Monday, September 06, 2010

Worth their weight in Gold: Long term tenancies must stay

The Coalition government has announced that it is considering ending life time tenancies for tenants of housing associations or local authorities. David Cameron’s reasoning behind floating this change is that:
“maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector.”

The inference is that social housing should be only a safety net, not something that is potentially available to all.  That would represent a fundamental shift in the purpose of council and housing association properties.

Housing is a fundamental human need as every student of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs knows. Without security of shelter it is very difficult to think about working and contributing back to society. The stress of not knowing whether you’re safe staying in your house can be a massive emotional and physical drain. In a world where people feel that so much is changing and out of their control, security of tenure is a cornerstone in their lives.

If the coalition is serious about tackling the culture of benefits dependency by getting people back into work this is not the way to do it. Effectively penalising people by getting them to move from their home and pay private sector rents because they’ve got a job hardly helps incentivise people. It doesn’t matter that this might not be for years – the message it sends is that work still won’t pay.  Social Housing needs to be used more effectively and there’s room for reform, but redesigning it as a safety net is not the way to go.

The other thrust behind the coalition announcement on tenure is money. The communities department claims that Social Housing is subsidised to the tune of £35 per week by each tax payer.  If that were true there would be good cause to try and seek savings in economically tough times. In reality, housing association and local authorities fund all of their maintenance and running costs through rent receipts.

What the Communities department may be referring to is government subsidy for the building of new social housing – which stands at a total of £8.4bn over three years, although this still works out at considerably less than £35 per tax payer per week.

So what is the link between building new homes and the cost of renting one?

In the private sector when a building company has completed a new home they sell it (directly or indirectly) to the first owner. If the owner chooses to let the new property they effectively pass on the cost of the build, management fees and their mortgage through the rent to the tenant. Housing associations also borrow cash to contribute to new builds, but the full cost of the build isn’t passed on in rent because of the government subsidy. So the Communities department are right - social housing rents are lower because of the building subsidy. However, rents are also lower because Housing Associations don’t have to make a profit for their shareholders.

There’s another catch. Everyone seems to agree that we need more homes, but the private sector isn’t that willing to build them either and is crying out for – you guessed it – subsidy. Until 2006 the government funded, with some success the Business Expansion Scheme to encourage the private sector to build new residential homes and now the private sector are calling for its reintroduction. It looks like the tax payer is going to be forking out for new builds for some time to come. If the government is going to invest money in the new houses why not invest it where you know it will get passed onto those that most need it rather than ending up in the pockets of commercial builders?

If the coalition seriously wants to try and reduce public subsidy of new builds it could allow rents to go up in the social housing sector to allow greater reinvestment in new builds. This would mean people that were working in social housing were paying closer to the private market rent. It would also mean that it was paying more in Housing Benefit, but there would be the incentive for the coalition to get more people into work without having to end secure tenancies. However, the Housing and Council Tax Benefit system needs reforming because it is a massive disincentive to work because it effectively taxes a new worker at 85%.

Ah, what a tangled web. What was it Palmerston said about the number of people who understood the Schwelsig Holstein Question? Maybe subsidising social housing isn’t such a bad idea.

Social Housing secure tenancies are worth their weight in gold. They improve the quality of life for millions of people in this country by meeting a basic human need for the long term. Treating the national stock of four million Social Houses as a safety net by forcing people to leave their homes when they get work is short sighted, unlikely to save money or increase the total housing stock. Tackling the culture of welfare dependency is and should continue to be a top priority of this government, but ending security of tenure will damage, not contribute to this aim.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Down at the Sally

I very rarely mix work with the pleasure of blogging, but if you're interested you can read a few of my job related thoughts at the (slow loading) Salvation Army website here

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

Shakespeare had Hamlet and Othello and the legend of Faust has been worked and reworked through modern literature, but Daphne Du Maurier’s tragic heroes will stick just as long in the memory.

Du Maurier was ahead of her time. Her gothic settings in rural Cornwall may look back to the Victorians, but her strong female characters and rich, sometimes shocking plots belies an author writing as early as the mid 20th century. Du Maurier loves to holds her readers in suspense and her characters are full of unsettling ambiguity and anxiety.

My Cousin Rachel is a sinister love triangle between the bachelor Ambrose, his adopted ‘son’ Philip and the beguiling jet-setting Rachel. The centre of the story concerns Rachel’s motives. Is she devoted and vulnerable wife or devilish deceiver and fiend? It is to the credit of the author, but apparently missed by most of the reviews I’ve read, that the answer is both. As Mr. Kendall, the straight laced godfather of Philip states
‘There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.’

Du Maurier unravels the tragically flawed personality of a woman shaped by the harsh male dominated world of the 19th Century. Seeking to protect herself after a failed first marriage at a young age she learns to manipulate and control those around her using her intelligence and beauty. She pursues security and enjoyment in financial wealth and will go to great ends to achieve this. However she desires company and needs to love and be loved deeply, if on her own terms.

In Ambrose and Phillip she finds two men who offer her the love she craves, but because of their naivety do not threaten the dominance and control she needs. Power unbridled is badly used and does indeed ‘impel disaster’. Her ‘will to power’ is sometimes viciously victorious over her caring love for her men, but at other times touchingly checked, often with the help of the one man she truly respects – the hard headed Italian, Rainaldi.

Daphne Du Maurier captures the contradictions so often inherent in the human condition and her mystery detective style make My Cousin Rachel a page turning, but provoking read.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Prayer adapted from an Indonesian creed.

 Thanks to CORD. I like the final verse the best.

I believe in God, who is love and who has given the earth to all people.
I believe in Jesus Chris who came to heal us, and free us from all forms of oppression.
I believe in the Spirit of God, who works in and through all who are turned towards the truth.

I do not believe in the right of the strongest, nor the force of arms, nor the power of oppression.
I do not believe in racisim, in the power that comes from wealth and privilege, or in any established order that enslaves.
I do not believe that war and hunger are inevitable and peace unattainable.

I believe in human rights, in solidarity of all people, in the power of non violence.
I believe that all men and women are equally human, that order based on violence and injustice is not order.
I believe in beauty of simplicity, in love with open hands, in peace on earth.
I dare to believe in God's promises.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Running off the edge of solid ground?: Farewell to the election

The election made my typing fingers itchy. After two months of high political drama that itch has been well and truly scratched. The leaders' debates, the Lib Dem surge, Bigotgate, election night and the flux and surprises that came as the nation negotiated its first hung parliament for 35 years.

As I wind up this chapter of my blog it's led me to reflect not just on the experience of the nation, but also my own interaction with the political process. As someone who figures that they mind find themselves heavily involved in big P*  Politics one day it's vital that I understand the impact that engagement has on my own wellbeing.

I normally shy away from using the term 'spiritual' as it smacks of decartesian dualism: mind versus body, the physical self pulled away from the soul. However, there's been times when I've noticed that near obsession with polling data and live up-to-the-minute updates have damaged my spiritual health. The silence and centring on who I am in God get lost in the chitter chatter and turning over in my mind of the latest twist and turn.

CS Lewis writes: "Nearly all that a boy reads [in newspapers] in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance." (Surprised by Joy)

In a 24 hour news world what is reported as fact in the morning will have been proved false by lunchtime. Was there a point of following polls showing a Lib Dem surge which dissipated into a nothingness that will not merit even a footnote in history?

A loss of God-centredness also makes me less effective in making the arguments that I want to put advance. Losing the link with the passions and motives that helps sustain my views in the first place means losing sight of the larger perspective. Just as cartoon characters run off the edge of a cliff and then look down to find no solid ground beneath them I run the risk of forgetting why I believe the point I am promoting. The big picture gets lost and it's easy to get tangled up in threads of little consequence or to miss the perspective that opens or subverts the debate.

Unless I stay rooted in who I am by keeping time for silence, prayer and calm I will get sucked into a maelstrom of mediocrity and have nothing distinctive to offer our public life.

Walking in God given gifts should overall bring energy not drain it away. Sure, there will be seasons of hard, tiring work, which sometimes last months or even years, but there is also something invigorating and a deep inner contentment that tells you you're in the right place.

I love talking with people about issues that really matter to strangers on the doorstep, people at church, work and friends.  I love challenging people's preconceived ideas and finding good ways to disagree. I love attempting to articulate a vision of positive change. All this is good, yet I need to fiercely guard my spiritual health and say no to lie that if I must be absolutely uptodate on the latest developments to make a contribution.

It's easy to jump from obsession to obsession to avoid facing ourselves. I'm having a rest now...although there is the World Cup just around the corner...

* most of us are involved in little p politics - when I go to a meeting at work with outside agencies to talk about the way we interact or want to work together - that's politics.

Skepticism and cynicism

Skepticism examines each question on its merits; cynicism doesn't bother to look. 

Skepticism assumes mixed motives; cynicism that everyone's snout is in the trough.

Cynicism knows that we're going to hell in a handcart; skepticism holds out the possibility that something new might work.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Take a deep breath and count slowly to ten: Media Mumbo-jumbo and Labour Lacuna

The Labour party seem to have a gap in their common sense and decency and I've heard more media mumbo-jumbo in the last couple of days than even by the normal standards. So here's 10 thoughts I need to get off my not especially hairy chest:

  1. Gordon Brown was not squatting. He's the Primeminister until we get a new one. I'm pleased that we have constitutional arrangements in place that keep the country running until negotiations are completed.
  2. Labour lost the election - 91 of their 349 seats to be precise. Some senior Labour figures don't seem to have noticed this. Not mentioning any names Mr. AJ, Mr.AC, Mr.CW. Lord PM
  3. There's no such thing as an 'anti-Tory majority' or a 'progressive majority' . There is still an anti Tory vote, but not since the 1990s has it been anything like a majority. and what about the 'Anti-Brown' majority? The Lib Dems have always taken seats from both the Tories and Labour. Some Lib Dems are closer to Labour, some to the Tories. That's why the 2 big parties have always complained about the 'Fib Dems' saying one thing in one part of the country and another elsewhere.
  4. Nick Clegg is not exercising more power than befits his party's size. The Tories didn't get a majority so it's right that they can't implement their entire programme unbridled. Clegg has only enough political capital to push a few key issues of his / his party's choice. Overstep the mark and Conservatives will look elsewhere or they'll be a new election and the Lib Dems will get punished.See this where the New Zealand third party got their fingers burned.
  5. Ashcroft and other Tory snipers don't get it.  It's not David Cameron's fault that he didn't get a majority. After all these years, voters still weren't quite convinced that the Tory nasty party isn't still lurking beneath the surface. There's some pretty big planks laying around in people's eyes.
  6. The grassroots of both Tories and the Lib Dems need to accept the current reality. Yes there are going to be policies implemented that you don't like, but neither party won the election. It doesn't mean to say that your party doesn't believe in them, but you haven't won the argument in the country. If you feel that strongly don't blame your leadership, go and make the case to the electorate next time.
  7. The way that Cameron and Senior Tories have handled themselves has been impressive. Cameron has taken risks to make progress and been surprisingly flexible in his approach. So far, it's not an idle boast  to say that they've acted in the national interest.
  8. A Conservative/Lib Dem agreement is the only option in town... Labour plus Lib Dem still doesn't command a majority and Labour couldn't guarantee getting a referendum on PR through parliament.
  9. ..Apart for a Conservative / Labour grand coalition. Why isn't this being discussed? There wouldn't be the sticking point on PR, it would be a unity government in times of economy crisis. Cameron gets to be PM, it would give Labour time to get a new leader whilst staying in office and Clegg gets increased exposure as leader of the opposition. Maybe they're worried that it would be a bit of a squash on the government benches. The opposition would be able to sunbathe on them.
  10. The longer the Lib Dems go without making a decision the worse it will look for them. More than anyone else they need to show that coalition government and hung parliaments work. They should be jumping at the Tory offer of a referendum on AV now. It's even guaranteed by whipping the Tory party through the lobbies. They're not going to get anything better than that.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

X marks the spot: election day is special.

 The average person voting to choose who makes the laws and governs is extremely unusual when you look at world history. The UK is 'the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world' and we only introduced something close to universal suffrage in 1928. That's within my grandparents' lifetime. Voting is part of our key freedoms - freedom of speech and freedom of association. 

We take it for granted that we can vocally disagree with our primeminister and call for the end of his leadership in the most abrupt terms without fear of reprisal. Try asking the Spanish whether that was possible before 1976 under Franco or the Russians under Bhreshnev in the 1970s and 1980s.

I can meet up with others and discuss a completely new form of political system if I want to and go to church on a Sunday without fear of arrest or 'disappearance'. Not something the reformers massacred at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819 or Catholics in the 17th and 18th centuries would do lightly.

It's a cliche that my grandparent's generation fought for the freedoms to vote and speak freely that they'd so recently won, but none the less true for it. Those freedoms really were under threat in the UK first from the Nazi Germany and then the Communists. Modern, civilised countries like Hungary and East Germany  had to wait until the 1990s for another chance to vote freely.

It's therefore a privilege and a duty to vote.

Democracies are fragile. If we don't exercise our vote it imperils our freedoms.

If the link's not clear hopefully this handy homemade flow chart will help.

Not many people vote or hold the government to account
Government doesn't have a strong mandate or legitimacy to govern. (i.e. there's no broad agreement among the population that they have the right to govern.)
Government finds it can get away with stuff because not held accountable, but is still unpopular
Government finds ways other than voting to claim legitimacy i.e. ultra populist give aways to keep people quiet and buy them off / claiming there's a big crisis and so strong unified leadership is needed. The military step into prop up the government.
Government says that dissenters are enemies of the people and the country. There's no longer the democratic space or methods to challenge those in power.
Government uses force, coercion and fear to maintain power. It cannot rely on the consent of the governed.
How far down the chart is the UK?
Democracy works because it provides a way for us as a country to agree on who has the right to rule us. David Cameron didn't assassinate Gordon Brown and seize power by force and precipitate a civil war was because he knows that the rest of the country agreed that the Labour party, by the rules in place, should be in charge of the country for a few years.   If we don't join in with giving that peaceful consent by voting we risk rulers having to find other ways to maintain power - through force, fear and bribery.
Every time I walk into a polling station and mark my X in a box next to a candidate of my choice,  freely and unwatched I marvel at what I've just been able to do. Then I look around and imagine the millions of other people in the country doing the same thing on the same day. Joining in the rare and unusual national act of choosing who will have power to shape our lives for the next five years.
Enjoy election day - it's special.

Election prediction - which way is the wind blowing?

Here's my predictions for the election. Why not have a go yourself here and post your results in the comments section below.

Number of seats:
1 Conservative 315
2 Labour 218
3 Lib Dem 83
 Other 33

Share of Vote:
1 Conservative
2 Labour
3 Lib Dem

David Cameron leads a minority administration.

We shall see in 48 hours or so...

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Take that peg off your nose!

I've blogged on this before here, but it's worth mentioning again in the light of Ed Balls' comments over the last day or two.

Voting tactically is a wasted vote.

Here's two reasons:

1) Voting what you think is what actually changes things. Political parties pour over the breakdown of votes in a particular seat and when they see increase support at the ballot box for a smaller party  they look at the best and most attractive ideas from that party and adopt them. Your choice of party might not have got in immediately, but you've shaped the political landscape in a positive way.
Vote tactically with a peg over your nose leaves you dissatisfied and the people in that party assuming that you like their ideas and policies and you no closer to seeing the changes you'd like.

2) Voting what you think creates some momentum.
Voting is a way of showing others that there are more people that think like them. We're not always good about talking politics in public. If everyone tactically votes a monster raving loony supporter may never find out that there's actually 100s of others in his constituency with the same views.

Moving from fourth to third or third to second in a seat means that your choice of party becomes more high profile, gains more members, gets more media time. Nick Clegg wouldn't have even made it into the debates if the Lib Dems hadn't gradually increased their share of votes and seats over the last couple of elections. Yes, this is playing the long game, but they'll always be some reason to vote tactically- at some point you have to go for it.

Many people say they need to vote tactically to 'keep out the Tories' or 'get rid of Gordon Brown', but a huge swathe of voters say 'oh, they're all the same really'. It's not possible to have it both ways - there's no point in voting tactically to get rid of one lot if they're all the same really!

If you like the Tories best vote for them. If Labour, Labour. If UKIP, UKIP. Time to take that peg off your nose and vote for whoever you like.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Green backbone

It probably wasn't too difficult to sense my anger and disappointment at the main parties lack of honesty over cuts in my last post.

In fact, their lack of honesty and imagination in trying to explain some of the big changes we need has been shocking. Although there are significant differences between the parties it's not surprising that they're not always easy to spot through the mud slinging fight for the middle ground.

If you've read some of my other posts you'll know I'll be voting Green on Thursday. One of the reasons for this is their upfront clarity on some radical, expensive, but just and necessary policies.

Take inequality. Money doesn't make us happy, but study after study shows that the more unequal societies are the less well they function  and the more unhappy they become. Have a look at the Equality Trust. The Green Party would tackle this head on. Imagine the reduction in inequality if we:

  • raised the minimum wage towards £8.10 per hour to reward working rather than benefits (saving £6bn in tax credits)
  • abolished the upper limit for National Insurance (you currently only pay 1% NI on earnings over a certain figure) - raising £9.1bn
  • Help lower earners by raising the lower National Insurance limit to the personal allowance rate costing £3.9bn.
  • Help lower earners by reintroducing the 10% tax band and the 22p basic rate, costing £14.9bn.
  • Reform inheritance tax, so that the level of taxation depends on the wealth of the recipient rather than that of the deceased, raising £3bn by 2013. This will encourage people to distribute their property widely. 
Other parties claim that they want a fair tax system, but mess around at the edges.  The Greens are prepared to say that: yes, taxes would rise for the much better off,  because someone working 60 hours a week to get by on the current minimum wage as a security guard shouldn't be earning 5 times less than a high flying barrister for the same hours. These are big, controversial changes, but it'they're not impossible to achieve. They're costed upfront and as the Green Party say in their manifesto "All it requires is political courage – and popular democratic backing for that courage."

Take communities. All the parties want to 'support communities', but wouldn't dream of challenging the vested interests in the status quo that relies on consumerism, greed and squeezing employees dignity and supply chains till the pips squeak.

Only the Greens are prepared to say that they'll restrict planning laws to make it harder for Tescos etc. to build outside of town and to create local business zones within walking distance for everyone. Only the Greens will enable more companies to become mutual or cooperatives so that they have space to build in local social and environmental benefits into their business model because profit is not the only bottom line. Only the Greens are prepared to stand up and challenge the culture of long working and commuting so that people can spend time with their families and being involved locally.

'Supporting Communities' isn't wishy washy idealism or empty rhetoric. It takes backbone and sustained conviction. The Green Party have consistently shown on their campaigning on the environment that they're prepared to lead the way and stand up and say the difficult, unpopular things to those in power and where necessary, the public.

 I could go on, but I hope you're beginning to get the picture!

It's time to lift our vision and know that as a country it is possible to challenge the social and economic injustices and binds that we take for granted. It is possible as a nation to stop obsessing about greedy economic growth and materialism at any cost and to take more time to value and enjoy our relationships and support those around us.

I'm fed up of waiting for the main parties to show the leadership, vision and substantive policies we need. I'll be voting Green.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

We're not stupid - tell us where you'll cut!

Money isn't everything, but when the country's structural deficit is anywhere between £70 and £90 billion per year it's pretty important.

The structural deficit is the amount of money we borrow to keep doing the things we do at the moment - the revenue costs if you like. If we borrow to invest in something new that doesn't count. Gordon Brown's 'golden rule' was based on a similar distinction, the rules of which got helpfully tweaked at various points over the last decade.

All the parties say they want to reduce the Structural deficit between half and two thirds over a parliament and say they can eliminate somewhere between £7.6bn and £12bn of 'waste' in public services , but that still leaves some pretty big figures. Today's institute for fiscal studies report states that:
"Based on commitments made so far, the Liberal Democrats would need to cut an accumulated £51bn from spending on public services by 2017. Labour's plans would require a slightly smaller cut during that time of £47bn, the IFS said, while the Conservatives would cut by the largest amount - £57bn."

As I said. some pretty big gaps. Some will come in tax rises, but what about the rest?

Take a look at the BBC articles here and here for some more explanation. 

Last October at conference time it looked like the Tories were going to lead the way and be more honest with us about what they'd cut. But they ran scared as soon as the polls began to change at the beginning of the year. 

There's going to be massive cuts in the public sector. It's not going to be possible to protect frontline services - every single one of the nurses and teachers. I want to know what each party is planning to cut so that I can see their priorities. I want to see some honesty and leadership so that we can at least look back and say 'we know what we voted for'.

We're not stupid so tell us where you'll cut!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The grass is green and it's time to step into the fray.

When a politican comes on TV and says, as they occasionally do, that their faith is a private matter and doesn't impact their politics it's a nonsense. It's like hearing that grass is orange and houses are built from the tip of their roof upwards.

Everyone's assumptions about the world around them - their beliefs - impacts their thinking and their actions.

I long to see God's 'kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven' - a kingdom of justice, reconciliation,peace,  creativity and freedom for each person to be who God has made them to be. Every time God breaks through into our society in these ways His kingdom extends.

So when I'm figuring out which political party to support that's where I'm coming from.

Which parties and individuals are most likely to be open to breaking down the structures of economic, social and relational injustice that imprison both rich and poor? Who will best challenge lies, mistrust and hypocrisy both institutional and personal  that contaminates our society and pulls us into a slough of cynacism? Who will listen to the people, but show courage and leadership in addressing our economic woes - for 'without vision the people perish'?

These are tough questions and it's not possible that any one party will come out well in every area. It can be difficult to see how a particular vision works out in practical policies, but much better to make your best guess than keep that vision locked in an ivory tower, clean and untouched, but useless.
I've always been hesitant to openly supporting a political party - too much commitment for a gen-Xer like me, but sometimes you've got to step from the sidelines into the fray.

So I've nailed my colours to the Green Party flag this time round.

Like Labour, the Green Party are passionate about reducing inequality and poverty. Like the Tories they see the importance of building communities from the bottom up - the government can't solve everything. Like the Lib Dems the Greens are strong on freedom of conscience, religion and liberties.

Unlike any of the main parties the Greens grasp that our relationships with each other and the world around us has a central and profound effect on our wellbeing.

The Green Party offer a coherence in this area that is strikingly absent from the three main parties. The Greens argue that we need to break free of an economy and culture locked into over consumption and materialism so that people are enabled to do what  most of us want to do - feel safe in our society, spend time with their families and contribute sustainably to the communities around us.

We work the longest hours in Europe and commute two hours a day and risk living to work and destroying our own hopes, our relationships and the planet. The Greens have a raft of proposals that would encourage a positive cultural shift - to promote local shops, jobs and services and want to move towards a time where a 35 hour working week is the norm.

Whilst some people run around like headless chickens in a rat race others don't get the support they need to find work that provides purpose and an opportunity to contribute or get paid a derisory minimum wage that leaves them with the stress of poverty or embarrassment of claiming benefits or aren't recognised for the role of caring they do. The Greens would increase income tax for higher earners, pay everyone a 'citizen's income' to support families and carers, invest in hundreds of thousands of Green jobs and raise the minimum wage towards £8.10 per hour.

The people I've met and heard who are in the Green Party are passionate about seeing positive and concrete change, aren't afraid to say and do  the right thing  even when it's unpopular and have deep flowing, well thought through philosophy and values.

Of course I don't agree with everything they say (nuclear power and faith schools spring to mind) or even all of their underlying thinking (I might write on this another time), but these are people who best fit the questions above that come out of my faith. I respect their character, values, commitment and policies which means I can look people in the eye and say 'It's worth voting Green'.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

And I'll be voting for....

The general election gun will be fired by Gordon Brown on Tuesday (although as you've probably noticed everyone's already dashed off) and I've had a look at the themes of six of the major parties.

So, for those of you who don't already know, it's time to tell you who I'll be voting for on May 6th.

[very small drum roll]

And you'll just have to wait a bit longer, whilst I buzz on about an electoral bee that lives in my very fetching bonnet.

I've listed the parties in order of my preference as would be possible under the Alternative Vote system as opposed to the current First Past The Post. A form of this is already used in the European and London Maryoral Elections and Gordon Brown has promised a referendum on it if he wins this time round. It has two major positives:

Firstly it means that every MP would get a majority. If after all the first choices are added up the person with the smallest number of first choices gets eliminated and their second choice votes reallocated. This carries on until someone has 50%.

Secondly, you don't have to think about worrying about tactical voting (not that you should anyway) - if a currently smaller party is your first choice, put them first. You can then put your 'least worst' option of the big parties second and when the small party is eliminated your vote will count for the big party.

So Alternative Vote keeps the good bits of the First past the post but makes a fairer, healthier addition to democracy.

Anyway.  I'll be voting for...
[no drum roll this time]

1. Green Party (Feel the Love / Black Eyed Peas)
2. Conservatives (Eine Kleine Nacht Musik)
3. Lib Dems (Park Life / Blur)
4. Labour (Day in the life / Beatles)

It was a real tussle about whether to put the Tories or Lib Dems second.  The Conservatives have more 'bad eggs' in their party than the Lib Dems which makes me  nervous. However, they are the only one of the main three parties over the last couple of years that have consistently talked about the importance of supporting family relationships and rebuilding our society not from the state down, but from the bottom up. So if I had to choose between the three I'd hesitantly give the Tories a chance.

Luckily I don't have to choose and now I'm officially off the fence in the blogosphere I'll spend some time explaining why I'm voting Green as well as reflecting on the campaign to come.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Sing a simple UKIP song

I'm cheating a bit by rushing onto UK Independence Party before the election is announced on Tuesday. I will come back to the Scots and Welsh Nationalists and some of the smaller parties, but wanted to give fair due to a party that claimed they came second at the last European Elections.

The temptation to take the mickey out of UKIP is strong and I was planning to christen them with the theme tune to the Wizard of Oz.

If only we could get out of Europe....then everything would be wonderful. All the nasty witches of the economy and hundreds of thousands of immigrants  would magically be sorted out and Britain would be home again.

UKIP plan to 'end multiculturalism', ban the wearing of the burka in public and take Britain out of the EU, but sign free trade agreements to protect 'European jobs' (50% of the UK's trade is with the EU). Expand the the military by 40%, establish an English Parliament, get European lorries off the road, release businesses from 120000 EU laws, make St. George's Day a holiday... you get the picture. Here's their summary manifesto.

This is the sense that comes out strongly from their speeches and TV appearances. However, delve a bit deeper and there is another more interesting theme that emerges. Simplicity. Or as they would put it 'straight talking'. UKIP aim to cut through all the complex governance of 21st century life and make things clear again.

UKIP and their leader Lord Pearson (have you heard of him?) would remove all existing taxes and replace them with a flat 31% tax for everyone and a local VAT tax for Councils. This idea is appealing - hard to avoid, everyone knows what they're getting and where it's going. The simple theme is continued through a smaller number of benefits, 'life meaning life' and abolition of regional government.

Transparency is an important part of accountability and engagement. It's very difficult to challenge something  if it's wrapped up in bureaucracy, jargon and exceptions. Sometimes in our effort to be fair we make something so complex that it obscures justice. That's where UKIP have a valuable contribution to make in UK politics. However, simplicity from a defensive heart can cause oppression. Locking up 'career criminals' for good, a virulent attack on the public sector and ending 'abuse' in the asylum system come from a fear of change and ignorance of 'people not like us'.

The UKIP sing a simple song which is initially appealing and touches some of the real frustrations of bureaucratic modern life in the UK and problems with the EU. The racist ' I don't understand you foreigners' undertones are disturbing.
When UKIP gets down to detail it feels like they fade away, stick their fingers in your ears and wish things were like they were when they were children. After me, sing 'La la la la la, la la la la la, la la la la la laaaa.'
Watch the video. For you Carpenters fans, their version is here as well.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

All the people, so many people - the Lib Dems' Parklife

Do the Liberal Democrats have a distinctive identity, or as their opponents suggest do they sit in the middle trying to be all things to all people?

One of the things I find encouraging about the main political parties is that they have all grown out of particular philosophical and political traditions. This provides them with an important underlying cohesion and narrative. The Labour value the Christian socialism of RH Tawney and the works of Tony Crosland. The  Tories look back to the 'Grandfather of Conservatism' Edmund Burke and more recent thinkers like Michael Oakeshott.

The Liberal Democrats can lay claim to the even clearer heritage of Locke, Hume and JS Mill - founding thinkers of liberalism.

Of course this is to simplify political thinking. There are many overlaps and Tories especially might draw inspiration from these philosophical giants. However, it does point to the fact that the Liberal Democrats aren't just a party in the middle bobbing up and down, thrown this way and that by the latest political storms. Their consistent stand against ID cards and other infringements of civil liberties such as 28 day detention without trial demonstrate this well.

Perhaps unfortunately for the Lib Dems the political debate has moved away from these issues at the moment. So what else have they to offer?

The two senses that come from the party are policy openness and a welcome break from the cult of the leader.

Environmental and transport emerge as a key strand for their policies, along with the economy and their key policies are laid out in this nifty little booklet (pdf).

Their website if full of pictures of 'prominent' lib dems, most of whom aren't Nick Clegg and their news archive actually has initiatives from the relevant portfolio holder without the leader holding their hand. There is a lot of talk about 'All the people' in the party (the Lib Dems would like to convince you that there are 'so many people') all working together 'hand in hand' ready to support you through your 'parklife'.

It's that last part that still provides the problem for the Liberal Democrats. There's still a sense that, with the exception of Vincent Cable, they're not heavyweight enough for the big stage. OK to run your councils and clean up your park, but you wouldn't quite trust them with the nuclear button (which they wouldn't renew).

In the past their picking of unrelated key campaign issues (think Iraq war & Tuition Fees to appeal to disgruntled Labour voters in 2005) has made them sound more like students with gripes than with a strong, coherent narrative to govern.

The leaders' debates will be a massive opportunity for Nick Clegg to show that he can stand toe to toe with the other would-be PMs. These three set pieces of the election may well determine whether the Liberal Democrats join the big boys in government or continue jogging round and round and round the election cycle never quite breaking through to new ground.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Day in the Life of the Labour party

I was going to blog on the budget, but it was so interminably dull that I'm not going to bother. However, Alistair Darling's speech from the dispatch box was helpful in one respect.

In these series of posts I've tried to sketch out the overarching themes and priorities of each party. Before yesterday, try as I might, I couldn't figure out what Labour's big picture was. Now, I've got it and it boils down to one word. Recovery.

We'll look after the economy better than the Tories and we'll still look after health and education. Although you hate and loathe us you still deep down have some grudging trust that we'll do OK with these three key areas. The Labour party's latest attack ad features Tory Chancellor 'Boy George' with the strap line 'When it comes to the recovery he wouldn't know where to start'. The entire Labour election campaign rests on a well worn proverb: 'better the devil you know'. 

I'll start with the positive. Labour have done a good job with the NHS. Their boast that 'We created it, we saved it, we value it and we will always support it' is a fair one. In 1997 it was as common to take political chunks out of the NHS as it is the BBC today. Now it is unthinkable for the Tories to contemplate dismantling a system that is based on the principle of free at the point of need.

The manifold problems with the 'trust Old Harry' argument start after that.

I hardly meet a teacher any more that has anything positive to say about the target culture, the national curriculum or discipline in schools.

There are undoubtedly some brilliant schools managed wonderfully by superb head teachers, but these seem to be in spite of the Labour regime not because of it. Yes, they've put a lot of money into schools (and many excellent new school buildings), but they seem to get themselves in a terrible initiative-itis muddle in how to use it.

One pedagogical victory for them - when was the last time you heard someone say 'those that can't, teach?'.

And the economy. I worked for 3 years in the Citizens' Advice Bureau from 2005 watching people stagger in with debt up to their eyeballs in times of economic plenty. How long can this go one we asked?

The golden Brown years were fuelled by mortgaging our future with consumer credit. One of David Cameron's best lines was that Labour 'failed to fix the roof whilst the sun was shining'.

I need more than 'fear the incompetent/evil Tories' from Labour, yet when I look beyond the gloss they seem all over the place. I respected David Milliband's and Hillary Benn's effort in the run up to Copenhagen climate summit, but they haven't grasped the environmental nettle properly at home. I liked Alistair Darling's straight talking today, but he gets knocked back by the rest of his party for his trouble. Where is the coherent vision and leadership for the next parliament? Where do Labour want to go?

In honour of Labour's loss of direction I have nominated The Beatles' A Day in the Life as their anthem on this blog. The song takes us through the journey of someone not quite sure where they are going with a subdued air of of nostalgia for past glories. As John Lennon sings this 'News is rather sad'.

The lyrics are disjointed jumping from subject to subject each stanza and the melody doesn't stick with the normal verse /chorus outline.

The famous and unexpected take off in the middle sounds like a desperate attempt to launch a new policy initiative. They emerge only with something  small, useful and popular, but hardly enough to smooth the bumps in Labour's road:
I read the news today oh, boy / Four thousand holes in blackburn, lancashire / And though the holes were rather small / They had to count them all / Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the albert hall.

The Labour party have stirring values of social justice, strong community and rights matched by responsibilities. Our economic recovery is likely to be slow and difficult - Labour's recovery of their vision and purpose could take even longer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Green Party - walking the line between radical and mainstream.

The Green Party feels that it's on the edge of electoral breakthrough and wants to be seen as one of the main players in the British elections. Over the last few years it has elected a leader for the first time (it used to have two non-executive principal speakers), worked to show that it's not just about the environment and professionalised its approach to communications and campaigning. As it moves towards the mainstream it walks the line of wanting to remain true to its radical roots whilst appealing to a broader cross section of the population.

It will be clear why I've chosen 'Where is Love' by the Blackeyed peas in my electoral playlist. Rap music has made the journey from the musical outback towards the popular mainstream, but maintains an edge. It's radical, but not too radical. Lyrics like "I think the whole world addicted to the drama/ Only attracted to things that'll bring you trauma / Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism  / But we still got terrorists here livin'
 / In the USA, the big CIA" maintain an outside perspective but with a very accessible tune and chorus.

The Green Party's core values stress the close interdependence between the earth and people and between people themselves, of whatever race, gender or sexual orientation. They are internationalists, seeking peaceful, long lasting solutions to problems, but also emphasise building sustainable interdependent communities at local level.

Given the coherence of their philosophy it seems odd that their headline policies for the election seem rather piecemeal: Free insulation, safer streets and free school meals all seem rather lightweight. The meatier ideas of green energy for all and a living wage of at least £6.80 per hour illustrate the still strong emphasis on climate change and deeply rooted ideas of reducing the gap between rich and poor.

The Greens are generally seen as a party on the left, but differ from Labour in two key respects. Firstly the idea of bottom up sustainable communities contrasts sharply with Labour's model of top down solutions. Secondly the Greens tend to emphasise greater economic equality not as an end in itself, but because it will make people happier. Policies that aim to what they see as a culture of overconsumption, overwork and overcommuting in employment reinforce this theme.  

The Green Party has about 125 elected local councillors and 2 MEPs - it may soon have an MP. It will be interesting to see how it adapts to life as a mainstream party with the pressures to adapt principles to the sometimes less than green world of politics.

Bank to basics

If Alistair Darling does announce in the budget tomorrow that banks will be legally required to offer a basic bank account to anyone with an address it will be an excellent step forward.

How are people supposed to get jobs and enter the mainstream of society if they can't be paid by their employer? They're more likely to stay unemployed or keep taking cash in hand. The government has promoted 'financial inclusion' for the last decade with some success, but 1.75 million adults still remain stubbornly outside the banking system.

This is partly down to the government's cockeyed approach. It's put time and money into setting up a postoffice account which can only accept money from benefit agencies, not employers or savings! Given the opportunity to sort the problem out when the contract came up for renewal last year it did the same thing again.

The even bigger issues have been those of identification and bank intransigence. There's no short term profits in offering a service to people that you can't sell credit to and an account which isn't allowed to go into the red. So even banks that offer them put a tangled web of bureaucracy in the way of something that should be straightforward.

One building society with a generally good reputation insists that all basic bank account applications are sent to head office rather than dealt with in branch like other accounts. I was supporting someone to get an account. Twice an application was sent off from the branch. Twice it got mysteriously 'lost' in headquarters. The government recognised that this paperwork caused problems and in 2005 put three years of floating staff in to help people through the process.

Identification is a problem - even if people have a tenancy agreement to prove address (not always the case) they often lack a passport, birth certificate or driving licence and the money to obtain one. The banks need to be more thoughtful in finding ways to help people prove who they are without putting an insurmountable barrier in their way. It is possible to do, but it does take a little more time and effort.

Access to a basic bank account is an essential prerequisite to integrating and fully contributing to society in 21st century Britain. It is a solvable well defined issue, which the banks could easily have resolved for a relatively small amount of money. It is a shame, but given the recent record of the banks unsurprising, that we need legislation to force banks to take on their social responsibilities in our society.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the Conservatives. Are their changes only skin deep?

Since David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives in late 2005 he has tried to change the face of the his party. There's been the friendly green tree logo, the drive to get more women & ethnic minority candidates selected and statements reclaiming areas such as poverty reduction and getting people back to work as 'Conservative' issues.

The question is - have they really changed? Has Cameron merely worked PR magic to make the Tories electable again? Or has the party genuniely rediscovered it's philanthropic, 'one society together' strand based on financial stability that was submerged under a deluge of Thatcherite monetarist dogma in the early 1980s?

The answer is that the party is changing. A work in progress.  There are more women, ethnic minorities and people who are gay standing for the Conservative party this time round, drawn from a range of working and geographical backgrounds. This policy initially ran into the sand of the blue rinse constituency associations on the ground. It has recently gained a fair wind again because of the number of 'old school' Tories stepping down in safe seats because of the expenses scandal.  However, there are also still scores of Old Etonians and incredibly wealthy people for whom £5.80 is the price of a daily duck sandwich rather than the hourly national minimum wage.

The Centre for Social Justice headed by Iain Duncan Smith has come up with some fantastic ideas for addressing issues of poverty and family and society breakdown. 'Making Britain the most family friendly country in Europe' has made it as one of the Tories six priorities for the election, but it remains unclear about how many of the CSJ's ideas are actually Tory policy.

Other Conservative themes for the campaign include: 'back the NHS' and 'raise standards in schools'. However, there are still some within the Conservative party who are part of the monetarist and libertarian strand of the party whose instincts are to dismantle public health and education and move towards private insurance schemes as modelled in the USA.

Osborne and Cameron talk in their speeches about cutting the country's massive debt to 'get the economy moving' whilst finding new innovative ways to deliver services. However, there are those within the party who want to take the opportunity to ideologically 'roll back the state' at the expense of the most vulnerable, under the badge of an 'age of austerity'. The IEA are at the policy end of what tails off into an extreme fringe.

I've chosen Eine kleine Nachtmusik (link includes excerpt) as my piece of music to represent the tone and mood of the Conservatives. There's a positive feel about the party: they have their own themes and ideas for government and don't spend all their time bashing Labour. Like the bold, crisp start of Mozart's serenade they know what they want to say and are articulating themselves more clearly than either of the other main parties.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik  is a  beautifully written piece of music, but as one critic put it is written from 'a light and happy pen'. It has the feel of an easy to absorb piece that is skin deep and lacks the depth and fullness of a Tchaikovsky or a Beethoven. I remain to be convinced that the likability of  David Cameron and his ideas will translate to a party and policies that will bring real financial stability and rebuild our society. I am happy to be proved wrong, but there is still the vague sense that there might still be 'Eine kleine Nacht', or a little [of the] night about them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The BNP are angry and powerless

If the British National Party were a piece of music they'd be Left for Dead by Ghost of A Thousand.  Click here for the YouTube link. I'm sure that Ghost of A Thousand wouldn't want to be associated with the ideas and policies of the BNP in any way at all and in no way want to imply that that's the case. However, the personal narrative of the man in 'Left for Dead' illustrates and illuminates well the theme that pervades the BNPs websites and discussion boards as a whole: anger.

The BNP are angry at their people are not getting jobs, angry that they can't get a house, angry that their countryside is being spoiled and angry that powerful people keep putting them down. They call clever outsiders  'stupid',  the EU are 'criminals' and the 'gang' of the three main parties are 'liars, buggers and thieves'.

Again and again the narrative of the  angry powerless vs the powerful elite comes out. Their pub talk language (taxes are squeezing me to death) bridles against the carefully crafted sentences of mainstream politicians. From stories on discussion boards of clever windfarm people been sent packing by ordinary folk in the South West to anger at the way that David Dimbleby unfairly picked on Nick Griffin on question time.  This sense of grievance, injustice and wanting to get their own back drives the BNP.

'Left for Dead' is shouty, angry music, but the guy in the story of the song is articulating a real sense of hurt and loss that isn't otherwise recognised: 'What is it we're looking for? have I left this way to late?...all my life I've been left for dead'. The same is true for the BNP.

'The ruling elite' tell people that asylum seekers and immigration don't put a strain on housing and health services. This isn't true. Asylum seekers don't get public housing in London where  shortages are most acute, but many understandably choose to stay with their national communities on friends floors. When asylum seekers are successful they become refugees and are eligible to go on the housing register, adding to the overall wait. Economic migrants from central Europe are not eligible for public funds including council houses unless they are working, but this still puts a strain on resources. When people have been waiting years for a move living in substandard high rise accommodation this isn't just a theoretical debate to have over dinner, but has significant impact on quality of life.

When I worked in the East End of London older white people frequently said to me 'I've lived here all my life and it doesn't feel like home any more'. People who rarely travel more than a few miles from their homes had seen their whole world turned upside by the massive migration into their communities over the last 30 years. Slapping the label racist on them and squashing their right to articulate their sense of loss pushes them towards a party that finds some way to say what they are feeling.

Other parties don't articulate these problems and so the BNP are left as the only party in the field.  They are free to lash out and blame 'Asians, coloureds and black' for all the problems afflicting the white British working class. In 'Left for Dead' in his frustration the guy takes a has a go at 'all the same kids at shows'. The kids are the easy target, but being angry at them doesn't address any of the underlying problems.

The BNP lash out at 'Asians', 'coloureds' and Blacks because they lack both a spirit of generosity and decency, but also the imagination and belief that things can change and improve. Their 'solution' to encourage resettlement of millions of people of 'foreign descent' is an attempt to invoke the halycon days of a golden era that never existed at the expense of ruining the lives of those being told to move. Their other high profile policy areas like the environment ('Land and People' as the BNP put it) reinforce the view of Britain of a once green and pleasant land being irrevocably spoiled.

The BNP aims to be the party of the ordinary white guy against powerful corrupt elite forces. They proclaim  a narrative of bitterness and hatred towards non-white people in response to real problems that people  experience in their daily lives in areas like housing, employment and community breakdown. They're also very angry.

Next up: the Conservatives

Monday, March 15, 2010

Party priorities: Putting together the playlist

Over the next few weeks I'll write some posts looking at the priorities of the main political parties. In line with my recent post about being open to voting for smaller parties I'm planning to look at about nine.

I could have begun by looking at what each party thought about a policy area - e.g. health, education, but this can be misleading. All parties have a certain amount of political will and capital that they can spend on the things they care most about. UKIP may have a wonderful transport policy, but chances are they're not going to spend a lot of time talking about it when they knock on doors.

I'm going to try and catch the mood music in a party - the prominent melodies, ideas and themes. I won't rely just on what the parties themselves say are their priorities, but look at how the overall composition of actions and words comes across . Although I'm not going to be completely unopinionated (I'm guessing you won't be shocked) I will try and give people the benefit of the doubt - it would be very easy to tear into the contradictions within every party and just create lots of noisy feedback.

I'm not planning to look at the Northern Irish parties, although in the unlikely event that I have any readers across the Irish Sea I'm happy to do requests!

So the top 9 in share of the vote from 2005 are as follows: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, UKIP, SNP, Green, BNP, Plaid Cymru & Respect. Depending on how things go I may throw in the Liberal party, the English Democrats and the Christian Peoples Alliance. There's no end of tiny parties out there to choose from, although most of these are only fielding candidates in a few of the 650 seats.

Only five of the parties can claim any kind of national reach: UKIP have currently declared 438 candidates and the Green Party 295. The BNP currently cover one fifth of constituencies with 137. Small parties normally have a wider base than is evident at a general election, as the first past the post system and large constituencies prevent much progress. Most put their limited resources into European and local elections where victory is more plausible.

I'm going to approach them in alphabetical order which means I'll be starting with the BNP. Trying to exclude the BNP from political debate is counter productive. Whether you like it or not they articulate the concerns of at least 0.7% of the population (2005) and in a liberal democracy everyone deserves the right to be heard.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't panic! The Ins and outs of a hung parliament

Reading the press over the last couple of weeks anyone would think that after election day Westminster will be obliterated by some gigantic trans London hyper-bypass.

In contrast, I would suggest that a deep breath and brief wipe down with your handy travel towel will reassure you that a Hung Parliament is really nothing to be worried about. Not only would it be mostly harmless, but would be beneficial for our democracy and raise the tone of political debate significantly above some of the current Vogon Poetry we hear.

It's true that the financial markets (and everyone else for that matter) don't like uncertainty and that a power vacuum could be problematic. However, before you reach for the panic cord (probably located in your nearest disabled toilet) let's briefly reach for the mathematical light switch and then the likely senario.

There's 650 seats up for grabs, so the winning post for a simple majority and the ability to govern unaided is 650 /2 + 1 = 326 seats. However a majority of anything under 20 is considered extremely shaky because some MPs are independently minded / disloyal pains in the backside, depending on your point of view. The following shows the state of the current parliament where Labour have a safe majority of 66. (click on charts to enlarge)

Based on the current polls the Conservatives are likely to end up with the largest number of seats, but not enough to have a simple majority. The pie could divide something like this leaving the Conservatives a few seats short and gain support from independents or Northern Ireland Parties;

or more like this when they'll need to look to the Lib Dems.

Initially, the incumbent prime minister has a chance to try and stay in office. When another party's got an absolute majority, it's obvious they won't be able to, so they quit. If there's a hung parliament this isn't so clear which is why it's important that Nick Clegg has said
"The party which gets the strongest mandate from the voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern."
This indicates that Clegg will try and do a deal with the largest single party first, which at the moment looks reasonably certain to be the Tories.

Nick Clegg is unlikely to go into a full blown coalition with either the Tories or Labour as that would tie his hands to publicly supporting policies and programmes that would be unpopular with his support base. The Liberals are terrified of their distinct identity being subsumed into one of the two larger parties and that could cause lasting damage.

Instead the Lib Dems could agree to support a Tory minority administration on key pieces of legislation, such as an emergency budget and a change to the voting system.

This piecemeal approach would prevent Lib Dems from holding ministerial posts (Vince Cable would miss out on the trappings of being Chancellor of the Exchequer), but mean that they held ongoing influence on what got through parliament rather than negotiating a programme at the start.

This route also has the major advantage of being quicker to sort out because there's less to agree on up front. The parties will be under pressure to agree something quickly, especially on the economy in the name of stability. The outline of an agreement would be there within a couple of days and even with complex internal Lib Dem procedures it could be signed and sealed in a week to days.

The Lib Dems wouldn't hold all the cards. If they pushed things too far the Conservatives might gain Labour support for some measures, leaving the Lib Dems sidelined and looking like a child hitting out in a tantrum in a room full of older boys. If the Conservatives felt that the other parties were blocking a popular key reform they could call an election which would essentially be a referendum on an issue of the Tories choosing.

In practice a minority government is only likely to last for a year or 18 months before this happens or the government falls apart and loses a vote of no confidence. Another General Election would be called and the public would have the chance to pass judgment on how the parties had coped with the new arrangement.

A Hung Parliament wouldn't be a big surprise and many other countries across Europe manage them constantly. The parties will know that negotiations need to happen swiftly to maintain their own confidence and authority. It is perfectly reasonable to run the government as a minority administration for a short period of time, with key legislation gaining support from other parties.

So relax, keep your slippers and dressing gown on and Don't Panic.

Sorry about the lack of numbers on the pie charts - they should be there but the computer has defeated me for this evening.
15/3/10 - thanks to 'two''s comment I have ammended this post in the paragraph 'Initially the incumbent prime minister'

Friday, March 12, 2010

Talking tough: The BBC must not be sacrificed to the god of consumerism

The BBC is a fantastic organisation, fulfilling it's mandate to educate, entertain and inform on a transparent and relatively low budget. The BBC strategic review dominated by the closure of the 6 Music and Asian Network contains a lot of positive ideas – it's nearly always beneficial to do fewer things, but do them better.

Linking BBC2 and BBC4; Radio 4 & Radio 7 and moving the best bits of 6 Music onto Radio 2 will ensure that innovative programming reaches a broader audience and is not lost in some back corner of the network. Putting a cap on sports spending, and better Childrens' programming make sense as well. Precisely because it is not a commercial organisation the BBC must continually ensure it innovates and make efficiencies to maintain value for money and our trust. The BBC is the jewel in our cultural heritage and we must remain as 'critical friends' to make sure it stays that way.

The BBC provides a large amount of trusted and free journalism that is the envy of the world – we'd be mad to throw it away. However James Murdoch and other commercial organisations are frightened and angry that the BBC is stopping it making even more money for themselves, not just in the UK but around the world. Using their massive media power, Murdoch and co are trying to creating a culture that makes it trendy to have a go at the BBC. They are aiming to neuter and hollow out the BBC over the next decade. They're using assumptions that aren't being challenged by mainstream media (including the BBC itself) or the main political parties:

1) Commercial competition is always good and must be 'given space' to do well. I see no evidence that the market could provide anything as good as the BBC in terms of programming or journalism (look at ITV or commercial radio). I think that the BBC have showed us that James Murdoch is wrong when he says that "The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantee of independence is profit."

I hate adverts and certainly don't want my daughter subjected to their 'buying stuff will make you happy' lies. If the BBC means that there are less commercial radio and TV stations then so be it – we don't have to monetarise and consumerise every part of our nation's life. There is still more than enough space for competition to operate and offer alternative opinions and views – look at the Financial Times' online successful subscription and the vibrancy of Sky Sports. If the Guardian started charging I'd pay because I'm looking for something different from what the BBC can offer.

2) The licence fee is an expensive and unfair tax. At £142.50 a year (less than £3 a week) the licence fee is amazing value for all the radio, TV and web content that the BBC provides. I'd pay a lot more, so shouldn't I pay a subscription service? But why should people less well off than me miss out on the highest quality programming and journalism? Something as important as the culture and news of the nation should be available equally to all. It's healthy to have one place that the nation turns to to debate issues and in a crisis. Yes, the licence fee is a regressive tax, but it's one of the few transparent, ring fenced taxes we have. This makes it an easy target when people want a moan, but actually the form of funding for the BBC is a big strength. A few people may opt out of the BBC like they opt out of the state education and health system. But as a nation everyone benefits from people getting free health, education and accurate information and so everyone has to pay their tax for these services including the licence fee.

3) The BBC is biased. Yes it is. It isn't left wing or right wing, but it does have a liberal slant. It reflects the views of a metropolitan London upper middle class. But so does every other newspaper in the country. However, unlike almost every other newspaper or TV station in the country it does set out to be impartial, which gets it further than most. And over the last 10 years it has worked hard to regionalise and diversify what it does. Again this has benefits for everyone including commercial operators as many presenters who got a start with the BBC move networks in due course. The controversial move of Radio 5 Live to Manchester is a good example of a hugely difficult thing to do, but will have long term benefits.

It's time to challenge the lie that the BBC must be offered up to the great god of money making consumerism. It would benefit no-one apart from a few very wealthy and powerful media magnates who would then dominate and filter the information and news we receive and rely on. Media magnates are accountable not to the nation, but their shareholders.

We can moan to the BBC and contact our elected politicians and they must listen – we need to use that power wisely so that we can take pride in a healthy and robust BBC that we can enjoy in our daily lives.

Photo: The high priest, James Murdoch.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

To hell with tactics – vote for whoever you like

I was going to describe the following as a socratic dialogue, but the idle daydreaming of a political junkie in election year is probably more appropriate...

Me: Nice and warm today isn't it?

Average UK voter (AUKV): Whatever. Shall we cut the small talk and get straight on with the politics?

Me: Wow, great daydream! Go for it.

AUKV: All the parties are pretty much the same

Me: Really?! have you compared UKIP and the Labour party recently?

AUKV: but all the main parties – they're all out for what they get and they all promise the same old stuff.

Me: Well I disagree with you on both counts.
There was a culture of claiming maximum expenses which was rightly exposed, but most Mps go into politics to improve people's lives and work extremely hard, normally 60-70 hours a week.
And there are important differences between the parties for instance on taxes and the role and size of government.
But if you really think that there's no difference vote for one of the smaller parties that best matches what you think. You can choose from anyone to the Socialists through to the English Democrats or BNP.

AUKV: But voting for a small party is a wasted vote

Me: So voting for a party that you don't really agree with isn't a wasted vote?

AUKV: It could be tactical.

Me: It could be but you just said there wasn't any difference between the main parties so exactly what is your tactic?

AUKV: OK, OK but it doesn't make any difference voting for a small party – I may as well not bother at all.

Me: Political parties pour over election figures. If a small party does even well the bigger parties adopt some policies of the small party, because they see they're popular. Look at what happened when the Green party first made it big in 1989 or how the Tories responded when UKIP first hit the scene.

Secondly, as you've pointed out people vote for parties they think have a chance of winning. Vote for your smaller party of choice now and next time they'll have a launch pad from second or third place and be perceived as real challengers.

Plus voting is far more enjoyable and satisfying if you vote for a party whose vision and policies you actually support. Aren't you bored of voting through gritted teeth?

AUKV: So... to hell with tactics?

Me: Yup, if you positively support one of the main parties, great, but otherwise just vote for whoever you like.

AUKV: What's that flying mushroom over there that looks like David Cameroon's head?

Me: I dunno, I'm too busy looking at the digestive biscuit that's got Gordon Brown's hair.
Must be part of my dream... or the new Alice in Wonderland movie.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Future of History - it's out of order.

An open letter to Michael Gove (shadow Education secretary).

Dear Mr. Gove,

I am pleased that you are planning to get some of the 'finest minds in Britain' together to take another look at the National Curriculum should the Conservatives get into office.

However, to assert that history should be taught 'in order' is a mistake for two reasons.

One of the primary benefits we derive from learning history is alternative perspective. The past really is a foreign country. Not only did they do things differently there, but the finest minds of the age made assumptions that we find alien and almost mind boggling. Kings claimed divine authority to rule, scientists firmly believed that fire was an element called Phlogiston and people didn't have computers.

Showing children that there are other ways of living and thinking gives them the invaluable ability to start asking questions about the assumptions of our own society.

Understanding that things change because of the discoveries and actions of individuals means that children learn that they too can be significant. These realisations don't come if children just scratch the surface of history with dates and events - they need to be completely immersed in a different cultural and historical landscape. From this view it doesn't matter which period of history and which part of the world, although the further away temporally and geographically the more pronounced the differences become.

I was taught history in order. Starting with the Egyptians and the Romans in primary school we made our way through the Victorians at Juniors before arriving at WW2 by the time we reached GCSE. The problem with this approach is that I never touched the ancient world after the age of 7 and the Tudors passed me by before my teens. Like the whole of the rest of the nation I learned more about WW2 than the rest of history put together. Revisiting the classical world at an older age would have been instructive, broadened my horizons and provided new points of comparison.

An overarching narrative is important, but something as simple as a pictoral timeline round the classroom can show where the studied event fits into historical 'order'.

History is a wonderful and essential part of every child's education and I am glad that you are thinking about it seriously and discussing it publicly. In this light I look forward to your response to the points raised above.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Chilvers

Monday, March 08, 2010

Power Politics: how to slaughter the fluffy bunnys and stay popular

When Alistair Darling, George Osbourne and Vince Cable each sit down to work out what to tell the voters about the public service cuts to come they're faced with a tricky problem.

Everyone knows that the finances are in a mess and that there are going to have to be cuts. But spell out specifics and people realise that it's their hospital, road or care home that's getting hit and before you can say 'NIMBY' facebook campaigns have hatched on every cyber-street corner. Look what's happened with 6 Music and the Asian Network.

Say too little and your party is accused of being shifty, vague and patronising ordinary Joe-public.

The three main parties are like jostling athletes in the 10000 metres - none of them want to be the ones hitting the front first and taking the flack from bringing the bad news specific to people. The pace in the race slows to a jog and soon no-one's prepared to say that they'll cut a strawberry shoe lace from front line services.

However, there's a third underlying factor in the equation.

How you gain power dictates what you can do when you're in power.

This is most easily traced where money's involved. When the old Labour party relied on being bank rolled by trade unions to win an election the Unions expected a lot back when they were in power even when politicians knew it wasn't best for the country. Republicans elected on the back of the Jewish or Oil lobby will constrained in their choices by who their power base are, even if they want to vote differently on a decision.

This axiom is less obviously at work, but equally important in the vision and policy announcements that a party makes during an election campaign. The more you say up front the easier it is to govern. If you promise in the campaign to slaughter all the fluffy bunny rabbits and little woolly lambs in the UK and you still manage to get elected your policy might still be unpopular, but no-one can say they didn't know. You gain a mandate to govern and it's much harder for those that disagree with you to go against you when 'the people have spoken'. It's recognised in parliament that laws enacting specific manifesto commitments get an easier ride than other bills.

The importance of this rule cannot be underestimated. It should give impetus to politicians to go out and make a clear case to the country for what they believe in an election campaign, especially the difficult and unpopular bits. It also explains why 'good' people go into politics thinking that they'll change things for the better when they're in power, but get caught in the system: in keeping their head down they didn't gather upfront support for their changes along the way and became beholden to party, business or pressure group interests.

During the conference season last Autumn Osborne and the Conservatives were the only ones to even begin to spell out the cuts that will be needed to public finances. He was reported as saying that the country could be virtually ungovernable if he didn't make the case upfront - it would be worth losing some support and getting in with a smaller majority if it gave him more leeway in power. As I suggested in my last post the party that gets this risk right have much to gain, however, now the lead has closed, the nerves have kicked in and the Conservatives are back peddling.

All three wannabe chancellors are on the horns of an electoral dilemma that will not just determine the outcome of the next election, but how we are governed for the next five years.