Friday 27 February 2009


Ryanair's boss has a lavatorial sense of humour

Having this week booked a couple of 'free flights' to Dublin from Ryanair that cost in excess of £100 each, including the luxury of checking in one suitcase each and using a credit card to pay, nothing surprises me about Michael O'Leary. So news that he wants to charge people for using the on-board lavatories is no great surprise.

Passengers who want to escape the inane chatter from the combination of on-board mobile phones and incessant scratchcard selling would surely be prepared to pay - so long as there was some soundproofing involved.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Ron Dearing

Few figures in the education world can have been so instinctively sensible and universally respected as Ron Dearing, who died last week. I first met him in 1996 when David Blunkett had agreed with Gillian Shephard on a cross-party committee to investigate university funding. Despite the Tories' dishonourable stance later, Shephard was very clear that she wanted the committee to introduce tuition fees, and their inevitability was accepted at that stage by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

A former civil servant and Post Office chief executive, Ron was the right person for such a fraught job, and though David tweaked the formula for fees after his report so that it reflected Labour's manifesto commitments, his was a landmark investigation on a par with Robbins in the sixties. He had already saved the national curriculum from overload and produced a (less happy) set of recommendations for the reform of A levels. And he made a good contribution to the House of Lords in later life.

My last discussion with Ron was eighteen months ago when aged 77, he was in the process of producing a typically pragmatic report on modern foreign languages (which resisted the absurdity of compulsion for all at GCSE, while seeking to find ways to make them the norm for most). In all my dealings, I was deeply impressed by his sense of integrity and his ability to cut quickly to the heart of a problem. He will be sorely missed.

Don't overregulate academies

School standards minister Jim Knight professed himself surprised by today's intervention by the Independent Academies Association into the debate about the independence of academies. After all, the requirements of the new legislation are all just about collaboration and co-operation, with which all reasonable folk should agree.

To be fair to Gordon Brown and his ministers, they have not only embraced the academies programme, but have expanded it rapidly, with details of new academies announced today. But what ministers sometimes ignore is the extent to which perception about independence is as important as legal independence in the success of most academies.

The sense of being free from the petty diktats of the local authority, of having the freedom to collaborate and the ability to innovate far outweigh the relatively minor legal differences that exist between academies and maintained foundation schools. But talk to any academy principal and they will tell you how that sense of independence is hugely important.

And it is that sense of independence - and the confidence it engenders - which is being eroded by various misguided attempts to tag extra legal requirements onto academies, especially those related to the bureaucracy surrounding children's services about which I have written elsewhere.

Of course, academies should do more to show how their freedom to innovate has also given them the confidence to collaborate in a far more meaningful way than when such co-operation is imposed. Indeed, such freedoms allow them to employ staff on site who can provide far more effective social support than attendance at a dozen local authority safeguarding committees.

Academies are a great Labour innovation. Ed Balls has been right to want to expand them, and to see them as a key part of lifting standards in the poorest schools and areas. But he should be wary of doing anything that distracts them from the reasons for their success.

Friday 20 February 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

To see Woody Allen's latest offering last night. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen is back on form after some lacklustre British films (though I did quite enjoy Scoop when it surfaced on BBC2 recently) with a typical tale of tangled lives and loves, leavened with witty and sophisticated dialogue, and a fair few amusing situations. Allen has brought together a cracking cast, with Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson playing two American girls, Vicky and Cristina, on holiday in Spain, who both fall for the charms of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a local artist with an on-off relationship with his violent ex-wife, Maria Elena, played with manic brilliance by Penelope Cruz. The backdrop of Spain, particularly Oviedo, gives the film extra charm. Above all, this is a vindication for those of us who have stuck with Allen through thick and (very) thin. If you liked Hannah and her Sisters or Manhattan, you'll love this.

Let's not go back to 70s primary education

Despite the Today programme's insistence on the term, "independent" is certainly not an apt description of today's report from the self-styled 'largest' review of primary education in 40 years. It is another deeply ideological strike against standards and effective teaching of the 3Rs in our primary schools.

Many of its contributors oppose the very idea of school 'standards' and have an ideological opposition to external testing. They have been permanent critics of the changes of recent decades. And it is only in that light that the review's conclusions can be understood.

Of course, there is no conflict between teaching literacy and numeracy, and the other subjects within the primary curriculum. And the best schools do indeed show how doing them all well provides a good and rounded education. Presenting this as the point of difference is a diversionary Aunt Sally.

However, there is a very real conflict between recognising the need to single literacy and numeracy out for extra time over the other subjects as with the dedicated literacy and numeracy lessons, and making them just another aspect of primary schooling that pupils may or may not pick up along the way.

For far too long, after the Plowden review and a move towards so-called 'progressive' teaching, children were not being taught to read and write properly. Schools too often expected children to pick up reading by looking at books rather than being taught phonetically. Grammar and tables were often not taught, as they were seen as elitist.

The literacy hour started to undo this damage, and Jim Rose's excellent report on phonics pointed the way forward for the future. Part of the 'prescription' of the literacy hour included an expectation that children learn to spell and express themselves correctly. Good teachers pointed the way to synthetic phonics, not government diktat. Equally, many primary teachers lacked confidence in teaching basic arithmetic before the daily numeracy lessons.

But some university schools of education remained wedded to the old ways and were reluctant to accept these changes. After all, they had often failed to teach teachers properly how to teach these subjects. A return to a situation where the teaching of these basics is subsumed again into a process of osmosis would destroy another generation of primary schoolchildren in the same way that the children of the seventies were failed.

Of course, we need to get the balance right, and I argued last week that we can do so with primary testing, but the Primary Review is not about getting the balance right; it is about reversing the changes of the last twenty years and returning our schools to a time when there was no public accountability and the basics were largely subsumed into other lessons.

Ministers and their Tory shadows need to start saying so, and doing so loudly.

This post has been picked up by the Reading Reform Foundation.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Alan Johnson hits the right target

While Harriet Harman appears to have been engaged in bizarre manoeuvres over the leadership of the Labour Party - I have little to add to Luke Akehurst's take on the subject - Alan Johnson has been showing what the chair and deputy leader of the Party should be doing.

Johnson is an effective health secretary - when was the last NHS 'crisis'? - presiding over a credible reform programme that puts patients first, unlike the the Tories' BMA-dictated approach. And today, he offers just the sort of critique of Cameron on the public services that the party chairman should be providing, were she not so distracted.

In today's Guardian, Johnson writes rightly that Cameron has thought little about the delivery of his reforms:

It has been interesting to watch David Cameron try to hug us close on public services. I've been impressed with his ability not to sound Tory.....On schools and hospitals, he seems to understand what the public want to hear....But while his language is nearly pitch-perfect, his party's policies still strike an entirely different note.....

In my own area, health, shadow minister Andrew Lansley has backed him away from Labour's key reforms. So despite the conciliatory rhetoric, Cameron has now said he would dismantle minimum standards such as the two-week maximum wait to see a cancer specialist or a wait of no more than four hours in A&E. That makes no sense to me nor, I suspect, the patients who will suffer......

So while I applaud a great deal of the sentiment in what Cameron says, it is clear he has spent far more time thinking about careful delivery of speeches than fair delivery of public services. I've pushed through some difficult reforms myself, for example on higher education - a policy Cameron once opposed but now supports - and learned that real policy change requires a lot more than just a few vague sentiments.

Spot on. Let's hope there's more where that came from.

The worst driver in Ireland?

A great tale about the notoriously bad Polish driver Prawo Jazdy and the doomed efforts of the Garda to catch him is related in today's today's Irish Times.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Wise counsel from Peter Mandelson

My dealings with Peter Mandelson may go back a little further than Matthew Taylor - I worked as a temporary Labour press officer during the 1987 election with a desk just outside his office in the smoky Walworth Road complex then occupied by the People's Party - but I entirely share his analysis of the business secretary's speech in New York. It is just the sort of speech we need from Labour ministers at this time.

Advance billing for his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations suggests that he will say that governments in a recession
"have to be right, even if it means more time before we are seen to deliver.....As nations, we must keep a steady nerve and cool judgement, constantly refining our policies as necessary."
According to a briefing to the Guardian, he will say Labour is in a tough place politically as he urges his cabinet colleagues against daily initiatives to combat the recession, as they only raise false media and public expectations of instant results, while the end of the recession simply cannot be forecast. There are no manuals, blueprints or precedents to dictate what to do.

With today's Mori poll putting the Tories in a 20-point lead, this is wise counsel. The public wants to see results from the big injections of funding and VAT cuts already made rather than new ideas each day. It wants the banks to lend again and more job security. The government needs to show how it has made a difference - and, given that Germany and Japan are clearly also very badly affected by the recession, there is still a case to be made for explaining the international aspects of the recession without underplaying what is happening here.

Mandelson recognises the need for honesty from the government both about the scale of the problem, what we know, what is being done and the chances of success. I don't share the Cameron desire for a full-scale mea culpa from Gordon Brown, but an acknowledgement that politicians of all colours - including the Tory front bench - supported the deregulated environment that led to the City boom and bankers' irresponsibility would not go amiss.

As Matthew says, there is a sense that the Mandelson speech supports his view that the government needs to focus on governing rather than actively maneouvering over the next election (or worse, a post-election leadership contest), when the latter is not only pointless, but self-defeating (indeed taking a more stately position would show a marked contrast with Cameron's petty point-scoring).

And in a timely warning to colleagues about avoiding populist panic measures, Mandelson also calls for some restraint there too.
"Governments must neither ignore the public's anger and impatience, for example on bank bonuses, nor be pushed into hurried judgments because we fear accusations of indecision."
We need to hear more along these lines.

Monday 16 February 2009

Good news for Lisbon, Gloom for Dave from Ireland

As the Irish lose faith in Fianna Fail, there's good news for supporters of Europe, as the Republic's voters recognise that being in Europe is what has saved them from Iceland's fate. It looks like David Cameron will have a headache over the Lisbon Treaty if he wins the next election, after all.

Friday 13 February 2009

Is the 'children's agenda' working for schools?

I have a piece in this week's Public Finance looking at another aspect of the fallout from the Baby P case in Haringey and the departure of Sharon Shoesmith. The merger of the education and social services agendas after the inquiry into the Victoria Climbie case has led to complaints from some that social services needs are downplayed where schools specialists take charge. But there are also those who fear that the aims of this merger are not being met. Instead a new bureaucracy has emerged, with headls having to go to lots of joint planning meetings, when it might be better simply employing social workers in schools. You can read my piece here.

The death of Fianna Fail?

It used to be a given that Ireland was what some political scientists called a two-and-a-half party system, with the two parties that had emerged from the bloody civil wars of the twenties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Irish politics, and Irish Labour destined to play a poor third as occasional coalition partner.

Fianna Fail always had a dodgier reputation, exacerbated by Charlie Haughey's appalling corruption, but it had also become the natural party of government, a position recently crystallised by Bertie Ahern's decade in power. Even if there were two big parties, Fianna Fail was always the larger of the two.

And that's the context in which to read this morning's extraordinary Irish Times opinion poll. For the first time in history, the Irish Labour Party on 24% has overtaken Fianna Fail at 22% and pushed the party of DeValera into third place, with Fine Gael in the lead on a reduced 32% (Sinn Fein, the Greens and Independents get 8%, 4% and 9% respectively). Brian Cowen, whose abysmal leadership of his party has been marked by an approach to the economy similar to that advocated by David Cameron and George Osborne, has begun to kill his party.

Fianna Fail used to be a bit dodgy; it was never politically inept before. After huge public spending cuts and efforts to take medical cards from pensioners, satisfaction with the Government is just 14%, and Fianna Fail support in Dublin a mere 13%. Labour has had its false dawns before: it reached similar levels of popularity under Dick Spring in the early 90s but lost it by going into coalition with Fianna Fail; and it had a few heady years in the 60s too. But its leader Eamon Gilmore has had a good recession, and the polling speaks for itself.

There is only one phrase to describe what's happening in Irish politics today - that coined by the late Conor Cruise O'Brien in different circumstances - grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented or GUBU.

This post was picked up by Chris Paul and Politics in Ireland.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Where is this man when you need him?

A few weeks ago, Sir Michael Scholar (pictured here), who heads the UK Statistics Authority, launched a full scale attack on ministers for the premature publication of knife crime statistics, which hadn't yet been fully cleared by government statisticians. (Godot would have arrived in the time it usually takes for government statisticians to provide timely data). This attack was justified on the grounds that the professional integrity of statisticians had been impugned.

Yesterday, the Office of National Statistics waded into a difficult political row about immigration by publishing seriously misleading statistics on migration, which wrongly suggested that the only people getting any new jobs were foreigners. As an excellent leader in today's Times points out, the briefing (published prematurely on the grounds of 'topicality') made no distinction between people born abroad but permanently resident here and those who arrived recently. Only someone of the greatest political naivety could publish such a briefing without proper context, and without considering its effect on a potentially poisonous political debate.

According to its website
, the Statistics Authority's main objective "is to promote and safeguard the quality of official statistics that serve the public good. It is also required to safeguard the comprehensiveness of official statistics, and ensure good practice in relation to official statistics." It is also intended to oversee the work of ONS. I trust Sir Michael Scholar, who apparently attended the weekly meeting of Whitehall permanent secretaries yesterday "to discuss the importance of abiding by the new regime for releasing figures" can bring himself to show the appropriate indignation on this occasion, and issue a severe public rebuke to ONS head Karen Dunnell in the same way he has with ministers. After all the premature publication on this occasion threatened public order rather than simply highlighting a minor ministerial success story.

Keep primary school tests

I have a piece in today's Independent arguing in favour of keeping externally set primary school tests. You can read it here. Here's an extract:

Some teachers' leaders regard the abolition of Key Stage 3 as a stepping stone to the abolition of the primary school tests. But the abolition of externally marked* Key Stage 1 tests for seven-year-olds in 2005 has already seen results dip, as the limited pressure on schools that went with those tests has eased. The scrapping of the more important Key Stage 2 tests could lead to a bigger decline.

Moreover, accountability has contributed to real improvements. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard at Key Stage 2 has risen from 49 per cent in English and 45 per cent in maths in 1995 to 81 and 78 per cent last year. That improvement – which has been even faster in many inner-city schools as a result of minimum standards through floor targets – has coincided with national tests, Ofsted inspections and the publication of school-level results.

Just as important, their publication has given teachers invaluable data that they can use to ensure that they are getting the most out of their pupils. So it is good that the Government has said that it remains committed to externally set and marked tests at Key Stage 2. Indeed, they are likely to be a key part of the new report card......

Whatever happens, the problems with the 2008 tests – and any consequent difficulties with the 2009 tests – cannot be the excuse for their complete demise. By all means change the tests and reduce the marking burden, but let's not abandon accountability.

*QCA press office point out that before this change, teachers marked the tests but did so based on an external marking scheme, whereas now they can use their own judgements about which level a pupil is at. However, the point remains that they are now based much more on internal rather than arguably more objective external judgments.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Big Brother Dave's wikifakery

I have been one of those who has always been less censorious about using Wikipedia than most. Sure, its contentious entries are often the subject of partisan editing, and are best ignored. But it is often a good link to online resources for basic facts. Little did we know that there's a team in Tory Central Office dedicated to falsifying history - or at least Wikipedia entries - where it doesn't agree with Big Brother David Cameron's line on things. We're well used to the dodgy use of statistics by the Tories to justify their attacks over education or health. But changing the date of Titian's birth on Wikipedia? Why? Given the pettiness of Cameron's original attack at PMQs, they're obviously just playing follow the leader.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Ministers are out of focus on Diplomas

While the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has not been sharing his economic history lessons with the general public, in the day job he has been looking for ways to beef up the Diplomas, the hybrid of academic and vocational qualifications that have so far attracted just 12,000 students.

Today, the government has started to give details of its diplomas in humanities, languages and sciences which the DCSF tells us will teach young people how to speak a foreign language and how to take part in business meetings in a foreign language; study how species interact and ecosystems change and set up a conservation programme or recycling scheme and examine its environmental impact; and get involved in a local policy issue, like the development of a new hospital and understand how to make it happen. Despite a few endorsements on the press release, there is little evidence these diplomas are meeting unmet need.

But today's announcement tells us nothing about the numbers of students who will take Diplomas, particularly at A-level (level 3) standard, this coming September. And there has been far too little effort made to explain the benefits in simple terms to students and teachers. One would think that every effort should be made to win new takers, particularly as the new Apprenticeships bill with its rights to apprenticeships and presumptions about careers advice is likely to draw those who want a vocational qualification towards that route.

But rather than focus on explaining the distinct choices available to young people - A level or GCSE, Diplomas, Apprenticeships and the IB - the DCSF has withdrawn the limited support given to schools and colleges wanting to adopt the tried, tested and trusted International Baccalaureate (IB), which requires all its students to learn a language and learn about science, as well as taking part in an active citizenship project. Hence these academic diplomas.

Ministers need to get the original Diplomas right before pushing ahead with academic diplomas. And they need to ensure that parents, pupils and teachers understand them if they are to succeed. Confusing the picture with these extra Diplomas is a funny way of going about it.

Time to simplify MPs' allowances

The latest stories about MPs' allowances - and attempts by some papers to bring down the Home Secretary over her claim - highlight once again the absurdity of the current system of MPs' pay and allowances.

Instead of allowing MPs to tie themselves in knots over their housing allowances and what they spend at John Lewis to equip their flats, there should be a flat rate accommodation allowance which would allow an MP to rent a decent central London flat and equip it. How they choose to spend that money should then be of little concern: it should be treated like a 'London weighting' cost. The same rate should be paid to any MPs from constituencies outside the London Underground boundaries, and those within but in the outer suburbs should be allowed exceptionally to claim up to £160 for a hotel room if the House sits after 10pm.

All other accommodation allowances should be scrapped. The only real losers would be prurient Sunday newspapers who would be bereft of their pseudo-scandals. The rest of us might benefit from some real news instead.

Thursday 5 February 2009

A poor prescription from Clegg

The Liberal Democrats apparently spent a decade working out their education reforms, published today. But the result is a series of proposals that could lessen chances for poorer pupils, rather than increase them.

They have proposed abolishing most of the accountability in the system that ensures that pupils have a minimum entitlement and that spurs improvement. It is all very well sniffing about the 600 pages in the national curriculum, but this covers eleven years of a child's education, across a range of subjects. Perhaps someone could ask them what precisely they propose to drop? Tearing it up for its own sake will hardly give the entitlement to poorer children the Liberal leader Nick Clegg says he wants. That, after all, is why we have a curriculum.

Equally, one must be sceptical about plans to give all schools the same freedoms as academies: a big benefit of academies at the moment are that they focus on schools in inner city areas where results are poor. Taking away that incentive will make it harder to effect improvement in those schools, changes that academies are delivering in the vast majority of cases. There is no sign in the Lib Dem paper that they have any plans of their own to improve failing schools. (Charities can already set up schools and enter competitions for new schools under Labour legislation).

The Liberal Democrats may be on stronger ground in focusing their class size pledge on 5-7 year olds. After all, there is little evidence that lower class sizes make much difference for older children. But it is questionable that this is the best use of resources, given that most infant classes have adult:pupil ratios near or below 15 anyway, with the help of teaching assistants and one-to-one tuition. The most useful thing they could do at this age is to focus on phonics, as Labour is doing as a result of the 2005 Rose Review, and ensure pupils can read. But on this they are curiously silent, presumably on the grounds that schools should have the "freedom" not to teach children to read.

In truth, this policy paper is not all that radically different from traditional Lib Dem education policies. There is little interest in outcomes, and a big focus on inputs, including an underfunded pupil premium or voucher for poorer youngsters (not in itself a bad thing, but ignoring the extent to which money is already heavily skewed towards disadvantaged pupils - and the impact of moving towards a national funding formula on schools outside the inner cities). At the same time, they deliberately ignore all the evidence that assets are crucial to improving social mobility, by abandoning Labour's innovative child trust fund.

In the end, without clear accountability and clear expectations about outcomes, their talk of improvements rings hollow. And, with the axing of trust funds, so does their talk of improving social mobility.

This blog posting was originally written for Labourlist and has been picked up by Iain Dale.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Ireland shows the Tory approach to the recession in action

The Conservatives used to be fond of urging people to look to Ireland for an example of how to organise your tax system. They have gone a little silent on the subject of late. I can't see why, since the hapless Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen is following the Cameron-Osborne prescription for what to do in a recession almost to the letter.

Cowen has increased VAT while Britain reduced it, which has led to a mass cross-border exodus to the bargain prices of Newry and a big VAT-induced boost for stores there. He delayed a bank bailout for months which has contributed to unemployment rising above 9 per cent. Now he is cutting public spending by slashing the pay of civil servants by imposing a levy of up to 9.6 per cent on their gross earnings to cut the Government contribution to pensions.

Gordon Brown should stop calling the Tories the Do Nothing party. He should spell out exactly what their prescription has meant for John Redwood's favourite low tax economy.

This post has been picked up by Slugger O'Toole and Hopi Sen.

Daschle's departure could doom Obama's health reforms

What is it about the American tax system that seems to trap so many nominees for high office? Admittedly, Tom Daschle's mistakes were in a bigger league than most. But his decision to step down as Barack Obama's health secretary is a huge setback to the cause of healthcare reform in the United States.

Daschle had developed a plan and real expertise on the issue, in a way that was missing from Hillary Clinton's earlier efforts in the 1990s. If anyone was going to be able to get past the vested interests of the country's vastly inefficient health industry, it was he. Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic has his own list of likely replacements, but few could match Daschle on the issue. It just goes to show that even the best laid plans....

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The truth behind the wildcat strikes

David Aaronovitch is on cracking form in this morning's Times with the best explanation I have seen of what lies behind the wildcat strikes. Particularly telling is the absence of evidence behind the claims being made by some union leaders - and the real reason behind these strikes.

I also called the Unite press office and asked them to supply any details they could of Mr Simpson's specific allegation that his officials had been told by the “blatant” subcontractors that they would not employ UK workers. A few minutes later a nice chap rang. He wasn't sure that Mr Simpson had been referring to Lindsey specifically, but there were other situations where this might have happened. He'd ring round and call me back. The call never came......

So what on earth was this about? Here's a clue. Also yesterday another union bigwig, Paul Kenny, of the GMB, described the “root cause” of the rash of wildcat stoppages as being “discrimination against British workers”. Mr Kenny cited in evidence personal conversations with companies who had told him that they “cannot instruct these firms [ie, subcontractors] to employ British workers” because of EU law. In other words, the lack of the ability of companies to discriminate against foreign workers was really the issue for Mr Kenny, not discrimination against British ones. What he evidently wanted was the right to employ British workers - members one presumes of British unions - in preference to EU ones.

Monday 2 February 2009

A mixture of sentimentality and panic?

What would be a good way of describing a report on children which reckoned that kids today were worse off than in the days when they were 'seen and not heard', or when child labour was rife; one that sought to insulate youngsters from the world into which they were likely to become adults by not testing them or publishing the results?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a foreword to today's report from the Children's Society, puts it well: "a climate where the mixture of sentimentalism and panic makes discussion of children's issues so difficult." But he wasn't talking about this latest publication; he was apparently endorsing its tone and prescriptions.

To be fair, the report does have some good ideas. The idea of civil birth ceremonies is not a bad idea. Nor is the endorsement for better paid teachers in deprived areas. But the overall tone of the report's launch plays into a general idea that young people have never had it so bad and have never been so unhappy with their lot.

In explaining why they concluded that young people are allegedly so much more unhappy today, one of the report's authors, Richard Layard told the Today programme that it was because so many of them had 'psychiatric problems.' Hence the report's recommendation that we train 1000 more psychological therapists. But do they really? Or are we just relabelling lots of things that would previously have been treated as a normal part of growing up?

And, well done to the Children's minister Beverley Hughes, quoted in yesterday's Observer, for nailing the canard that testing is making youngsters unhappy.
Children needed some stresses and challenges to develop the necessary resilience for adult life, she said. "I think that largely the impact on children of doing tests can be mediated by parents and schools," she added."I have always felt that being tested is a part of life that you have to get used to and for a child you can make that something to be scared of or you can do it in a way that normalises it."

This blog has been picked up by the Teachers' TV website.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Getting climate change priorities right

A big setback to the anti-Heathrow expansion alliance of Tories and Labour left-wingers comes today from Jim Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, according to today's Observer. Aside from those opposing the extra runway for fear of residents' objections, there has been an unfortunate whiff of self-righteous sanctimony from those who want to limit flying to those who can afford business class to get to awards ceremonies but don't want ordinary people flying off on holiday.

Now, Hansen, a strong critic of George Bush's disinterest in the climate change issue, has rejected efforts from Heathrow campaigners to sign him up to the anti-runway cause. According to the Observer, he said:

"The number of runways you need for your airports depends on their traffic. You don't want to be so restrictive that you end up burning more fuel because planes are having to circle and wait to land because of lack of runway space. Coal is 80% of the planet's problem. You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts. The number one enemy is coal and we should never forget that."


To see Gus Van Sant's gripping and moving account of the political rise and assassination of the gay rights activist Harvey Milk. In just over two hours, Van Sant tells the story of how Milk took on a growing anti-gay movement in 1970s America, using the growing muscle not only of the gay community in San Francisco but also of a surprising group of allies who included the Teamsters and Governor Ronald Reagan, to see off a referendum that could have seen gay people sacked from jobs in public schools and social services. His victory and success also cost him his life. Sean Penn is utterly compelling in the title role of Milk, and were it not for his previous Oscar success and sentimentality over Mickey Rourke, he would surely be the top contender for a Best Actor Oscar this year. In a brilliant year for Hollywood movies, this is another one that has to be seen.