Tuesday 27 September 2011

Ed's confident performance: but will his rhetoric make good policy?

One thing can be said about Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour conference this afternoon. He has shown thar he is capable of delivering a speech confidently, even if the power companies cut live TV coverage for a few minutes, and that included a decent self-deprecating joke or two. He gave some strong messages on fiscal responsibility, echoing Ed Balls, towards the start of his speech, where were necessary and will need repetition.There was also the making of a strong populist argument in the speech  This is that he is on the side of the ordinary hard-working person or the more productive businessperson. He will cut through the elites that have let people so badly down over the last few years, not least the bankers.

In one sense, this theme has the potential to resonate in these tough times. The 'producers or predators' line comes across well in the bulletins. People do feel let down by the powers that be, and it makes sense to put himself against the vested interests at the moment. There is a strong theme too in focusing on those who work on moderate incomes and this a theme that the coalition too often fails to recognise: talk of narrowing gaps often focuses just on the very poorest, yet it is important that those on relatively low and modest working incomes don't feel that work doesn't pay. Narrowing gaps must be about more than those who are helped off welfare: in government, Labour delivered more for the deciles just above the lowest group in areas like education, and those are the people who will decide most whether the party is in government again. Talking to them is good politics.

The danger is that without the detail, the ambitions fail to connect with delivery. Certainly, he makes a strong case for social mobility: but more will be needed than cut-price fees where the loan repayment levels remain the same. Equally, the talk of differential business tax rates need more clarity - frontbenchers challenged to defend it on TV can tell him that - as does the proposal to give hard workers preference with social housing.However, after this speech, Ed Miliband has moved out of the shadows of the last Labour government, but he will need to guard against the instincts of some in the party whose interest is more in a quiet life of Tory-bashing than the inconvenience of winning three elections. Today allowed Ed Miliband to set out his vision: now he must put flesh on the bones, all the while ensuring that his argument maintains the hard edge that could provide the makings of a winning manifesto.

Monday 26 September 2011

Ed's challenge: to re-engage with the South

Ed Miliband put in a surprisingly confident performance on the Andrew Marr show yesterday. And Ed Balls has said some of the right things in his Shadow Chancellor's speech to the Liverpool conference today. But, it is hard to feel yet that Dave and Sam should be pre-booking the removals van for 2015. By tomorrow afternoon, Ed Miliband should at least ensure that they think they may have to do so. And starting from where Labour is now, it's a pretty tall order.

The mediocre local election results have been followed by modest poll leads since May. At least they are poll leads for Labour, but the image of its key figures is dismal, and people judge a future government on its key personnel as much as on its policies. There are precious few of those too: of course, there is some wisdom in holding fire on policy detail so early in the parliament. The planned cut in the fees cap to £6000 did, at least, generate some headlines, though it may become a millstone around the leadership's neck come the manifesto - inflation may well have lifted it to nearer £7000 by 2015, for a start. The bigger problem is that we have had too little indication yet of Labour's direction of travel under Miliband beyond a wish to ease life for the ill-defined 'squeezed middle'.

Often in politics you have to apologise for something that you didn't do, or believe you didn't do, but which the electorate believes you did, if you are to win their trust to move to the next stage. Ed Miliband has been happy to do this on policies with which he disagreed. But the most important issue relates to Labour and the economy. The party makes a good case that the essentials were in good shape until the economic crisis, but voters still believe that it didn't do enough in the good times to prepare for a rainy day. That is the charge to which Labour must respond effectively. Ed Balls is right that the Government needs to boost growth, though his targeted proposed cut in VAT for home improvements seems more considered than his proposed reversing the latest coalition VAT rise. But his more important message was that Labour would have tough fiscal rules governed by the coalition's Office for Budget Responsibility, and would not reverse coalition cuts. That is a good step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to be enough to cut through the unforgiving attitude of ex-Labour voters who distrust the party on the economy.

Ed Miliband needs to go the extra step on the economy tomorrow. But he also needs to give a sense of what Labour's priorities will be in 2015. The problem with too much of what is being said and done at the moment is that it is backward-looking and retrospective: either trying to refight the issues of Labour in government, or even to respond to internal lobbyists who regretted the unfortunate interlude when the party held power. And best not to mention the anti-immigrant protectionism of Blue Labour. Miliband's front bench has plenty of able people on it of whom we have seen far too little, and the recent Progress Purple Book at least offered some good ideas. But Miliband has also failed to set a clear stamp on the direction of policy and his endless policy reviews need a better steer than they have been given to date if they are not to prove a big embarrassment.

In one sense, tomorrow's speech is a big opportunity. It is a chance to tell ordinary voters that there is a lot more to Ed Miliband than his odd relationship with his brother. Few voters have yet got beyond that in their understanding of him. But it is also a big danger, that it becomes a missed opportunity to define Labour in terms that will regain support among the 'squeezed middle classes' of Southern England and the Midlands: the people of the London and Birmingham suburbs, the coastal towns from Kent to Cornwall, the new towns like Reading, Swindon and Slough across to the West and in Bristol and its environs. If Ed doesn't speak to them tomorrow, his party is simply speaking to itself.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Clegg's summer school pupil premium raid another reduction in school freedoms

When I heard news that Nick Clegg has borrowed David Blunkett's 1997 summer school idea to give himself something to say in his conference speech, I wondered where the money was coming from. After all, the coalition has been busy axing Labour agencies and initiatives to disguise its cuts to the general school budget and to pay for the much-vaunted pupil premium. And a principle of the premium has been that it is up to heads, not central or national government, to decide how to spend it.

Now don't get me wrong. Summer schools are not a bad idea, though their impact in the late nineties was not as strong over time as we hoped. I have also long seen a role for earmarked spending when you want to focus on a particular programme or goal. Blunkett used the Standards Fund both to direct a degree of spending on key programmes and to lever in additional resources. A big weakness in the pupil premium has been its lack of leverage or conditionality. But this has not -until now - been the view of the coalition.

So, the summer schools will take £50m from the £1.25 bn pupil premium pot for next year. They will do it by penalising schools that don't set up summer schools, which is the same as earmarking the funds. That may not be a huge amount - £50 from each pupil on free school meals, perhaps - but a principle has been broken. As ministers want something else new to announce, the pupil premium pot can again be raided in the same way, especially as its value increases year-on-year (all paid for by cuts in other school funding). At the same time, the funding consultation - lauded by Clegg in his recent education speech where he hailed resurgent local authorities - proposes to continue to allow local authorities a significant say over the distribution of school resources, moving away from a national funding formula.

With an increasing straitjacket also being imposed on the curriculum through measures like the English Baccalaureate, is it any wonder that a growing number of school and academy leaders are wondering whether all the coalition rhetoric about greater freedom for schools is increasingly feeling like so much hot air?

This post also appears at Public Finance and has been highlighted by Polly Curtis on her Guardian Reality Check blog.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Why Michael D is more likely than Martin McG to become Irish president

When the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, announced yesterday that he would take a few weeks off helping to run the North to run for the Irish Presidency, the media became rather excited. But it is unlikely that the Sinn Fein politician and former IRA commander will reach Aras an Uachtarain, the seat of the Irish president. Indeed, the real contest in Ireland is between two equally fascinating figures, whose prominence tells us more about the Republic today than Sinn Fein's canny bid to shore up its support south of the border.
For weeks, the Irish presidential contest has been taking the form of a national soap opera. First, there was the withdrawal of Senator David Norris, the Joycean scholar and gay rights campaigner, who was leading the race. He left after it emerged that he had defended a former partner in Israel who had been convicted of sex with a 15 year-old boy. What really killed his campaign was less the allegation than the resignation of campaign team members who felt betrayed as they hadn't been told about the story in advance. Norris is back in the running after popular feeling called for his return: hence an appearance on the Late Late Show, Ireland's long-running chat show, om Friday night. One Sunday paper has a straw poll this morning suggesting his lead has been regained.

While Norris was out of the running, the top spot was occupied by no less remarkable a figure, the Labour candidate, Michael D Higgins (pictured), a former culture minister, a poet and a prominent left-winger in the party, who in many ways projects as professorial a persona as Norris. Higgins was the minister who made Ireland safe and attractive for international film crews. Today's Sunday Independent poll, the scientific part conducted before the weekend announcements and Norris's reappearance, still has him as the clear frontrunner.

All this has left the two other main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, in the part of also-rans. Fine Gael, at least, has a candidate in Gay Mitchell, a popular Dublin Dail deputy, but he has been running a distant second to Higgins until this weekend. Fianna Fail, the once-mighty party of DeValera, was humiliated in the general election earlier this year, and now has just 10pc of the vote. The party leader, Michael Martin, already facing humiliation in a by-election for what was the party's only Dublin seat, has wanted to sit the presidential poll out but has been defied by some in his surviving rump of a parliamentary party. Now there are suggestions that Fianna Fail parliamentarians should nominate Norris - he needs such nominations to stand - which would at least give the fairly traditionalist party a wholly different outlook. The social entrepreneur and head of the Irish special olympics, Mary Davis, an independent who has gained enough support to run, is the only woman definitely running this time.

In the past weeks, there have also been walk-on parts from Gay Byrne, the hugely self-regarding father of Irish television, who decided against running after a gratifyingly self-indulgent few days of speculation, and the right-wing Christian activist and Eurovision star, Dana Rosemary Scallon. There was a time when the Irish presidency was a retirement number for politicians, including DeValera, but more typically supremely boring figures like the late Patrick Hillery or Cearbhall O'Dalaigh. Mary Robinson's election in 1990 on a liberal feminist ticket changed all that, and her successor Mary McAleese helped solidify the sense of an office that was of national importance, albeit without much real power. McAleese's welcome for the Queen this year illustrated the proud dignity that she and Robinson brought to the office.

It is into this that Sinn Fein has sought to thrust Martin McGuinness, a man whose party officially boycotted the royal visit (aside from a brave mayor in Cashel), though he now generously tells us he would meet anyone if he were President. Few expect McGuinness to win, although the contest is, as we have seen, hugely volatile. But what it could achieve is a record Sinn Fein vote in the Republic, building on the 9.9% of the vote won in February. So, of course, Sinn Fein could take 15% with a McGuinness candidacy in a contest that is far more about personalities than it is about politics. However, support seems unlikely to go beyond that. Voters in the Republic are not always convinced of the credentials of their Northern brothers and sisters: when Fine Gael ran Austin Currie, a respected SDLP civil rights campaigner, in 1990, he was humiliated. And while Sinn Fein voters happily support IRA figures with strong Northern constituencies, especially in border areas, much of the party's support in cities like Dublin has owed more to their candidates' pavement politics than their Provo paramilitary past. The latter is also a turn-off to many middle ground voters, who may be happy to see McGuinness playing a prominent role in Stormont as the price for an end to the Troubles, but have no wish to see him having equal prominence in the south.

So, Sinn Fein may successfully shore up its vote and get a bit of extra publicity. But, at what price? To McGuinesss's credit, he has established an excellent working relationship with Peter Robinson, the DUP first minister at Stormont. While a caretaker Sinn Fein minister can act as locum as McGuinness canvasses in the South, the ripples from any controversies in that campaign can only destabilise their working partnership, and that is not good for the Northern power-sharing executive. It is inconceivable that there will not be considerable attention paid to McGuinness's IRA role and to any deaths associated with his time in its leadership. With sectarian tensions rising again over the summer, the last thing Northern Ireland needs is another opportunity to rake over the past in this way.

In the end, Higgins or Norris looks likely to become president. And their ability to do so will tell us as much about Ireland today as the decision of McGuinness to run for the Aras.

This post has been highlighted by Slugger O'Toole and Alex Massie on his Spectator blog.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Three Days in May

To see a very fine performance by Warren Clarke as Churchill in Ben Brown's play Three Days in May, at the Theatre Royal Bath, last night. Clarke well captured the mix of wiles and passion that saw Churchill get his way at a crucial stage in World War II. The days in question, 26-28 May 1940, were on the eve of Dunkirk, as Belgium had surrendered and France was close to doing so. Churchill had four others in his war cabinet: for the Tories, remarkably, both Neville Chamberlain, still party leader, and the foreign secretary Lord Halifax, both noted appeasers, with Clem Attlee and Arthur Greenwood for Labour. The real drama is between Churchill and Halifax - ably portrayed by Jeremy Clyde - over the latter's support for a French attempt to use Mussolini as a mediator to sue for peace with Hitler. In the end, a lot of the drama hinges on how Chamberlain reacts to the competing arguments, scarred as he is by Munich. This is a splendid production by Alan Strachan, and a fascinating reminder of the debates that still took place in the Tory party nine months after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

A pointless cull of MPs

What, exactly, is the point of the coalition's cull of MPs? It is said that it will bring more equity to representation, as it takes a few thousand fewer people to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative MP. Ofr course, that takes no account of lower levels of registration in the inner city constituencies where the differences are greatest. But let's leave that be for a moment. Achieving greater equity - something that is already the job of the Boundary Commission - doesn't require a reduction in the number of MPs by 50 at the same time. This is apparently happening to save £12 million. And at what price? Constituencies that bear some relationship to geography and council boundaries are to be shredded in favour of ludicrous agglomorations of wards pushed together to achieve the optimum size dictated by the coalition. In my home constituency of North East Somerset, we would now become Keynsham and Kingswood. The only small mercy is that Jacob Rees-Mogg would no longer be my MP. But that doesn't mean it makes sense. I used to chair Mitcham and Morden CLP in London: it is to be replaced by a new Mitcham constituency that will include a Lambeth ward for no good reason other than mathematical necessity.

But it is not really Cameron's fault that this whole farce came to pass. It is that of the Liberal Democrats, who were too naive to tie the cull of MPs to the passing of the Alternative Vote in a referendum. This left Cameron free to dump on Clegg from a huge height on AV while continuing with his constituency cull. The irony of the whole exercise is that it looks like it will not deliver the gains in seat advantage that the Tories hoped to achieve through their gerrymeander. Instead it may create as many aggrieved seatless Tory MPs as Labour ones. So, there are few winners - and any 'savings' are bound initially to be eaten up along with the cost of the time-wasting involved in a lengthy appeals process and subsequent internal party battles between MPs whose constituencies have been significantly changed.

Whoever thought this would win back public confidence in politics and politicians? Give them a seat on the Lib Dem committee for approving £2m donations from passing fraudsters.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Syndicate

To see a great performance by Ian McKellan at the Theatre Royal Bath, where he is playing Don Antonio in the Chichester production of The Syndicate. Eduardo de Filipo's play is set in and around Naples in 1960, where the Don is in his twilight years and playing a cross between Solomon and Robin Hood to the locals and their problems. With a strong cast of twenty, including Michael Pennington as the loyal Doctor Fabio and Cherie Lunghi as the godfather's wife Donna Armida, the whole production has a lot going for it, helped by a splendid set. But, despite the great performances - and some nice comic touches as the Don hoodwinks the local loan shark - the whole play feels like a lot less than the sum of its players. A stronger first part is followed by a gradually weakening storyline and a mightily clumsy final act that leaves one simply puzzled, and asking what it was all about? The capacity audience at Bath lapped up the strong performances but were left none the wiser about its import.

How novel are the Free Schools?

This month's opening of 24 free schools has had the media in a permanent state of excitement. And, on the face of it, the DFE has pulled off an impressive feat in seeing so many of the Conservatives' flagships opening so soon after the general election. After all, earlier this year, it seemed like just eight would be ready. However, a closer analysis of the new schools suggests all is not quite what it seems.

17 of the 24 are small primary schools, so comparisons with the early (secondary) academies that replaced failing schools are unworthy and facile, not least as the groundwork for the free schools had already been laid, as we shall see.

In many cases, new primaries would have been needed to respond to demographic changes. And it is good that these will be academies, but they would have been needed anyway.

Of those 24, there are ten that could be described as faith-based. David Blunkett opened the door to new faith schools when - in the face of Tory opposition when they were last in power - he approved the first Muslim schools in 1998, eight months after the general election. Plenty of new faith schools followed. Some became voluntary-aided schools, others foundation schools or academies (which is all in governance terms that 'free schools' are) and it is quite likely that the faith-based schools opening this week could have followed this route.

Then, there are four independent school conversions. Here, there is a direct read across to a policy started by Labour, where schools like Belvedere in Liverpool and Colston Girls in Bristol - more significant independent secondary schools than those opening this week - joined the state sector as academies.

Add to that another group of five schools sponsored by academies, mainly new primaries. Some even use the name 'academy'. To be fair to Gove, he has opened the academies programme to primary schools where Labour had confined primary age academies to the 'all through' route. But this group is simply an extension  of existing brands like Ark and E-Act, as well as an imaginative response to demand by the Cuckoo Hall academy in Edmonton, the first of Gove's primary academies. These are simply additional sponsor-led academies.

Perhaps five - including Toby Young's West London Free School - so far are what might be called parent or teacher-promoted free schools (one is preventing a council closure plan). Here, again, Gove has stripped back the bureaucracy that made it difficult for parent promoters in the past, though several did open under Labour and the rules were changed in their favour from 2006.

These schools are all new academies, as their legislative basis makes clear. What they are not is free schools on the Swedish model, where profit-making companies respond to parental demand, and where there was no tradition of the sort of diversity offered by academies, foundation ands voluntary-aided schools.

But it is in the expansion of sponsor-led academies, both primary and secondary, that the potential for a genuine improvement in standards most lies. DFE says that 45 more opened this week, in disadvantaged areas or replacing failing schools, and a further 49 will open in the New Year. The results from the big academy sponsors this year for academies opened under Labour were remarkable, but have not been properly publicised - many had improvements in excess of ten percentage points this year. This is where the gritty school reforms will continue.

Free schools certainly have a place in the fabric of our education system. They can provide parents with greater options, and it would be wrong simply to confine them to poorer areas. But they should also be linked to improvement in disadvantaged areas. It is right to have ways to enable new faith schools to respond to demand and good independent schools to drop fees and selection. However, the Government should be judged on how it lifts standards across the board, including in once failing schools that have become academies, rather than the number of schools it opens under a new brand name.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Don't neuter TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor, the website where reviews can be posted about hotels and restaurants, has come in for a lot of flak of late. It is to be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK for its apparent propensity to publish fake and unchecked reviews. While the site, which is now a giant money-spinner, may need to tighten its procedures, it would be a big mistake to make it too difficult for ordinary travellers to add their reviews to the website.

I write as one who has been awarded a gold star, no less, for having contributed in excess of 100 reviews to the website over the last few years. I also write as one who has enjoyed excellent hotels and restaurants in places as varied as Istanbul, Dresden and Alnwick as a result of recommendations on the site. Of course, I've come across fishy reviews along the way: the number of glowing reviews for a pleasant, but hardly outstanding, Italian island hotel suggested a degree of conspiracy. Its location still persuaded me to go, and I didn't regret it, though my review was more measured. And it isn't just the obviously fraudulent reviews that irritate: it is just as annoying to wade through the overblown complaints about a trivial reception incident in an otherwise excellent hotel or the numerous moans that Spanish hotels don't do a proper English breakfast.

Yet, for all its flaws, TripAdvisor has greatly enhanced our lives. It can also be a useful corrective to the clever photography and absurd descriptions that too many hotels use to hide their true location or nature - a rather more pervasive example of fakery than dodgy TripAdvisor reviews, in my experience.

In the past, I might have relied on a small number of guide book recommendations, and some of them have been pretty wide of the mark while others have been excellent, or on the brochure choices of travel agents. By offering near complete lists of hotels in cities, and at least an indication of the top 20, one has a great starting point to research further online.

Rarely have I been disappointed in the resulting choices, and most of my later reviews have reflected the original 4* or 5* rankings given by TripAdvisor reviewers. On those rare occasions where a hotel or restaurant has defied its online reputation, TripAdvisor has given me somewhere to let others share my disappointment.

I hope it will continue to provide that forum.

Monday 5 September 2011

Clegg's real threat to coalition school plans

The Deputy Prime Minister's spinners were out on manouevres this weekend, briefing a lot of nonsense about how our hero had defeated the nasty Tory profit-monger Michael Gove over his plans to allow greedy capitalists to make a few bob out of free schools. Since no such plan is on the agenda in Government (much to the annoyance of some providers and think tanks) and was even ruled out in the Tory manifesto, this particular Aunt Sally seemed to have been introduced merely to impress the more gullible types at the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference, as well as the Sunday lobby with its particular fondness for the genre.

Unsurprisingly, there is little in Nick Clegg's actual speech today to justify any of that hype. But there is a lot that is potentially rather more alarming for free schools and academies, and is a real threat to their independent development. This threat comes from a clear desire by the DPM to restore the role of local authorities in several crucial respects. Here is what he says:

I think some confusion has been allowed to grow around our long term vision for schools: There’s an increasing belief that we are trying to sideline local authorities altogether because Academies so far have only had a direct relationship with the Secretary of State and the department in Whitehall. So let me straighten this out once and for all. This government wants all schools, over time, to have the opportunity to be autonomous with Academy freedoms. Both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives promised that in our manifestos. But we do not want that to lead to mass centralisation of the schools system. Far from it: as Academies become more commonplace, and eventually the norm, we will make sure people do not lose their voice over what local schools provide. So we will need to develop a new role and relationship between schools, central and local government.

Councils have an essential job. We will ensure they have a stronger role in making sure there are school places in the area for every child, not just those who know how to play the system. We have strengthened their role in admissions. They will oversee our new, fairer, admissions code. A code which makes it easier for the poorest to get the best places and easier for any citizen to complain if the rules are broken. We will strengthen their role supporting children with special needs. Sarah Teather is bringing forward a radical set of reforms which will ensure local councils can help knock heads together to get a better deal for disabled and disadvantaged children. And we will give them a critical role ensuring there is fairer funding Local authorities will help ensure the schools forums which currently divide up the cake locally are more transparent and they will help guarantee that academies, and other schools, are funded on exactly the same basis.

But we can – and we will – go further. Where there are no schools the local authority "owns" any more - there should be no barrier to the local authority working in a new relationship with academies, in partnership with central government.
The local authority could have a key role in deciding who new providers are and holding existing providers more sharply to account. Local authorities, closer by their very nature to their community than the Secretary of State, could be more determined than distant Whitehall to drive up attainment in their own patch – for example by setting higher standards for all schools in their area. That is why I am inviting those local authorities which wish to move to the new phase to grasp this opportunity and be involved in piloting this new role, starting from next year.

For most of the schools converting to academy status, a desire to have greater independence from the local authority is a big selling point. So too for some of those involved with free schools: read what Patricia Sowter, who is sponsoring Woodpecker Hall Academy, told me in my article in this month's Public Finance.

Already, that independence is being eroded, the result one suspects as much of pressure from a resurgent Conservative-led Local Government Association as of the DPM's arm-twisting at the cabinet table. The Government has retreated on plans to move to a national funding formula, as the DPM notes approvingly in his speech, and is giving the job to local authorities to decide (with a few extra restrictions) on the funding of academies and free schools in their area, even if the money is paid by a national agency. It remains to be seen, too, whether large authorities like Birmingham and Kent, where their Conservative politicians oppose coalition academy policies, not to mention the councillors across the country of all parties who are hostile, will see this new phase in quite the same spirit that the DPM envisages.

Yesterday, I thought that Clegg's spin about profit-makers was all about currying favour with his activists. Today I wonder whether it was as much about deflecting the media from his rather more worrying pledge to revitalise the role of local authorities in education. That is a battle that he and his Tory councillor allies appear already to have won.