Month: October 2008

So are we in favour of academies or not?

I’m slightly perplexed at the moment.  I had always thought that as Liberal Democrats we were, on the whole, against academies.  Before someone comes on here and cites examples of Lib Dem councils backing them, I am not talking about what we are doing in specific cases where we have ended up supporting them simply because individual schools have decided to go down that road and you don’t want to be seen to be undermining a decision that is supported by the local community.  What I am talking about is actual national party policy and what we would do if we were in government and had a free hand to put our policy in to practice.

The reason I ask this now is because I have spotted a recent press release put out by David Laws condemning Gordon Brown for moving Lord Adonis away from his job as Education Minister.  He says:

Gordon Brown’s decision to move Lord Adonis from his key schools post is a disgrace… We can now be sure that all of the momentum will seep away from the academies programme, which will continue to exist in form but not in substance.

To me that sounds like a fairly strong endorsement of the academies programme.  After all, why would you be concerned that that the “momentum will seep away” if you don’t want them in the first place.

So what I did was search on the party website to find out our education policy and I have to say it is pretty difficult at the moment.  I know we are consulting on our our policy on 5-19 education, but I would have thought that we would still have our current policy freely available.

The best I could find was a speech by Nick Clegg where he says:

Let’s look at Academies. There is plenty wrong with the government’s Academies programme – from the selection rules to the absurdity of trying to run schools all over the country at the behest of one Minister in the House of Lords.

Whilst it is not an outright condemnation of academies, and Nick has argued for schools to have many of the same freedoms that acadmies currently have, it also doesn’t seem like wholehearted support.  It is also nowhere near the support that David Laws seems to have offered in a press release that was presumably put out by the national party in the hope that it would be used by the press.

My question about academies shouldn’t be a huge surprise, given that I have been pretty open about my concern over proposals for ‘free schools’ and about reducing the involvement of the state in education generally, (yes, I am pretty left wing when it comes to public services).  I feel that idea of free schools is more coherent than the rash of ideas that the government comes up with, such as specialist schools, technology colleges, academies, trust schools etc, which to me smacks of initiative-itis.  But I am wary of the party being seen to support academies when as far I can recall they are not party policy.

If you think the Lib Dems send out a lot of financial appeals…

…then try being on the mailing list for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

I signed up to Barack Obama’s email list to see what sort of things they send out to supporters and nearly every day there is some form of request for money.  They vary in style.  Sometimes they are a blatant request for money (usually linked in to some form of event such as the deadline for registering to vote or the opening of early voting), others are related to a new video or ad they’ve produced, another is related to an attack on John McCain or Sarah Palin.  Even just plain informational emails include the line at the bottom saying, “Why not give us at least $5 now.”  The best one was the one that said “send us a at least $5 and we’ll send you a window poster.”  Wow, what generosity!

This is a huge contrast with what we are used to in this country. A common gripe from Liberal Democrat members is the number of requests they get for money.  Most of this is blamed at the national party, when in a very active constituency the appeals for money are as likely to come locally as nationally.  Is it that in this country we are more sensitive to it and are less approving of people who ask for money or is there another reason for it?

I suppose in the United States people might be more forgiving in a presidential election.  After all, they have less time to raise the funds as it is all concentrated in one twelve month period.  Plus, with one big national election that is seen to be so critical to the future of not only their own country but the world, there is more chance of whipping up some enthusiasm, (although with a turnout that tends to be a lot less than our own General Elections that argument may not stand).  But either way I am sure that daily appeals for money would generate more complaints in this country.

The big contrast though between Barack Obama’s financial appeals and what is done in this country is the use of email rather than letters.  It may be that the American presidential candidates are also using letters, but it is certainly the case that they are heavily dependent on email.  Indeed a huge amount of Obama’s money was raised online.  The advantage of email is that you can bombard people with emails and it is a lot cheaper than letters and it feels a lot less intrusive.  I probably only read about one in five of Barack Obama’s emails which shows they can more easily be ignored, whereas I would always read a letter.  Perhaps this proves how effective letters are, but with email you can keep asking people until they eventually relent or unsubscribe, whichever comes first.  You can also ask them in many different ways in the hope that one works and is the final trigger to give money.  Giving money over the internet is also of course much easier than having to write out a cheque and put it in the post.

I think daily emails asking for money is only possible in something of the intensity of a presidential election or a General Election.  But perhaps it is still a sign of the way things will go in this country.  At present national parties are able to campaign at this level, but have chosen not to.  But for greater effectivness it would also need to be possible for constituency parties to have the mechanism to raise funds through the internet using their own email contacts.  There will be many people out there who may never give their details to a national political party, but would happily hear from their local party.  There are some mechanism to allow that at present, but the cost of doing it is prohibitive.

At the next General Election there will undoubtedly be many ideas copies from Barack Obama’s campaign.  Fundraising may be one of them, and so prepare yourself not only for a torrent of leaflets but for one of emails too.

Green education

There have been a few posts about the sort of environmental education that school pupils get now and the sort that we had when we were at school.  Quite a few of them really rang true from my days at school.

Steph Ashley really struck a chord with her comment about her campaigns against CFCs and wanting her parents to have a catalytic converter.  I also remember having my own obsession about how polluted the seas were around the UK, how we were the ‘dirty man of Europe’ and a slightly odd campaign about protecting kangaroos.  The first two at least have improved a lot since, largely down to the European Union, although I am sure there is still a long way further to go.  It’s odd really how I’ve gone from being the real environmental obsessive at school when green issues were only just becoming mainstream to now (apparently) not being green enough, according to Green Party members, simply because I am in the Liberal Democrats.

Charlotte Gore mentions how she was brainwashed in to thinking that nuclear power was the solution to all our energy problems.  I had a similar experience as a result of two visits to Sellafield and I am sure we also had pro-nuclear pamphlets at school.  I did go through a phase of being supportive, when everyone else in my year wasn’t, but now I’ve gone to the other extreme and tend to be the one person in a group who is anti-nuclear power when everyone else who was against now sees it as the only solution to a future energy crisis.  What I do remember though was being told how nuclear was the future, but so was tidal and wave (far more so than wind, which tends to be the favourite at the moment).

Joe Otten’s experience with his own children does remind me of a visit I did to a primary school recently.  The school was having an environment week when they had a number of guest speakers, as well as being shown how they can lessen their impact on the environment.  I’m all for that as it is good to bring in people with other opinions in to schools, and most people these days would agree that reducing our impact on the environment is a good thing.  But what surprised me was how militant some of the things were that they had been taught.  One pupil even had a go at the Lib Dem council because an earlier speaker had apparently said that they were against windfarms (something that isn’t true).

It is of course important to teach people about environmental issues, and there are certain things that can be pretty much taken as read.  After all, wanting to reduce our impact on the environment isn’t just about whether you believe in climate change or not, it is also about the most efficient use of sometimes scarce resources, keeping our local environment clean, being more self-sufficient and about saving money.  But it is important in my view to make sure that when school children are taught about environmental issues they do learn about alternative views.

Labour MP quits to campaign for a coastal footpath

As a hiker myself I do appreciate the value of a coastal footpath around the UK.  But is this really something to quit your government job over? Well as it’s Angela Smith, Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, (80 miles to the nearest seaside town, or 48 if I’m generous and do it as the distance to the Humber Estuary), it shouldn’t really be a surprise.

For those who have forgotten, Angela Smith is the same Labour MP who resigned from the government over the 10p tax rate saga, only to be reappointed later the same day after a quick chat with Geoff Hoon.  Apparently he told her it would be too damaging to the government if she quit.  So much for principles.

I suspect the real reason may be that she is worried about losing her own seat at the General Election and so needs to spend more time there.  With her current seat abolished she is now standing in Penistone & Stocksbridge, a new seat that promises to be a close fight at the next General Election.  The Liberal Democrats are in second place and so should be the real challengers in the seat.  However with Labour having no councillors in the constituency and the only major parties with councillors being the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives it will be an interesting contest.

There might be many people who are contenders for the title of worst Labour MP, but Angela Smith must be a strong contender.  When people start bandying about words like ‘naive’ and ‘laughing-stock’ and when I hear that many in the local Labour party were astonished that she ever got selected in the first place you do have to wonder what she is doing in parliament.

Back to the 1990s

It feels like 1997 all over again.  Well maybe more like 1997 without the sense of optimism and a Prime Minister with a sunny demeanour.  But seeing who is in the new cabinet definitely gives the sense of being in a time-warp.

To be fair to Gordon Brown, a few of the people that he has brought back in to the cabinet are very able and competent – Margaret Beckett, Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson.  But it just smacks of desperation to bring them back.  I am also convinced that bringing Peter Mandelson back in to the cabinet will come back to haunt him.  I happen to believe that Peter Mandelson is one of the most able, intelligent and articulate politicians we have had in recent years.  But given all the controversy about him when he was a minister twice before, and given that he is not widely liked, I can’t see how this will win Gordon Brown extra support in the country or renew the government in anyway.

As expected it was on the whole a fairly low-key reshuffle, but with a couple of surprises.  Lets hope for the country’s sake that this cabinet is better than the last one, but as the policies are unlikely to change I very much doubt it.

Watch out Bournemouth West

I supposed he was going to get selected eventually for somewhere, and finally it has happened.  Conor Burns, the Conservative candidate vanquished by Chris Huhne at the last General Election in Eastleigh, has finally found himself another constituency to stand in – Bournemouth West.

What I find interesting though is the local candidate dimension.  There has been considerable debate about how important it is for someone to be a local candidate.  The Liberal Democrats have tended to consider this more important than the other parties and then used the localness of their candidate as a major selling point.  The other parties have only started doing this recently.  But one person who did this in spades at the last general election was Conor Burns.

Conor Burns relentlessly used the slogan “Being Local Matters” throughout his General Election campaign in Eastleigh.  It was used everywhere, which was quite impressive for someone who had only lived in Eastleigh constituency for one year longer than Chris Huhne.  With him now being selected for Bournemouth West, Conor now clearly feels that being local doesn’t matter and all he wants is a winnable seat which he has realised Eastleigh isn’t anymore.

The last General Election in Eastleigh was a nasty campaign.  Lib Dem stakeboards were frequently vandalised.  Chris Huhne was followed to his London home so someone could take photos to try and prove that he wasn’t local.  His children were also followed to school for the same reason.  I am even told by a reliable source that one of the parties offered to pay the other’s election expenses if they agreed to run a very negative campaign against the Lib Dems.   I understand that it was the best funded Conservative campaign in a seat that they didn’t already hold with Lord Ashcroft pouring in huge amounts of money.  But what the Lib Dems were also up against was Conor Burns.  The Eastleigh Conservative Association had a history of failure, as still seems to be the case with the Tories there now down to single figures in councillors, although that is also down to the brilliant Liberal Democrat council which is very ably led by Keith House (someone who achieves that rare feat of being an excellent councillor, a very good council manager, a thoroughly nice person and also a true liberal).  But what Conor Burns did was to his bypass his local association and bring in people from outside to run the campaign.

That meant we had to deal with:

  • The parachute leaflet, which was a glossy expensive-looking leaflet that arrived in an anonymous white envelope and which came across as impartial.  Instead it was actually sent out by the Conservatives implying that Chris Huhne had been parachuted in by the Liberal Democrats against the wishes of the local membership.
  • This leaflet was then followed up by a warning that the Liberal Democrats were running a very nasty and negative campaign when that was far from the case.
  • Someone, and we now think we know who, was working in the Lib Dem campaign team so they could take back to the Conservatives our future plans.  This meant that the Conservatives could get their attack in first.
  • Despite a long quiet period when the Conservatives did little, huge sums of money arrived at the last minute which included paying for a billboard in Eastleigh town centre and a DVD delivered to every house.
  • A Tory MEP alleging that he had received a leaflet through his letterbox during the election campaign that had been funded by the European Parliament.  Not only was it not delivered during the election campaign, the MEP didn’t even live in the constituency.
  • Alleging that Chris Huhne was seeking two jobs, when he would be automatically resigned from his role as MEP if he was elected as an MP.
  • Invented an opinion poll to give the impression that our campaign was going badly.

As a former high-flyer in Conservative Future, Conor Burns also has a lot of friends in high places, and as an arch-Thatcherite he also has a lot of supporters on the right of the party including Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher herself.

He clearly can be beaten.  After all he’s lost Eastleigh twice, he lost in the town council elections for his home area of Hedge End (where he was also beaten by the other Tory candidates too), and he lost his council seat in Southampton to the Liberal Democrats (the first Tory to ever be beaten in the ward, which is a fact that omits from his biography despite saying how he won a seat from Labour).  But don’t expect it to be an easy ride.