Wednesday, June 29, 2011

PMQs Pleaser

I am a bit of traditionalist and a fan of PMQs. Some days, like today, are so manic I cannot watch it until nearly midnight but I watch it weekly during the parliamentary term. And every week Speaker Bercow, a man whom I admire for many of his reforms, rises up to tell MPs that the public doesn't like the way they conduct themselves and they ought to reign it in.

Well I wanted to say that, as a member of the public, I do like a robust and loud PMQs. It puts the PM under pressure and a good job too.

What really devalues PMQs is the shameless whips-handout style questions from both sides of the House and if Speaker Bercow wanted to improve the session he could tackle that first, closely followed by the MPs who read out lng winded questions designed only to get themselves in the local rag.

In a political world where most people view MPs as careerist clones, why would we want to do away with the one bit of the week that gives the Commons character and life?

Who are these "public" that tell Speaker Bercow they want a sanitised PMQs, because I'm not one of them!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Shales Plan is Good

I didn't know Christopher Shales but what I have read about him since his death suggest to me he is a decent, kind and community minded man who will be much missed, by his family and friends but also by the Prime Minister and our party.

Mr Shales is clearly a man who understands the Conservative Party and, most importantly, understands the way our members work. On the day of his death, Mr Shales plan to rejuvenate party membership was splashed in the Sunday Mail. The thing is, when you get beyond the tabloid-esque headlines (although, to be frank, he is correct on many of those too), the Shales Plan is rather good. A blogger, Guido, has obtained the report and done a service by linking to it in full. Anybody with an interest in strengthening the Conservatives would do well to read this.

You see, it is a good, objective & fundamentally sound report. Its conclusions are broadly correct (although James Forsyth, who got the scoop for the Mail, adds a few more helpful suggestions such as being able to actually influence policy formation or candidate selection as a member).

At the last General Election, a year ago, over half of the people who worked on my campaign were not (repeat, NOT) members of the Norwich South Conservative Association. And we are not just talking about the scores of friends, relatives and colleagues who stepped up to help me either. We had tellers on polling day, leafleters, canvassers and poster sites from people who "just wanted to do their bit" and help either me personally or the party as a whole. These people are not politics heavy (to quote Mr Shales) but very much politics light. They do not wish to be memebrs of the Party - heavens forbid. Take one lady from Lakenham who contacted us about three weeks from polling day. She delivered over 250 leaflets to her area every week until the poll, around 1000 in total. She did 4 hours of telling on polling day. She displayed a Tory sign, with pride. Or another, a resident from Town Close whom I had helped during my time on the council. She would deliver the 100 houses in her road (which she did on no less than 6 occassions during the actual camapign) and invited me to one of her groups to meet other like-minded people. Both of these women I have tried to sign up as party members. Both steadfastly refuse. Not beceause they are not Conservatives; both has an interest in seeing me elected as our MP and a Tory government but neither wanted to get involved with an aossictaion they saw as elderly, boring or (as Shales said) always after their money. I don't see those characteristics in NSCA. I love the association and the events we put on and the people who attend them are a good cross section of Norwich. But until we offer the likes of "Lakenham woman" or "Town Close Mum" a good reason to join, they'll never find that out.

Now the crux here is that NSCA will never be able to offer what WOCA can. We don't have access to streams of cabinet ministers or senior MPs. There are few country pads to host PMQ parties in. But we do need to offer them something; an experience or return for their members just beyond securing an ideology. Yes that will include control over candidate selection (at all levels, including for MEPs) and it will include a real imput on policy. But it should also include excellent events, shared over groups of associations, areas or regions, and a quality memebrship magazine for example.

When I think of the other groups of which I am a member - the National Trust, National Childbirth Trust (NCT) or NASUWT for example - I expect more in return for my cash than just knowing I am supporting that group.

We know more about increasing membership here in Norwich than most; in one year we have put on more than 150 new members and last year we increased faster than Mr Cameron's own constituency. We have done it by listening to members and changing the way we work. Beit monthly newsletters (asked for and got) or a distinction between "political" and "social" events (asked for and got) we have responded to what members say. This year the AGM of Norwich South Conservatives was standing room only and we had so many attend the room was actually uncomfortable! We had 15 new members of our Executive Committee sign up to help out with the work of running the show. How many associations, from any party, can boast that?

So come on powers-that-be, take a long hard look at the Shales Plan. He's onto something and the best thing we could do is take him seriously.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Worry About House of Lords Reform

I am democrat and I instinctively support elections for the House of Lords, on the basic principle that those who legislate for us ought to be directly accountable to us, the voters. However, the speech of Baroness Betty Boothroyd has awoken a deep fear in me about these reforms.

Currently the big criticism is that appointments to the House of Lords is down to patronage of the Prime Minister and Party Leaders. That has to be wrong. But under the new system, Baroness Boothroyd warns agains the only winners being 300 of the party favourites as dictated by the political parties. She is right; switching patronage from Leaders to Parties is no improvement at all.

There are things I like about the Lords - its independence of mind, ability to be calmer and more rational than the Commons and the way its members do not fear the whips (something I think Mark Pritchard MP would also appreciate). If the new House of Lords (or Senate) dismantles those things then it may be a reform too far as far as I am concerned.

It isn't that I fear elections - I want more elections - but a revising chamber run by the party machiens and whips won't be much of a revising chamber at all.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Disability and the Minimum Wage

I am sure that Tory MP Phillip Davies didn't quite expect the firestorm he received when talking about the best way of getting disabled people back into work. However in amongst the fury I am not sure I have understood his proposal.

Is Shipley MP Davies suggesting that in a job interview between 2 equally qualified candidates where somebody is disabled and somebody not disabled, that the job will go the able bodied employee and so the only way to make disabled people more employable is to give them the chance to offer to work for less?

If so, could less qualified people offer to work for less too? What about carers? Or working mums? After all, they sometimes find it difficult to find employment. What about people in Wakefield and Watford negotiating different rates because of different costs of living?

If they did do this you may as well scrap the minimum wage altogether because you'd end up with people under-cutting each other on wages to get jobs and where the labour of one person in one area is worth less than the same job being done by a different person in a different area.

But I suppose we do this anyway - we hold the minimum wage down for young people to help make them more employable.

So shouldn't we have some consistency on this issue? If we want one, a "national" minimum wage should mean just that. If we want "flexibility" it ought to be for more people than just the young.

At the moment I fear we're muddled on the Minimum Wage.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Facing Both Ways On Targets

Having spent one post saying why Michael Gove is the best thing to happen to education since whiteboard markers meant you didn't get chalk lines on your dark blue suits, I feel duty bound to point out one tiny erreur in today's announcements.

Before I start let me lay out my 2 guiding principles on this - setting targets is centralising, pointless, New Labour nonsense. And providing a better education for our pupils is always a good thing.

Today's EDP let on a frontpage splash that Norfolk Heads are fuming about the standard at which a school is considered to be failing is going to be risen from a 35% A*-C pass rate to a 50% one. In the article, a couple of the Heads move into very political territory accusing Mr Gove of all sorts of things. They are needless to say wrong. As one Head said in the story, even this new tougher target would mean that at a school deemed not failing, half the pupils would leave school without the core skills, things like English and Maths. Are we really saying that we are happy with a system where half of children are not passing the accepted standards? Of course not. Geeting barely a third of kids through their GCSEs is simply not good enough. And there isn't a Head or a teacher I know that thinks it is. If you aspire for the teaching & learning in your school to be better, then you don't just aim for 35.01% pass rate, you aim for every pupil who can pass to pass. I hope that along with this targets comes reform and support for schools who don't reach it. If it does then it isn't a bad thing. A non-teaching friend of mine today said, "so you mean half of kids can effectively fail and at the moment that isn't something we are really worried about? We only panic when 2 out of 3 fail?". When put like that ...

... but on the other hand the thing which is going to make education better isn't the target. New Labour had targets for all sorts of things, most of which were missed. I would suggest to Mr Gove that he ought to up the target still - 60%, 84%, 97% - heck, 100%!! Because that is what we want. All pupils being ready for the world outside of school. Not stuff full on "soft" subjects and a few "equivalents" here and there. Every pupil with good GCSE results; and oddly enough I think that really is the laudable aim of Mr Gove and the government team. But it isn't going to happen.

The public comments on the EDP story tore into the Heads for their lack of ambition. And herein I think is where Mr Gove has got it wrong. Giving a general target for all schools is wrong. There should be challenging targets set for each individual school that looks at CVA, intake, the curriculum they are taught and progress being made. Why should a school that moves from 29% to 34% (thus missing the current target) be considered worse than one that goes from 75% to 74%? CVA is a far better form of measurement than raw scores anyway. We measure all the times in school - we assess like crazy; AfL here, KS2 to KS4 there and yet we cannot find a way of differentiating the targets that we have? And if the school meets those targets, year on year, they should have more freedoms. If they do not, then they get support.

So please Mr Gove. We all want our schools to be better and under you they will be. But give each school a specific, dare I say differentiated, target and judge them against that rather than some faux national standard.

Put it this way, if I stood up in front of my mixed ability Year 10 History class and demanded a minimum C grade target for all pupis, irrespective of ability would that be a good thing? On one hand yes because it is ambitious, but on the other it is doomed to failure and may even alienate the kids who know they cannot achieve that. That is the problem and why I end up facing both ways on targets.

Academy Status

I have a deep dark secret. Shhhh ... I shall whisper it. Come closer. No - that's too close.

(I used to be a member of the NUT).

No I am not saying it again. I am ashamed of that today because of the increasingly bizarre and hysterical reactions they are having to absolutely everything Michael Gove and the coalition government does. In Gove, plus his Ministerial team which includes Nick Gibb and Sarah Teather, I think we have one of the strongest and most professional education teams in the Commons for many years. Only Morris inspired confidence in me, as a teacher, like Gove does. OK he's not perfect - close, but not perfect - but he is leading the biggest and most overdue revolution in education since the 1960s. So clearly, when we are talking about better teaching and improved standards the NUT needs to absolutely freak out.

Take today's announcement about failing primary schools becoming academies (I may come onto the targets for schools later). Good stuff Mr Gove. I have just watched the Head of City Academy Norwich (CAN) on SkyNews saying how the extra investment, the change in ethos and the control over curriculum has taken the school up from rock bottom. I have taught 2 pupils from CAN who come to Notre Dame for lessons. Both have been incredibly bright, motivated and hard working. They thirst for discipline and challenge. So much they travelled across the City to get it somewhere else. Now they say Academy status has turned the school around and is making a real difference to their education, and to their lives. In the old days, these aspirational kids may have travelled afar to go to "better" schools. Now they are happy, settled & achieveing well in their local school - local academy.

So if Academy Status can turn around the old Earlham High - and Heartsease, and Costessey - why should it not turn around our most challenging Primary Schools. With freedom, and the right leadership, these schools can improve too. A few years back if you stood up and said that Earlham High was in the middle of the league tables you would have been laughed out of the City. Now its a reality.

Of course, our friends - brothers - in the NUT declare this is a dangerous experiment. Yes NUT, so dangerous that hundreds of schools are having their standards raised and so experimental its been around for years from the Blair government onwards. I wonder if there is ANY change in education policy that the NUT wouldn't oppose. Their scaremongoring, desperate attitude is so out of touch with the NUT members on the ground that I know.

When people ask if the Unions have a mandate to strike, I don't ask if they have achieved a certain percent in a ballot. I ask if the Union leadership looks and thinks like its membership. On this, and so many other issues, I dearly hope not.

So come on Primary Heads, where is your aspiration? This is a great challenge. We know you want to improve the education of your pupils so grab academy status with both hands and engage with the change. Look at what it has done for schools around you. No more moaning about government dictats. This is education in our hands as professionals.

If Academy Status has worked for secondary it can work for primary schools too. We need a generation of Heads who are ready for that.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Prime Minister: U-Turn If You Want To

I am about to break a cardinal rule of politics; I am in favour of U-Turns.

Yes, you should read that again, because its true.

I am in favour of U-Turns. Or, as I like to put it, I am in favour of government's admitting they don't always know best, don't have all the solutions, will get somethings wrong, will have to listen, will have to adapt and change proposals and won't always push and barge things through because they know best and you don't.

Of course, British politics adhors a U-turn. We like "first past the post" because it - usually - gives us strong and stable government with a majority in parliament to put through the manifesto on which they were elected. So in the real world of politics, once you have your Commons majority and the people (well, 40% of them) love you, then you can implement what you like.

But, when suddenly we are left hung, what then happens? Well I think u-turns are a natural - and almost progressive - side effect of a hung parliament. No longer can the government use the whips to ram stuff through parliament no matter what people say. They have to build a coalition from amongst their own MPs; satisfy the Simon Hughes of this world and also those on the Tory right such as Cash, Jenkins and Redwood. They are much more fragile and therefore people power and the press will have a much bigger say on what the government does.

So when you see the left-wing press (the Mirror in particular) and opposition MPs gloating about the U-turns, I would ask what they would like instead. Would Miliband, Balls, Harman - or Toynbee or Maguire - really prefer the NHS bill in its original form, or the sale of the forests to go ahead? They see the political chance to hit the government without realising they are getting more of what they want - so the U-turn must be a good thing. Aren't these proposals betetr after the u-turn than they were before (well, if you from the left)? More grown-up politics, perhaps?

I like the idea that a government puts forward an idea, gets feedback and then changes its mind (or not) depending on what happens. Dare I say, a "listening government".

So yes, I do like u-turns. And I hope that a future majority Conservative government keep that way of working as it is one of the best features of government.

And p.s. To those who say the government should have it right first time, every time. Name me a government of any political hue, anywhere in the world, at any point in history, that has done this. Cameron isn't perfect and people will respect those who got it wrong, put their hands up, admit it, apologise, move on and learn fromt it.

Archbishop Fail

We expect in this country, quite rightly, that everybody ought to have their say. If Joanna Lumbly is an expert on Gurkha rights, the Prince of Wales can speak forth on architecture and Piers Morgan is allowed to tweet, then pretty much anybody can have a view on anything. With the exception of the Monarch, it is a positive thing. But you have to ask how far some people, the Archbishop of Canterbury being one of them, should be allowed to go.

The Church have a duty to provide moral leadership for its followers. I would expect Dr Williams to have views on issues, maybe as diverse as tackling poverty in Africa to the use of contraception for teenagers. As a Christian, I am interested in what he has to say. But moral leadership is where it ought to stop. And writing a political blast at the whole government, from the safety of his desk via the New Statesman is a cowardly, wrong & dangerous act. Over the top, you are thinking? Well, no.

Firstly whatever happens Dr Williams has to work with this government. I believe he'll have to work with Mr Cameron as Prime Minister for potentially 2 or 3 terms of government. Downing Street, who knew nothing of the attack (and it was an attack) will be rightly weary of the Archbishop after this. And with current debates about the continued representation of the Church of England in the Lords this is perhaps not the right time to be stepping on government toes.

But the more dangerous part was the attack on the democratic legitimacy of the government itself. Now you could argue that we have an elected legislature and not an elected government anyway in this country so all governments are "unelected". Or you could argue that if you add together the votes of the Conservatives and LibDems you finally have a team with over 50% support. The Archbishop himself is not in a position himself to be throwing stones about who is elected and who is not (although if he advocates more democracy that's a good thing and I look forward to a directly-elected Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops giving up their seats in the Lords). The coalition agreement is the best mishmash we have given the parliamentary maths. It is 75% of the LibDem manifesto and 60% of the Tory one. What is the alternative, Dr Williams, are we to assume you want to force another general election perhaps?

And what now for Dr Williams? Well clearly this is a church vs government issue. And I look forward to Dr Williams himself accepting that with the right to speak out comes the right to accountability. All politicians carp - Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband have been in the position of simply opposing everything, but sooner or later you have to come up with your own proposals. Eventually the electorate says "we know what you are against but what are you for?". The same is true of all who seek to have their say. I don't deny, for one minute, the right of extremists such as Ms Lucas or Mr Griffin to have their say. But even the most bonkers of British politicians - yes, even the Communist Party of Great Britain - have their own blueprint for how the country ought to be run. And Dr Williams is no exception. So you are against the government, Archbishop, so what are you for? Don't give me the soft-soap platitudes of freedom, equality, tackling poverty etc - if you want to see these things, how will you achieve them?

Come on Dr Williams, do you think tax is currently too low? How will we get a better health care system? What should we do to stop so much drug dependency? Do you have any ideas to help cut crime?

I defend your right to speak out Sir, but when you do, expect people to ask you questions in return. And if you choose to speak out about politics, expect political questions in return. You have taken a very dangerous path, Dr Williams, and as a supporter of both the church and the government, it worries me about how this will now turn out.