Tuesday 30 June 2009

Strong reform continues at health

The commitments on health in Gordon Brown's plans for the future are particularly strong and clear, with the promise to give patients
enforceable rights to high standards of care, including hospital treatment within 18 weeks, access to a cancer specialist within two weeks and free health-checks on the NHS for people aged 40 to 74.

The promise of a legal entitlement to healthcare within a defined period is an excellent reinforcement of a huge achievement of Labour's time in Government - the lower waiting times achieved by clear targets - and will cause a real headache for BMA/Tory spokesman Andrew Lansley, while giving patients real certainty and the chance to go private where the NHS fails to deliver.

Despite the sniping about money and the predictable criticisms from political opponents, the overall package is a welcome indication of life within the government. There are clear objectives that can be delivered in the coming year, and some dividing lines that have meaning. For them to have real effect, the government should be as candid about the public finances, even if the absence of a full spending review.

Power to the parents and pupils?

I'm enjoying the French sunshine this week, so readers will have been spared listening to me on Today or WATO (and for the benefit of BBC researchers, I'm still on holiday). But I thought I would share a few reflections on today's schools white paper.

And the next instalment of Gordon Brown's 'power to the people' package of reforms, looks like it will have some good things going for it. The idea of chains of schools forming with common curricula and shared resources is a good thing, that has been developing in Academies. (It is definitely less effective as with most such programmes if good schools are forced into them). The report cards may provide useful additional information, particularly where they include parental satisfaction surveys, provided they are not seen as more important than either Ofsted reports or published test scores. Plans to take the parents of unruly pupils to court are an extension of existing powers on truancy, which rightly set the primary responsibility for poor discipline where it belongs. But with responsibilities come rights: so the entitlements on one-to-one tuition are good; hopefully there will be more in the paper on extending parent powers when it comes to demanding a new school.

But there is a worry about the general direction of travel on accountability (which David Aaronovitch ably reflects in today's Times) - which is as important in raising standards as parental pressure or choice - which was heightened with the abandonment of the literacy and numeracy strategies last week. Don't get me wrong: the strategies were largely abandoned by Charles Clarke when he merged them into the all-singing, all-dancing Primary Strategy, and that's what was really scrapped. The point of the literacy and numeracy lessons was that there would be dedicated, distinctive lessons in the 3Rs each day in primary schools, because until then, they were often merged into other subjects. There is nothing wrong with reinforcing the teaching of English and Maths across the curriculum; quite the contrary. But the scrapping of the strategies must be reinforced by a clear expectation from Ofsted and the national curriculum that schools teach pupils to read phonetically, learn maths tables and gain the intuitive knowledge that will save them when their computer or calculator throws up some odd spellings or calculations. If that happens, kitemarked alternatives to Capita may even be a better bet.

Similarly, the main reason why specialist schools have been a success in lifting secondary school achievement is because schools have to set targets (not ministers) and are judged against them every few years in a national bidding process with national goals. Up to £150k a year rides on the results. There is a balance to be struck here, and some national pressure and acountability initiatives, including floor targets (which Ed Balls has extended sensibly) have made a real difference. With the government and the Tories battling to appease the teaching unions over testing - from scrapping Key Stage 3 to Tory plans to abandon national primary tests -there have been worrying signs that the balance is tilting too far from the interests of parents and pupils.

Today's package is good in that it shows some sense of purpose on public sector reform that had clearly been lost in recent months, and in that it has a strong focus on information and rights for parents. But it is also important that it starts to reverse the trend against accountability, which includes national standards. And that means avoiding sending the sort of signals given to teachers in last Friday's Guardian headline, which I understand went rather further than intended by the government. Those in government believe their reforms will provide parents with real power in a system of strong accountability: I hope for the sake of the next generation of pupils they are right.

Friday 26 June 2009

Teaching the 3Rs

The fetish with localism will clearly be fully realised in next week's schools white paper, as the National Strategies are abandoned in literacy and numeracy. In truth, what matters most is that pupils are taught the basics properly, including phonics, and not that they are taught through the strategies which had not been as effectively delivered in recent years as they were when they first started.

But there should still be a role for government in kitemarking quality, whether provided by other schools, local authorities or private providers. Schools should be able to choose from quality providers. Otherwise the danger is that there will be a return to the haphazard teaching of the 3Rs that occurred before the strategies. And ministers must be very clear that the primacy of the basics is not being compromised, and that every pupil will still have an entitlement to learn to read (using phonics), to write clearly, and to learn arithmetic skills.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Making Every Child Matters more practical

I have a column in today's Independent, arguing for a more practical focus to Every Child Matters, the government's drive to link education and children's services. Here's an extract:

Six years on, there is a sense that things are not working out. In his recent review of the Baby Peter case in Haringey, Lord Laming said the problem was that his ideas hadn't been introduced fully or fast enough. But head teachers fear that some of Laming's solutions are part of the problem. There may be worthy new "safeguarding" committees and "partnership working", they say, but you can't get hold of a social worker when you need one. The Government has professionals bogged down in "integrated strategy" and "inter-agency governance" but too little attention has been paid to the practical measures that could really make a difference. And heads' support for closer links between schools and welfare services has been turned into frustration as efforts to merge two very different professional approaches – that of the teacher and the social worker – are put into practice.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

The benefits of chain gangs

Ed Balls gave an encouraging interview to the Times this week ahead of next week's long overdue schools white paper. He used it to promote the idea of chains of like-minded schools working with a common approach to pedagogy and gaining economies of scale from working together in areas like teacher training, as well as seeing them as a way for strong schools to takeover weak ones. This is something where Academies have been particularly good. Indeed, it is likely that the Tories too will need to turn to the academy chains like Ark, Harris and United Learning Trust to act as promoters for their Swedish-style free schools.

However, it is important that next week's White Paper doesn't indulge in mixed signals. The Government has - despite its acceleration of academies and the unsung growth of trust schools - been to shy in promoting its diversity credentials. There are suggestions that good schools will be forced rather than encouraged into chains, which would be a huge mistake. And government ambiguity on accountability is likely to be reinforced unless it is clear about the limitations as well as the potential of its new report card. Labour has a good record on schools over the last 12 years. The White Paper is a chance to remind people of that - and to be clear about the role of diversity and standards in promoting further school improvement in the years ahead.

Why should Parliament come before Today?

I've started blogging at the new Public Finance blog in addition to my posts here. In my first posting, I challenge the notion that Parliament really should have priority over Today for those ministerial announcements.

The modernising new Speaker John Bercow has a lot going for him. He has successfully overseen his first Prime Ministers’ Questions, earning plaudits for his timely interventions and brisk business-like manner. But in his short post-PMQs statement he repeated one pronouncement that suggests a parliament not yet in the modern world and not yet in tune with the wider public.

Bercow plans to enforce the convention that ministers should make their announcements strictly to Parliament and not on the Today programme. This means that ordinary people with a job won’t hear it – and may not even hear about it, as its news prominence could be lost. It also leaves ministers and their morning interviewers in an unsatisfactory tussle that can only damage politics further.

Surely, it is more important for the good of politics that the six million listeners to the Today programme and the several million viewers of breakfast TV hear about matters that affect them ahead of 650 MPs and the few hundred thousand viewers of the Daily Politics?

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Dave's dodgy Euro-allies

I'm pleased that John Bercow was elected Speaker, though the mutterings from the Tory backwoodsmen about deposing him suggest that Cameron's efforts to modernise his party have not permeated very far into the party's psyche.

And that wasn't the only indicator. For yesterday was also the day that the Tories unveiled their 'odds and sods' European party. Instead of joining mainstream conservative opinion in the EPP - where Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy sit their parties - David Cameron has proceeded with his mad collection of Latvian Nazi enthusiasts, Polish gaybashers and Czech doubters of climate change.

I agree with Alastair Campbell that this event has the more long-term significance. The BBC extraordinarily sought to portray this motley crew as being on the centre right on politics. They ignored the eccentricity and extremism of his new allies, surely something that would have merited attention in other circumstances and pretended that this madcap group will actually have any influence in the European parliament.

Given that Libertas, the party that sought to make Euro-scepticism a European force suffered a spectacular failure in the European elections and has collapsed into farce, and that Ireland is now set to accept Lisbon by a 2-1 majority, the spectacular stupidity of the Tories' stance will become the more pronounced.

Europe is going to become more integrated whatever David Cameron says. The issue is how it does so and in what areas. Throwing a hissy fit against the EPP in order to join forces with the Latvian Waffen SS commemoration committee is hardly the best way to exercise that leverage should Cameron occupy No 10 in the future.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Candour on spending is vital

The Sunday Times reports that there is a split within the cabinet on the best way to approach the spending debate and the battle lines with the Tories at the next election. On capital investment, this Government has an excellent story, which can be illustrated in every constituency with new schools, health centres and other public buildings. That capital may fall in future years as a result of the recession would still mean that far more is being invested that under the Tories, who provided less than a billion pounds in 1996 for school building.

But the Government is in danger of obscuring the real progress that it has made for two reasons. The first is that it has largely given up reminding people of the difference that has been made. An audit of school buildings in 2007 showed that by that stage over 1100 completely new schools had been built since 1997, yet there has been little effort made to update the data, partly because of a bizarre Year Zero approach that characterised the early Brown period.

But the second more pertinent danger is that a lack of candour on public spending will deny legitimacy both to the real achievements on the genuine differences in approach between the Tories and Labour. It is vital that ministers have the chance to set out in detail ahead of the election exactly what will be spent or invested - and what will need to be saved - in the years ahead. Only then can the party genuinely erect dividing lines with a Tory party that failed to invest when in power and is unlikely to provide the further necessary investment if it wins power again.

Van disappoints his Bristol fans

To see Van Morrison at the Colston Hall in Bristol last night. It was a much slicker and more professional concert than the previous time I had seen him at this venue. He had a superb band backing him. He promised 90 minutes, and did that; no more, no less. There was a mix of the familiar and less so, with the inevitable Gloria as a slightly truncated finale. But the promoters had also spent a fair bit of effort suggesting that the Man would do some of his celebrated Astral Weeks album, which had gained accolades at the Hollywood Bowl and the Albert Hall. He didn't.

Back in the early 80s, when Bob Dylan was at his most contrary, I joined 60,000 others at his big concert at Slane Castle in Ireland. Needless to say, he was the headline act. And most people wanted to hear his great hits from the sixties. But Dylan was having none of it. He launched into an utterly obscure and unrecognisable mix of new songs and rearrangements of older ones. As tens of thousands of fans started to leave, he changed tune. Literally. And the very recognisable Blowing in the Wind cascaded across the midsummer night at Slane, encouraging the crowd to wait a bit before heading for the buses back to Dublin.

There were an awful lot of mightily teed off people in Bristol last night. And their temper wasn't eased by Van's insistence that the bars be shut for the evening too. What is it about big rock stars that they think they can so easily dismiss their fans - who had paid £45-£90 a head last night - and not give them at least some of what they came for?

Thursday 18 June 2009

Why John Bercow should be the Commons speaker

The vitriol being heaped on Conservative MP John Bercow in his bid to become Commons Speaker would be enough to win my vote (if I had one). But there is another good reason to vote for him: with the possible exception of Parmjit Dhanda, the amiable Gloucester MP who doesn't seem to be among the frontrunners, he is the only candidate for the Speakership who is proposing serious modernisation of the institution and its attitudes.

Obviously, like his many Labour supporters, I hold no brief for Mr Bercow's past in the Monday Club or the Federation of Conservative Students. But he has changed, just as Margaret Beckett has abadoned her early eighties Bennism. And the issue should be: what will he do as Speaker in 2009 and beyond? As today's New Statesman puts it
The backbencher, who in 2002 told his own party it was “racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth”, has proved himself the most independent-minded of all the ten candidates.
Margaret Beckett has been a loyal cabinet minister, though it is hard to recall anything innovative that happened on her watch. Most recently, she sidelined radical reform of housing policy. She was always seen as a safe pair of hands on the Today programme, and that is why she is gaining support in the Commons, including from many Conservatives who see Bercow as too liberal. She should have been made Minister for the Today Programme again. But this should not be her consolation prize for not getting the appointment.

But if MPs can't see after the last six weeks that they need a fresh face and a fresh approach, then they have only themselves to blame if they sink further in the court of public opinion. Indeed, the distasteful Tory campaign against Bercow shows politics at its absolute worst - and is a timely warning of what the Tories may be like in power again. As Steve Richards put it:
Instead of scheming pointlessly MPs should ask a single question. Which of the candidates will speak up most effectively and personify change for the Commons at a point when Britain's anti-politics culture is rabid?
A few weeks ago, I argued that we needed either Frank Field or John Bercow as speaker. Since Frank Field has chosen not to stand, John Bercow it must be.

Sunday 14 June 2009

Why are the Tories abandoning primary school accountability?

The Conservatives' plan to drop externally marked national tests for 11 year-olds from the end of primary school in favour of teacher assessment at the start of secondary school may reduce duplication given that many secondaries use CAT tests, but it could seriously reduce the accountability for primary schools that is so important in improving standards in the basics of English and Maths.

With their policy of greater autonomy for primary schools, through more independent state-funded primaries, it is more important than ever that there should be independent and reliable external scrutiny and accountability.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove says that they would aggregate the results of the tests to publish data on primary school performance. In that case, given the importance of the results to analysis of primary school success and parental choices, it is hard to see how external validation and appeals could be avoided.

After all, there is a real incentive for secondary schools to mark the results down so that they can claim to be making more improvement than they have actually made. It will be primary schools that will be putting on the pressure for such validation.

More to the point, the claim that this measure would 'free up' primary schools in their final year seems misplaced. Good schools already strike a sensible balance, but see the tests as an opportunity for valuable pre-secondary school revision in the basics. This would probably not change.

But those schools that over-prepare for the tests are hardly likely to reduce this just because tests that inform league tables are to take place in September rather than May or June. More likely, they will extend the preparation period up to mid-July and organise summer schools to support catch-up. And if the more pushy parents realise the tests are to be used for setting and streaming, those who can do so will step up their use of tutors. The transition period between primary and secondary - already a stressful time for pupils - could become a lot more so.

So I wonder whether Michael Gove has really thought through the consequences of his proposal. It would be shameful if he had reduced effective primary school accountability in favour of a cheap headline and the transient praise of the teaching unions.

This posting has been picked up by the Bickerstaffe Record blog.

Saturday 13 June 2009

How WH Smith is conspiring to spoil our holidays

Forgive me if I tune out from the Saturday interviews with Peter Mandelson and David Miliband. But the really outrageous news of the day is that WH Smith, which has a monopoly in many rail stations and airports, has decided to bar sales of the excellent Time Out guides, which have helped me navigate not only many cities but their restaurants and jazz clubs, and the usually reliable Lonely Planet in favour of the ghastly insipid alternatives produced by Penguin, including Dorling Kindersley.

It is like they decided the only newspaper they would sell in future is the Daily Mail or the only magazine on offer would be Hello. This is an utterly disgraceful abuse of monopoly power, and the British Guild of Travel Writers is absolutely right to draw it to our attention with their demand for a boycott of WH Smith.

As Jolyon Attwool highlights in the Daily Telegraph, the excuse offered is pathetic.
And WH Smith, in one of the most weasel-worded justifications heard for a long time, claims that the customer is its main concern: "We are trying to simplify our range…so it is easier for customers to find a suitable product."

What might be even more effective than a boycott would be an investigation by the Competition Commission. If they think it an outrage that BAA is allowed to run so many airports, it is just as scandalous that tourists and travellers are forced to rely on the dreadfully inspipid Dorling Kindersley guides or the passe Rough Guides rather than Time Out. This is a sure way to spoil people's holidays and it must be stopped. Now.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

The next year for Labour

The leadership crisis seems to be settled. Gordon Brown has reasserted his authority on the parliamentary party. He now faces the bigger challenge of reconnecting with erstwhile Labour supporters who deserted the party in droves last week.

Today's announcements on constitutional reform are a start, and the Tories are being churlish to argue that electoral reform shouldn't be debated. But we need more than debate at this stage: we need action. So, Brown should pledge a referendum on the alternative vote - which would ensure that MPs enjoyed at least the partial support of 50% of their constituents - or a variation which provided some proportional top-up. That referendum should take place on the same day as the next general election, or it is meaningless. At the same time, the Government needs to ensure that all the expenses issues are quickly resolved.

And Brown is right to say that his other two priorities are the economy and public services. On the economy, there are signs that the measures which he and Alastair Darling took last year are starting to pay off. The UK economy is in much better shape than the German one. Banks are starting to pay back their Government loans. Manufacturing output is improving. Sterling is back up to over $1.60. Whether the government gets any credit for this will depend on unemployment starting to level off and fall, and the extent to which public service cuts are needed in the future. And on the latter point, we need some candour about the tightness of the public finances and their likely impact.

On the public services, he needs to renew the reform agenda. Health policy remains strong, and Andy Burnham should continue to deliver it. He must also sell what the Government is doing much better, and explain the importance of lower waiting times and what the Tory abandonment of them would really mean. On education, the government has a good story to tell on schools which it has obscured since Andrew Adonis was moved to transport. The new schools minister Vernon Coaker has a chance to make the academies programme and other aspects of school diversity, including the specialist schools lauded in a PwC analysis yesterday, a central part of the government's story, and stop ceding ground to the Tories. A major rethink is also needed on the bureaucracy surrounding Every Child Matters, with a focus on common sense solutions rather than the endless meetings forced on the system. And in both cases, Labour must show clearly how it is on the side of patients and parents (and children or pupils) once again.

Whether it is too late for all this to have any impact remains to be seen. Despite the dismal results, there are two reasons to think that it might. The first is that the voters are very volatile, and have not yet fallen for the charms of Cameron, such as they are. 28% for the Tories in the Euro poll is hardly landslide territory. The second is that the Tories' policies are remarkably poorly thought through, as BMA/Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley's bluster on Today this morning demonstrated, and once the media finally starts to scrutinise them, their lack of preparation may start to show.

But above all, the public needs to see a much more straight-talking group of ministers who are ready to level with them and to engage with them in a very different way. That is the biggest challenge facing Gordon Brown and the true test of whether MPs were right to give him the reprieve that he has won.

Monday 8 June 2009

What's up with the BBC's coverage of the European elections in Ireland?

In the midst of last night's BBC European election coverage, which was typically light on factual information particularly outside the UK, the Irish results got a brief mention.

Having miscalculated support for Declan Ganley, setting up a live feed from Castlebar in Co Mayo, they were bit bereft when he seemed unlikely to win a seat in Ireland North West. So, the programme presented an utterly absurd graphic of what was happening in the Republic's elections. A similar graphic has graced the BBC website for the best part of the last day.

If one is to believe the BBC, the following has happened:

* Fianna Fail has gained three seats, as its Liberal grouping is shown doing just that. Now it is true that FF is joining that grouping after these elections, so I suppose that's a gain. In fact Fianna Fail has lost one of its seats and 5.4% of its vote. However, Marian Harkin, an Independent in Ireland North West who sits with the Liberal group is also likely to hold her seat in spite of Ganley, so the Liberals will probably have four Irish seats.

* Fine Gael has lost 8% of the vote, as the EPP is shown doing that. In fact, its support in Europe is a little up on what it was last time, at 29%.

* The socialists are shown as having a gain of one seat. That is likely to happen with Nessa Childers in Ireland East, though Labour is still just ahead as counting continues for the third seat in Ireland South, so two gains are still possible.

* The Left is shown as having two seats. Joe Higgins in Dublin is certainly a gain for his Socialist Party. But since Sinn Fein lost their seat to him, the Left still has only one seat (if Labour doesn't take the third seat in Ireland South, Sinn Fein might do so, giving the Left two seats, though it is the less likely result).

For the record, the final result based on the latest counts is now likely to be as follows

Fine Gael/EPP 4 seats (-1)
Lab/Soc 3 seats (+2)
FF/Ind/Lib 4 seats (-1)
SP/Left 1 seat (nc)
Ind/Dem group 0 seats (-1)

I do wonder about the rest of the election material on the BBC's wizzo website?

9pm UPDATE: Labour's Alan Kelly has taken that seat in Ireland South, so my earlier projection was correct.

A bad day for mainstream democratic politics, but especially for Labour

The UK European election results are undoubtedly dire for Labour, especially those in Wales and the South of England. But they are not a good day for any of the three mainstream political parties either. For the Tories to get just 28% and the Lib Dems to do even worse than Labour at a time of such unprecedented unpopularity for Labour suggests a real anti-politics mood among the people. If David Cameron thinks his party were the 'clear winners' last night, he needs his head examined.

That the odious BNP now have two seats is bad. That the only slightly less extreme UKIP have increased their representation to come second is almost as bad. A quarter of people voted for far right wing anti-immigrant parties in Britain. The anti-politics fostered by the expenses saga has made this nearly as much a crisis for mainstream politics as it is for Labour. All the main parties have a duty to win these people back.

That said, Labour are undoubtedly the biggest losers and must find a way to reconnect. After all, the economy is starting to recover thanks to the measures taken by Alastair Darling and Gordon Brown. And Brown is right to say that any reconnection depends on the economy, democratic reform and the public services. But the party must realise that the shambolic disunity that has gripped Labour in recent weeks is as much a cause of decline as a product of it.

That is why Barry Sheerman is right to suggest that the leadership issue needs to be settled one way or another in the next week or so. And a secret ballot of the entire PLP is the best way to do it, given that no cabinet member is prepared to put themselves forward for a contest. Once that vote has been taken, there should either be a leadership election involving the whole party if the PM does not enjoy strong support among MPs or an end to the clamour for leadership change if he does. If he wins, Brown must have an absolutely clear strategy for the next year - based on the principles he set out at his Friday press conference - and get on with delivering it with the full support of the parliamentary party.

If we don't get a grip now, Labour will be the agents of our own destruction.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Some good news in Ireland's polls

With more depressing election news in Britain, as the European election results are declared, the Irish elections provide some good news both for Labour supporters and supporters of Europe. Declan Ganley looks likely to lose out in his bid for a seat for his Libertas party in Ireland North West (as Irish polls suggest that a second referendum will see Ireland accepting the Lisbon Treaty). And Labour looks likely to pick up a seat in the Ireland East, and has polled well in Ireland South. In Dublin, Sinn Fein seem set to lose a seat to a Trotskyist, Joe Higgins, depriving Fianna Fail of a seat in the capital. In council elections held on Thursday, Labour has consolidated its urban support, and is the largest party across Dublin and in Cork City. Fianna Fail has had its worst ever results, and its Green coalition partners have been virtually annihilated from local government.

This posting was picked up by the Guardian politics blog.

Saturday 6 June 2009

The short and pointless life of DIUS

Amongst the results of yesterday's reshuffle was the abolition of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). The functions of the department, created a mere 23 months ago, have been merged into Peter Mandelson's burgeoning empire, and may be the better for it. But the rapid demise of a department created merely to allow Ed Balls to absorb a host of other departments' children's issues into his Department for Children, Schools and Families illustrates the sheer pointlessness of departmental restructuring.

The truth is that the Department for Education and Skills - which covered schools, nurseries, colleges, universities and training - was a perfectly coherent department, and one of the most successful in Whitehall, before the decision was made to split its functions into two departments and add a lot of non-educational functions to the new DCSF. Splitting the two made little sense - even if it brought science and innovation alongside further and higher education, as this blog made clear at the time, not least because further education faced dealing with two masters, but also because it made a nonsense of a vision for lifelong learning that had hitherto been a mainstay of government policy.

To be fair to John Denham, he has been a good secretary of state, and his promotion to communities secretary is deserved, even if his department has with the help of the Learning and Skills Council, presided over some very messy college funding crises. But by splitting the departments, Gordon Brown actually weakened the voice of universities and colleges in government. At least that weakness should be remedied with Lord Mandelson in charge. But wouldn't it have been a lot easier to have recreated, dare one say it, a Department for Education?

Friday 5 June 2009

Andrew Adonis is good news for transport

One truly bright light in the reshuffle is the promotion of Andrew Adonis to the position of transport secretary. In just over a year as the rail minister, he has advanced the transport agenda more than any other minister in the last two decades (privatisation hardly counts). Andrew is keen to see huge improvements to the rail network, building on the best international experience, and has already made a big start. His promotion is richly deserved.

This post has been picked up by the Railwayscene blog.

A sustainable reshuffle?

The big challenge of the reshuffle is its sustainability. It is certainly better for keeping Alastair Darling at the Treasury and promoting Alan Johnson to the Home Office. I am sceptical of the Sir Alan Sugar promotion, and fear it may be as lasting as that of Digby Jones, though it brings star quality to the line-up.

But it is weakened by keeping Ed Balls at schools - where the Department has drifted under his leadership with its attempts to cover the gamut of children's policy at the expense of schools - and by the hugely important loss of some excellent ministers including James Purnell, John Hutton and Beverley Hughes (the children's minister).

The fact that several of those identified as Blairites retain positions of power helps, with Andy Burnham promoted to health. But I do wonder whether Barry Sheerman was not right in offering Gordon Brown a way settling the leadership question once and for all. Without a vote of confidence from his MPs, the doubts may simply remain.

A reshuffle is not enough of itself. The Government now needs to show vision, strategy and a sense of purpose over the next ten months. This is important not just on the economy and democratic reform, but across the public services. If Ed Balls is staying at schools, he needs to stop allowing the Tories to wrap themselves in the mantle of Labour academies. Andy Burnham has some genuine dividing lines with the Tories on health, and it is vital that Yvette Cooper doesn't allow the excellent work of James Purnell at work and pensions to drift. There must also be renewed vigour from Alan Johnson at the Home Office on crime and policing. There must also be some candour on public expenditure.

Most ministers have decided to stick with Gordon Brown, and it is highly unlikely that there will be any change at the top between now and the general election. Every minister has a clear duty to show why it matters that Labour is in power - and what the tough decisions are that need to be made. That is their challenge for the months ahead. The future of the Labour Party is in their hands.

A version of this appears on the Progress website.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

A good performance from Gordon at PMQs

If ever there was a day when Gordon Brown needed a good performance at PMQs, this was it. And he delivered against a relatively lacklustre David Cameron.

Whether he survives the coming days remains to be seen, given talk of a backbench campaign to promote Alan Johnson. The resignation of Hazel Blears is a loss to his cabinet, despite the likelihood that she would have been moved. However, the PM also has rather more room for manoeouvre in a reshuffle than he had before, and if he uses it wisely, he could come through all this. But if he doesn't, the pressure will increase.

But Brown is right to highlight the absence of any policy from the Tories. Whatever happens, this failure of substance needs to be corrected before any general election. We need to know what the Tories plan to do - and how - on many policy areas. If they don't address this deficit, the Tories will find this becomes a serious issue after the agenda moves on from the expenses saga.

Is this man really up to being Home Secretary?

The papers are full of sour assessments of Jacqui Smith's tenure at the Home Office. Yet her handling of the only major security crisis i her tenure was exemplary. And despite having half her department taken over by Jack Straw, she more than held her own in dealing with the day-to-day crises that overpower home secretaries. Where she was let down was in being forced by Downing Street to rerun the 42-day detention saga, without the necessary support, and in a failure to engage with the unelected pundits who decide whether you're any good or not. In her ten years as a minister, her talents shone through to those who saw her in action (as in dealing with the 2005 Schools Bill) but she was dealt a difficult hand with a castrated Home Office that always made her task that bit harder.

But I defy anyone who criticises Jacqui Smith to explain how her Conservative alternative, Chris Grayling, would be an improvement. Where David Davis set the standard for opposition, and Dominic Grieve had at least a decent pedigree in human rights, Chris Grayling's dull ineptitude is another indictment of David Cameron's personnel judgment. Can anyone think of a single thing Grayling has said of note since he took on the job? Grayling's inability to string a few gracious words together yesterday - in contrast to his Lib Dem opposite number - beyond the patronising repetition of Smith being 'a woman' sits ill with anyone who has hopes of high office. How, exactly, is this man supposed to think on his feet in a post that moves from crisis to crisis with unerring regularity?

The idea that he might be our Home Secretary is truly shocking.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

MPs wanted: no human beings need apply

It may not be fashionable to say so, but the news that Jacqui Smith and Alastair Darling are likely to be out of the cabinet as a result of the never-ending expenses saga is a cause for concern rather than rejoicing. I have known both for a long time, and I know both to be able, dedicated, honest people, who came into politics to make a difference and have been talented ministers in their time with the Labour government - I know in particular how much difference Jacqui made on schools policy, and her talents are sorely missed at education these days. But Jacqui has stronger support in Redditch than people think, as her result in 2005 (where there was no swing against Labour) showed and I hope she can keep her seat.

But there is a wider point here. The BBC poll today tells us that half the public thinks that at least half of MPs' are 'corrupt'. And there is no doubt that the last month has been a positive boon for the white van man/saloon bar world view, harnessed by the BNP/UKIP axis no doubt to shocking proportions this Thursday.

In the process, nobody wants to stand up for politicians. Of course, there are a few who have milked the system shamelessly and they deserve whatever they get. (I don't believe that includes either Darling or Smith - as both got caught out primarily because of a 2004 rule change affecting ministers and their designation of second home). Most MPs claimed allowances to which they were told they were entitled, and were not trying to milk the system.

And the Telegraph coverage has now lost all sense of proportion: listening to Frank Cook's apology for a claim (that was rejected) for a £5 church donation ending up in the Fees Office did not suggest someone trying to fiddle the system but an MP whose office has patently made a silly mistake. He did not deserve to see his 26 years in parliament turned into a piece of faux Sunday newspaper outrage. Was this really Sunday's biggest news?

Fewer and fewer people were willing to enter politics for the money, even with the allowances as they were. Most of those across all parties have worked for years, often at considerable personal cost, building up local support to become an MP because they believe in democratic politics and the contribution they might make to their community or causes.

They work incredibly hard in their constituencies dealing with expectations that have grown as their collective reputation has declined. As David Aaronovitch says today, if they are guilty of anything, it is not realising the impact of what John Keane calls 'monitory democracy' - the onslaught of Freedom of Information, the Internet, 24 hour news and new technology. Few of the political giants of the past would stand a day's scrutiny under this system, let alone years of it.

So, there will be changes to the systems of expenses, and there may be some democratic reforms too - though they should be done with cross-party support, not the shameless self-interest of some party leaders. But in the end we still need people to want to become MPs because we need people who are willing to make huge sacrifices to their personal life (and for most, becoming an MP means you have little time for much else) to do so.

What we are now likely to get as a result of the relentless assault of the last month are humourless self-righteous sorts who are, of course, incapable of making the slightest mistake. In such circumstances, the only person who would want to be an MP is someone with no hinterland or human frailties, or an egomaniac extremist who plays to the populist mood.

If people don't think much of our current MPs, just wait until they see what comes next.

This post was picked up by the Local Democracy blog.