challenge perceptions rather than ignore them". I also believe that another key way to fight the BNP is by addressing the many legitimate grievances that people have, thus depriving the BNP of ammunition.

Debate raged about whether or not the BBC should have allowed Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time. From a legal perspective, the BBC had little choice now that the party have two elected MEPs. However, many people felt differently and it was hard not to sympathise with the hundreds of demonstrators who protested outside the BBC yesterday - even if their tactics were misguided. Decent people don't want a man with the views of Nick Griffin expressing their hatred on national TV.

Nick Griffin claimed that he was on a "mission to give the BNP more respectability". On the basis of what he said last night, he has some way to go. It's clear he believes in race-based politics, holds homophobic views (he called gay men "creepy") and peddles hatred and fear towards minority groups. He also seems to have rather interesting connections with the Ku Klux Klan. As rather amusing exchanges with Bonnie Greer also reveal, he has a very limited understanding of British history. That a man of such bigoted views and limited ability can be elected as an MEP really should shame the people of the North West.

Jack Straw was roundly applauded for countering the vile arguments of Nick Griffin so effectively - which rather sounds like a compliment for Mr Straw but isn't intended to be. Unfortunately, Question Time - having invited Mr Griffin onto the show - was dominated by discussion of his party. This was unhelpful, especially when there should have been discussion about the economic situation and the problems of Royal Mail.

All the same, I'm very pleased the BNP leader was allowed to appear on Question Time. He's been exposed for what he really is, and the BNP shown to be a front for a divisive and destructive ideology.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Private Sector: An Unhealthy Obsession.

In his speech to party conference, David Cameron was keen to identify himself with a "compassionate" one-nation Conservative vision for Britain. Unfortunately for him, there were plenty of other speakers at the conference whose contributions suggested that the influence of Thatcherism is still strong.

First, we had Mayor of London Boris Johnson heaping praise on the banking industry. That's just what you need when you want to convince the public you're on their side - blundering Boris defending the practices of those who brought our country to its knees. Good timing, Boris!

More concerning was the number of delegates keen to preach the merits of the free market in combating the complexities of Britain's current socio-economic difficulties. Foremost among these contributors was Andrew Mitchell who, in a speech on International Aid, reinforced the Tory philosophy that "private sector growth and wealth creation [are] the only means out of poverty".

This dogmatic approach demonstrates how short the Conservatives are on imaginative solutions to global problems. It also, however, shows them as a party of inflexible followers of a destructive doctrine.

Mr Mitchell praised Margaret Thatcher for her "courage and honesty" and waxed lyrical about the economic legacy of her government (conveniently forgetting the recession of the early 90s). He then returned to his brief of international development, describing some of the serious problems facing Zimbabwe. His solution? To "galvanise Zimbabwe's private sector" as the only way to "rebuild that beleaguered country".

Global poverty needs addressing urgently. There is no escaping the sad realities that poverty causes. In Africa, for example, a deadly combination of political instability, war, HIV/AIDS, climate change, lack of healthcare, insanitation, economic factors and the greed of multi-nationals has created misery for millions. Addressing the social injustice of poverty requires complex and careful thinking, not Thatcherite dogma.

That there are senior Conservatives who actually believe that it is the use of the public sector that has destroyed African economies underlines how removed from reality the Tories are. It is one thing to believe in the value of a free market - quite another to preach that only greater use of the private sector can end poverty. I can only guess what Mr Geldof makes of this...

This is an obsession that is not only unhealthy, but socially dangerous. It makes you wonder what these private sector devotees will do to the NHS - or the Post Office.

No policy in Cameron’s speech

David Cameron’s speech to Conservative Party Conference last week was notably light on detail and policy – but full of tough talk and aspirational dialogue.

He wants to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister and was keen to talk about Labour’s failures and “broken” Britain, which he contrasted with Tory “compassion” and his vision to “put Britain back on her feet”.

Mr Cameron’s speech was packed with emotive soundbytes but the frustrating lack of detailed policy suggests that perhaps his ideas to turn the country’s fortunes around are perhaps not quite as well developed as his populist rhetoric.

Mr Cameron said some positive things in his speech. For example, he expressed support for civil partnerships, the minimum wage and devolution – Labour achievements that the Tories have voted against and derided in the past. As if anxious to prove that the Tories have changed, he talked about “community”, “family” and “responsibility”. In an apparent move towards the Conservatism of the pre-Thatcher years, he seemed to promise a more caring, one-nation, Conservative Britain.

Like Churchill, Mr Cameron was keen to focus on his personality, urging people to back him even if they harboured doubts about his party. Unlike Churchill, Mr Cameron wasn’t quite so keen to talk about how he plans to actually deliver the promised changes.

On social mobility, he criticised Labour’s inaction in reducing inequality and said “I want every child to have the chances that I had... Birth [should never be] a barrier” Fine sentiment, with which I completely agree. How he’s going to make a positive contribution to ending such inequalities, however, he didn’t care to tell us. He spoke about the need for “communities to govern themselves”, for “families [to] come first” and for “children to grow up with security and love”. An obvious attempt to reach out to the voters of middle Britain – but how do the Conservatives plan to bring about this brave new Britain? Mr Cameron didn’t say.

In between attacks on Labour, Mr Cameron was keen to talk about responsibility (something he mentioned 29 times). He was in his element when talking about the need for economic responsibility, and promised a Conservative government would reverse “the steady erosion of responsibility” under Labour. “We [have to] face up to some big problems” said Mr Cameron. “The highest budget deficit since the war. The deepest recession since the war. Social breakdown; political disillusionment. Big problems for the next government to address.” Quite. But how he intends to address them is anyone’s guess. He didn’t want to say.

Another word Mr Cameron used a great deal was “broken”. If the Tories want to describe anything at the moment, it seems they have to call it “broken”. “Why is our society broken?” asked Mr Cameron. “Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility” was his straight-to-the-point answer. I’m not convinced that society is actually as broken as Mr Cameron imagines, but even accepting this, it is hardly responsible to reduce complex questions of social policy to simple criticisms of government approach. Progressive social change requires more than a change of government. It certainly requires a bit more than a Tory leader patronisingly helping the feckless poor to be responsible.

I was pleased to hear talk of “stronger communities”, although there was no discussion as to how to actually make our communities stronger and more empowered. I was also interested to hear that Mr Cameron believed that it should be a priority to “get a grip on [the country’s] debt.” He explained that it was vital to do this “ in a way that brings the country together instead of driving it apart... The longer we wait for a credible plan, the bigger the bill for our children to pay.” What Mr Cameron didn’t manage to come up with was a credible plan.

He did suggest that new businesses and entrepreneurship should be encouraged, and proposed that the Bank of England should be handed back its regulation powers. But that seemed to be the sum of the Tories’ plan to “get Britain back on its feet.”

Mr Cameron referred to his party’s plans to reduce dependency on welfare. “If you really cannot work, we'll look after you. But if you can work, you should work and not live off the hard work of others” he said. While I don’t disagree with the need to prevent people falling into the “poverty trap” and becoming dependent on benefits, I find his use of such inflammatory language socially irresponsible. Very many people on benefits have no wish to be living off others and would welcome the opportunity to be free of welfare if only there were the opportunities to do so – I should know, I’ve lived on handouts and hated it.

There was talk of the Tories being “the party of the NHS” (but nothing on health policy). There was highly-charged talk about “a breakdown of morality” (but no mention of policy on justice). Mr Cameron talked of the need for the Tories to “lead the world in saving our planet”. But sadly no mention of any plans or environmental policies.

On the basis of their leader’s speech, the Tories are even more bankrupt of ideas than the tired Labour government. They seem happy to cynically manipulate public opinion with highly-charged and emotive language; happy to describe our communities as “broken” but less eager to actually tell us how they plan to turn things around. The Lib Dems’ Danny Alexander was critical of the "huge gulf between the sunny rhetoric of David Cameron and the grim reality of Tory policy". I can’t disagree.

“It’s your character, your temperament and your judgment that count so much more than your policies and your manifesto” said Mr Cameron, whose judgment was so clearly evident in the Tories’ refusal to support the government’s partial nationalisation of the banks. Cameron clearly recognises that Tory policies will not win him the election and prefers instead to rely on his personal character. Yet another victory for style over substance.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

"Honest George" sets out stall

The Tories are a pretty gloomy lot. You wonder why, when they're so far ahead in the polls. But I've been watching their conference, and I'm hearing a lot about "broken Britain", "broken families", "broken society" and "broken communities".

I'm not one of life's pessimists and I don't find this negative interpretation of some of the social problems affecting our communities to be very compelling. True - there are shocking inequalities that need remedying. There are particular areas in our country where the challenges in removing inequalities and tackling social problems are particularly tough. But responsible politicians should look beyond all the gloom and put forward practical solutions.

The Tories seem more concerned with blaming Labour for creating a "broken society" than they are about fixing society. They're happy to tell us that the Blair/Brown legacy is teenage crime, drug abuse and a cynical, uncaring society. They have no problem in manipulating people's insecurities and fears - after all, it's easier to do that than actually take responsibility.

The Tories have entrenched views in regards dealing with poverty and social problems. From what I've seen of the conference so far, they also have very entrenched views on education (the "traditional" approach apparently fits all) and on the economy. It started with Boris Johnson praising bankers and speaking out against regulation, showing just how in touch he is with the views of British voters. In a throwback to the ideology of Thatcher, he supported low taxation and light regulation for the financial sector while backing cuts and pay freezes for other workers.

Then George Osborne took up the mantle. Mr Osborne was at pains to paint himself as the "honest man" of British politics. "We're all in this together" he said, referring to the economic situation. He called for a public sector pay freeze, which has drawn criticism from the Unions. He pledged to save £3billion by cutting departmental budgets, to ensure that child trust finds and tax credits will only go to the poorest families and to cut the cost of government.

There's also the targeted reduction of those in receipt of incapacity benefit. While I recognise that many people are trapped by the benefits system and that reform is necessary, the right approach is to regularly re-assess every case on its own merits - not to make arbitrary targets in this way.

It will be interesting to see what the public make of this. Mr Osborne's main argument was that there can be no easy decisions. However, the fact that the Tories still find public sector workers easy targets and have ruled out tax cuts for the wealthy only in the short term suggests that, despite this "honesty" from Mr Osborne, they're still the same old Tories.

Cameron plays down EU split

David Cameron has come under a bit of pressure over his position on the Lisbon Treaty. Recently, he's claimed to support a referendum on the Treaty but now appears to have back-pedalled a bit.

This comes after Irish voters, at the second time of asking, gave their government the "Yes" vote it wanted to ratify the Treaty. A victory for the "if at first you don't get your way, keep trying till you do" kind of government.

Ireland's "Yes" vote means that Mr Cameron has been asked what action he will take if the Lisbon Treaty comes into force before the next election. His response so far has been to say nothing, arguing that doing so would undermine discussions taking place in Poland and the Czech Republic, which are expected to ratify shortly.

It's made life a bit difficult for the Tory leader, who would rather not be talking about Europe. But he hasn't really helped himself. You see, the Tory promise of a referendum was on the basis of "his party winning power before the treaty is ratified by all 27 EU states".

An apparent rift between Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson has created further problems for the Tory leader.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said that the Irish "Yes" vote "finally puts to rest years of wrangling over Europe’s future and paves the way for a stronger and more democratic European Union." He added that "the worst thing would be to re-open this self-indulgent debate...The Conservatives are already embarrassing themselves...on Europe...The EU offers us safety in numbers and this is why best place for Britain remains at the very heart of Europe.”

It will be interesting to see what the Tories make of this in the days to come. It seems that the old divisions on Europe will soon be painfully obvious.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

US-style TV debates: real progress?

This morning's news reported that Tory leader David Cameron has agreed to participate in a pre-general election TV debate on Sky. Lib Dem Nick Clegg is also said to be keen on taking part, although there was no word on Gordon Brown's thoughts.

My initial reactions were that this would be a fantastic idea. You know, interesting political discussions on policy coming to a TV near you! It might even create some public enthusiasm in elections, which doesn't appear to be is short supply in the States.

There would be benefits, of course. The main one being that it would allow the public to make potentially better-informed decisions on the leaders' merits. It may also, hopefully, lead to politics becoming more about issues and policy rather than with personalities and tribalism, but I won't hold my breath!

But I have very real concerns about the way this has come about. If there is to be a TV debate it will not have be as a result of political concensus in regards modernising politics, but because Sky know they can make a buck or two out of it. I'm not convinced that Mr Murdoch is simply trying to do his bit for democracy. It would be very worrying if political TV debates became the sole preserve of Sky, especially as many people do not subscribe to Sky. If we're going to move forward into televised debates, then it should be accesible to all.

My principal concern though is about how this would marginalise minor parties such as the Greens, UKIP, Respect, Plaid Cymru or the SNP (the largest party in Scotland, but would still be excluded). The electoral system as is stands already denies these parties a real voice - a TV debate of three parties would exacerbate the problem further.

We have to ask ourselves about how best TV debates can contribute to democracy. I am not necessarily against them - I am sure they would be of enormous benefit to the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg personally - but Sky's self-aggrandising plan isn't the way to improve our democratic process. There are many problems with the UK's democratic system but there are too many financial interests that could be described as "vested" in Murdoch's "solution" for it to genuinely enhance democracy.

Friday, 28 August 2009

TV's Benefit Busters socially irresponsible

Like the Tories, in recent weeks the media have seen fit to jump on the "broken Britain" bandwagon, highlighting (and exaggerating) social problems and coming up with quick-fixes.

I had the misfortune of seeing Channel 4's Benefit Busters last week. This show pandered to social prejudices and reinforced steroetypes in its quest to "revolutionise the benefits system", focussing on a group of single mums who were then bullied and prodded to getting the first job they possibly could, irrespective of whether low paid work for the likes of Poundstretcher made them and their children better off.

At no point did the makers of "benefit Busters" ever consider the wider problems the single mums were experiencing. Neither did it examine the problem that, for many people in unskilled work, the minimum wage has effectively become a maximum wage; low-waged, part-time work does very little to encourage people to come off benefits.

The Channel 4 show did its best to fill the viewer with anger at how some on benefits could afford luxuries of large TVs and indulgent toys for the kids, but my real problem was not with the mums who had no budgeting skills (another problem the revolutionaries on Channel 4 didn't try to address) but with the multi-millionaire being paid to get people into dead-end jobs. She seemed to be doing very well from single mums, making huge profits from the welfare state while not actually doing very much constructive.

The problem with TV shows like this is that they work on the basis that we are all outraged about the "large numbers" of single mums "scrounging off the state". Shedding light on the social and economic complexities of the reality clearly isn't Channel 4's thing. Which is sad, because single mums are easy targets and the media should be helping to deconstruct negative steroetypes rather than reinforce them.

At the heart of the matter is how we view single parents. We can either view them, as many do unfairly, as a mass social problem - or we can instead view them as individuals, many of whom would like to work if only given a genuine opportunity. We can view them either as a problem or, more reasonably, as part of the solution to what is being termed "broken Britain". Many single parents need encouragement, guidance and empowerment to find productive employment through which they can become genuinely independent of welfare. What they don't need is more of this from Channel 4.

Politically, our elected representatives need to be more careful how we talk about this issue. It is easy to knock "broken Britain" - quite another to advocate realistic and workable solutions. What I do know is that many single mums do a fantasic job, who love their children unconditionally and work miracles in raising a family single-handedly. It isn't something I could do.

There is no place in 21st century politics, or in a responsible mass media, for judgemental attitudes. We need to be making war on unemployment - not the unemployed.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Tory Humour isn't Funny!

This piece was contributed by my wife, Anna.

First we had the joke from Alan Duncan about "living on rations". The nation was hardly laughing with him. Now we have Alan Scard, the chair of Gosport Conservatives Association, suggesting that "only attractive women should become MPs".

What Mr Scard actually said was "If they are attractive, yeah, I would go for it. I know it's a sexist thing to say but you could get the blokes saying, 'Oh you know, I would vote for her because she's really attractive', but then the other women say 'Oh I don't like her, she's too attractive'." He later claimed that this was "tongue in cheek" and meant in jest, but his "joke" was a loaded one and shows what attitudes still exist in the male dominated world of politics.

I dealt with this issue in a previous blog entry when discussing Caroline Flint's resignation: What Should we Make of Caroline Flint's Resignation? Unfortunately, blatant sexism isn't going to go away overnight.

The comments were made after a Tory MP who knows a thing or two about sexism, Anne Widdecombe, expressed concerns about her party's drive towards "A-lists" of female and ethnic minority candidates. She feels that parties should go for "ability rather than category" and is concerned that selecting people on the basis of their ethnic origin or gender will result in "second-class citizens" in the Commons.

Strong language indeed. But I agree with the gist of what she's saying. We do need more women in the Commons but quotas, all-women shortlists and "positive action" (Toryspeak for "discrimination") isn't the way to do it. In fact, we need more women in politics at all levels, because from top to bottom it's still dominated by men. What needs to happen is for more women to become involved in politics, to make contributions to their communities and local parties and then to be selected on merit. The key is not in making targets, but in empowering talented women and people from minority groups to become more active in politics. When this happens, the problem of sexist relics such as Mr Scard will become a thing of the past.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Joblessness - a human tragedy

Last week unemployment figures were published which underlined the stark reality of our country’s problem with joblessness. While Peter Mandelson has been heralding the impact of the government’s economic stimulus, unemployment rose to 2.435 million and – more worryingly – youth unemployment has climbed significantly. The statistics show that adult unemployment has risen to 7.8%, but also a 75% increase in the number of young people (i.e. aged 18-24) receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The mass youth unemployment we are now seeing - according to statistics (The Guardian, 13.08.09) between 25-30% of young people in Scotland are claiming benefits – has prompted fears of a generation being locked out of employment and of a “lost generation”. And these fears are justified. Not since the days of Thatcher, when over a million young people were on the dole, has the problem been so acute. The reason for this is that in a recession companies stop recruiting staff and it is inevitably the young who are hardest hit.

Graduates and school leavers struggling to find work will exacerbate the problem, which may develop into a crisis. The fear is that many young people struggling to find work will slip into long-term unemployment at a time when Britain’s young population is at its highest for over ten years. This recession – created by the greed of the financial industry and the incompetence of Westminster – has resulted in significant job losses amongst Britain’s youth: over half the jobs lost belonged to someone aged under 24. This is not a good time to be a young person looking for work.

This increase in youth unemployment represents a human tragedy of misery, injustice and waste. I know what it is like to be made unemployed. I know what it feels like to struggle to find work. I know what it is like to be a graduate and to find that the degree I work hard for turns out to be a worthless investment. This is the real tragedy behind the latest statistics: the enforced idleness not of the “hardcore unemployed” but of bright, young people with aspirations. It is not only graduates, of course, who are suffering and young people living in already deprived areas are feeling the squeeze even more than before.

As money runs out, social problems increase. The effects of unemployment range from stress-related illness and depression to domestic abuse and increased crime. The long-term legacy of the recession may be a social rather than an economic one.

So what is the solution? Well, it won’t come from the Conservatives. The government has made some strong but unimaginative moves – including quantitative easing, devaluation, rate cuts and a generous budget which at any other time would have created a significant boost. But these aren’t ordinary times and ordinary measures are not likely to work. In fairness to Labour, the government has done a reasonable job of managing the crisis they helped to create, although it seems short on ideas to take us forward. On the other hand the Tories opposed most of the measures that have worked so far, including the nationalisation of Northern Rock, quantitative easing, devaluation and the government’s economic stimulus. Worse still, while Osbourne and Cameron were happy to jeer at the government, they were unwilling or unable to put forward any alternative solutions.

The real solution lies not with political theory but the banking industry. As the public own a large percentage of many of our commercial banks, it is only right that the banks should be lending – which is, of course, what the government bail-outs were supposed to facilitate. Lending to certain sectors, especially to small businesses, is vital to stave off unemployment. Penalties should be imposed on banks hoarding cash. Furthermore, the unrepentant attitude of excessive risk-takers within the financial industry must be reversed, and the bonus culture killed off. The Bank of England, the FSA and the commercial banks must recognise their obligations to society rather than to themselves or their shareholders. For too long, the government was unwilling to rein in those in the financial sector who disproportionately drove the country’s wealth, indulging the super-rich (yes, John Hutton, you know what I mean) and refusing to regulate.

The problem with this approach is that the culture of greed and risk-taking did not produce improved performance. It led to catastrophe. This is why change is needed.
What is also needed is an open, honest and non-partisan dialogue about wealth and its social ramifications. Sadly, this is the kind of debate that, while necessary, is something neither Labour the Tories nor the SNP want to have. They would rather score easy political points.

Bold and difficult decisions have to be made to take our country out of recession. We owe it to our young people, to our unemployed and to our communities which will inevitably feel the social effects of joblessness. It is true that unemployment is one of the last statistics to improve in a recession, but indications are that unemployment will rise further before improvements are seen. This is inescapably a human tragedy, and the recent statistics confirm John McFall’s warnings of “lasting scars” (“Act Now or face Consequences”, The Guardian, 23/3/09).

Thatcher famously adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards unemployment that appears to have been inherited by Cameron and Osbourne. Others have taken a bookish, almost nerd-like interest in the recent figures. We can’t afford to allow the human dimension to be lost or treated as a side-show to the expenses scandal. People are suffering and unless the right moves are made soon the social consequences could be enormous.
Thank God that at least Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats understand this. Progressive change to the way the economy is managed is not only necessary but inevitable.

Friday, 14 August 2009

We love our NHS!

The NHS has been drawn into the current debate about the future of USA’s healthcare system.

Critics of President Obama’s plan to create a fairer and more accessible service of health provision have labelled his plans as akin to socialism and Nazism (a little contradictory I think!) and claim that Britain’s NHS is an example of how health provision shouldn’t be delivered.

Most of the arguments about the “failure” of the NHS are based on perceptions – or misconceptions – about healthcare rationing and waiting lists. However, critically it was the appearance of a Conservative politician on US TV that caused most controversy and added fuel to the anti-NHS arguments: MEP Daniel Hannan was scathingly critical of the NHS, saying that he “wouldn’t wish it on anybody”.
Nice – first top Tories state that they’re “living on rations”, then they claim that the NHS is a 60-year old mistake. Nice work Mr Hannan. David Cameron has rightly slammed Mr Hannan’s views, but looks unlikely to take any action, saying “political parties always include some people who don’t toe the party line on one issue or another issue”. He also took no action earlier in the when Mr Hannan first made the comments in April – presumably because he didn’t want such views making an impact on the party’s European prospects.

Fortunately, there has been a massive reaction from the British public with a huge online campaign in defense of the NHS causing twitter to temporarily crash. What Mr Hannan will never understand is that the British people have a deep affection for the NHS because it provides free health care at the point of need, has provided excellence in health for over 60 years and – despite what some Tories obviously believe – is the most economically and socially responsible way to deliver health provision. People defending the NHS include Gordon Brown, Stephen Hawking and Andy Burnham. Thank goodness for the sanity of those who value our NHS!

I can understand concerns about “rationing” in the NHS – I’ve expressed them several times myself. What I find hypocritical is the attitude of Americans who can’t see that more socially destructive rationing has always existed in the USA, where healthcare is rationed – to those who can afford it.

But then the US debate about healthcare has for some time been based on cultural perception, historic prejudices and opinion rather than fact.

There’s one thing “I wouldn’t wish on anybody” and that’s Mr Hannan’s party being elected at the next General Election.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Comedy from Esther and Harry Potter

So, Esther Rantzen has officially announced her decision to stand as an MP for Luton South. The TV personality previously announced her intention to stand against Labour MP Margaret Moran after her expenses claims became the subject of criticism.

Ms Moran has since announced that she will not be defending her seat but this has not put off Ms Rantzen, who claims her stand is not merely a protest but "a glimpse of a vocation", adding that her participation in the election will "raise enthusiasm in the whole process".

Ever since Martin Bell's success in 1997, many people have been looking for, or looking to become, another "Man in the White Suit". I believe in Hazel Blears' Salford constituency there are now so many potential candidates claiming to be "the anti-sleaze candidate" that any chance of removing her are incredibly remote. In one sense it demonstrates how bankrupt of ideas the main parties have become. However, it also underlines the arrogance of so-called celebrities that they believe by simply announcing themselves as candidates they are in some way inspiring people to "believe in politics again". What tosh, Esther!

You might think I'd welcome Ms Rantzen's announcement. I certainly wish more people would make a stand (something that might happen if the ridiculous requirement for deposits was done away with). But I'm afraid independents cynically “looking for seats” in the wake of scandals really irritate me, especially when they are minor celebrities who think they can be politicians by making an act of “not being political”. It’s not that I mind them standing, but I object to the arrogance of anyone who feels that a combination of having been on TV a few times and capitalising on public anger towards an individual MP is somehow a substitute for a set of principles, political ideals and a record of working hard in a local constituency.

I would suggest that if she’s really interested in serving a constituency (sorry, becoming an MP) and doesn’t want to join a party, she should stand for the constituency in which she lives. Otherwise she will look like one of several people set to opportunistically capitalise from the expenses fallout. (And don't you think it's strange that none of the declared anti-sleaze candidates wants to stand against any of the many Tories who have been shamed in the expenses scandal?)

Interestingly, another celebrity has come under the spotlight after declaring his loyalty to the Lib Dems. Daniel Radcliffe, the young star of the Harry Potter movies, according to The Independent "expressed his admiration for Nick Clegg [and] stuck the boot into both Brown and Cameron". Hilarious! It's incredible what an education at Hogwarts can do!

The Lib Dems haven't made capital from Daniel's endorsement, so presumably we feel that we don't need celebrity backers when we have Tim Farron. However, I can definitely see why Harry Potter would be attracted to the Lib Dems. Our MP for Somerton & Frome, David Heath, bears more than a passing resemblance to Hagrid...

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Charlie remembered

I was at Kendal Town Hall on Monday to make a presentation to the Mayor in memory of our friend, Councillor Dr Charles Batteson, who died in January.

Charlie was always a colourful debater in the chamber and as a Save our NHS councillor he was proud to argue what were often independent views. In his later years he struggled with his illness but I will always remember Charlie for his deep humanity and caring attitude.

Knowing how much Charlie loved Kendal and its council, I painstakingly created two photomosaics of Kendal Town Hall which will now hang in the council chamber as a permanent memorial to this dedicated man and progressive thinker. I am pictured making the presentation with members of Charlie's family.

We need more Charlie Battesons in politics, whether it is at a local or national level. He was a man of unshakable principle with a concern for people who will be sadly missed by all who knew him.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Public Spending: can we have some honesty please?

Another PMQs. Another tribal affair. When will MPs realise that behaving like animals on the floor of the commons does nothing to endear them to the voting public?

The "highlight" of today's PMQs, if you can call it that, was the debate between Brown and Cameron over alleged "cuts" to public services. The Prime Minister quoted so many statistics everyone was left confused, including himself, but the bottom line is that he accused the Tories of proposing a 10% cut in public spending. "They want to spend less, where we would spend more" said Mr Brown.

The Labour benches roared with approval for their leader, something they weren't doing a few days ago, while I was left thinking how desperate Mr Brown's argument was. This is patronising stuff; over-simplistic and assuming the public don't have the sophistication to distinguish between nominal and real reductions in spending.

David Cameron wasn't on form, but managed to earn a reprimand from the outgoing Speaker for telling Mr Brown "You are not fit to be Prime Minister!" All very amusing. It seemed the two "leaders" were keen to accuse each other of making cuts to public spending, but weren't quite so keen to have a rational, sensible and responsible discussion about how spending levels can be adequately maintained. There is a very crucial argument to be had about public spending, but hurling insults and producing arbitrary statistics isn't the way to do things.

It's not as simple as "Labour investment versus Conservative cuts". But Labour are onto something here because Cameron has always made it clear, even before the recession became an unfortunate reality, that the Tories would not necessarily be matching Labour's spending commitments. Recently, they have declared they would abolish free prescriptions in Wales (and presumably Scotland), have tied themselves in knots about the future of SureStart, and continue to state that they are for tax cuts which would benefit only the wealthier. There is little doubt that Cameron would like to reduce public spending but, realising peceived cuts would be unpopular, has found a defence in attacking Brown's lack of openness on Labour spending plans.

Neither Cameron nor Brown can be trusted with our public services. Labour has for the last twelve years poured welcome money into our public sector but appeared to have little idea as to how to actually deliver strong public services. Cameron continues to delude himself that tax cuts are the way forward, which does not sit comfortably with his defence of Tory public spending plans.

More honesty is required if the public is to believe that either of the major parties has a practical, considered and workable long-term plan for improving Britain's public services. This may well be the decisive issue in the forthcoming General election, as communities will oppose any threats to vital services, including Post Offices and hospitals.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

How do we deal with the BNP?

There is no escaping the reality. The British National Party have finally made the breakthrough they have been threatening for some time. Admittedly this has been due in no small part to voter apathy, but the voters of the North West now have Nicholas John Griffin as one of our representatives in Europe.

This is a travesty, but no amount of protesting or wishful thinking is going to change it. While in one sense it was pleasing to see the mass anti-fascist protest in Manchester last night, the truth is that these demonstrations are unlikely to achieve anything significant.

So, what can be done? There have been two principal ways of combating the BNP. The first approach has been to play down their signifcance. While not ignoring them, supporters of this way chose to try to marginalise the BNP, starve them of publicity and portray them to the public as politically irrelevant. I'm sure this approach may have been successful in some areas but here in the North West there is no point taking that tack now. It is an inescapable statement of fact that the BNP are in a very strong position here and will look to become even stronger.

The alternative approach has been to "fight the BNP". This often took the form of active protest and demonstration. We have seen the BNP being publicly heckled, the emergence of organised campaigns such as "Hope not Hate" denouncing them and a number of mass anti-fascist rallies across the North West. We have even witnessed various politicians and senior clergy urging the public not to vote BNP - something I always thought was counter-productive. If there is one thing certain to encourage people to consider voting BNP it's the patronising out-of-touch political class telling us who not to vote for. ("I'm going to vote BNP, simply because you b*****ds don't want me to" is a sentiment I've heard a few times myself.)

I'm not convinced that this effort to "fight the BNP" has been the right "fight" to take up. Firstly, it gives the far-right publicity is doesn't necessarily merit. Secondly, it is always a reactive approach, with protesters responding to the actions of the BNP. There must be a more pro-active route to combating fascism. The media's tactics have proved completely ineffective and have only served to enable the BNP to play the role of political martyr and to claim discrimination.

My own remedy would be to stop "fighting the BNP". It is not the BNP we need to fight, but their ideology and the basis for their support. Instead of openly responding to them, as various hecklers did outside Manchester City hall on Sunday night, we should avoid unnecessary confrontation. We shouldn't be directing our anger towards Nick Griffin and his ilk. They don't deserve our anger - they deserve our pity.

Of course, what should be challenged is the BNP's racist and ill-conceived agenda, and their understanding of Britishness and British history. This ideological battle doesn't have to be argued in an open forum, although I personally would have no problem sharing a platform with Nick Griffin. I'm not afraid of his lies and weak arguments. But what actually has to happen is for politicians and community groups to join forces - not to openly fight fascism - but to facilitate greater understanding between various social groups, to help broken communities to learn to live together. We need to challenge the BNP's ideology not by fighting it out with them but by going into our communities and helping to create the peaceful and tolerant societies that people want.

We can't be afraid of talking about the kind of issues that the BNP want to talk about. In places like Blackburn, where by brother lives, there is a commonly held perception that non-whites are given preferential treatment. We need to be willing to discuss these ideas with people, and challenge perceptions rather than ignore them. We need to listen to people's concerns and fears and respond to them, so the BNP don't capitalise on such fears, while at the same time educating people about the realities the BNP are keen to distort. And we need to do this sensitively, to draw the community together rather than further divide it.

This will not be easy, but the "Hope not Hate" message can be carried more effectively through this kind of approach than any mass-leafleting campaign. To quote a Labour Party slogan: we need to "go forward, not back". We need to move on from the fears, misconceptions and prejudices that have paralysed community relations in some of our communities. We can show the BNP that people can move forward and reject their simplistic and hateful politics. Only this way can the BNP be defeated.

Monday, 8 June 2009

What should we make of Caroline Flint's resignation?

This piece was written by my wife, Anna.

On Friday, as Gordon Brown was responding to the poor local elections results and putting together a new cabinet, Caroline Flint - Minister for Europe - reversed her decision to remain loyal to the Prime Minister and announced her resignation.

In a week of resignations, this was not partiualrly remarkable. After Hazel Blears' blatantly obvious attempt to destablisise the Labour Party before a major election and alienate potential voters (well done Ms Blears, the BNP thank you sincerely) this one was relatively insignficant. After all, Caroline was not one of the more prominent members of the government.

What is interesting is the reasons she gave for resigning: Ms Flint accused the PM of using her (and other women in the cabinet) as "little more than female window dressing". This was remarkable - especially as only the evening before she had praised Mr Brown and declared her loyalty. My first reaction (which may be the correct one) is that this self-serving woman hoped that in return for her loyalty she would receive a promotion which was not forthcoming. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But whatever the truth, a quick glance at the "Labour Home" blog reveals some deep-rooted anti-feminine attitudes which still prevail within the Labour Party. One blogger declared: "I thought it was a complete joke that Flint said Gordon Brown treated her as ‘window dressing’- she is the one wearing short tight skirts with a split right up the back to her ***** and wiggling about in high heels.” Ms Flint's decision to appear in a photoshoot for the Observer newspaper appeared to have undermined her claims among these Labour supporters, who appear to believe that in agreeing to the photoshoot, showing a lot of leg and looking glamourously beautiful she had undermined her personal and political credibility. No-one doing this could possibly be considered a serious politician!

I'm not too sure I would have done this myself, even if I was as photogenic as the former Europe Minister. If only because it isn't too difficult for the press to use such pictures to make judgements or to embarrass. But I am not sure that simply because Ms Flint chose to display her attractiveness and femininity to Observer readers that she can not be seriously considered. Number 10 was not too pleased with Ms Flint's self-display - perhaps because of the potential for her to come across as cheap, or someone desperately courting publicity. I suppose there is also the risk of appearing more obsessed with style than substance.

But all the same, I wouldn't be so dismissive of any professional person, be they Caroline Flint or Rebecca Adlington, for posing for newspapers. When athletes do it, it enhances their standing - when politicians do, they are derided. This is perhaps because of the misogynistic assertion that politics and women/sex do not sit easily together. It is plainly nonsense to be so dismissive of someone's capabilities on such a superficial basis.

Women who aren't particularly attractive also suffer. Just ask Patricia Hewitt.

Whether there is any truth to Ms Flint's claims that she was treated like "window dressing" is questionable, although Mr Brown's male-dominated cabinet suggests there may be some substance to it. However, what is certain is that, in political circles, femininity still doesn't fit.

I wouldn't judge Caroline Flint for being unashamed of her personal attractiveness. What I would be critical of her for is the ease with which she turned from loyal Brown supporter to would-be assassin in the space of a few hours. We need more women in parliament, but women of principle and integrity. If anything has compromised Caroline Flint's political credibility it isn't a few photos for a Sunday newspaper.

European Elections: the real winners are...The Apathy Party

There is no question who the biggest losers are: the Labour Party. They suffered a hammering on an unprecendented scale. Following questions about Brown's leadership, the expenses scandal and a spate of cabinet resignations, Labour's performance was worse than imaginable, losing the popular vote in Wales for the first time since 1918 and finishing third overall, behind UKIP.

But the Conservatives did not benefit as should have been expected. There was no great increase in their vote. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats had a disappointing night and are clearly failing to capitalise on the government's unpopularity and peceived incompetence. We are usually the recipient of protest votes but in EU elections find ourselves being replaced by a number of other parties including the fascist BNP. While the election results are clearly a desperately bad thing for Labour, there is little evidence that the public have fully embraced David Cameron's Tories.

Dissapointingly, the lead up to the election has been dominated by the Westminster expenses issue, the personality of Gordon Brown and cabinet resignations. There has been little talk about Europe or the EU; even less about the complex political issues in which the EU is central. The only dialogue on Europe has been the simplistic and unsophisticated arguments from UKIP. It is a tragedy that the public are generally unaware on European issues - while this is perhaps the fault of the mass media, the beneficiaries of general ignorance are the extreme Eurosceptic parties like UKIP.

The real winners last night were not UKIP, the Conservatives or even the BNP who were shamefully allowed to gain two seats. It was a victory for apathy. These elections proved that people can do amazing things through inaction. With a turnout at a pathetically low 30% voters stayed away - especially many Labour voters. The low turnout benefitted UKIP and the BNP who, while not increasing their votes, saw their share of the vote increase significantly. Unfortunately, this is what happens when voters "stay at home to give Labour a kicking".

The sight of Nick Griffin giving a "victory speech" was, quite frankly, appalling and unexpected. This should serve as a wake-up call not only to politicians but to the public and the media. Sections of the press have run a determined campaign to discredit certain mainstream politicians and the effect has been to encourage voters to stay away - with dreadful consequences.

It is a tragedy that the vast majority of British voters stayed away from the polls. In a sense, it is unsurprising, given the media emphasis on personality politics (which turns voters off) and the lack of constructive debate on Europe. What needs to happen is for greater engagement with the public that actually empowers the electorate and inspires them to use their democratic right constructively. And on Europe it is vital to have more honest discussion about European issues, rather than leave these important issues to the unsophisticated and ill-informed UKIP.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

UKIP: claiming the spirit of Churchill is a step too far.

The UK Independence Party is tipped to do well in the Euro elections on 4th June. The party, which proudly follows an isolationist line, is set to take advantage of voter disgust at the major parties in wake of the expenses scandal and is setting itself up as an alternative to the stale policies of the major parties.

On the positive side, at least they are (slightly) preferable to the racist BNP. But on the less positive, this is a reactionary party whose worldview is not based on any kind of reality.

Yes, we need to have a debate about Europe, but we moved on from debating whether or not Britain should be part of a European Union. The public voted for membership in a referendum in 1973. The real question is not "should we play an integral part in European politics and have a central role in shaping the future of Europe?" but "What kind of EU do we want? A bureaucratic and burdensome political club or a union of societies and communities based on co-operation and mutual understanding?" Or "How does the EU adjust to the realities of 21st century European politics?"

I am not a Eurosceptic and never could be, but I don't necessarily claim that the EU is perfect in its present form. I'm naturally distrustful of centralised bureaucratic power. UKIP are right to a point when they talk about wastage and the huge unnecessary costs associated with the EU. However, the EU has the potential to do so much for workers rights, Trade Union rights, to promote diversity in a practical way and to find multi-lateral solutions to problems such as immigration and the economy.

I'm an internationalist. I believe in co-operation between nations and it is vital that Britain remains at the heart of Europe.

Winston Churchill figures prominently on UKIP's current election propaganda. UKIP claim to have the "spirit of Churchill", standing seperate from the rest of Europe, firmly resisting the oppressors, refusing to surrender. What UKIP fail to realise is that Britain's isolation after 1940 was due to a miltary catastrophe and is no basis on which to plan foreign policy almost 70 years later.

They also fail to understand Churchill. In fact, Churchill, proud as he was of Britain, was an internationalist. He was hugely in favour of increased European co-operation after the war, and advocated the development of an organisation which eventually became known as the European Union. After the war, he became convinced that a united Europe could guarantee peace, and that the most effective way to contain the expansionist aims of certain countries was to create economic co-dependency between European states. He felt this would also eliminate the risks of rampant Nationalism and Fascism.

Churchill famously stated, in a speech in Zurich, "There is a remedy which ... would in a few years make all Europe ... free and ... happy. It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe." On a personal level, I think Mr Churchill's remedy goes more than a bit too far - but the spirit of Churchill is there for all to see. He was not a reactionary and an anti-European in the UKIP mould but a man with a progressive vision to rebuild Europe to assure peace and stability.

It is a shame that UKIP's political vision and their blindness towards political reality has led them to distort history in this shameful way. UKIP want to identify themselves with Churchill but are wrong to misrepresent the him as an isolationist.

We need an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives on European issues, but UKIP's approach is too blinkered, founded on a peculiar notion of British "splendid isolationism" that is based in fantasy rather than reality. The EU should be based on co-operation, not endless directives and regulation. And for this we need more people with Churchill's pragmatic approach to Europe.