Thursday, May 31, 2007

A bad hair day for David Cameron

This morning papers look fairly bleak for David Cameron after his humiliating U turn on Grammar schools:

The Daily Mail is withering:

The policy shift is particularly embarrassing for Mr Cameron as he has faced down his critics in the bitter grammar row by arguing: "I don't follow my party, I lead them."

In a panel, the Mail compares what Cameron said last week:

"A pledge to build more Grammar schools would be an electoral albatross", David Cameron, May 20

"It is delusional to think that expanding a number of grammar schools would be a good idea." David Cameron, May 22

....with 'what the Tories were saying yesterday':

"Where there is demographic change, then to maintain the status quo we would look at allowing more grammars to be built", Tory party spokesman May 31

"We will look at it on a case-by-case basis", Tory education spokesman Nick Gibb May 31

Stephen Glover in the Mail asks: "After the Grammar school furore, what DOES Mr Cameron believe in?":

...we are entitled to complain - and voters are liable to take fright - if a political party seems a principle-free zone in which announcements reflect a canny preoccupation with being elected rather than a core of values and beliefs.

Peter Oborne reckons that Grammarsgate is indicative of a split in the Tory party:

The past week has been extremely informative about the true state of the Conservative Party.

It is not the happy band united under the leadership of David Cameron, that observers have been led to believe.

The truth is that it is very badly split. This split starts right at the top, and worsens the further down you go.

The Sun, under the headline "Cam's grammar school cave-in" writes:

TORIES were in turmoil last night after party leader David Cameron caved in over his MPs’ grammar schools revolt.

After saying yesterday morning that it would never mention Grammar Schools again, Conservative Home is back to enumerating the days of Grammarsgate (it's Day 17 today) and comments scathingly:

The basic issue is that David Cameron is not in tune with the grassroots. He believes in things that are fundamentally different from mainstream Conservatives. He'll be forgiven by enough Conservatives if he looks like he'll lead us to power but if his opinion poll ratings start to tank then everything changes. Conservative members want power and will swallow a lot in pursuit of that power but if the sacrifices are for nothing then there will be trouble.

Hat-tip to Conservative Home for the headline collection above.

Rowntree report says social cohesion is "not just or even primarily about ethnic tensions"

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have issued three reports on the subject of "Migration, integration and local neighbourhoods". These have been interpreted in a variety of ways by the media. The BBC summarises the reports here:

The survey also found evidence of tension between different ethnic groups - "Strong expressions of prejudice against other migrants and against some British ethnic minorities."

...Despite such tensions, this report finds that most migrants end up staying longer than they'd planned and almost all of those who leave say they plan to return.

One of the reports partly focuses on housing, which has been the subject of recent controversy. It talks about "the importance of the allocation of housing as a factor underpinning 'racialised resentment' "

However, the report notes that often resentments over housing are also expressed in terms of other factors, notably age and generation. The report notes: "This suggests that social and community cohesion is not just or even primarily about ethnic tensions".

The report interestingly explores these areas through quotations from residents interviewed in Tottenham and Moss Side.

Lights out London

One of the oddities of going to the gym is that I get to listen Capital Radio in the middle of Berkshire. I couldn't help noticing - mainly because they mentioned it 1,966 times every ten minutes when I was at the gym - that they are running a "Lights out London" event which will involve getting people to turn off their lights and other non-essential domestic appliances between 9pm and 10pm on June 21st.

Hello? It's still light while I type this - without the light on - and on June 21st it will be even more light at 9pm.

Anyway, full marks to Capital. I do wonder how much energy the event will save (I am told some lights and appliances use more electricity if you turn them off and on again, than if you just leave them on). But it gets people thinking in the right direction.

Hank Marvin strums on

Hank Marvin was on GMTV this morning. I can't say I am great fan of his music, but I have to admire his longevity in the music business. He is publicising an album of instrumentals which will be TV advertised. When you think that he played guitar (as part of the 'Drifters' - later the 'Shadows') on the record which was number one when I was born ("Livin' Doll") and I am 47, you have to give him full marks for tenacity!

That James May "pain in arse" Autocar yearbook in full

Earlier this week we (my colleagues and I) treated a friend of mine who has cancer to his first trip in a small plane. Fortunately. he really enjoyed it and it was a wonderful occasion.

The flight took place at White Waltham airfield. We based ourselves in the bar looking out onto the planes and runway. It was a gorgeous day and such a vantage point must be about as near to heaven as you can get on earth.

My said friend is a fan of "Top Gear", so his pleasure was enhanced be being able to watch James May (who owns a plane at the airfield) eat his breakfast, then ready his aircraft and take off.

This led me to look up James May on Wikipedia. Imagine my delight to see actual photographs of the issue of the Autocar yearbook which led to May's sacking as Autocar's production manager after he arranged the bolded, outsize letters of each car in the yearbook so that it spelt (with appropriate punctuation):

So you think it's really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up. It's a real pain in the arse.

You can see the photograph of the Autocar yearbook here on Wikipedia. It was mentioned in last week's "Have I got news for you".

Cameron's humiliating U-turn as another Tory frontbencher rebels on Grammar Schools

Grammarsgate Day 16

Dominic Grieve (shadow attorney general) told his local paper that if more grammars were needed in Buckinghamshire, they should be built.

In an article for the Buckinghamshire Examiner, Mr Grieve - shadow attorney general and MP for Beaconsfield - said he was "pleased" the Conservatives were looking at ways of reforming the comprehensive school system nationally.

But he added: "There is no question of our changing the selective education system in Buckinghamshire against the wishes of the local community.

"We must also ensure that if further grammar or secondary schools are needed they can be supplied within the county."

But David Willetts claimed that these comments are not in conflict with the policy he and David Cameron have been banging on about. Indeed, David Cameron has said that the idea that new grammar schools would be built was "delusional".

David Willetts seems to be making it up as he goes along to avoid another frontbench reprimand/black listing/resignation. It seems Willetts and Cameron have decided to use policy limbo dancing to get out of their undoubted mess on Grammar schools:

But the Conservatives say Mr Grieve's comments do not contradict party policy.

Shadow Education Secretary David Willetts said: "David has said absolutely nothing that is out of line with Conservative Party policy.

"I do understand that in parts of the country where they've got grammar schools, as demography changes, so they will come forward with how their grammar school system needs to change."

Mr Willetts said Mr Grieve's argument had been made in the full knowledge of his discussions with Buckinghamshire MPs and councillors - and he did not rule out building more grammar schools in such areas if they were needed.

I wonder if David Willetts knows that Dominic Grieve is not called "David". And if Grammar Schools were not to be built where there are 'demographic changes' where the heck would they be built these days anyway?

Here is Grieve's article in full.

Conservative Home reports that the Evening Standard leads with "TORY RETREAT ON GRAMMARS - Two weeks party backs new schools on case by case basis" regarding this latest twist.

Can I make a suggestion to the Conservative Party? Have policy decisions taken and agreed by a thing called a party conference. Get a policy commission to produce and distribute a paper and a motion months in advance. Allow amendments. Have a good old debate where all points of view are voiced. Then have a thing called 'a vote' on it. This will allow the leader to go on holiday to Crete without having to have palpitation-inducing phone calls back to Blighty.

Tories further disunited by "heirs to Blair" speech

The George Osbourne "heirs to Blair" speech is further dividing the Tory party.

Peter Riddell in the Times writes:

Mr Osborne’s raid is an attempt to divide Labour, but it also risks dividing the Conservative Party

The Mail says:

David Cameron was accused of picking a "needless fight" last night as battle lines were drawn between Tory high command and the Right wing of the party. Senior MPs already angered by Mr Cameron's stance on grammar schools were provoked further by Shadow Chancellor George Osborne's claim that the Tories are now the "heirs to Tony Blair" on public service reform.

George Osbourne has created a hostage to fortune. The word "heirs" infers some familial relationship. There are plenty of undesirable things (e.g. Iraq, spin) in Blair's 'bequest'. So being heirs to it, is a bit of a poisoned chalice. I think the "heirs to Blair" phrase will come back to haunt Cameron and the Tories on a regular basis.

Hat-tip: Conservative Home

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Memories of "Look and Learn"

A memory I didn't know I had was awakened as I turned over to the Obituary pages in the Guardian last Saturday. The obituary was for Angus McBride, artist and illustrator, who drew illustrations for "Look and Learn". You can see some of his illustrations for that magazine here.
There was an example of McBride's illustrations in Saturday's Guardian. It included the magazine's masthead (above). It took me a while to remember where I had seen said masthead. In the end I realised it. I used to get the magazine on a regular basis - delivered alongside my brother's "Eagle" comic.
There is an excellent web site devoted to Look and Learn here.

Channel 4 humiliated

I have just watched the "Summary of Adjucation" which Ofcom made Channel 4 broadcast before the start of the new series of "Big Brother". It was very humiliating for Channel 4.


Scottish government to move to replace council tax

Fascinating! The BBC reports:

The Scottish government is to press ahead with plans to replace council tax with an income-based alternative.

Good Lord. Sounds a familiar policy.

George Osbourne throws fat on the Grammar school fire

Just when you thought the Grammarsgate fire had died down, dear old Gerogie Osbourne pops up with another gallon of petrol to lob on the smouldering embers. Iain Dale quotes a Press Association report saying:

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne risked stoking the bitter education row further
today by indicating that a Tory government would actively prevent new grammar
schools being opened.

This has caused further consternation in the Tory ranks. Dale himself writes:

What on earth was George Osborne thinking of by giving this answer?

There are copious comments on his piece:

Does the Conservative front bench have a collective death wish(?) - Jean Shaw

All George Osbourne was doing was reiterating the policy that has already been outlined.
This party is going insane over this issue. I'm having visions of Labour circa 1984.-Anonymous

This is looking very much like a stupidity #101 "how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" to me. - Flavious

This is Day 15 of Grammarsgate.

David Cameron - "Botox Boy"

The Telegraph diaryish page today includes a piece entitled something like: 'Cameron makes enquiries about Botox'. In fact, from the story it seems he bumped into a Botox expert at a "do" and 'expressed surprise that treatments were so cheap'. A bit tenuous, I thought.

Sorry to be vague but I read the story at the dentists and can't find it on the Telegraph site. I did find a reference to David Cameron as "Botox Boy" in the Mirror from May 23rd.

Is there a theme developing here? Close study of photographs will now be the order of the day to spot "before" and "after" clues. Apparently, Celebs and newsreaders often have "work" done on their faces shortly before, during or after they are on holiday so that any changes are covered up by a deep tan. Also people don't quite remember what they looked exactly like before the holiday...and they put any change down to effect of a relaxing holiday.

David Cameron is currently on holiday in Crete.

Botox? Really statesmanlike eh?

Poll: Tories more disunited than Labour

A poll reported in the Independent (from Communicate Research) shows that voters think the Tories are more disunited than Labour:

Asked which leader would be able to keep his party united, 40 per cent said Mr Brown and only 37 per cent said Mr Cameron. A similar poll a month ago showed that 64 per cent thought Labour were divided, compared with only 36 per cent who thought the Tories were disunited.

There is also bad news for Cameron personally:

Asked who would make the best Prime Minister, 40 per cent said Mr Brown and 32 per cent said Mr Cameron.

It seems remarkable that Cameron has got himself into this mess. On his blog, John Redwood says that the Grammar schools announcement was debated in the Shadow Cabinet before the Willetts speech, but was not "tweaked" sufficiently based on the feedback from the shadow ministers.

Graham Brady said on PM last night that he was not concerned too much about the policy on Grammar schools. It was the statement in Willetts' speech contending that Grammar schools impede social mobility that got him angry.

It seems Cameron was trying to be clever and using the speech as a way of bashing the Tory paradigm - i.e proving that the Tories had changed. In the process he has proved that they haven't changed. Clever Stuff.

Compare this policy announcement with the way Menzies Campbell handled the Green Tax and Trident policy decisions for the LibDems. Campbell's policy handling makes him look like a heavyweight champion to Cameron's flyweight novice.

So where does Cameron go from here? Given that it was not the policy that seemed to cause the problem, but the hostility to Grammar schools expressed in Willetts' speech, it would not seem to be a big problem to fix. But you never know....

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Will Hilary become Deputy Prime Minister?

Readabet reports that Hilary Benn is 6/4 favourite to be next Deputy Leader of the Labour party. The Guardian has reported on the odds shortening on his deputy leadership bid:

Mr Benn originally looked the favourite to win before last week's nominations after a number of polls suggested he was the most popular contender among Labour party members and trade unionists.

Guido suggests that Benn has the backing of 29 constituencies sewn up.

This is fascinating stuff. You'll remember that Benn struggled to get enough MPs to sign his original nomination. In the end, his dad's mates backed him at the last moment.

So it is interesting that Benn is currently getting some good reports visa vis his popularity.

PS. I know that becoming Deputy leader of the Labour party doesn't automatically make that person Deputy Prime Minister. But it was a good headline wasn't it?

Who would replace David Cameron?

Political Betting speculates on who would replace David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party "if for whatever reason, the party had to find a replacement".

George Osbourne, William Hague, David Davis and Liam Fox are the contenders mentioned.

First, Grammargate drags on for weeks. Now, speculation on who would replace Cameron.

Bank Holiday Britain was colder than Lapland

If you thought it was cold yesterday (we had to turn the central heating back on) you may be alarmed to know that it was colder in Britain than it was in Lapland and Siberia.

Having been to Lapland when it was -20 degrees centigrade, I find this mind-blowing.

The BBC do an excellent report on past days' weather. Here is yesterday's.

Dutch "win a kidney" Big Brother

Is this as low as they can go?

A Dutch reality television show in which a terminally ill woman is to select one of three contestants to receive her kidneys when she dies is to air this week despite criticism that it pushes the boundaries of the format too far.

Tory frontbencher resigns over Grammar schools row

Tory Frontbencher Graham Brady has resigned over the Grammar schools row.

In his statement, Graham Brady said:

"Faced with a choice between a front bench position that I have loved and doing what I believe to be right for my constituents and for the many hundreds of thousands of families who are ill-served by state education in this country, there is in conscience only one option open to me."

Based on this morning's news, it seems he jumped before he was pushed. This is now Day 14 of "Grammarsgate". It just won't go away will it?

'Ming not about to fall on sword'

In the Telegraph, Rachel Sylvester writes that "Ming is not about to fall on his sword":

...there is no treachery underway. The main rivals to succeed Sir Menzies - Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne - seem to agree that the Lib Dems would look careless if they lost another leader so soon. As one frontbencher put it: "The last things the voters remember about us is that Charles Kennedy was drunk, Simon Hughes was gay and Mark Oaten had been doing unspeakable things with a male prostitute. We need a period of stability."

Hat tip to Conservative Home.

'Cameron to sack front-bencher who rebelled on Grammar schools'

The Telegraph reports that David Cameron is to sack Graham Brady, the Conservative front bencher who criticised Cameron's Gammar school policy:
In an attempt to end the worst party row since he became leader, a furious Mr Cameron yesterday instructed Patrick McLoughlin, his chief whip, to reprimand Graham Brady, the Europe spokesman, "in the strongest terms" for his "totally unacceptable" breach of party discipline.Conservative sources said that Mr Brady, who wants more grammar schools to be built under a Tory government stood "no chance" of remaining in his post past the summer.

This Gramar schools row really has stirred up a hornet's nest in the Tory party. Look at these comments from Nigel Evans, former front-bencher:

Fellow Conservative Nigel Evans, MP for Ribble Valley, said Mr Brady should "absolutely not" be censured for speaking out.
He said the way that shadow education secretary David Willetts announced the policy "looked as if it was an attack on grammar schools".
"Graham would not have been doing his job if he had not stepped in and defended the grammar schools," Mr Evans told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Conservatives criticise Channel Four Diana programme - have they seen it?

One wonders if Conservative Hugo Swire has actually seen the Channel Four documentary on Princess Diana's death. If not, his calls for Channel Four to cancel the show might be unkindly interpreted as pandering to Daily Express readers.

Conservative front-bencher "severely reprimanded" for Grammar school challenge

Iain Dale reports that Graham Brady, Conservative front bench spokesman on Europe, has been "severely reprimanded" by the Conservative Chief Whip for contradicting the Cameron line on Grammar schools.

Bob Dylan relates the history of mattresses

I am immersing myself in Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour on BBC Radio Two. It is perfect for a rainy Bank Holiday Monday with the rest of the family gone to watch Pirates of the Carribean 3, which I would only sleep through. Dylan's theme tonight is sleep, coincidentally.

Bob Dylan's introductions are weird. He has a particularly strange voice which sounds like someone Taking The Michael. He talks about strange things like the history of mattresses and the Three Bears. But he plays some superb tracks and the programme "hangs together" beautifully.

But all in all, Theme Time Radio is like swimming in chocolate and is radio as it should be. Well done Bob Dylan and well done BBC.

It is certainly raining

Both our water butts are now nearly full (they were empty a week or so ago). As range of watering cans and buckets are also full. So it is fair to say it has been raining with gusto. The Met Office radar at the moment shows rain all over central, southern and eastern England.

Peter Mc informed me that rain stopped play at Headingley. The BBC reports that play was meant to restart at 13:30 but was delayed by another downpour, so the prediction is now 14:00 for a resumption.

The BBC has placed a page on their site asking for comments on "Has your bank holiday been a washout?"


Hat-tip: A Tangled Web

The very senior Labour figure from the 1980s who Blair called a "c word"?

Paul Linford speculates as to which "very senior Labour figure from the 1980s" it was, according to Andrew Rawnsley's write-up of Alastair Campbell's new book, Blair called a "c-word".

When I read Rawnsley's article yesterday I thought it sounded like Roy Hattersley. Paul Linford confirms Hattersley as the odds-on favourite.

Cameron challenged by front bencher on Grammar schools

The Times reports this morning:

David Cameron is facing a fresh challenge to his authority with a member of his frontbench team producing new evidence showing that grammar schools dramatically improve the exam results of a whole neighbourhood. Graham Brady, the Shadow Europe Minister and a former grammar school pupil, has passed data to The Times showing that GCSE results are significantly better in areas that have an element of selective education – with ethnic minority children benefiting most.

If Brady is Shadow Europe Minister, why on earth is he passing copious research to The Times which contradicts what his shadow cabinet colleague, David Willetts, is saying about education? The Times goes onto say:

In a further challenge, Mr Brady questioned whether free school meals – the measure of poverty used by Mr Willetts – was appropriate.

He passed a letter to The Times from the headmaster of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, who says that the educational maintenance allowance, which has a higher cutoff, provides a “truer reflection” of the profile of the school.

Mr Brady said: “These facts appear to confirm my own experiences: that selection raises the standards for everyone in both grammar and high schools in selective areas."

If what The Times says is true, then Brady has clearly broken the normal rules of being in a shadow cabinet. He has got involved in a colleague's brief and contradicted his colleague spokesman. If true, it is obvious that he should be sacked. If he isn't sacked, then Cameron's authority will be gravely weakened and he will have chaos waiting for him down the road at every policy announcement.

It was only yesterday that Cameron declared in the Daily Mail that Grammargate was over. It is clear from Graham Brady's intervention this morning that Grammargate is far from over.

Hat-tip to Conservative Home

Commons job for Conservative MP's son highlights expenses row

Conservative MP Derek Conway has been employing his 21-year-old student son as a researcher. There is nothing wrong with this. But, as the Guardian points out this morning, it does add extra backing to those arguing that the Freedom of Information act parliamentary exemption amendment is aimed at quietly covering up details of MP's expenses:

Public embarrassment over MPs' use of official parliamentary allowances deepened yesterday after it was revealed that a senior Conservative MP had employed his 21-year-old student son as a part-time researcher at the Commons.

According to the Sunday Times, Derek Conway, a former government whip and an MP for 23 years, paid his son, Freddie, a third year geography student at Newcastle university, £981 a month for unspecified work. The facts were not denied last night, although his allies say the young man only works in his father's office part-time.

Mr Conway has not broken either the law or parliamentary rules which allow MPs to employ family members on their staff. But MPs, who have allowances of up to £80,000 a year for staff in London and their constituency, disagree as to how appropriate such employment is.

"Others do it," said one MP.

But the disclosure comes as the Tory private member's bill to exempt MPs from requests under the Freedom of Information Act makes its way through parliament. MPs on both sides of the argument are pointing to media attacks as proof either that their colleagues have something to hide - or that they are being unfairly persecuted by those settling scores.

Update: After posting this I saw that the Norfolk Blogger offered some trenchant views on it yesterday.

Questioning recycling

Tim Worstall has a challenge to all advocates of recycling in this morning's Times:

Recycling is based on the near-religious belief that everything has value, everything is worth saving, except your time.

He quotes a study in Seattle which showed a household spending an average of 44 minutes a week to sort rubbish. He then projects this to estimate the cost for the UK:

The Worstall Calculator (envelope, 1, pencil, 1) tells us that our time spent in sorting our rubbish by these new rules has a cost of between £1.7 and £4.5 billion.

The solution being proposed is thus that we should spend more money than the cost of the entire waste disposal process in sorting the rubbish, before we spend still more collecting it, recycling or incinerating it and then tipping the remainder into the same holes in the ground that we’ve always used. The system will cost more in total than the old one in the name of saving money.

There is a legitimate concern about methane emissions from food rotting in landfills. Fortunately, as Elliot Morley (at that time a Defra minister) told the Commons in 2004, this has already been solved: all modern landfills collect this greenhouse gas and use it to create energy.

I can't help thinking that Monsieur Worstall has gone a little OTT here. He doesn't seem to recognise that recycling saves the energy and resources to make new products, that there is a shortage of land for landfill and that 50% of the waste in an average bin could be composted thereby feeding new plant growth.

I am also not entirely sure if the Seattle study gives a fair view of the extra time spent recycling compared to traditional waste disposal. If you are just slinging bits in a few recycling bins that you keep outside your kitchen door, it is not really more time-consuming than putting it in a waste bin and then carrying it to your wheely bin is it?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hallejujah! George Bush sees the light on diplomacy with Iran

The world seems a safer place today than it was six months ago. Why? Dick Cheney no longer rules the roost in Washington, getting the US Army to roam around the globe shooting off like he did with his hunting rifle.

George Bush has now sided with Condeleeza Rice (herself no dove) and started talks with the Iranians. Hallejujah!

Peter Beaumont reports in the Observer:

…Bush – having initially rejected the Iran Study Group’s findings on Iraq – suggest last week that he was now minded to be guided by it. The most visible sign of that change in policy is tomorrow’s meeting in Baghdad (with Iran) – a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group…’Time is on the side of diplomacy. We see no sign of military action being contemplated against Iran” said an (American) official.

…until John McCain gets elected that is.

British sense of outrage over bin collections

I am a great fan of Jasper Gerard, who writes a page in the Observer. One good thing is that his page diverts my attention from Nick Cohen’s writing, which I blithely ignore unless a fellow blogger alerts me to some embarrassing logical inconsistency within it.

Any road up (another one of my phrases which I am now rationing to one a week), Gerard had me laughing out loud today over the current wheely bin controversy:

The British remain unmoved by compulsory ID cards and wall-to-wall CCTV, but put spy cameras in their bins and they feel more victimized than the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Axe weekly collections and the WI thinks it is refighting the American war of independence: no taxation without collection! Ask them to chuck a few cartons in a recycling bag and life seems so traumatic there is talk of the court of human rights.

Mention of the latter court always brings a smile to my face. When I was a councilor on the Planning and Highways committee, you always knew when a complainant had flown off into “over the top” mode when they mentioned a possible appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, as they did at least twice a year. Another sure sign that complainants had eaten too many iron filings for breakfast was if they started to use words which I had to check in the dictionary, like “nugatory”.

Cock and bull spin from Cameron on Grammargate

There is a full page article in the Observer which says that David Cameron started Grammargate to split the parliamentary Labour party.

I’d be interested to hear verification of this story. I am sure that thought passed through the minds of Tory high command. But to suggest it was a deliberate strategy…..and to suggest after having a week or so to think it up. Come on! In all my years reading the Observer I have to say that this is, in the absence of further verification, the biggest load of cock and bull I have ever read in that organ.

Perhaps I am ageist. The Political Editor of the Observer, Nicolas Watt, who wrote the report, looks as though he has just come out of sixth form. I am turning into a grumpy Old Man, I know, and I apologise to Mr Watt. I am sure he is extremely skilled, of course. After all, Andrew Rawnsley looked as though he was still in short trousers when he started writing superlative Parliamentary Sketches in the Guardian.

Is Cameron trying to escape Grammargate with the dog whistle?

…Some further thoughts on the David Willetts idea to set “racial” targets for schools. It is reported as part of the Observer lead story, albeit in a more diluted form than the rather more starkly expressed original BBC report I linked to earlier today.

Interestingly, in the Observer it refers to setting targets for city academies to take students from “both communities” where there are significant community “blocs” locally. That’s a rather different idea than the one expressed in the BBC report.

The Observer points out that the phenomenon of virtually “segregated” schools is clear in cities such as Blackburn and Bradford. “Ted Cantle, who wrote the landmark ‘parallel lives’ report following the 2001 riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford, told The Observer: “There is some evidence that once a school starts to divide it does reach a tipping point where one side or the other feels this school is no longer for them.”

Crucially, the Observer notes that the problem of organically “segregated schools” is not an issue in London and in, to a lesser extent, Birmingham. It is worth taking a deep breath, pausing and taking that in. This problem, for which Professor Two Brains has shut himself away in his laboratory and come up with one of his suspectedly madcap schemes, is not a problem in London. London. Yes, London. …One of the biggest, if not the biggest racial melting pots in the world. And to a lesser extent, Birmingham. …Another huge city with a history of mixed race populations.

So, if this is not a problem in London and Birmingham, it hardly seems to call for the huge national policy of “racial quotas” for schools, which the Conservatives are suggesting, certainly in the original BBC report. If the phenomenon is a problem in a relatively few cities such as Bradford and Blackburn, it does seem that a less far-reaching and dramatic policy is required. …Like for example, the policy which Alan Johnson says the government is pursuing, of getting schools to take action to promote social cohesion through activities such as school twinning and teacher sharing

I was educated in a school which had a modest but reasonably broad racial mix. We had pupils from all the continents, representing a very mixed bag of countries. One of my best friends was from Ghana and in our form we had students from Iran, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Cyprus, Turkey, Zimbabwe, India, Malaysia etc etc. I only mention this because I have always felt grateful that I rubbed shoulders with those of other backgrounds at an early age. I think it is an invaluable experience for children.

In my original posting on this earlier I did suggest that we don’t seem to worry about the thousands of schools in the country which are dominated by “white Caucasian” pupils. Upon reflection, my mind did alight, albeit rather belatedly (it was Saunday morning, after all), upon the example of Northern Ireland. I am a great supporter of the Independent schools there which seek to promote mixed community pupil intakes. However, this is done by having mixed community local school governors/teachers and an “organic” school-driven policy of mixed community intakes. That is very different from the top-down central government driven “racial quotas” system which the Conservative party seems to be proposing. It is very hard to see how this Willetts scheme would work without some degree of school intake control or compunction resulting in disappointed parents/children.

One further point. It is hard not conclude that this Willetts “racial quotas” scheme has been concocted to try to bring an end to “Grammargate”. In that regard it is perhaps skilfull. ‘Chuck a bit of red meat to the right wingers to shut them up about Grammar schools’ – that sort of thing. The Willetts idea has an element of the dog whistle to it. There is nothing right wingers like more than to moan about racial minorities “flocking together” – ‘if they come over here they should respect our ways and mix in – not hide away in ghettos’….that sort of thing. It is the accompanying grumble for the downing of many a pink gin in the privacy of some golf club bars.

Incidentally, David Cameron declares in the Mail today that the Grammar school debate is over. It's not up to him really. However, Conservative Home have stopped heading up each day as "Day xx of Grammarsgate" as of today.

'Tory bid to select pupils by race' - another too clever by half idea from 'Two Brains'?

Some schools would be able to select pupils by race in order to improve community relations under plans being considered by the Conservative Party.

So reports the BBC. I was on outrage alert when I read the headline. I am still am a bit...the details are sketchy. However, if, as David Willetts says, the intention is "use racial selection to unite communities divided by race or religion" then the idea seems worth a hearing, particularly given these details:

Mr Willetts said his party had drawn up its proposals because there were parts of England where towns were "divided by race and religion into two very distinct groups".

"In those communities which are deeply divided we could use the creation of new academies to improve links between the communities by setting the aim of recruiting students from both those communities," he said.

Although the Conservatives did not want to "bus children around", the party did see the "potential for a positive role in tackling the growing ethnic segregation in our schools", he added.

Given that explanation, it seems an idea worth listening to. However, at first glance early on a Sunday morning, I wonder if you can achieve what he is proposing without "bussing" children around, unless there is a fair amount of bussing around already going on. That is, in cases where schools are largely taking children from their immediate catchment area, then if that is producing a predominant "racial mix", one would have thought the only way of causing a broader "racial mix" at the school is to bus children in. If however, you have, say, two schools in a large town and children (parents) have chosen to go to certain schools, causing a predominant racial mix in one or both of the schools, then surely you would have to "force" some children to go to a school they don't want to go to "correct" the "racial mix".

The Tory idea seems too clever by half, which is par for the course for David Willets. It sounds like social experimentation and "nanny" interference.

At the end of the day, (I think I'll have to ration myself to one "end of the day" per week from now on), there are many, many, many - thousands - of schools in this country with just one "race" overwhelmingly represented ie what is called "White causcasian"(a phrase I don't like). We never seem to worry about "racial dominance" in those cases do we? So why should we worry about "racial dominance" in the case of other "races"?

It is completely absurd, as I am realising more and more as I write this, and I can only think that David Cameron is trying to move on from the Grammargate debacle by creating something crazy for people to argue about so they forget Grammargate (...or should it be Grammarsgate?).

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cameron is reluctant to repeat "Slippery Nipple" experience

It appears that David Cameron is reluctant to repeat his "Pink Pussy" or, if you prefer, "Slippery Nipple" experience with Jeremy Paxman. This was an interview with Jeremy Paxman, which the Great Paxo opened, with typical elan, by saying "Do you know what is a Pink Pussy?". When Cameron said 'no', Paxo continued: "What is a slippery nipple?". It all went downhill from there.

The Editor of Newsnight Peter Barron writes:

Take David Cameron. Some observers felt he came very well out of the "slippery nipple" encounter (which you can watch here) with Jeremy just before he became Conservative leader. But despite regular invitations to repeat the experience in an imaginative array of formats, more than a year later our wait goes on.

Iain Dale: 'The Liberace of politics'

Iain Dale is often saying nice things about Nadine Dorries. One can't help thinking that she has not entirely repaid these compliments in kind, through her description of him as reminding her of "Liberace", in her blog on the Conservative blog awards (which I hasten to add Iain Dale won):

Iain Dale, king of the online diary, won best Conservative blog, as you would expect. He collected his award with great aplomb, Iain always reminds me of Liberace. When I think of Iain I see him sat behind a piano playing Rhapsody in Blue, maybe it’s the ties, anyway…

Conservative Home has duly obliged with this mock-up:

Internal Conservative memo identifies LibDems as biggest threat to Tory Victory

A Conservative Home headline reads: "CCHQ MEMO IDENTIFIES LIBDEMS AS BIGGEST THREAT TO TORY VICTORY" and refers to a Times piece:

The Tories’ biggest threat is not from UKIP or the BNP but the Liberal Democrats, according to secret research presented to the party’s front bench last month and leaked to The Times. The polling also showed that voters are clearer about what they like and dislike about Mr Cameron than Gordon Brown and that Tory voters are much more positive about the Conservatives than the party’s activists.

'Tory A-lister defects to UKIP'

Conservative Home reports that a "Tory A-lister defects to UKIP" and links to a piece on the UKIP blog. The "A-lister" in question is Julie Langton Smith. However, I can't find her name on any of the three "A-list" lists on Conservative Home itself.

'Pivotal' moment for Cameron

Martin Kettle in the Guardian writes an excellent summary of Cameron and Grammargate.

He points out that, in order for Grammar schools to be Cameron's "Clause 4", he has to win "it". "It" is rather difficult to win if there is no party ballot on it, as there was for Clause 4 with the Labour party:

Cue a "clause 4 moment"? Sort of. But don't forget the whole point of a clause 4 moment. You have to win it in order to have one. Blair confronted a totemic anachronism and won. Cameron now finds himself doing something similar but on a messier and more contentious issue without a defining ballot to cement his victory. Without that proof he will always be vulnerable to the "more show than substance" charge.

Kettle is in no doubt that this is a defining moment for Cameron:

No one can yet say with certainty whether Brown will be a more formidable adversary than late Blair or a weaker one. One must also beware of assuming that Blair's triangulation strategy in the 1990s is the only one worth replicating for Cameron. But Cameron's strategy is now delivering lower ratings than it was. He is more vulnerable to his rejectionists than before. This is a pivotal moment. Cameron knows it. His party knows it. And, most important of all, Brown knows it too.

The questionable beauty of birdsong

Don't get me wrong. I am a great fan of birdsong. It is very relaxing.

Eric, our neighbourhood "early bird - no glimmer of dawn missed - guaranteed reaction with tweeting within one nano second of daylight suggesting itself" blackbird started off at 04:11 today. Bless him.

I had just got back to sleep when at 05:17 it all kicked off in the local ornithological world. It seemed that two birds (I assume blackbirds) were having a bit of a barney in our front garden. Territorial, perhaps. Anyway they didn't let up twit-twitting very aggressively at each other for what seemed an eternity. Bless them.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Extraordinary criticism by fellow Cabinet Ministers of Margaret Hodge

I feel somewhat vindicated. Oh, alright then, I feel completely vindicated.

Last Sunday I criticised Margaret Hodge's article on housing, particularly her use of language used by the BNP - specifically the word "indigenous".

I then spent much of the week responding to hostile comments about this, including several remarkably convoluted arguments.

Well, now Madame Hodge has faced fierce criticism for her remarks from her own cabinet colleagues - Peter Hain and Alan Johnson. It is not often that you get Cabinet Ministers criticising another one like this. I cannot remember when it last happened. In fact, I'll stick my neck out and say that it hasn't happened in modern politics - since, say, 1945. (I'd welcome comments on this from those with better memories than mine). It is extraordinary.

Johnson accused Hodge of "using the language of the BNP". He said:

There is no evidence whatsoever that immigrants are causing a problem with social housing....My problem is with that is that's the kind of language of the BNP and it's grist to the mill of the BNP.

Neighbouring MP Jon Cruddas has also weighed into the debate:

Housing is allocated according to need and it is disingenuous for Margaret Hodge to suggest otherwise.The problem is lack of housing supply and it's a shame she wasn't so vocal in the campaign for the building of more council housing.

Moving and humbling occasion

The funeral of Sally Hannon today was very moving and humbling. The service was beautiful, put together with great style by Sally's family and the clergy led by Father Bernard Dagnall.

There were so many highlights. Joan Baez singing "Forever Young" was one. The Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police (a very impressive lady) read the lesson from Isaiah. We sang "Jerusalem" and "I, the Lord of Sea and Sky". Leighton Andrews AM read from the Letter of St James. Father Bernard spoke of "comfort" in the old (prodding people into action) sense of the word and the new sense of the word, both qualities which Sally had.

The church was well full and many stayed for refreshments afterwards.

As usual, of course, for a life-long Liberal as Sally was, we had the singing of "The Land". As was observed by one blogger at a recent funeral elsewhere, this is always good for a laugh. The congregation was remarkably cross-party and one always enjoys seeing them "pulled along" into singing "The Land".

I have lobbied a Lord

I have now lobbied a Lord, namely Lord Stoddart of Swindon, to implore him to vote against a parliametary exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

It is all a bit surreal really. I have written copious letters to my MP in the past. But writing to a Lord is a bit weird.

Through the "Write to them - Lords" website you can choose a random Lord or one with an interest in a particular subject, a connection with a particular place or your birthday (!).

I chose one with a connection to the county where I live, Berkshire. Lord Stoddart came up (pictured). He used to be Labour but is now "Independent Labour". It'll be interesting to see which way he votes.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dreadful situation in Liberia

I was very taken by a lengthy report this morning on Radio 4's Today from Liberia. Despite the end of the war, the infrastructure of the country is still in a parlous state. The reporter interviewed some children from a "school" there.
I was very moved by this phrase from the reporter:

This is not so much as school, as a building with a thousand children in it, waiting for a school to manifest itself.

I think I will remember that phrase for a long-term.

The report featured one girl, obviously intelligent, who is being stifled by lack of books or adequate teaching.

...Another situation which "puts things into perspective".

Enchanting life of Daphne DuMaurier

At last, I have watched the Rick Stein BBC 2 programme about the life of Daphne Du Maurier , marking her centenary. Well done, Ricky and well done BBC, say I! It was an enchanting programme. (Sadly my IT skills abandoned me in attempting to record the subsequent docu-drama about Du Maurier).

My mum comes from Fowey and we have spent many holidays down there based in Polruan. There are lots of family connections, but, then, everyone in Fowey and Polruan, quite rightly, proudly proclaims links to Du Maurier. So, I was very interested by the programme, because glimpses of Du Maurier or reflections about her life have always been few and far between.

It was fascinating to see inside Ferryside at Bodinnick, one of her homes, now owned by her son.
I was interested by DuMaurier's curiosity that she had been labelled in some places as a "romantic novelist". She said, in an interview from 1971 (which I think was with Hugh Scully of BBC 1's South-West regional "Spotlight" programme) that she only wrote one romantic novel, which was "Frenchman's Creek".
Her son also said that she got infuriated when people referred to "Hitchcock's The Birds". Not surprising that one! After all, she wrote it!

I have to say that reading more DuMaurier books is on my "to do" list. I have read "The Parasites" and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also read her memoir of her early life in Fowey, which was wonderful.

It was interesting from Stein's film to see her physical appearance over the years. When young, she was quite boyish and angular. In her later years, she had a captivating and iconic look about her, magnified by her partial seclusion. ...Just a personal view, but then that's what a blogs about, hopefully.

Ming on BBC TV news about Facebook

As I struggled with my midriff in the gym at lunchtime, I saw a clip of Ming appear on the screens in the context of Facebook on BBC News. Prince William also flashed up. The story was about this (I presume - they always have Capital Radio on rather than the sound from the TVs!):

A university has told students not to post offensive comments about staff on the social networking site Facebook.

Given that the LibDems struggle to get media coverage at the best of times, it is great that Ming seems to have entered the BBC narrative as a cutting-edge Facebook user.

Big Brother - Thorough and fair adjudication from Ofcom

Ofcom have imposed a very heavy penalty on Channel Four regarding last year’s Big Brother. Channel Four will have to broadcast an agreed summary of the Ofcom adjudication not once, but three times. Having seen these sorts of adjudications roll up on the screen several times, I can vouch for the fact that they are thoroughly humiliating for the broadcaster. You sit there waiting for your programme and then have to sit through this very serious declamation rolling up in very sombre looking text on the screen. So, this is not a "slap on the wrists", nor is it a heavy-handed swipe by Ofcom.

The adjudication is a fascinating read. It is thorough and balanced. I think Ofcom have done a remarkably sound job here.

In essence, Ofcom is saying that Channel Four failed to deal with the offensive remarks properly. This was what I thought at the time. If only they had taken the three recalcitrants into the Diary room early enough and given them a good ticking off, this controversy wouldn't have mushroomed into just over 44,500 complaints to Ofcom.

The items of the Ofcom broadcasting code relevant to the adjudication are:

Rule 2.3 – Broadcasters must when applying generally accepted standards ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context; and

Rule 1.3 – Children must also be protected by appropriate scheduling from unsuitable material.

Interestingly, Ofcom accepts that, under the code, potentially harmful of offensive material can be broadcast, but, in summary, it depends on the context and how it is handled:

In considering whether there had been breaches of the Code, Ofcom recognises that material that is potentially offensive or harmful may be properly broadcast in compliance with the Code so long as its inclusion is justified by the context so as to provide adequate protection to members of the public. The Code does not prohibit the broadcast of potentially offensive or harmful material in any circumstances. What is essential for compliance with the Code is the way in which such material is transmitted by the broadcaster. Accordingly, in considering whether Channel Four has breached the Code in this instance, Ofcom’s starting point is not that material which is potentially offensive or harmful has been transmitted, but whether such material has been appropriately handled by Channel Four.

Ofcom took exception at three events transmitted from the Big Brother House:

Ofcom has considered whether a number of events in the House were in compliance with the Broadcasting Code. It has found that there were three events which were broadcast during the series which were in breach of the Code (see paragraphs 8.1 – 8.38 below for a full explanation of the breach findings). Ofcom has found that in relation to the following three incidents, Channel Four failed to appropriately handle the material so as to adequately protect members of the public from offensive material:

-Remarks about Cooking in India (transmitted 15 January 2007)

-“Fuck off home” comment (transmitted 17 January 2007)

-“Shilpa Poppadom” comment (transmitted 18 and 19 January 2007)

Again, the problem was not the actual broadcast of those events, but that Channel Four did not adequately handle them within the framework of the Big Brother programme:

Channel Four in the Big Brother programme format has established various editorial mechanisms through which inappropriate behaviour in the House can be challenged. For instance, through discussion in the Diary Room, Big Brother can confront and reprimand housemates about their behaviour thereby acting as an important arbiter to what the public may perceive to be offensive language or behaviour. Reactions by housemates, Big Brother interventions and the Diary Room are all part of the well understood architecture of the programme and the context within which Channel Four is able to appropriately broadcast potentially offensive material.

Essentially, Ofcom say that this framework failed in relation to the three quoted incidents:

1.15 However, in relation to the incidents outlined in 1.11 above Channel Four failed adequately to apply generally accepted standards by justifying the inclusion of the offensive material by its context. It is Ofcom’s view that when these three incidents were broadcast, Channel Four failed sufficiently to address the potential for offence or left this behaviour unchallenged. This resulted in offence being caused to a very large number of viewers

As Stephen Tall points out in a typically thoughtful and articulate piece, Ofcom were particularly concerned that Channel Four was not aware of untransmitted footage when it made decisions about the three incidents:

The events from this untransmitted footage occurred before the broadcast of two of the incidents (one of which was broadcast twice) which Ofcom has found to be in breach of the Code. This material included conversations between housemates which were instructive of the relationships, tensions and attitudes in the House at this particular time and were logged as “racist” at the time by Brighter Pictures, the producer.

Channel Four was not aware of this material at the relevant time and therefore was not able to take account of it when making its editorial decisions as to how to handle the broadcast of these two incidents. Channel Four has submitted that this was due to a breakdown in communications between itself and Brighter Pictures, which the broadcaster consider
s resulted from a failure by the producer to follow established procedures and therefore draw the material to Channel Four’s immediate attention. Whether this was the case or not, this does not excuse Channel Four from its obligations under its licence to comply with the Code. Ofcom considers that Channel Four’s compliance processes were clearly not adequate in light of this failure and that Channel Four should have been more proactive at this time in ensuring that it was aware of all relevant material.

1.19 Ofcom has found that there was a serious failure within Channel 4’s compliance procedures for the series which meant that it was not fully aware of the events in the House so that it could handle potentially offensive material through its editorial mechanisms. In our view, if Channel 4 had seen this material, at the time it was recorded, it would have handled the unfolding situation in the House very differently in order to ensure compliance with the Code.

1.20 Ofcom also considers that Channel Four failed in its handling of the incidents broadcast to take account of the cumulative effect of the events in the House. The audience’s understanding of the events in the House and, in particular, the alleged racist bullying, was changing as the series developed and therefore comments which may in other circumstances have been interpreted as “borderline” in terms of offence became much more offensive given what was happening in the House, as well as beyond the House, in the outside world

While calling the breaches of the code a “serious failure”, Ofcom. Accept that this was not the result of “deliberate, reckless or grossly negligent actions” by Channel Four.

The detail of the adjudication includes transcripts from the show which look quite stark when written down.

As a footnote, Ofcom clears up the Jermaine Jackson/”White Trash” issue. What Jackson said was:

“She’s [Jade’s] a star and so she has a following and a fan base; her
mother doesn’t. She does not care and I don’t want to… feel like
this. It was referred to her… They brought up the word ‘white trash’
[the word ‘trash’ is mouthed by Jermaine – not actually spoken] and I
don’t want to bring that up but… and I wouldn’t call her that because
she’s a human being, but the fact is, she doesn’t care."

Ofcom state that Jackson was not guilty of a racist remark because he didn’t call Jackiey Budden “White trash”:

Channel Four said that Jermaine Jackson’s ‘white trash’ comment was clearly
something he was uncomfortable with – he used it carefully and cautiously, mouthing
the word ‘trash’ rather than speaking it; making it clear he did not approve of such
terms. He was using it as an illustrative tool to try to explain the class differences
between Shilpa Shetty and Jackiey Budden as he perceives them. Channel Four
went on to say that it was very important to note Jermaine Jackson’s specific mention
of the issue of ‘colour’ at that point, particularly that he was very clear to distinguish
this issue from things going on in the House, clearly saying “it has nothing to do with
anything”. Channel Four also noted that this scene had been widely misrepresented
in the press with many reports erroneously stating that Jermaine Jackson himself had
called Jackiey Budden ‘white trash’, which led to a number of viewer complaints.

Tories down three points in ICM poll

It is fascinating to see the latest ICM/Guardian poll, via Pigeon Post, which shows the Conservatives down 3 points to 34% - only two points ahead of Labour.

Survey: Cameron's Tories are like an old phone box: Lovely on the outside, smelly inside

Well done to Peter Pigeon for spotting, in the Tribune, this description of the public's perception of the Tories:

In a survey distributed to senior Conservatives just before the local elections, the Tory leader and his party are compared to a traditional British telephone box: "appealing on the outside but if you open the door it smells really bad".

Should the public know how much the Foreign Office spends on Ferrero Rocher chocolates?

The BBC reports:

Plans are due to be unveiled to deter "pointless and mischievous" requests under the Freedom of Information Act. UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas will say the act's reputation is being jeopardised by such inquiries.

The commissioner cites some interesting examples which he regards as unreasonable and needing to be filtered out by existing provisions in the Freedom of Information Act:

-Someone asking for the amount spent by the Foreign Office on Ferrero Rocher chocolates. This is somewhat bizarre. I remember an advert for said chocolates which was based in an Embassy. Perhaps this advert inspired the request. That aside, I would certainly be concerned if the Foreign Office was spending any money on the 'luxury' of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and I think the amount should be in the public domain.

-Someone asking for the amount spent by the Prime Minister on make-up. I think this is an absolutely valid request. I think most people would be surprised that their taxes are going to provide make-up for the Prime Minister at all.

-Someone asking for the number of eligible bachelors in the Hampshire Police Force. Well, that is a bit nuts. I would have thought it raised a few concerns on confidentiality, and I would be surprised if it was entertained in the first place, unless someone can explain to me why providing this information would be enlightening and in the public interest.

There is a very fine line here. I am concerned that the commissioner is going to make it harder for the public to find out information. It is all very subjective. In the future, for example, will information about guests at Chequers not be forthcoming? I seem to recall that it took Norman Baker (or a Norman Baker lookalike) ages to get this information and it was like getting blood out of a stone. Norman Baker had to take the House of Commons to court to get MP's detailed expenses released.

So this is not an area to be dealt with lightly, especially given the parallel move by dinosaurs to get parliament exempted from the Freedom of Information act.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A far-reaching decision, taken at the eleventh hour - Why?

This seems to be a week for major announcements:


Is this considered a 'good week to bury bad news' or, at least, major announcements?

It all seems rather strange since Blair will soon be gone. Does Brown want all the clutter out of the way before he starts? Is Blair trying to secure himself a place in history other than as an alleged, potential war criminal?

Blair's message at Prime Minister's Questions today was summarised by the BBC as being, in effect, "not me guv - Blair tells MPs it's now up to someone else to decide things"

In which case, is it really a good thing that this 'headless chicken' government is announcing such a major decision as that on nuclear power? After all, as recently as 2003, the relevant minister told the Commons:

It would have been foolish to announce ... that we would embark on a new generation of nuclear power stations because that would have guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both energy efficiency and in renewables. That is why we are not going to build a new generation of nuclear power stations now.

(Hat-tip John Sauven on Comment is free)

For such a long-term policy area, with consequences for many future generations, is it wise to be making a decision, which reverses the direction of the government announced only four years ago, at the eleventh hour of Blair's premiership? What's to say it won't be reversed by Gordie next year?

Grammargate: Seminal moment in Cameron project?

Cicero asks if David Cameron is losing the plot? James Graham writes an excellent analysis on the current state of the Cameron project: Is Cameron actually leading the Conservative party?

Lobbing a passing hat-tip at Iain Dale, it is interesting that Tim Montgomerie has picked up some of these themes in the Telegraph today: Cameron should look to his right. This includes some words of criticism for Cameron:

If David Cameron did not intend the grammar schools row to escalate into a week-long confrontation with grassroots Tories, he shows few signs of regretting that it has.
The Tory leader could have calmed tempers with a clear tribute to the role that grammar schools have played in turbo-charging the education of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Instead, he has chosen the path of confrontation: describing the debate as "pointless" and "delusional", he managed greatly to raise the temperature of the whole affair.

Government's planning white paper: Architects association says 'Poor decisions will be made a little more quickly'

I have badly judged architects. Sorry. RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) have responded to the planning white paper with remarkable vigour:

Good design and environmental sustainability need to be at the heart of a humane planning system – but on design grounds the White Paper has failed to deliver.“We support deregulation, but not at any price. Of course we welcome efforts to cut red tape on microgeneration or small-scale applications so that planning attention can be focussed where it needs to be. But unless good design is entrenched into the planning system, it just means that poor decisions can be made a little more quickly.

“For the RIBA, the key point is about driving quality into the planning system. With its White Paper, the Government has delivered on quantity but not on quality.”

LibDem housing spokesman Dan Rogerson has also made a trenchant criticism of the White Paper:

Labour also promised there would be no more Twyford Downs. The reality of the Government’s proposals is that the only way local communities will be able to stop major infrastructure developments will be digging tunnels and climbing trees. The Government would like us to think they’re concerned about consultation but these proposals are all about streamlining the planning process - making it easier to push through decisions they know people will object to.

Hat-tip to Paul Crossley

Why does Prince Charles get involved in NHS spending debates?

There was a fascinating and entertaining debate on homepathy on Today this morning. The Guardian reports:

A group of senior doctors and scientists has stepped up its campaign to stop homeopathic treatment being funded on the NHS. In a letter to primary health care trusts, the seven argue that the evidence for a benefit from the complementary therapy "is equivocal at best, despite many years of research and hundreds of studies".

It does seem mad, in these days of strained NHS resources, that money is being spent on therapies, for which there is little evidence regarding their effectiveness. As the said doctors argue, this is not just a matter of money, but a matter of principle.

It would be fascinating to know what the Royal Family, keen users of homepathy, think about all this. As has been pointed out, it does seem bizarre that Prince Charles makes interventions on this matter, given that it is a controversial area, directly involving governmental health spending decisions. After all, I am not aware that Prince Charles is a scientist and the report he commissioned in 2005 (which recommended alternative therapies in the NHS) was by an economist, not a medical person.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shelter: Margaret Hodge's 'myth about immigrants and housing allocation'

I am indebted to Michael White in the Guardian for providing some perspective on Margaret Hodge's article on immigration and housing:

In her (Hodge's) case only the coded word "indigenous" was deemed offensive, just as David Blunkett was chided for repeating Mrs Thatcher's 1978 use of "swamped" in regard to schools and doctors' surgeries. The British Sociological Association has a list of racially sensitive words which is constantly evolving.

The BSA describes the use of the word "indigenous" in the British context as "not a helpful term as it would be difficult to identify the indigenous British..."

White quite rightly brings the debate back to facts, rather than "myths about immigrants":

Mrs Hodge was challenged to provide hard evidence, not "rumour and inaccuracy", to justify giving the oxygen of publicity to the BNP which has 12 councillors in Barking and Dagenham. It feeds on myths about immigrants. The fact is that the Labour council's points system does give preference to people with local links; that the real local problem is the cumulative shortage of new social housing to replace that lost to the Tory rent-to-buy policy which Labour has not rectified since 1997.

Last year the number of council and housing association units built in the borough fell from a very modest 572 to 230. What is true, as Jon Cruddas, Dagenham's Labour MP now running to be deputy leader, keeps saying is that social services in poor boroughs do feel the pressure of globalisation. So do falling local wage rates. "Racialising" problems will not help, better statistics leading to more Whitehall cash will, argues Cruddas whose local activists beat back the BNP. Labour in Barking did not, add Mrs Hodge's critics.

Shelter also confirm White's point:

In response to Margaret Hodge's comment on the allocation of social housing in the Observer "A message to my fellow immigrants" (20 May 2007), Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter, said: "The failure to build new homes and the devastating impact of the Right to Buy leaves the small amount of social housing stock vulnerable to being exploited for political means. "These comments perpetuate the myth that social homes are given to new immigrants coming to the UK at the expense of the indigenous population - when in fact homes are allocated by balancing what people are entitled to against immediate housing need. "The real problem is the desperate shortage of social housing, which is why Gordon Brown must now deliver on his commitment last week to build more social homes to tackle the ever-deepening housing crisis."

Tories Groundhog day on grammar schools

I am going through a "Groundhog Day" phase. I turn on the radio in the morning and hear the same refrain each time. It's the Tories trying to explain their Grammar School policy.

First of all, David Two Brains tried to explain it last week at 7.50am.

Now today David Cameron had a second bite of the cherry at 8.05am.

Clever use of the media you might say. Although John Humphries did brilliantly get Cameron on the ropes about more than half of his shadown cabinet having gone to public school. Cameron said "That's ludicrous" at one point, which is the equivalent of a white flag.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Concerns about planning white paper

Changes to the planning process seem to be afoot. 'Streamlining' is being talked about. I am a bit confused as to whether this is about the small end - i.e. conservatories, extensions etc - or the big end - i.e airport terminal plans, new rail links etc. Indeed, it could be both.

I think my confusion seems to be justified given that we seem to be in "pre-announcement spin" mode. A quick news google for "planning" brings up three different, potentially conflicting angles on this one story:

Planning Steamroller Set To Roll
Planning Changes To Slash Red Tape
Kelly to advocate 'greener' planning

The planning "commission" ,which is being talked about, scares the living daylights out of me.

Not surprisingly, architects are very keen on the idea and we had Professor Maxwell Hutchinson, the BBC's tame architect, complete with the usual middle-aged tellyman's chestnut hairdye job, railing at "nimbies" this morning on BBC Breakfast.

Professor Hutchinson quoted the examplen of the cross-channel rail link. He said that France got their link built fast, while we were years behind - and this, he maintained, typified the problem with the UK planning process.

But just hold on a moment...Northern France is possibly the most boring, featureless landscape in Europe and any attempt to cheer it up with a railway must have been welcomed with open arms. Kent, on the other hand is a beautiful network of natural and built features and it is not surprising that people wanted to be careful before ploughing a railway through it. I would also cite the example of the French countryside, littered as it is with advertising hoardings. If that is what the "streamlining" of the planning processes and sidelining of "nimbies" advocated by Professor Hairdye leads to, then the French can keep it.

George Michael - Blimey!

Jonathan Ross on Friday night set a new standard for mayhem, even for that show. Janice Dickinson was on. She's is the self-proclaimed first American super-model, apparently. She's a bit like Joan Rivers, without the wit.

Then on Michael Parkinson on Saturday we had the actual Joan Rivers. It finally dawned on me that much of her act is her laughing, or writhing in astonishment, at her own jokes. This was clear through juxtaposition because she was sat next to the wittiest man on earth, Stephen Fry.

George Michael was also on Parky. Hum. I was reminded me of Atlee's advice to Harold Laski: "A period of silence on your part would be most welcome."

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Surprise Guardian sympathetic profile of Conrad Black

Yesterday's Guardian had a remarkably sympathetic profile of Conrad Black. It centred on the publication of his biography of Richard Nixon. That tome seems, from the summary, to be relatively balanced and prescient. While thoroughly acknowledging Nixon's stupidity, we are told, Black seeks to restore some balance to his reputation. Black entones:

"The US simply can't pretend that this guy was some aberration, some kind of mutant, who ran on furry feet into the White House and hid his real nature, until the brave people of the Washington Post pulled back the shower-curtain one night, saw the cloven hooves, and threw him out."

Interesting stuff.

Parental exhortations to their children

We were at the University of East Anglia today for the National Biathlon championships. The Bernard Matthews Olympic Pool was one of the venues we enjoyed!

It is fascinating to watch parents (of whom I was one) shouting exhortations at their children on the running track. You hear these loud, highly technical streams of motivational advice pouring out. Then you look at the receiver of this advice and see a tiny lad, charging along, who looks barely out of nappies.

My favourite was the father who shouted at his son saying "Keep Breathing!" Sound parental advice, if perhaps a little superfluous.

Survey on climate change by the University of East Anglia

I have been invading "Norfolk Blogger" country. We enjoyed a day exploring Norwich yesterday. Again, we visited the Forum, which is one of my favourite public spaces in the country.

While in there, we were gently persuaded by students from the University of East Anglia to complete a survey on climate change. It was fascinating. We were given information on polar bears, ice shelves, ocean acidification and the Norfolk Broads. We had to comment on how we felt about each of these "icons".

After reading the bumpf I chose ocean acidification as the item which scares me and motivates me the most. That was interesting in itself, as a picture of sea is not as "sexy" as one of a polar bear or the Broads.

The idea that acidification could mean creatures not forming shells properly is deeply worrying in its implications for the food chain.

Deeply disturbing use of word "indigenous" by Margaret Hodge

I am not entirely sure why Margaret Hodge is making controversial remarks about housing and immigration. She is Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry, not a Home Office minister. Of course, she is an MP for a constituency where this is a big issue, but even so, it seems strange that she is making such a statement.

The remarks attributed to her on Radio Two included the word "indigenous". Indeed, her article includes this passage:

We should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants.

I am deeply disturbed that a mainstream politician is using the word "indigenous" in such a debate. It is part of a code used by the BNP. It basically means "white" to those who are racist. But there are those of many races, which are not generally white, whose families have been in this country for decades or even centuries.

Friday, May 18, 2007

'A Black day for Parliament' - FOIA exemption bill

..well said, David Heath MP. My wife was using the computer for a little while and our digibox telly was on the blink so I resorted to Ceefax for the first time in several years. It was a bit like going back to writing on a slate with a stone.

But Ceefax informed me of the outrageous bill going through Parliament to exempt MPs and Lords from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA was astoundingly watered down in the first place. To think that some jumped up Tory wants to exempt MPs and Lords from it, is just breathtakingly disgraceful!

Of course, Tories will always find non-sensical arguments like confidentiality of letters from constituents. But you have to ask: Does this stop Sweden from having one of the world's best freedom of information regimes? Or the USA?

Who wants a "Cameron" leading the LibDems?

I was phoned yesterday by a journalist. This happens to me about once every three years, so I ringed the day in red on my calendar and gave myself one extra lump of sugar in my tea.

Any road up, she wanted to know whether there were rumblings in the ranks about Ming's leadership. To cut a long story short, 20 minutes later I think I convinced her that there are no serious rumblings.

I do remember when there were serious rumblings in the ranks about the leadership. It was about six months before Paddy retired as leader when he unilaterally did something outrageous with Tony Blair (I forget what) and had everyone on their high horse as a result.

But apart from reading about three blogs against and about six for Ming, I have seriously not heard anyone locally or elsewhere grumbling about his leadership.

Of course, the council elections were not stupendous. But it takes a long jump to imagine that a change of leader would have helped.

I trust Ming and so do the electorate (more than the other leaders), according to a recent poll. He is a good Liberal with a real track record. He has shown superb sure-footedness with the Green tax and Trident motions at conference. His autumn speech was electrifying. He hasn't made any mistakes (save the silly spinning of his speech last autumn) and he has certainly not done, threatened to do or looked at all likely, to do anything which party members would regard as illiberal or undemocratic (which is more than what can be said for the other party leaders). Yes, I would love to see him doing some high profile initiatives, like Paddy's "sleeves rolled up" tour of the country. But all in all, Ming is a good leader.

When you have supported the party for 37 odd years since our MPs could fit in a cab, you don't panic after a "mixed bag" of council election results. And, as someone said, we are not a particularly "leader-centric" party, anyway. I don't think Huhne or Clegg would have done any better at the local elections, if they had been leader. I also agree with another poster that both Clegg and Huhne have still not shown themselves to be as high profile or effective as frontbench spokespeople as Ming was when he was front bench foreign affairs spokesperson. And I agree with another poster who said that it was Charlie-boy who got us into this mess, i.e. a situation where the only narrative available to the media is "leader in trouble".

I was glad to see the person I supported for the leadership, Chris Huhne, chiming in on BBC News online, in support of Ming.

Of course, we are cognisant of the Cameron-effect. But I believe that Ming is a good leader for the opposite of all the reasons why Cameron is a bad leader. That is, all the criteria on which David Cameron is weak are the very criteria on which Menzies is strong: Menzies is experienced, sure-footed on policy and eminently trustworthy; whereas Cameron is inexperienced, highly shaky on policy and fly-by-night.

Think of it in this way. Imagine we were led now by a David Cameron-type person, rather than Ming. This imaginary leader would be a suitable mirror image of Cameron for the LibDems. (Remember, a mirror shows opposites). Let's call this imaginary leader, Smart Alec.

Smart Alec is in his early thirties, very good looking (without even Cameron's double chin and paunch), with a lovely young family, who became an MP in 2001 after a relatively short political research career and time as a PR person for what many people regard to have been one of the worst television companies in British commercial television history.

Smart Alec wrote the LibDem 2005 election manifesto, which was described as "the most left wing liberal manifesto" in British history. Mr Alec became LibDem party leader in December 2005.

Mr Alec has got a lot of media coverage for the LibDems but has done so by creating a "narrative of inverse paradigm" for the LibDems. So, therefore, he does what people would least expect a leader of the LibDems to do, so that people become convinced that the LibDems are no longer what they thought them to be previously - i.e. a leftish of centre, liberal party.

Therefore Smart Alec has launched a series of surprising media stunts. He has appeared with a gathering of Daily Express readers complaining about asylum seekers. He has attended Milwall Football Club and gone into the terraces with skinhead supporters. He has put the Union Jack flag up on a flag staff in his front garden. He has invited photographers in to his front room when he watches England playing football on the telly, showing them his pile of lager cans and fag ends and his beery skinhead mates.

On the policy front Smart Alec has done little in detail. However, he has jettisoned the party's traditional support for proportional representation and increased investment in public services. He supported the continued military action indefinitely in Iraq and pledged to increase Trident warheads to combat the threat from Iran and Korea.

Now who wants a "Cameron" leading the LibDems?