Friday 29 January 2010

Humanitarianism and the Iraq Inquiry

To the surprise of few, Tony Blair has made a robust case to the Chilcot inquiry for his decision to join the Americans in the invasion of Iraq. His presence reminds us of what we have lost. That we have learnt not much new should be no surprise to anyone. We have had several previous inquiries. But it is still useful to be reminded of two things: we've had lots of process discussion, but Blair has made clear that in the end this was a matter of his making a decision, whatever one's subsequent view of it. And we need Prime Ministers who can take decisions.

But the second point is the context of Blair's own experience, as set out in the 1999 Chicago speech, but also enacted in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, both of which would be illegal in the eyes of those who believe that any action not supported by China and Russia should never take place. I was not in no 10 at the time, so merely observed the debate from outside. But I personally was never entirely convinced of the way the WMD argument was deployed, while believing that Saddam should go not only because of the threat he posed to the region but also to his own people. At the time, I remember thinking that the strongest case made by Blair was a speech to the 2003 Labour spring conference where he used strong moral arguments to link the humanitarian to the WMD case. Blair's evidence to the inquiry that the aftermath planning was focused on humanitarian planning rather than unexpected Al Qaeda insurgency or Iranian-inspired terrorism was particularly interesting in this context.

When one remembers the 110,000 people who died as a result of the inaction in Bosnia of John Major and Bill Clinton or the million deaths as a result of the deplorable failure of the UN in Rwanda, it is to accept that we should never act to stop such murder, which is the corollary of what most of Blair's critics suggest. The real tragedy of the failings in the aftermath of the quick military victory, and the near-consensus in the West about what has resulted, is that it is likely to leave other genocidal leaders like Milosevic or Saddam to continue unfettered unless China changes the habits of a lifetime and opposes them.

This posting has been picked up by the keeptonyblairforpm blog

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Educational inequality has reduced with Labour

As if Lord Ashcroft's millions and the greatly inflated Short money were not enough, one sometimes thinks listening to the radio each morning that the Government feels it needs to do more to assist the Conservative election campaign, with today's inequalities report the latest contribution to the self-flagellating narrative of Labour 'failure'.

To be fair, the Harman/Hills report does acknowledge that some Labour programmes have had an effect, like tax credits and early years' policy. But little is said upfront about the impact of education programmes like the academies, excellence in cities and the national challenge. And the strongest evidence that Labour has narrowed the gap in GCSE achievement between social classes (though it does acknowledge changes with ethnic minorities) is buried on page 266 of the report and draws on information in the 2007 Youth Cohort Study.
Figure 10.3 shows trends in this level of achievement by parental occupational social class for children in England and Wales, between 1989 and 1998 using one classification, and from 2000 to 2006 using the classification we used in the last sixchapters (National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC)). In the first period, the gap between children with unskilled manual and with managerial/ professional parents widened from 40 to 49 percentage points, but in the second the gap between children with parents in routine and in higher professional occupations narrowed from 48 to 39 percentage points. So while this gap remains very wide (and we discuss in Chapter 6 how it develops over the school years), there are signs that it has narrowed a little in recent years.
Translated into plain English, what this means is that the poorest social group saw their GCSE results improve by 14 percentage points between 1999 and 2006 whereas the best off group saw only a six point rise. Indeed, the increase for lower professionals was 11 points and for lower supervisory groups twelve points. More recent figures - including last year's GCSE results allowing for free school meal take-up - suggest the gap has narrowed a bit further. By contrast, under the Tories there was a substantial widening of the gap in the years after the GCSE was introduced, with those in 'unskilled manual' groups seeing improvements less than half those of managerial/professional children. Hardly a sign of Labour failure, then.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Out of recession

This morning's news that Britain is finally out of recession is hardly a great surprise. And the rate of growth in the last quarter may have been low. But it is welcome news, despite David Cameron's best efforts to rubbish the Government over it yesterday. There is a lot talked about what was done wrong during this recession. But credit where it is due, a lot has also been done right. The banks were saved from collapse by an intervention that may be controversial now, but for which there was no alternative. Unemployment has not risen as high as most pundits expected, nor have there been the repossessions there were in the 90s. One reason for that is surely the successful way that many of our best run firms weathered the rececession. Of course, there is still a big problem with youth unemployment, and Gordon Brown's announcement yesterday should help. But had we taken Cameron and George Osborne's advice that we should not only have had no stimulus and no quantitative easing, but that we should have slashed spending eighteen months ago, this would certainly not have been the case.

I have no doubt that we need a clear plan to bring the budget deficit down over the next five years, and that the Budget should start to set it out. However, we must try to strike a balance between gaining the benefits from future growth - including tax revenues - and spending cuts. The idea that 17% cuts can be absorbed easily in many aspects of public spending is wishful thinking. Even the smaller than expected unemployment rate makes a difference to potential revenues. A little humility from Osborne and Cameron on this of all days might show that they had even a little understanding of this.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Obama's Massachusetts failure

Martha Coakley may be winning awards for ineptitude after her spectacular failure to hold onto Ted Kennedy's seat against the Republican insurgent Scott Brown in Massachusetts last night. And it would be hard to dream up a more inept candidate for a by-election (though some of us remember Labour's sterling efforts in the 1980s). But the result was not just a defeat for Coakley, it was a wake-up call to the White House about Obama's singular failure to communicate to middle America.

Looked at in policy terms, Obama has been a reasonably successful President. Viewed through the prism of foreign policy - aside from the Middle East - he has injected new respect for the USA. But with domestic voters, he has simply failed to engage on the issues that matter.

Healthcare is clearly the issue that has mobilised so much anger and suspicion. Of course it is bizarre that Massachusetts, with far more 'socialised' medicine than Obama's latest plans, should be exercised by this. But people are not concerned about the plans, they are concerned at what they think they will do. In part, that is the fault of the crazed right and Fox News. But it is just as much about the inept way that Obama and his team (and Congress) have handled the issue. Instead of giving people simple explanations and clear choices, they have allowed the whole business to look like a threat cooked up in back door negotiations behind closed doors. That is a failure of leadership and a failure of communication by Obama.

As John B Judis of the New Republic puts it:

Obama’s lack of engagement with middle America has come to the surface and has contributed to his decline in popularity. This shortcoming has been evident in his style and choice of venues--he gave his endorsement of Coakley on Sunday at Northeastern University, in Boston, rather than at a union hall or public auditorium in Worcester or Springfield. It is also evident in his choice of advisors and spokespeople and in the way he has framed his programs.

He chose the former head of the New York Fed, Timothy Geithner, to be his chief economic spokesman during a financial crisis that was widely seen as the product of Wall Street. And in developing and presenting his policies on the banks, he didn’t put the kind of conditions on taxpayer assistance that would have assured middle America that they weren’t giving handouts to the wealthy.

In the case of his health care plan, he did not really have a spokesman, but ceded the public face of the policy to the congressional leadership....Where Obama invited a voter backlash was by letting the burden of reducing health care costs appear to fall on senior citizens and those middle-class workers who had acquired good health insurance through decades of union battles with management, and not on the insurance and drug companies. Obama ceded too much to the policy wonks who were devising intricate schemes to show they could cut the deficit. He took his eye of off the political imperative of keeping middle America in his corner.

The fact is that successful politicians need not only to be developing the right policies, they need to know how to communicate them to the voters. Obama showed his weakness reaching many middle class working people during the Democratic primaries. Many of us hoped that he had learned his lessons from that experience. If last night's results are not to be a precursor for a wipeout in the mid-terms, the President must recognise the need to restore clear messages about what he is doing and how.

Monday 18 January 2010

Elitist perhaps, but not brazen

I've written for the Public Finance blog on David Cameron's proposed teacher training reforms.

David Cameron has said today that he wants to make teacher training ‘brazenly elitist’. His main proposals are to ban graduates with third class degrees from teacher training and to rebrand the Graduate Teacher Programme – which mainly targets career changers who want to enter teaching – as Teach Now.

Yet, while Cameron may be hoping to provoke some sort of a political row with the education world with these changes, the truth is that they are merely a logical extension of Labour’s teacher training reforms. The Tories’ last schools minister, Eric Forth, memorably bemoaned his party’s failure to reform teacher training, just months before the 1997 election. Labour was determined not to leave the system unreformed as a result.

So, since 1997, the proportion of teachers who train in schools (mainly as mature career changers) has grown from a handful to around a third of all trainees who can earn while they learn. The proportion of trainees with better degrees has risen too (though largely in line with the proportion of graduates awarded those qualifications). Teacher shortages have largely been eliminated with better salaries and golden hellos, though some gaps remain for specialist maths and science teachers. And the Teach First programme – of which the Tories are keen fans – has been placing elite university graduates for two years in inner city secondary schools, with over half of them making a career of teaching as a result.

Cameron’s plans take things further, particularly because of the focus they place on good degrees for all, and the greater focus on degrees from top universities. And there will undoubtedly be more reforms of what is taught in teacher training colleges – though they were shaken up too with the literacy and numeracy hours. All make sense, and also build on proposals by the Sutton Trust and Policy Exchange. But the Tories may be underestimating economic forces: it will be far easier to enforce the tougher recruitment targets in a recession when it is a recruiters’ market than when the graduate employment world becomes competitive again. Elitist this policy may be, but not especially brazen.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Up in the Air

To see Jason Reitman's bittersweet comedy Up in the Air last night. The Juno director's latest offering has a brilliant and sparky cast led by George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a 'transition executive' who traverses America firing people. Bingham gives motivational speeches on living life from a near-empty rucksack, with no commitments and few possessions. drawn from his own experience of living from a cabin-size suitcase and a life spend in hotels and airports. His big goal in life is gaining ten million American Airlines miles, and he enjoys nothing more than the executive club privileges that go with regular Hilton stays. His life is threatened by two events: the emergence of an apparently equally transient frequent flyer Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) as his occasional lover and the appearance of a young tech-savvy executive, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) with her ideas of firing people through videoconferences. The story takes the apparently inevitable twists and turns of the Hollywood comedy. But this is Jason Reitman, so nothing is so readily predictable. A hugely enjoyable film.

Friday 15 January 2010

Support the DEC Haiti appeal

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Thursday 14 January 2010

The Guardian: turning success into failure

All the papers have managed to bury - or ignore -the real achievement shown in yesterday's GCSE results, which saw particularly big inner city improvements. But the once Labour-supporting Guardian, which does at least do more than most to acknowledge the extent of the achievement, wins the prize for the "headline best designed to diminish a Labour government success" :



Wednesday 13 January 2010

Labour's real educational achievement

The begrudgers in the commentariat have decided that Labour has failed the educational test. For them, there is no figure or fact that could dampen their prejudice. Yet, for more open-minded observers there is one spectacular success - the use of floor targets or minimum acceptable standards to drive up the performance of the weakest schools.

The approach was started by David Blunkett in 2000, and was revived by Ed Balls with his National Challenge. The success of the strategy depends upon real reform - with academies and trust schools - and strong leadership in secondary schools. And because the test of success - five good GCSEs including English and Maths achieved by at least 30% of pupils in a school - is a pretty tough one, even Michael Gove at his most churlish should find it hard to gainsay the achievement (though I doubt it will stop him trying).

Today's figures show that where there were 1600 secondary schools - one in two - that failed to reach this benchmark in 1997, there are only 247 today, including a drop from 439 in 2008. Remarkably, London now outperforms other regions. That is a spectacular success that is unmatched in reform programmes in other countries. The danger is that the Tories in their zealous idelological opposition to targets - even where they so clearly work - will take this pressure off schools and they will only realise its damaging impact only after it is too late. For today, though, it is time to recognise this signal achievement by headteachers and schools that has resulted from a Labour policy.

Monday 11 January 2010

Policies for aspiration

There are welcome signs of a greater coherence in Labour's message, as the flirtation with 'core vote' defeatism appears to have been buried. Alastair Darling's weekend interview with the Times, where he made no bones about the extent of the cuts needed, followed an excellent but overshadowed speech by Peter Mandelson on the economy. Gordon Brown's speech to the PLP today, focusing on the theme of aspiration, signals an end to the rather silly pre-Christmas flirtations with a core vote strategy, and daft talk of 'class war'. With Ed Balls determinedly on message this morning, there is hope that the party can show the focus it was starting to exhibit before it was so rudely interrupted last week.

However, the new themes need to be backed up in clear policy. Announcements need to better linked to those themes than today's laptops-for-all plan, which sounded bizarre in these austere times (even if it is just a rollout of a 2008 announcement). There must be serious policy linked to the theme of aspiration, not an effort to bolt it on to anything going. As James Purnell argues, in a thoughtful piece in today's Guardian, we need to ensure that the manifesto has the policies that express today's realities, whether in city regulation, a living wage, electoral reform or making school choice more tangible to parents. The strategy and policies must flow from the realities that are being properly acknowledged today.

Sunday 10 January 2010

The desire for revenge

I had to smile when I read Iain Dale's promotions for his publication of Peter Watt's account of his treatment by Gordon Brown during the party's funding problems. Iain says "the great thing about the book is that it doesn't read as though it is motivated by any desire for revenge." There is surely no other reason why this book would appear so close to a general election, and the Mail on Sunday extract doesn't exactly pull its punches when it comes to getting back at those whom Peter feels (with some justification) treated him shabbily, though its publication is regrettable. I have enjoyed working for politicians who made a point of looking after and caring about those who worked for them, and their families. The failure to provide enough such support in this case has clearly come at a high price.

The delusions of ideological certainty

By far the most fascinating article in today's papers is Andrew Anthony's tale in the Observer magazine of Malcolm Caldwell, a hopelessly deluded SOAS academic, whose faith in Pol Pot's deranged leadership of Cambodia was rewarded by his murder in a Phnom Penh guesthouse weeks before the Vietnamese invasion that ended the brutality. Even by the standards of 1970s communist apologists, Caldwell stood alone, with a stubborn unwillingness to allow his ideology to be upset by the facts on the ground. Anthony's is a telling footnote to a history that has still to be fully acknowledged in the trial of some of Pol Pot's most brutal henchmen.

Thursday 7 January 2010

The right balance?

I see that the schools minister Vernon Coaker is berating schools once again for keeping too much money in reserve, what a DCSF press release calls 'excess balances'. His predecessor Jim Knight had to retreat from a wholly unfair tax on school balances. Yet schools must cut these balances now, declares the minister. Why? Many schools save some money from one year to the next so that they can fund a particular project or guard against cuts in future years - something that can hardly be ruled out.

The fact that thousands of schools manage to budget a modest surplus - the government regards a 5% surplus in a secondary school as 'excessive' - should be a cause for celebration rather than deprecation, given the tighter finances that will start to hit schools soon. Surely, Mr Coaker would be better directing his ire at those 1,848 schools that are in deficit rather than those that find themselves able to budget efficiently and save for a (surely imminent) rainy day?

Wednesday 6 January 2010

What on earth are they thinking?

This blog has had its disagreements with aspects of the Brown strategy. But there are signs that the PM is starting to recognise the deficiencies of the 'dividing lines' strategy. It is good to hear the PM acknowledging at PMQs that departmental cuts will be needed to cut the deficit, in contrast to the approach at the PBR, and talk of aspiration suggests a more promising approach than that of class war.

There was a time - perhaps in 2008 - when those who wanted to challenge Gordon's leadership might profitably have acted. They could even have done so after James Purnell resigned last year. But I fail to see the point of Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon's call for a Parliamentary Labour Party vote on Gordon's leadership four months from an election. In the absence of any cabinet support, it is pointless and damaging in the run up to the poll, not least because it will merely weaken the PM without securing change. What on earth are they thinking?

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Election skirmishes

I've written this post for the Public Finance blog today.

There is no doubt that the apparently under-resourced Labour election team scored an early victory in the election battle yesterday. The party’s efforts to destabilise David Cameron’s launch of his personalised billboards and slimmed down health policy were effective. In election battles, it doesn’t really matter that not all the £34bn identified by Labour researchers was committed Tory spending: it forced them into a state of confusion over marriage tax breaks (a totemic issue for backbenchers and the Daily Mail) and plans to provide more single rooms in hospital wards.

The Tory machine should have been better prepared than it was for such attacks. But unless Labour itself clears up its own strategy, it may win the odd skirmish, but it will neither win the war nor force a hung parliament. Rachel Sylvester’s account in today’s Times of how Ed Balls and Lord Mandelson have very different approaches to the election campaign has a ring of truth about it. Where Mandelson has shown himself keener to keep the Blairite torch of reform alive in his department – exemplified in recent reports on universities and training – while despite initiatives like yesterday’s on one-to-one tuition, Balls has preferred to exaggerate his differences on schools with his Tory opponent Michael Gove rather than trumpet key Labour reforms such as academies that Gove has been carefully hijacking.

It isn’t just a matter of narrowing the dividing lines, it is also about the ground on which Labour fights the Tories. The Pre-Budget Report was an opportunity to restore Gordon Brown’s mantle of fiscal responsibility by highlighting the extent of planned cuts as well as proposals to protect schools and NHS budgets. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, would clearly have been more comfortable doing so. Instead, it was left to the Institute of Fiscal Studies to highlight what the Budget already contained. Instead of credit for honesty, the government was lambasted for its apparent shiftiness.

Labour needs to level with the electorate about its successes, failures and future plans. It cannot win an election spouting dubious dividing lines. Nor can it do so by ignoring the reformist agenda that helped win it three previous elections and which is crucial for middle class support in the marginals. There is certainly something pleasing about seeing David Cameron on the back foot for a day or two. But unless the government can articulate a stronger narrative of its own record, and a more credible sense of what it would do if it won a fourth term that appeals beyond the so-called core vote, Cameron will get his ‘year of change.’

Monday 4 January 2010

Dave's tribute to the BMA

John Rentoul is rightly disdainful of the producerist health policy reannounced by David Cameron today. The policy - which would scrap maximum waiting times for patients - has been developed by the BMA's spokesman Andrew Lansley, who occasionally fulfils the role of shadow health secretary, and it has been well documented on this blog.

So, there really is no excuse for anyone buying Dave's attempt to pretend that his sorry docment a great piece of radical thinking rather than a huge step backwards for patients. Yet the whole policy is being sold deceitfully to the electorate with a compliant media failing to explain what it really means. For example, I recently received a lengthy 'questionnaire' from William Rees Mogg's eccentric lad, Jacob, whose dad tells us in his Times ramblings each week is destined to become my local MP, asking whether we liked the Tory policy of getting rid of 'wasteful and harmful NHS targets' - or what today's 'draft manifesto' calls 'politically motivated process targets.'

I doubt many voters understand that what this really means is moving from 18 week to 18 month waiting times for treatment or from 4 to 12 hour waits in A&E, or scrapping cancer treatment targets. But then they'll surely be thrilled to know that while they languish on a hospital trolley they can go online and see if any other A&E had a better record the previous year. Isn't it about time the Tories' ludicrous 'health policy' got the scrutiny it deserves?