Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oxbridge and free school meals

Atlhough Nick Clegg has (quite rightly) expressed frustration at the education system failing the least well off, I was disappointed to see that he did so by citing the proportion of free school meal recipients getting places at Oxford or Cambridge.

He is far from alone in doing this - remember the unseemly row earlier in the year between Ed Balls and Michael Gove on this very point. Not to mention the notorious Laura Spence affair some years ago.

Now I am all for children in receipt of free school meals going to Oxford or Cambridge if they want to study there. What bothers me is the implicit (perhaps unintentional) assumption made by Clegg, Balls and Gove that an Oxbridge place is the only possible measure of academic excellence and that anyone who does not achieve this has either failed in life or been let down by the education system.

However wonderful Oxford and Cambridge may be, they are not necessarily for everyone and students may actually choose to study elsewhere, because of a particular course, or the location or ethos of a particular institution. Some may even, for good reasons, choose not to go on to higher education, however excellent their A-level grades. Making sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone should not just be measured by the admission rates of those on low incomes to just two elite institutions.

Howard Flight's apology won't do

So, about-to-be Tory peer Howard Flight made an offensive remark about the poor, but he has now apologised and can have his peerage after all, so that's all right then?

Well not quite! In general I'm not one who thinks politicians should be hung out to dry for a gaffe, faux pas or slip of the tongue. But in this case, he said it, clearly meant it and it can't be unsaid. There are of course occasions when people do say things they don't mean: perhaps when we've had too much to drink, or in a fit of anger or when clearly speaking in jest. But he hasn't given any of these as a reason for saying what he did. So no matter how much he apologises and withdraws his remarks, we all know that what he said is is what he really thinks.

His attitude reveals him as having just the sort of attitudes that explains why David Cameron had to spend so long detoxifying the Tory brand, and if Cameron has any sense he will withdraw Flights peerage.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Clegg, Liberalism and Progressivism

In giving the Hugo Young lecture Nick Clegg (reprinted here on Comment is Free) contrasted the 'new progressive' outlook of the Liberal Democrats with Labour's 'old progressive' approach. The former 'focus on the power and freedom of citizens' while the latter 'are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity'.

In doing so Clegg arouses the ire of Jonathan Calder: 'Nick Clegg should speak about liberalism not "progressivism"' who endorses the view of Contrasting Sounds that 'the word “progressive” should be taken outside of UK politics and shot. Or rather, restricted to its technical meaning in tax discussions.'

I don't disagree with Jonathan's conclusion that this is really about the 'contrast between liberalism and socialism. Yet the term progressive does have a meaning in British political tradition beyond a narrow one about the tax system. In the Edwardian era (and possibly before), Liberal politicians were in the habit of using the term 'party of progress' as a generic description for their own party and their Labour allies. This contrasted with the Conservatives whom they saw as the 'party of reaction'. On the London County Council after its creation in 1889, the Liberals worked within a broad grouping that included Labour and socialist elements which contested elections under the 'Progressive' label. And historians are in the habit of referring to the co-operation between the Liberals and Labour before the first world war as the 'Progressive Alliance'. (Although my brief online trawl of contemporary publications suggests that this term may not have been widely used at the time.

Whether in a historical or modern context, the word 'Progressive' is still a useful generic term to distinguish those who, regardless of party, see their political outlook as being about championing the poor, the excluded and the disempowered against the established order. So I suppose that in addressed a Guardianista audience, Clegg is referring to 'Progressivism' in order to make the case that Labour don't have a monopoly of such sentiments - we share them but have a different approach to achieving them.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The last Liberal MP to be ejected for corrupt practices

If the Woolas judgment is the first election result since 1911 to be overturned on the grounds of corrupt practice, then presumably the last one was the case of C.F.G. Masterman, whose victory at West Ham North in the December 1910 general election was overturned by an election court in June 1911.

In Masterman's case, the verdict turned on irregularities in the declaration of election expenses by his agent, including submitting a return over the permitted spending limit and failing to declare the cost of leaflets donated to the campaign, by the Free Trade Union and others. Remarkably, the counsel for the petitioners (i.e. the Conservative candidate was at pains to stress that 'no imputation was made on the honour, integrity, or conduct of Mr. Masterman in relation to such matters', a proposition endorsed by the judges.

However, Masterman appeared to have a bit of a problem in choosing election agents. He stated in the course of his evidence that he had had three different agents in his three contests in West Ham North. When he stood in 1903 at a by-election in Dulwich, he was also rather prickly in his dealings with Liberal party HQ over who he would and wouldn't have as agent. In general a rather highly-strung character, he might well have been difficult to work for.

For him, this triggered a series of events that would damage his political career. He was forced to find another seat at Bethnal Green South West, for which he was elected at a 1911 by-election. But when he was appointed to the cabinet in 1914, by the convention of the time he had to seek re-election at a by-election, which he duly lost. He then began an unsuccessful quest for an alternative seat, losing another by-election at Ipswich, before ultimately being forced to stand down from the cabinet.

Perhaps if he had employed a more competent agent at West Ham, he would have avoided all the later trouble.

Jonathan Calder at Liberal England has written extensively about Masterman here.

Will the Conservatives stand in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election?

Benedict Brogan on his Daily Telegraph blog raises the prospect of the Conservatives not contesting the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. I hope this is mere speculation (or, coming from the Telegraph, mischief-making), but the Lib Dem leadership should discourage any suggestion that the Conservatives should not contest the by-election. Otherwise, we start to move from the realms of coalition, which is a business agreement, to some form of electoral pact, which would compromise the Lib Dems' independence.

The Lib Dem strategy in the by-election will no doubt be to harness the votes of both coalition parties against Labour, but they should do this the hard way, by squeeze messages, bar charts etc. to minimise the vote for the Conservative candidate. You can be sure that the local Conservatives will want to contest the seat, and one hopes that the leadership won't dissuade them.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Thoughts on the Woolas verdict

It is tempting to crow about the Woolas verdict, but a more measured response is called for. No true democrat can welcome elections being determined by the courts rather than the voters.

Politics is a competitive activity and those of us actively engaged in local campaigning have to take the rough and tumble. Not a year goes by without one or more of our opponents in Watford complaining about Lib Dem literature that I have written, while I quietly seeth about theirs before deciding to calm down since it’s not worth making a fuss about. There is almost an unwritten rule that however bitter we may feel when things don’t go our way, it’s best to plan to get even rather than whinge.

Yet there has to be a line somewhere, and perhaps Elwyn Watkins has done everyone a favour by taking this case to court and showing that ultimately you can’t just lie about your opponents and then dismiss it as robust political comment rather than an attack on their character. In this case, one of the key points at issue was Labour’s accusation that Elwyn Watkins failed to condemn death threats against Woolas. To say such a thing is clearly not just a political criticism, but an attack on Watkins’ personal character. Most citizens of this country would rightly condemn anyone who condoned (or even failed to condemn) threats of political violence. The more so if said person sought personal advantage from such threats.

It was a clear and surprising error of judgment by Ed Miliband to appoint Woolas to the shadow cabinet, when he will have known the background to the Oldham East and Saddleworth and could have reached a judgment on the ethics of that campaign even without waiting for the court to pronounce. But, however belatedly, Labour have now suspended Woolas from the party and according to Labour List will not be supporting his appeal. (There are also other thoughtful contributions on Labour List from Mark Ferguson and Emma Burnell, even if the former can’t resist a touch of whataboutery with a dig at Simon Hughes over the the Bermondsey by-election, which took place a mere 27 years ago.)

I don’t believe that this judgment will trigger a series of similar actions – legal action is simply too expensive and the results of re-run elections too uncertain. But if it reminds all of us in every party who are engaged in the political ground war that there are limits and the penalties for crossing them can be severe then perhaps this judgment will do some good.

The full judgment, which is available here, is well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What does The Apprentice tell us about modern business?

By my standards it's been a time of heavy TV watching. More through inertia than anything else I caught part of this evening's episode of The Apprentice, and wondered if it gives a clue as to what is wrong with British business.

I understand that each week "Lord" Sugar divides his contestants into two teams, each with a leader, to undertake a particular challenge. In the snippet I saw, one of the team leaders was trashing one of her subordinates for supposed mistakes. But surely in a business environment, the person in charge should take responsibility for their decisions and be accountable for the success or failure of their project.

Or perhaps not, if you consider either the history of the banking crisis, or the practice of ineffective senior managers getting massive golden handshakes for after taking disastrous decisions that caused people to lose their jobs. So in making her subordinate take the rap, our Apprentice contestant was perhaps just reflecting modern business mores!

Downton Abbey: an anorak writes...

The portrayal of politics in soap operas is a strange thing!

Older readers who also listen to Radio 4 will remember how Mark Hebden, first husband of Shula Lloyd (née Archer) was elected in the 1980s as an SDP councillor without ever having to put out Focus leaflets or attend meetings. Viewers of Coronation Street with political interests might puzzle over how an inner city ward in Greater Manchester seemed to elect a succession of independent councillors Alf then Audrey Roberts, then Curly Watts) when contests in such an area would certainly have been party political.

Similarly, the depiction of a by-election in Downton Abbey (last Sunday's episode) had a couple of faux pas. In the first place the returning officer is heard to read out the number of votes for a socialist candidate. But it is highly unlikely that either Labour or other socialist organisation would have stood a candidate in rural Yorkshire (the supposed constituency is clearly centred on Ripon) before the first world war. Nearby, Bradford West had a Labour MP from 1906 and the more overtly socialist Social Democratic Party (a different one from the 1980s Alliance days) contested Bradford East in the January 1910 election. But those were industrial constituencies and Labour had not by then reached out into rural England.

Later in the episode, the eldest daughter of the house later proclaims that although she is interested in politics, it is hard to get excited about by-elections when there is a hung parliament. However, no one really regarded the political situation in 1914 as a hung parliament. True, the ruling Liberal party, led by H.H. Asquith, lacked an overall majority. But it could pretty much depend on the support of the Irish parliamentary party and Labour, neither of which would be likely to ally themselves with the Conservatives. And if the term 'hung parliament' had been coined by 1914, it was not widely in use. Searching the online archive of The Times for the period, I can't find a single use of the phrase. More than this, a by-election is likely to be more interesting rather than less so if there is a hung parliament with delicate parliamentary arithmetic, so Lady Mary's dismissal of them is rather odd. Or maybe that bit of dialogue was a subtle way of showing the character's political ignorance.

Possibly I am being rather petty-minded in getting exercised by such things. But if so I am in good company. Consider the following lyric by Nigel Blackwell from Half Man Half Biscuit's song Surging out of convalescence, off their Achtung Bono album:

Darts in soap operas
Oh so wrong oh so wrong
No one scoring and there's
Too much chat between each throw

Worse than this though is when
Cheers are raised up for a bull
Granted, bull's a double and an out
But I know that they don't know
Therefore I propose no soap darts

For my part I propose no politics in soaps or serial dramas.