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.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Back on the Blogging (& election) Beat

It's been a couple of years since I blogged regularly, but the lure of the general election has got my typing fingers itching and I will be posting frequently over the next couple of months.

It's going to be a pivotal election - not because the two main parties have radically different ideas for government, but because it is a vital chance for democratic politicians to grasp onto and build upon any modicum of trust that remains with the public.

This is a massive opportunity for a party to stake out positive vision and leadership for the country. People are desperate for someone to speak up with openness, integrity and well thought through policies that stands a chance of renewing the country economically and socially.

Overly negative and personal 'attack ads', always shown to work in the past are just as likely to back fire this time round. The public mood will stay switched off.

I've been encouraged to see that the first round of Tory billboards (I've never voted Conservative before, but...I like their plans for families/the economy etc) do focus on setting out the party's ideas rather than attacking Labour. Whether senior strategists can hold their nerve and stay positive as the campaign hots up remains to be seen.

We need a general election where politicians are prepared to put forward specific ideas and policies that they're prepared to debate and defend rather than say as little as possible and hope that they don't make any howling 'mistakes'.

Campaigning proactively in the recent years of spin and holding the mythical 'centre ground' has been seen as unnecessarily dangerous, but this time round the greater risk is staying the same and meeting the public's ditch-like expectations.