Category Archives: Politics

Rawnsley: Cameron Uncovered

Some journalists court controversy wherever they go.

Some remain eloquent and cerebral.

Andrew Rawnsley manages to achieve both.

Tonight, the Observer’s Political Commentator and Associate Editor presented Dispatches: Cameron Uncovered, shining a light on the modern Conservative Party. It followed ground previously trodden in Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party, this time turning on David Cameron and chums.

Understandable parallels were drawn between Cameron’s media persona and Tony Blair’s ascent to power.

We now know Blair to be style over substance, favouring actions over detail and rhetoric over evidence. Cameron is cut from the same political cloth, enjoying the medium of television, never more at home than when wowing an audience.

A crucial difference is the historical and political context, and this is at the crux of why Britain has yet to warm to Cameron and his faceless neophytes. New Labour stormed Downing Street on the back of 18 years of Tory power. 18 years of broken unions, unsavoury MPs and uncertain leadership. Here was Blair, crusading for our rights, for a new Britain, a new dawn…well, we know what happened next.

The fact remains that the Labour government has limped, rather than sprinted to the finishing line of this year’s general election. But Cameron doesn’t have the benefit of public optimism that Blair had carrying him into the landslide 1997 election.

Britain is wearied by recession and by revelations like the expenses scandal. The public do not trust their elected representatives anymore. Pre-1997, Labour made much of their squeaky-clean MPs in contrast to the sleazy and clapped out Tory counterparts.

Today no such disctinction can be made. Cameron’s pretense of a party representing the right choice has been stripped down to a cheap veneer. With hindsight we wistfully remember how so many of us were credulous to Blair’s oratorical skill. For the Tories, this distrust is spreading before the election has even happened.

It is said that parties tend to return to traditional policies during times of economic hardship. Health, provisions and security are all prioritised. Plainly, this attitude also manifests itself in our political leaders.

Britain is sick of Labour. But where to turn? Not to the Tories, who seem to offer similar policy but with a leader so prepped in media training that no one believes a word. Not to the Liberal Democrats, who have missed the ship of capitalising on the two major parties’ failure to capture the public imagination.

No, in times like these, polls show that we’re closer than ever to picking Gordon and co.

The last 13 years haven’t been perfect, but best stick to the devil we know.


A week in politics

My my, what an engrossing run up to the election this is proving to be.

Andrew Rawnsley, erudite journalist, author and The Observer’s Chief Political Commentator is to publish his new book, The End of the Party on 1st March. As expected, the allegations painting Gordon Brown as a violent bully have made big news. Let’s track the timeline of events which culminated in this latest mishap for the Prime Minister:

31st January: Simon Walters, Mail on Sunday Political Editor, reports that Rawnsley’s book makes allegations that Brown physically attacked members of his staff.

Rawnsley’s publishers were sure that this was leaked to the Mail by No.10, in order to weaken the impact of the story. It’s apparent that Downing Street has been preparing itself for weeks in anticipation of the book’s release.

20th February: Brown appears on Channel 4 News, telling them “I have never hit anyone in my life”.

21st February: Brown gives an interview to the Independent on Sunday, talking about his own personality traits, and the importance of standing up for what he believes in.

This is interesting timing by Brown. Only the week before he’d conducted a Piers Morgan interview, which for all intents and purposes, was an attempt to present himself as a likeable and trustworthy man. The Observer had been advertising it’s new look format with the promise of “extracts from Andrew Rawnsley’s new book”. Furthermore, Rawnsley never made the allegation that Brown hit anybody. Clearly alarm bells the size of the budget deficit were ringing at No.10.

21st February: The Observer publishes the first extract of the book, with more to be serialised over the coming weeks. The Labour Party is described as being a hotch-potch of opinions and agendas over whether Brown should seek a mandate in the form of a snap election in 2007. Brown is described as grabbing his Deputy Chief of Staff, Gavin Kelly, by his suit lapels and shouting “they’re out to get me!”.

Also released was a brilliantly melodramatic animation by Taiwanese TV, which portrays the PM as a Jason Bourne-esque tough guy:

22nd February: Peter Mandelson defends Brown’s character, saying: “No one tolerates bullying in this government or in any part of this government. Period. Full stop. That’s it. If you think we’re going to spend our time chasing around newspapers that want a splash on their front pages, let me tell you: we’ve got better things to do with our lives.”

All very well, but if the government aren’t concerned, why the constant vehement denials and continued appraisals of Brown’s behaviour?

22nd February: Rawnsley appears on Newsnight to defend his book. Facing criticism from many party members and an incredulous Paxman, he nonetheless sticks by his allegations. He names one source as “24 Carat”, and points out the three different denials of truth by No. 10 in 48 hours as a mark of how panicked they are. This edition was also notable for Paxman uttering the F-Word, (albeit whilst quoting).

If Mandelson stands by his line that the Government has “better things to do”, then why the constant media appearances? Three separate denials, along with a television and newspaper interview in a mere two days shows a No. 10 that is more shaken than it’d like us to believe.

25th February: New allegations come to light regarding the relationship between Brown and Blair, as well as Alistair Darling. David Cameron accused the PM of being “at war” with his Chancellor, to much schoolboy laugher in the Commons. Also revealed was another disclosure from the book, alleging that during their final confrontation as Blair stepped down, Brown repeatedly shouted “You ruined my life!”

25th February: Andrew Rawnsley appears on The Guardian’s Politics podcast, arguing that “the public feel more interested and refreshed when politicians are open”.

26th February: Rawnsley’s publishers, Viking, announce they’ve upped the initial print run from 18,000 to 26,000 copies. A minor point perhaps, but clearly blanket press coverage has provided an opportunity for publishers to cash in on a book which previously only garnered interest in political and media circles.

All this is very gripping, and high drama indeed. Those who wrote off this election as a grindingly slow, insipid process have been proved wrong. Despite all this, polls show that the Conservatives only lead by 7 points in the polls, their lowest point in over two years.

I’ll update this entry as new aspects introduce themselves, possibly with a comment piece once the whole thing has come to a conclusion.

Labour’s Failure on Education

“Education, education, education”
This was the mantra with which Tony Blair began his first term as Prime Minister, as Labour campaigned to bring classroom excellence to the top of their political agenda. 
Over the next few months, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will start blitzing the public with endless rhetoric about how education still remains this government’s number one priority. What’s that? A general election on the horizon you say? How fortunate.
But have Labour succeeded since election and three successive terms? There’s no doubting the level of money invested (doubling spending from £29bn in 1997, to £63bn in 2007) but moreover, have funds been spent wisely? Core “per pupil” funding has risen by 55%, while there are now in excess of 35,000 more teachers than ten years ago. 
Initially, in the few years after Labour’s election in 1997, exam results soared, ministers patted each other on the back, and Cool Britannia seemed to be talking the talk, at least. But then a major flaw reared its head. The reason for the rise in exam performance was that teachers were now teaching students to the test. After this initial flourish producing better results, the marks fell into a lull. No more could be done to improve results, as teachers were still working from a rigid structure that was performance based. 
Now teachers feel helpless when they face classes made up of a whole array of different abilities. There is no flexibility, and the national plan dictates that the teachers move on with the lesson, no matter how many children are left behind. I remember in my own school, a despairing teacher saying he’d love to discuss abstract concepts and literature, only to concede “it’s not on the syllabus”, and continue handing out past papers. Children are no longer being taught subjects. They are being taught to pass an exam. Cramming information into the brain during revision and then regurgitating it onto paper, without little idea of context or any real relevance. How can we hope to impassion young people about the arts and humanities, when the very nature of the education system is so sterile?
Labour have turned what should be a bottom-up system into a top-down structure. We need to start nurturing children at the earliest age possible, not throw them into a world of bureaucracy and exam neurosis. By the time so called “problem children” reach secondary school, it’s often too late for teachers to help them. By starting the process of encouraging free and unrestrained learning earlier, we can reduce the chances of encountering stumbling blocks later in life.
Despite all this, of late the focus has not been on primary and secondary education, but higher education. 
Labour set the bar high, with a target of getting 50% of young people into higher education by 2010. They’ve come extremely close, with recent figures showing 47% of people aged 18-25 are in higher education. But has it really reaped rewards? The government line is that getting more people into university is more important than ever to secure the country’s future and the health of the economy. 
But the failings lie in projecting such an exact figure for getting young people into higher education. University applications have gone up dramatically, but that doesn’t mean they’ve produced more industrious and independent graduates. Having an undergraduate degree has now become the bare minimum for most job applications. By proxy, anyone wishing to pursue their dream career must attend university. Furthermore, people who shouldn’t be at university are being encouraged to apply, so determined are Labour to reach that magical 50%. These are not students being equipped for the world of work. These are students attending university because they’re told they have to. All the hyperbole built up around “the best years of your life” has resulted in the myth that university is a must-have, to add to the list of things you do before you die. But it’s a lose lose situation. Opt out of applying, and you risk encountering prejudice and snobbery whenever you file a job application. Apply, and you enter a market over saturated with graduates, all with the added gift of thousands of pounds of debt. 
Labour cannot be accused of under-spending on education. But a mismanagement of finance and an absurdly rigid targets-based organisation can be laid at their feet as a gross failure. Throughout the system, from primary through to higher education, staff are encouraged to always meet the goals set, no matter what. This doesn’t take into account individual cases, “difficult” year groups, and other arbitrary factors. All it results in is a disillusioned workforce and a student population who don’t really know what they want to do, or how to get there. Whichever party wins at the next election, they must think long and hard about how to tackle education, and learn from the shortcomings of this government. 

This article originally appears in the February 2010 issue of Chartist Magazine

Avoidance Tactics? – Business as usual re: Afghanistan

It’s remarkable how some people in power either ignore, or refuse to see things which are staring them straight in the face.

This was the prevailing theme today when myself and an audience met with Ivan Lewis, Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs. The topic on the agenda was primarily the war in Afghanistan, the logistics, ethics and practicalities involved in such a war. Lewis spoke for around a quarter of an hour before opening it up to the floor for questions.

It’s here when I’m going to check myself slightly. I am constantly defending politicians against others’ insults. For every expenses abusing, sleaze ridden corrupt cabinet minister, there are constituency MPs who work hard for their electorate, and want (to use a cliché) “to make a difference”. But given the responses supplied by Lewis today, can you blame young people for feeling disenfranchised and apathetic about politics? Typical politicians answers were given, instead of answering the question directly, policy was trotted out with all the panache of a Michael Howard Newsnight interview. The audience looked on incredulously as good, constructive questions were left unanswered.

Lewis is currently on a roadshow (his own words) visiting every region in the UK to stir up support for the war in Afghanistan, to “assure forces that the British people support them”. I have no doubt that the British people support them, but their ringleaders…I’m not so sure. Lions led by Lambs indeed.

Furthermore, Lewis constantly emphasised that we were in Afghanistan to rid the world of the greatest threat to our way of life. It would be churlish to point out the not-insignificant problem of climate change as our greatest threat, but you can’t have everything. For a man so clearly preoccupied with the modern threat of terrorism (Lewis voted for the Iraq war, for ID cards and against an investigation into the Iraq war) he seemed stupendously blind to it’s root causes. Much of the argument seemed to take the view that we stamp out any insurgents in Iraq and by proxy safeguard our own country. What he fails to take into account is that much of the terrorist bombings in the UK (including July 7th in London) were propagated by British residents. How exterminating members of Al-Qaeda 3000 miles around the world is going to help us, I don’t know.

Moreover, he incessantly referred to the British people being in a state of fear as “the security of the people of this country lay in the hands of extremists”. Have I ruptured the space-time continuum into a Daily Mail alternate reality? I’ve yet to meet a single person who is genuinely worried about the threat of terrorism to this country. It’s happened before, but the chances of you being in the wrong place at the wrong time are so minute that it’s hardly worth thinking about. Did people stop using the Tube when London was under threat? No, because they had to get on with their lives and it was business as usual.

Towards the end of the talk we were bombarded with statistics showing “improving” living conditions in Afghanistan. Much has been made of the effort to rebuild and reinvigorate Afghanistan. While this may be true, it still doesn’t explain the fundamental point of the whole debate:

Why are we there in the first place?

Higher Education – For Everyone?

So, Lord Mandelson, Prince of Darkness, Secretary for Business, and now, apparently all round “good guy” unveiled his higher education policy at the beginning of this month. 
Entitled ‘Higher Ambitions’ , the framework set out a more science and technology based system, where the aforementioned sectors would be given priority with regards to funding and access.
It’s here when my position as a left leaning liberal is called into question. Mandelson’s idea is to brand universities with the same kind of traffic light system that you find on ready meals, defining their calorific content and fat etc. He wants to further expand the idea of universities as a brand. While there’s no getting away from it, universities are a business (Trinity College Cambridge recently bought the O2, no doubt), I think that this is a step too far. I find myself more in tune with the Conservative Policy than Labour on this one.
On the party website, Labour declare that “more young people are attending university than ever before”. That may be so, but does that take into account whether these extra people should be at university at all? ‘Going to Uni’ is the cool thing to do right now, and has become less a thing to aspire to, than part of the status quo. What this leads to is a huge amount of university students who really shouldn’t be there at all. Their skills are far more suited to apprenticeships, which have died out in current years, and which the Conservatives pledge to bring back. 
University is a place for someone to learn, grow in knowledge, and then hopefully apply the skills learnt into an increasingly competitive job market. What Labour has done, is create an entire new class of university student. That is, who floats through their degree course, not really paying much attention, graduates, and then is suddenly lumped with thousands of pounds of debt, but crucially, without having benefited from the university system. On the whole these people would be better suited to learning practical skills. The whole reason why Polish plumbers have become an in-joke is because there are no native plumbers to fill the ranks. We now expect people to go to university, when in fact we should be taking individual cases into consideration. A huge amount of self-made entrepreneurs never went to university, and I doubt any of them regret it. We need to see what suits the individual, rather than applying generalised conventional wisdom to everyone.
That said, I still believe university in this country offers a good service for the fees paid. Tuition fees, although obviously higher than in years past, are still cheaper than the cost for one term attending some private secondary schools. A lot of it is down to how you use it. Use the facilities, books and lecturers that are on hand to offer support. More and more, it’s becoming clear that it’s what you do outside of compulsory work that counts, rather than within it. 

Broken Britain

Moss Side Estate. Greater Manchester. Teenagers huddled on street corners while others ride up and down on bikes outside long deserted boarded-up shopfronts.
The North of England has a tinge of sadness to it. From the gun crime that has dominated estates like Moss Side since the early 1990s to old cobbled town’s whose cotton mills have laid dormant for years. This is an area of the UK with so much to give and to be proud of. Brilliant scenery, friendly locals and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness which can’t be found anywhere in London.
I didn’t fully appreciate how much the rest of the England, and particularly the North, was neglected as opposed to the Capital. I am constantly reminded of this fact by northern friends, but until I jumped ship to move up here I had no idea. Governments past and present have failed these people. A sea of ghost towns have been created by the loss of industry, leaving it wide open to be homogenised by the usual Tesco, McDonalds, et al.
The only southern equivalent to be found are the washed out seaside resorts located on the south coast. With crumbling piers, and sunshine providing the only real source of income, these towns have also been neglected. The fundamental difference between them and their northern counterparts, is that they never had much to offer in the first place.
Consider places like Burnley, Oldham, Rochdale. Once upon a time these milltowns provided a steady source of employment to skilled and unskilled workers alike. Times change, but when we lost the mills, we lost a fundamental sense of community and camaraderie, similar to the Welsh miners. These are towns that are now taken over by greedy property developers, creating a concrete jungle that is more akin to some kind of Gilliam-esque dystopian phantasmagoria. It saddens me more than the lonely seaside resorts, because there was once something beautiful here.
Looking at the redbrick and wonderfully precise York Stone buildings, one is aware of a gold mine of local history. It says a lot about governments past and present that they continually try to embrace the modern in order to improve and maintain Britain’s global standing. I think far more respect would be given to them by the people of this country if they instead invested more in nurturing tradition, as well as revitalising local governments which are in stasis and promoting localised issues.

Non-breaking news

This is belated. My digital camera refused to work these past few days, but finally, it sprung into action this morning.
I trotted over to Picadilly Gardens in Manchester this Saturday just gone, to see Unite Against Fascism group mount a counter-protest to the English Defence League’s protest over “Islamic Extremism”.

I was unsure as to what to expect, but it became quite clear early on that it was the old far right in action once more. Banners reading “No More Mosques” as well as jibes towards immigrants could be seen and heard all over Manchester city centre. At one point the EDL and UAF were demonstrating about 10 metres away from each other, and only a massive police presence eliminated the chance of any real trouble.
That said, it was equally frightening and exhilarating to be caught up in such a passionate exchange of views and opinions, with the very real possibility of it spilling over any minute into physical violence. Stop and search, metal detectors, police dog teams and riot squad were all on show in Manchester, with the Northern Quarter all but deserted, police blockades having sealed off most of the main roads coming into that side of Manchester.
This isn’t going to be particularly vivacious post, instead I’ll let the photos do the talking.