Thursday, 31 May 2007

Tories not in disarray over Grammars

More in the press today about the grammar school split in the Tory party. This has erupted again with an article published by Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, in his local paper saying that more grammars should built if in his constituency if they are needed.

The media has jumped on this and its timing shortly after the departure of the Europe Minister Graham Brady earlier in the week to paint a picture of the Tories falling apart over the issue of grammar schools.

This is not really the case. Grieve's comments on the issue which will have been made in response to the concerns of some of his constituents who would have asked for clarity on the issue over the past fortnight is to reiterate the Tory support of existing grammar schools but with no grand plans to vastly expand the number of those schools across the country.

Grieve is a thoughtful and supremely intelligent politician. I think he was right as a local MP not to rule out the building of some new grammars in the future when addressing his constituents should demographic change precipitate a school shortage. But he also underlined that this was not an immediate priority and not the party's aspiration.

In fact he welcomed the party's focus on the school system nationally and attempts to improve it which is the direction that both DC and David Willetts have tried to pull the party in the last fortnight as part of projecting a modern message.

I hope that that important message, focusing on the opportunities of the many and not just the few, continues to get through and doesn't get lost in the media's need for political factionalism and spin.

Talking about improving our failing school system is vital to improving our social fabric and quality of life and DC has begun to make an important contribution to that debate. I for one hope it continues.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Johnson still Favourite in Underwhelming Field

I watched Labour's deputy leadership hustings on NewsNight and was rather underwhelmed by all six candidates.

Peter Hain was trying to be too cool for school, John Cruddas wants to return Labour to the 1980's, Harriet Harman couldn't answer a simple yes or no question with a yes or a no.

Of all the candidates I though Hilary Benn probably performed best on the night. Alan Johnson doesn't usually fair to well in such competitive situations with people vying for attention but did enough to suggest that he would be the best choice. He is a measured performer and gives an impression of honesty and openness in his thinking which is refreshing after the spin of the Blair years.

Whilst Harman was her usual dour and dreary self, it was left to the barely visible Hazel Blears to make possible the lamest argument of the night. When asked how she would tackle inequality the 4ft 9 chairwoman of the party said 'I and the majority of people just want to get on'.

Well said Hazel with that sort of reason and thought its a wonder you didn't run for the leadership.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Hopeless Hewitt should be kicked out

So Patricia Hewitt survived her 'no confidence' vote in the House of Commons, yesterday, it was no surprise given Labour's majority in the Commons.

But I am still confused as to what frankly she is still doing in her job?

Hewitt's inept handling of the junior doctors application process, which triggered the no confidence vote, is just the latest in a long line of hopeless mishaps on her watch as health secretary.

These include the overrun of cost and time on the NHS's 'choose and book' computer, huge budget deficits across the country, massive job cuts of front line staff and the closure of local A&E and maternity ward.

Hewitt also had the nerve to tell a forum of health professions last year that the NHS had had its best year ever! (She was rightly ridiculed for the remarks)

The fact remains that if anyone else had presided over so many disasters in the private sector they would have been booted out long ago.

Brown would be well advised to dispense of this Blairite as soon as he enters no 10, the NHS staff and the hard-up British taxpayer deserve much better.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Is DC right to pick a fight on grammars?

For Tony Blair his priority of education, education and yes you remembered it correctly education was one of his core appeals to the British electorate in 1997. The appeal to better education and greater opportunity was one of the main reasons for Labour’s landslide and the public was expecting major advances and impressive results.

This play has been adopted by the Cameron camp, who many believe are copying their moves from the Blair play book. Hence it is no surprise that at a time of attempted renewal within the Labour party Cameron chose education as his policy of choice to try to grab back the attention. Whether it is a smart move or not only time will tell.

With all the attention focusing on a smiling Gordon Brown crawling across the country kissing babies, smiling inanely DC knows that for the press to come calling at his door he has to come forward with something controversial or ‘beefy’.

This he did last week with the announcement by shadow education secretary David Willetts that the Conservatives will not build any more grammar schools, and more controversially that they will entrench advantage rather than widening it. It was the second part of this announcement which caught the right wingers of the party on the hop, leaving many fuming. Ex grammar school boy and Tory leader Michael Howard was said to be deeply unhappy at the announcement and others were baying for a showdown with Cameron at the weekly 1922 committee meeting of backbench MP’s.

DC is playing a bold hand here. He is right to say that education should focus on the opportunity of the many and not the few and that by having a debate on increasing grammar schools which account for such a small percentage of children in secondary education (there are only 164 in the country) that a great many children are excluded.

Cameron instead wants to use the academy framework (independently run schools in the state system) to move forward the Tory ideas of aspiration to a broader base (The Tories would push for greater streaming and selection in City academies). He has learnt that just by appealing to the core Tory vote he is not going to get elected to Westminster and that being attacked by the right on a policy initiative of this kind may well play straight into his hands as a modernising centrist.

The blowback could be deep fissures within the party and greater distrust of his leadership. As with Blair and the Labour party accusations that DC is not a real Tory but an impostor taking the party in a dangerous direction away from core beliefs could well increase and could lead to uncomfortable moments when he needs to rally his party to support legislation in the House in the coming weeks.

DC will also have to deal with a difficult position, namely that grammar schools are good schools which are massively oversubscribed, so why not support them? (this was something John Humphreys failed to ask him on the Today programme earlier today) And also what is to become of the one’s in existence. If you support academies so much why not abolish grammars altogether and turn them into model academies? In short DC may be accused of trying to have his cake and eat it all at the same time.

DC also has problems given his own privileged background in abolishing new grammars (Humphreys made a great deal of this earlier). With so many Old Etonians around him in the Shadow Cabinet the idea of restricting grammar schools which are very popular with aspirational middle class voters could turn them off and leave them at home in key marginals.

As for the academies themselves they have had encouraging results, in that the numbers getting better GCSE’s have improved and that the facilities are new and impressive. Although there are concerns that given the amount of money pumped in the benefits have so far not been fully maximised (particularly when the past results were so abysmal with many new academies replacing failing inner city schools with GCSE pass rates under 20%). They have also been controversial given their role in the cash for honours investigation.

In picking this fight DC is treading dangerous ground but he knows that buy positioning himself as the champion of the great and not the few he steadily changing the traditional Tory party image.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Surveillance Britain coming to a village near you

If you thought that only city dwellers were those most likely to be caught on CCTV as they go about their daily lives then think again.
The sleepy village of Stockbridge in Hampshire has spent £10,000 on installing CCTV cameras throughout the village. The council argues that these are vital in protecting he public, but protecting the public from what. Crime in the village is virtually zero and when asked what sort of crime there was the local council chief couldn't recall any in particular apart from some vague incident of a smashed window.

This is a massive waste of local people's council tax and defies all logic. The local Hampshire police chief has rightly raised concerns about the UK sleepwalking into an Orwellian state (we have the most cameras in the world), with Stockbridge symbolising a worrying trend of surveillance branching out from built up areas into the countryside. The release today of a mobile CCTV police drone to much fanfare from police is further evidence of this state becomign a relaity as our liberties are eroded in the name of fighting crime and terrorism.

Further afield in higher crime areas, the idea that a few cameras will bring crime rates down is simply not true. Criminals quickly learn where the cameras do not operate either avoiding them by popping round the corner or quickly working out where they are not monitored and maintained properly (remember the 7/7 bombers in London and the lack of CCTV footage at the time because cameras did not have films in!) and proceed to carry on thieving and robbing regardless.

When my father's car was broken into in Nottingham, the landlady of the pub where it happened said that they had a camera watching the car park but that it had no film in it, in short it was just a deterrent...... how pathetic.

Britain currently has a sprawling mass of 4.2 million cameras, about 1 per 14 of the population, this is too many. I am not arguing that we should remove all cameras, but I do believe that there number should be limited to certain public spaces and that these ones should be properly maintained and monitored so that when needed (as in hunting the 21/7 bombers) they can be used as evidence in court and in manhunt investigations for awol suspects.

Cameras are only one solution to fighting crime and they are in themselves a very limited weapon, which is being abused doing little in the battle with gangs on the street whilst simultaneously eroding our hard won liberties.

With plans for microphones in cameras and talking cameras coming in the next few months, a stand must be taken against the rise of the omnipotent state.

People in Stockbridge can now testify how it feels to have Big Brother watching them over...... I wonder if they feel any safer?

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Freedom of Information farce shows just how transparent Gordon really is

Well so much for Gordon Brown pushing a new kind of politics. I think in total it lasted under a week.
This week MP's in the House of Commons decided that they should be exempt from freedom of information legislation and as a result be allowed to keep details of their expenses a secret.

Now whilst this measure was brought in by a former Conservative whip, David Maclean, it only passed in the Commons with Labour votes. What was more interesting was that that many Brown allies voted in favour of the restrictions. They included the current chief whip Jacqui Smith and most surprisingly Brown's right hand man Ed Balls. There is no way that Balls goes into the Commons and votes on any measure without consulting Gord, so we must assume that Gord supports this. And as one columnist rightly said this weekend, if Brown had wanted to defeat this bill he could have easily done so, so his inaction speaks volume.

Ultimately this is a travesty for hard working tax payers who will now not be able to find out how their elected officials will be spending their money.

So much for more transparent politics Gordon.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Can Labour really elect Blears?

The Deputy Leadership Contest for the Labour party is certainly hotting up. Earlier this week all 6 candidates attended a hustings event in London hosted by the Fabian society.

By most accounts the hustings were pretty tame fare.

Surely to take over from a man of Prescott's stature, class, political poise and rhetoric the process for selection should be more exciting and run as follows:

Round 1 - A Royal Rumble (first two candidates over the top rope, eliminated, odds are on Peter 'perma tanned' Hain and Harriet 'im all woman' Harman falling by the wayside here.)

Round 2 - Rhyme the following words twenty times in under a minute without swearing: 'fuzzy duck' (2 more candidates eliminated, most likely Hilary Benn and Alan Johnson (both too slow)

Final Round - Being given a Government Department to run for a year. The objective is to waste money indefinitely on gimmicks and naff schemes and then blame it all on the Tory 'bastards' opposite (John Cruddas would be eliminated here. With no experience of running a government department incompetently under Blair it would not be a fair fight with Blears.)

That leaves the current Labour Party chairwoman Hazel Blears as the surviving candidate.

Could Blears win the real thing? Well amazingly yes, despite the fact that she is incredibly annoying, with one journalist this week describing her as the sort of woman who enters the office every morning with an innate smile and who spends the whole day constantly telling everyone to cheer up asserting that things aren't really as bad as they seem.

Blears won the hustings earlier in the week with 26% of the vote, could she win the whole thing? Now that would be funny!