Wednesday 30 September 2009

Through the media lens

Of course, it matters that Labour will not have the backing of the Sun at the next general election - even if their 'verdict' is based on a wilful distortion of Labour's record. (100,000 more primary pupils each year get good reading or maths scores, for example, and the proportion gaining five good GCSEs including English and Maths is a third up on 1997. And since those improvements reflect differential improvements in different social classes, ethnic groups and schools, they cannot be lazily attributed to 'grade inflation'.)

But it is also the case that the support of the paper has been lukewarm since the 2005 poll and virtually non-existent since Tony Blair stepped down. But what is perhaps as interesting is to see the reaction that ordinary people who actually watched Gordon Brown's speech yesterday had to it, before they were told what to think by their newspapers.

YouGov have been doing some interesting conference polling, and they found a remarkably strong instant reaction among those who saw the speech. 63% of those who watched it rated it a 'good' or 'excellent' speech. 50% of people thought the PM was doing well as PM and 51% rated him a capable leader. This shows how important it is that Gordon Brown and his ministers find more ways to get their message across to voters through live broadcast events, unmediated by the commentariat. Cue lots of TV debates, then.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Gordon draws the election battle lines

Gordon Brown had to give it his all in today's Labour conference speech. He was much more relaxed than he has been for several years, and his speech had a thematic fluency and flow that has too often been lacking in Brown speeches of late.

Starting with a well-paced reminder of Labour's greatest hits, he posited the challenges and choices that face him and the country in an unusually long attack on the Tories. "Times of great challenge mean choices of great consequence," was a good line, and helps underline exactly how he dealt with the economic crisis in ways that the Tories would not have done. He also made a good effort to link the ideology of the collapse to that of the Conservatives. This was a sharp and fierce attack on the judgments of David Cameron and his front bench team, and sets the scene for a strong counterattack in the months ahead.

But what is more important to voters is knowing what Labour would do in the next five years, if it were re-elected. And the idea that this would be the first Labour government of the post-recession age was a good one. Linking himself to British innovation and a green economy helped give that legs (even with a crowd-pleasing nod to the Post Office). Pledging to increase school spending brought clarity after Ed Balls's recent announcement, which was always about recycling existing funds.

But it was his plans for tough love and an attack on anti-social behaviour that could make most difference. State homes for single mums and the new family intervention project with 50,000 families could, if it is allowed to work, make a huge difference to crime, education and welfare bills, and the evidence from Dundee is compelling. Both cancer test maximum waits and more personal care were both provide strong vote-winning policies.

Brown's embrace of alternative voting is welcome and long overdue, and making a commitment to a referendum in the next parliament could put Cameron on the spot. With plans for further Lords reform and parliamentary recalls, there is real substance on the political reform agenda.

Overall, a clearer embrace of the mainstream majority is welcome. It needs to be followed through in a new language from all ministers, so that voters see very clearly the choices on offer at the next election. There needs to be a much sharper link to public service reform in the months ahead - but reform which recognises that minimum standards and choice go together.

In the end, this was a well-judged speech by Brown which laid out the choices better than he has done before and which showed how wrong the commentariat are to write him off. He may be criticised for too many spending pledges, but provided they are matched by genuine savings elsewhere, they will have credibility. By giving the level of detail he has on policy, he also presents a challenge to Cameron next week to do the same. The speech was never going to be a game-changer. But there is more than enough here to start making the battle a serious contest again. And that's as much as could expect.

Poll position?

The BBC has been reporting an Ipsos-Mori poll showing Labour lagging the Liberal Democrats on the 25-27 September, not for the first time, as Anthony Wells points out. I have no wish to underestimate the challenge facing the party, but why did it not also report a more recent daily tracking poll from YouGov conducted on 27-28 September suggesting Labour is ten points ahead of the LibDems, having risen five points at the start of the conference? The BBC should either resume their former habit of ignoring polls, or avoid picking and choosing the ones that suit their narrative.

Germans and Irish give Cameron a conference headache

In a week which started with the re-election of a conservative giant, Angela Merkel, and which seems set to finish with a Yes vote in the Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum, David Cameron's Conservatives will go into their party conference with their European policy in tatters.

The re-election of a leading Christian Democrat like Angela Merkel ought to have been a cause for celebration for the Conservatives. Instead, having exiled their own moderates, they are stuck in the European Parliament with a ragbag of Nazi-commemorating Latvians and Polish homophobes, trying to discover the cigarette paper that separates them from the golfclub bores of UKIP.

Meanwhile, assisted by a mad combination of Nigel Farage, Sinn Fein and far-right anti-abortionists, Ireland looks likely to vote Yes to Europe. As Peter Preston pointed out yesterday, Euroscepticism is not the default position in the Republic, and last year's No vote reflected a combination of misinformation by No campaigners and poor presentation by the Yes side.

All of which threatens to expose the loopiness of Cameron's position just as he starts his party conference. He can no longer go on wishing that the Treaty will fall - the likelihood is that the Czechs will sign by Christmas. As David Aaronovitch says this morning, the German courts have already somehow failed to live up to their allotted role in this regard.

So, can we now look forward to a revival of John Major's greatest hits as Cameron and William Hague have to explain how they will de-ratify a Treaty that has been ratified - or, more likely, explain to the wide-eyed Europhobes who have been holding their tongue until now that the game is up? I do hope Kenneth Clarke is around to help explain it all to us next week.

Monday 28 September 2009

The Labour Party has learned to love Peter

Peter Mandelson received a well-deserved ovation from the party conference this afternoon for a brilliant morale-boosting speech. I first worked with Peter back in the 1987 election, when I was a press officer during the campaign, and have always being impressed by his skill and political judgment. Today's speech was just what the party needed to hear in the midst of a media narrative that has written the party off for next year's election. We need to set a clear sense of what a Labour government would do for the future, as well as showing where we have delivered in the past. As the BBC reports, he said:
"You win elections on the future not the past. This will be a change election. Either we offer it or the British public will turn to others who say they do." The new Labour project, which Lord Mandelson helped devise in the early 1990s, was "far from complete", he insisted. He said Labour needed to "explain with confidence, clarity and conviction" the differences between it and the Conservatives, saying the election was "still up for grabs".....Labour would win the next election if "we show the British people that we have not lost the fighting spirit and appetite for change".

Andrew Marr's descent into the gutter

It is quite extraordinary to hear the justifications being made for Andrew Marr's decision to ask Gordon Brown whether he took pills for depression yesterday, even after the rumours spread on some blogs had been categorically denied by Downing Street. I am astonished that my old friend Barney Jones, who edits the programme, thought this fair game. This was the sort of gutter journalism from which the programme is usually immune, and its absence is one reason I watch the programme fairly religiously.

The sole purpose of the question was to embarrass the Prime Minister and ensure that any headlines in today's newspapers focused on this issue rather than what was otherwise a strong interview by the PM with a good policy announcement on the banks attached to it. As Alastair Campbell put it on his blog:
I know it will give him the passing satisfaction of pats on the back from journos whose backs he pats when they come on to do their 'excellent, as ever' reviews of the papers. But it was low stuff. I'm sure Andrew would agree that everyone has certain areas of their life that they'd prefer not to be asked about live on TV.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Entertaining Angels

To see Entertaining Angels, a sparky, poignant and very English comedy, running this week at Bath Theatre Royal. The story of a vicar's widow who in the midst of her discussions with her late husband's ghost is stunned to learn a dark secret about his past and their marriage. It is a story with echoes in that of the new vicar, a young woman who is ready to take over the vicarage.

Penelope Keith is superb as Grace, the spiky widow, and she has strong support from an excellent cast, including Polly Adams as her sister, a missionary who supposedly has come home to comfort her and Benjamin Whitrow as the late vicar.

There is a marvellously evocative set of a vicarage garden, complete with a small stream and real plants. But the best thing about the play - aside from Keith - is Richard Everett's script which is punchy, witty and philosophical in equal measure. It is on tour this year and may reach the West End in 2010, where it deserves to be a hit.

Getting Labour strategy and policy right

I'm not sure what Charles Clarke thought he was contributing to the pre-conference debate with his intervention in the Evening Standard yesterday. Yet, behind Clarke's tirade, there is actually a pretty good analysis in his lecture to Progress last night of the strategy that is needed if Labour is to recover at least some of its position between now and polling day.

He argues, for example, that the government must do more to promote and explain our record. For example, news that the number of secondaries where fewer than 30% of pupils gain five good GCSEs including English and Maths has fallen from 1600 (or half of all secondaries) in 1997 to 270 this year was obscured by stories that a third of academies (those drawn from the weakest schools) hadn't yet made it. That level of reducing failure is unprecedented and shows why floor targets like this and maximum waiting times are so crucial to reform.

And Clarke makes a good point in arguing that we need an honest dialogue about what has worked and what hasn't, including on the economy, and why: our experience in government should be an asset rather than a liability.

Clarke also argues that Labour should not only set out a clear policy programme and vision, forcing the Conservatives to set out their approach by being utterly candid about ours. And he rightly argues that we need to do more to show that we intend to change the way politics work, something echoed in some sharp thinking from James Purnell, now ensconsed at Demos after his mistimed pre-shuffle resignation earlier in the summer. In an article for Progress he not only makes some good points about politics today and its relationship with the voters, he also makes some practical suggestions about remedying this deficit.

He argues for a much wider range of people becoming MPs including selection primaries, with registered supporters entitled to vote and tough limits on spending. He says that we need to become more open about disagreement, too, especially with freedom of information:
politicians need to find ways of closing the gap between what they say and what they truly believe, as this is essential if the public are to be engaged in the choices and trade-offs of politics.
He then argues for complete reform of the House of Lords, with elected Peers given the task of amending legislation. The government could only overturn amendments on a two-thirds majority. (Though I wonder whether this would simply spell US-style gridlock). And he argues for proper electoral reform. To spread power, we should strengthen local democracy, give people power to choose who delivers the public services they use, and enable them to solve common problems by coming together through associations of civil society.

This would be supported by an end to large donations to political parties - a cap on annual donations in the hundreds of pounds rather than the £50,000 that Cameron wants - with 100% tax relief on the smallest donations, quickly tapering out to encourage parties to seek small amounts of money from the many rather than larger amounts from the few. Parties would once again require hundreds of thousands of supporters rather than hundreds of thousand-pound donors. Trade union block grants would be replaced by affiliation and individual donations. And we should bite the bullet of state funding for political parties.
The lesson of the expenses scandal is that if you leave a closed, even occasionally corrupt, system unreformed, you will eventually end up with a catastrophe for politics
These are the sort of debates and contributions we need in the run-up to the party conference, but they might be more productive with fewer noises off.

Monday 21 September 2009

A solution to Nick Clegg's tuition fees dilemma

It is a bit like Life on Mars listening to the World at One, and all those Liberal Democrats pretending that tuition fees are not a successful fact of life. Their debates are like those in the Labour Party that preceded the actual introduction of tuition fees; the only difference is that we now have hard evidence of their impact.

One objector complains that fees have stopped lots of young people going to university: yet the problem faced by universities has been precisely the opposite, in that so many want to do so. Numbers rose 8 or 9 per cent a year in spite of fees. Even the National Union of Students now favours a graduate tax. But since his party clearly has so much trouble coming to terms with reality, I have a solution for Nick Clegg.

The Liberal Democrat leader wants to pretend that his abandonment of this principled attempt to secure a few university seats for his party will be delayed rather than abandoned. Fair enough. But does he really need to present it quite so negatively? All he needs to say is that the Liberal Democrats will scrap tuition fees once they win a majority in the House of Commons. Surely all Liberal Democrats can sign up to that one.

The future of tuition fees

Coverage of today's report from the CBI on higher education illustrates the gulf that exists between the general public and the university sector on the future of tuition fees. The idea that the maximum fee might rise to £5000 a year is at the lower end of vice-chancellors' hopes and expectations, and is the likely post-election conclusion of a review on fees due to be established soon by Lord Mandelson.

There has also been a long-standing argument for an end to the subsidised loan. But for this to gain acceptance there would need to be better understanding of how graduates currently repay the costs of their fees and maintenance post-graduation. They only do so on income above £1250 a month or £15000 a year, at a rate of 9% on that extra income. Unlike credit card debts or bank loans, they don't pay anything where their income falls below the threshold. So a graduate earning £25,000 a year would pay £900 back that year. If a real rate of interest were charged on loans, much more money would be raised for universities, and graduates might have to make repayments for longer, but the impact on their deductions would be unchanged.

None of this is ever properly explained. Instead we are left with figures of 'student debt' which lump credit card bills and student loans together. Yet remarkably, the National Union of Students has now embraced a graduate tax, which would be an even greater and longer burden on higher earning graduates.

But if the CBI's key proposals are to be adopted - I'm not convinced about the need to stop striving for greater participation, given recent OECD data, though the 50% target will obviously not be met in 2010 - two conditions should be met by business and universities.

The first is that instead of vague promises that employers should contribute to university courses, there is a proper signed commitment brokered by the CBI to make this real. Larger businesses should agree to sponsor a minimum number of students each year, depending on their firm's size. These would be on courses agreed with the universities. I would argue for a levy, except that they were largely useless in the seventies.

The second is that universities do far more to provide a better quality teaching experience for students, with proper teaching throughout the year, and improved facilities. Those courses that don't do so should become clear in the National Student Survey, and could in somew circumstances be required to refund a portion of the fees.

If this happens, there should be no argument about the idea of higher fees and a reduced subsidy on loans. But those that want to see the change do also need to make a much better job of explaining student finance and why they need the money.

UPDATE: I've also blogged at Public Finance here on how education is no longer sacrosanct in the public spending cuts debate.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Secrets, lies and grown-up politics

George Osborne has a rather shabby piece in today's Mail on Sunday accusing Gordon Brown of lying over planned spending cuts. Yet the economically illiterate Osborne has been caught by the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies - so often cited by David Cameron - either telling massive porkies of his own or being asleep on the job, as he tried to claim that figures in the public domain about projected tax receipts as a result of growth were a secret plan to put 3p on taxation.

Meanwhile, having expressed a relish for savage cuts, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was impressively evasive on this morning's Andrew Marr show about what it would all mean. He couldn't even bring himself to pledge to keep tuition fees, one of the most progressive changes introduced by the Labour government, because as Charles Kennedy effectively admitted on the same show, it had been useful in hoodwinking student voters in some university seats.

But perhaps the most remarkable intervention of the day is from the schools secretary Ed Balls, who has been thinking imaginatively about using federations and sharing senior staff, as well as keeping teachers' pay in check, to drive down costs. While the Sunday Times suggests this is about secondary schools, it is particularly valuable in small rural primaries, which cannot sustain or often cannot find a head for each school. Whether this is easy to introduce given the relative independence of state schools remains to be seen, and its desirability will be questioned in some cases, but at least it has the merit of honesty in a debate that has been characterised by people shouting 'liar' at the opponents whilst claiming honesty for their own imprecision.

Yet, when this idea is put to Honest Nick Clegg, who surely knows exactly what Balls means, all he can do is throw about silly accusations about damaging children's lives. What people want from Clegg and Osborne is a sense of where they believe savings could be made. And they then want those things debated on their merits. The yah-booh-sucks politics of previous elections - of which I know Balls was an advocate until some months ago and from which Vince Cable is often impressively immune - has little place in these straitened times. It is time that all those engaged in the political debate realised it and treated us all like grown-ups.

Thursday 17 September 2009

How the BMA wants to prevent prevention

Andy Burnham, the health secretary, has provided further evidence of life in the Labour government today with a sharp reformist speech on the NHS. His headline plan to allow patients to register with whichever GP they wish is a good one, not least for commuters who otherwise have to give up half a day to see a doctor.

The BMA's spokesman Dr Laurence Buckman generously is not opposing the idea outright - after all their lead parliamentary spokesman claims the idea as his own - but has helpfully presented lots of difficulties, as the BBC reported.
"What will happen to their practice if they're destabilised, because some of the younger, healthier patients have gone elsewhere?" [he said] The union says that a mix of patients, some of them not visiting their doctor often, helps general practice to be cost-effective. It warns that if younger people register near their workplaces, some practices could be left with patient lists mainly composed of those with long-term conditions and complex illness.
In other words, we are being paid to have lots of people on our books who can never see us because it is too inconvenient for them to do so. We must stop them from seeing doctors near where they work even if it prevents them getting more serious illnesses, so that we can continue doing things the way we always have done, with our generous new contract.

Andy Burnham must make sure this plan is in place ahead of the next election - in the interests of the health of all those people who work and pay taxes to cover GPs' salaries

Monday 14 September 2009

Will Ganley's return really boost Ireland's No Vote?

Much talk today about the return to the referendum fray in Ireland of Libertas leader Declan Ganley. Clearly the alliance between UKIP, pro-lifers and Sinn Fein against the Lisbon Treaty isn't working out as well as intended. And the mad Cóir posters suggesting that the minimum wage would be slashed as Ireland uniquely was forced to emulate Romanian pay rates, have been thoroughly discredited. No wonder the Yes vote lead has been hardening after a brief scare last week. But in their excitement about his return, have No campaigners really forgotten what happened the last time Ganley put himself before the electorate?

Mandelson sets a reformist tone for pre-election debate

A very good speech from Peter Mandelson in the Progress event at the LSE today. He rightly emphasised Labour's reform record and credentials, and cleverly set up serious dividing lines with the Conservatives over minimum standards.

There was much talk of academies and foundation trusts, and a sensible exposition of the differences between the two parties on the role of the state, not least on issues like minimum waiting times for treatment. By providing such context, he has made it much easier to explain the different approaches between the parties to savings and cuts that will be needed in the future.

We start from a position of credibility given that the big success story of British social democracy in the last twelve years has been the rescue, revival, and rehabilitation of public services as a vital part of our national life. Britain's welfare state and public services survived the Thatcher/Major era – but only just.

Since 1997 Labour has, in effect, saved the NHS, transformed educational standards and dramatically widened access to educational opportunity. These achievements are now taken for granted, almost discounted by those to the right and left of us. It has led to public service innovation, with the introduction and dramatic expansion of Sure Start and Children's Centres, for example, and modernised the delivery of existing services with for example, the establishment of NHS Trusts and academies.

And all this has required a huge injection of additional cash. The New Labour mantra of "invest and reform" summed up a policy which has seen public spending on the NHS double in real terms since we took office. Per pupil funding in schools has also doubled. At the same time public service delivery has been opened up to a diversity of providers with a new range of choice for patients, parents and service users.

So, while the headlines may be about belt-tightening, the subtext is a much more important repositioning of the Labour argument towards a reform agenda, and away from the rather unproductive early efforts to appease its leftwing critics.
Labour, then, have always been committed "state reformers" and should feel no nervousness about the label. Rather, today's challenges require us to accelerate the pace of reform......The way forward is not to get rid of individual service entitlements as the Tories propose. It is to set a framework that allies these entitlements that the public rightly expects to the creation of a greater space for our public servants in how they deliver the services for which they are responsible.

To be fair, Ed Balls, who has been criticised for his attitude to reform, effectively pre-empted this repositioning with his academies blitz last week, as Mandelson reminds us. Alastair Darling has already shifted the spending argument and Andy Burnham at health is a strong reformer by instinct.

Once the argument is coherently and consistently framed again in these terms, Labour is in a stronger position to deal with the details of Michael Gove's school proposals and the vacuousness of BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley's health policy. This speech could prove to be a very important turning-point in the pre-election debate.

Friday 11 September 2009

A sense of proportion over school dinner ladies

I agree with Mark Easton and Michael White about the impact of the new vetting rules for those working with children and vulnerable adults. As a school governor, I have had to have checks by the now defunct Criminal Records Bureau. To be fair, it wasn't all that arduous a procedure, but the climate of suspicion being created is crazy and potentially counterproductive.

The new system already seems slower and more bureaucratic than the CRB. Schools find it particularly difficult recruiting native language teachers from abroad, as their vetting takes longer, and a backlog is emerging with the new procedures now that councils are in charge. And they will find it harder to get volunteers not just as governors but for many of the functions that characterise today's extended school.

Yet the problem as always is that officials and politicians want to play safe. It is a brave minister who tells a civil servant only to bother with the most obvious threats, rather than seeking to cover all bases. I have sat in many meetings where the wish to regulate against every eventuality was the default position. And why might this be so?

Step forward, Her Majesty's Press. Of course, the notion that every formal car pool or PTA volunteer needs to be vetted is an absurd over-reaction. But imagine what the media would say if the next Ian Huntley were a school governor or school-sanctioned car pooler, and documents were FOI-ed showing that Jim Hacker had decided NOT TO vet governors or car-poolers because he wanted to exercise a sense of proportion, against the advice of Sir Humphrey.

To get a flavour of this, you only need to look at what one newspaper said last year when it emerged that some dinner ladies might have slipped through the CRB net:
More than 13,000 people working with children have not passed security checks introduced by the Government in the wake of the Soham murders. The unchecked employees include teachers, caretakers, dinner ladies and lollipop men. The revelation raises the possibility that sex offenders may have slipped through the net.
Surely this newspaper is not the same Daily Mail that is lambasting ministers because of the scope of the vetting measures? As James Slack, the Mail's Home affairs editor puts it today:
It will also extend the reach beyond people who hold positions of responsibility, to anybody who comes into regular contact with the vulnerable. This is classified as once a month, or three times in a single 30 day period. As a result, school dinner ladies, governors, parents who transport children on behalf of sports clubs and even volunteers who read books in schools or nurseries will be dragged into the net. If they perform their voluntary work without clearance, they too could be hammered with a £5,000 fine and criminal record.

You just don't know where you are with school dinner ladies, do you?

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul and by Stumbling and Mumbling.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Selfless gerrymandering is not political reform

I'm sure the tabloids will applaud David Cameron for his plans to cut ministerial salaries and raise the price of a pint in the Commons. But anyone who seriously cares about our democracy must worry about his selfless plans to entrench a Tory government by cutting the number of MPs from 645 to 585 and neutering the independent body charged with policing political shenanigans.

If he were seriously concerned about making politics more relevant, he would embrace electoral reform. But then, as with his tabloid-friendly humiliation of one of the more human characters on his front bench, this isn't about serious reform. It is just about making Cameron look good for a day's headlines. But he will soon find that a good day's headlines today can be a big headache tomorrow, especially if he does make it to No 10.

Monday 7 September 2009

Wogan as he was

As Terry Wogan announces his retirement from his breakfast slot on Radio 2, I was amused to come across this clip in the excellent RTE archives website: he is describing the scene outside Trinity College in Dublin as they await President Kennedy's motorcade in June 1963, where JFK was on a four day visit to Ireland.

Talking up academies

Today's announcement that sponsorship requirements will be relaxed for new academy promoters reflects a significant shift in the direction of the programme over the last few years. More academies are being sponsored by universities, FE colleges and other schools than before, and it has been unrealistic to ask them for the £2 million that a philanthropist or corporation might have been willing to contribute. Moreover, the £2m has more recently become an endowment rather than a capital contribution, as academies are built through the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Contrary to popular mythology, neither of these developments represented a 'new direction' after Tony Blair stepped down. Both were approved before then, and were seen by Andrew Adonis as a way of expanding the programme more rapidly. The key issue for sponsors should be the extent to which they engage in school life more than the depth of their pockets. So, provided a strong commitment of personnel and support comes with sponsorship, these changes should be an opportunity rather than a hindrance to academies.

With academies showing a remarkable five point leap in GCSE results - including English and Maths - this year, three times the average improvement of all schools last year, it is clear that the programme has come of age. Of course, there are one or two academies that have not initially worked. It would be extraordinary if there were not. But the key point which the teaching unions need to recognise is that, taken as a whole, this is now proving to be the single most successful intervention in inner city schools of any government in recent times. The churlishness of ATL general secretary Mary Bousted on Today this morning was unbecoming, though, to be fair, she is on the moderate wing of union opinion on academies.

The real significance of today's announcement was the welcome willingness of Ed Balls, the schools secretary, to start talking up this success. And when he did so, his Tory opposite number Michael Gove was left uncharacteristically floundering for something sensible to say.

UPDATE: I've also written about academies at the Public Finance blog. This posting has also been picked up by Progress Online.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Broken Embraces

To see Pedro Almodóvar’s latest outing for his favourite femme fatale, Penelope Cruz, last night. Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos) has a disjointed feel at first - it flits between events in 1992 and today, as it follows the fortunes of a film-maker who has been blinded as a result of a gradually evolving and occasionally surprising series of events. Critics have said this is the great Spanish director's most self-reflective film to date, which it is, though some have argued that it veers towards self-indulgence. I disagree. This is a good film, beautifully filmed, especially on Lanzarote, and with a captivating performance by Cruz and strong performances by all the other principals, particularly Lluís Homar as the blinded director Mateo Blanco and José Luis Gómez as the ruthless businessman and author of Blanco's misfortunes. The plot may be labyrinthine, but it is also wholly engrossing. And while it may not be a masterpiece like Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown or Talk to Her, it is ultimately a fine celebration of the redeeming power of cinema. Almodóvar fans will not be disappointed.

Thursday 3 September 2009

City damns lightweight Osborne

This blog has always felt that would-be Chancellor George Osborne rivals his shadow cabinet colleague BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley for the sheer fatuousness of his public statements. It would seem I am not alone. The new Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson, explains what the City thinks of him, in a pretty damning column this week.
Financiers who attend his soirees grumble that it is all politics and no economics. When asked about economics, I am told, he becomes rather glum and evasive. But when asked about political strategy, his face lights up. There are no specific policies causing the City particular concern, but rather a general impression, which one hears repeatedly in the City, that the soon-to-be-chancellor has no expertise — and not even much interest — in the job he is about to inherit.

Fianna Fail's lesson in unpopularity

If the PM is feeling sorry for himself, he might draw a moment's comfort that his position is not as bad as that of the once dominant Fianna Fail party and its hapless leader Brian Cowen in Ireland.

A poll in today's Irish Times puts Fianna Fail on just 17% of the vote, seven points behind Ireland's Labour Party and 17 points behind Fine Gael. Even worse, the FF-Green Coalition government has a net satisfaction rating of -74%, with even 50% of the died in the wool FF loyalists fed up with Cowen's performance. 75% of people want an election now, though unless the Greens pull the plug they are unlikely to get one.

Like Brown, Cowen was finance minister under his predecessor Bertie Ahern. But his truly appalling performances on TV and on public occasions make Brown seem like a supreme communicator. When I was in Ireland in August, I encountered an extraordinary degree of universal loathing there is for Fianna Fail and Cowen, where previously one would encounter as many supporters as detractors for the party.

But there is evidence eveywhere of the effects of the recession, from half-completed developments to bargains (at least in Irish terms) in the property market. Public servants have taken enforced pay cuts, and (probably quite sensible) government plans to set up a bad bank for the debts of Irish banks attract almost universal scepticism. I suggested some months ago that we might be seeing the death of Fianna Fail as the remarkable nationalist and populist force created by DeValera in 1926. This poll suggests the destiny of Dev's soldiers is to become Ireland's third party - if they're lucky.

UPDATE: The Greens are clearly getting jittery.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

The amorality of diplomacy

David Miliband was not at his best on the Today programme this morning as he tried to explain the Government's position on Libya and the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi. In part, this was due to the inexplicable failure of Gordon Brown to explain the Government's position clearly.

It would seem to be this. First, it is good that Libya has given up WMDs and terrorism, and is now co-operative with rather than antipathetic to western nations, particularly Britain. Second, there are important trade interests with Libya, including oil. Third, while the Government was not actively seeking the release of al-Meghrahi, nor was it going to stand in the way of a Scottish government doing so either as part of the prison transfer arrangements or on compassionate grounds. By saying that Brown didn't want his death in prison, Bill Rammell was simply saying this. After all, it was a Scottish decision. The fourth point that hasn't been made as strongly as it should is a clear reiteration of abhorrence about the Lockerbie bombing and its horrendous death toll, and its perpetrator, which is why relatives are so angry about the Scottish decision.

But, that said, this is a defensible if uncomfortable position for the UK government to take, not least because Libya's abandonment of terrorism and WMDs has probably saved many lives. The problem has been that the government has not made its case, at least until yesterday, or attempted to defend it, particularly in the United States, a country that has rarely been shy in advancing national trade or security interests, even under Barack Obama.

Of course, it is abhorrent that al-Meghrahi has been released. But does anybody believe for a minute that if St Dave gets his hands on the keys to No 10 he would not act as Bill Rammell did in similar circumstances? It was noticeable that Cameron did not properly answer Jim Naughtie's question this morning, asking whether faced with a Libyan question as to whether the UK government wanted al-Megrahi to die in a British prison, in a situation where vital security and trade interests were at stake, he would say 'of course I do' rather than use a more diplomatic form of words. Of course, he wouldn't, as David Blackburn points out at the Spectator. Cameron, too, needs to level with the public.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

The success of Mossbourne

John Rentoul rightly highlighted reports of the success of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney in this, the first year that its pupils were old enough to do GCSEs. Having spent a day visiting the remarkable school in the company of its no-nonsense head Sir Michael Wilshaw, I am not surprised by the academy's success. One crucial feature that other schools - particularly in inner city areas - might draw upon is the separate Year 7, where pupils are kept apart from older pupils as they adjust to the huge changes that transition brings. Academies are one of Labour's great education success stories, and are directly addressing the failure of schools to show ambition in poorer areas. Mossbourne had become the poster boy for the movement before this year's GCSE results. Now - as the 34th highest achieving non-selective school in the country (based on 5 A-C incl English and Maths) - it is a reputation that has truly been earned.