Sunday, August 21, 2011

We Need A "Fighting Chairman"

The job of being Conservative Party Chairman has, traditionally, been quite a unique one in British politics. The role is both political and administrative and tends to be split into 2 - the internal focus of party organisation, making campaign HQ work effectivly and firing up to troops (a job Eric Pickles did so very well) and the external one of going out onto the airwaves and beating the hell out of the opposition (a job Norman Tebbit did so very well).

So when, after the election, David Cameron appointed Sayeeda Warsi to the job I thought the new Prime Minister would have thought long and hard about this appointment. Warsi was clearly, I thought, the woman for the job - so impressive was she, that Mr Cameron had to get her into government via the appointed House of Lords rather than election to the House of Commons. At the time I remember some grumbling, from the old guard, about her getting the job because she is a female Muslim, but I had to dismiss these arguments. As if the Prime Minister, especially one whose task was made more difficult by holding a coalition together, would make an appointment on such spurious grounds.

The recent riots in Britain have, though, given me cause to think again. You see, in ordinary times the Prime Minister would balance his role in government with being the Leader of his Party. The problem Mr Cameron has is the nature of coalition government. I am sure he wants to do and say a lot of things that he just cannot do because somewhere a "senior" LibDem (and I am yet to hea of one of the media who doesn't have that label) would go ballistic. I am sure, call me niave if you wish, that Mr Cameron is much, much tougher on justice policy, human rights, EU integration and foreign policy than he could ever say in public. A coalition government is a classic balancing act in that respect and I am sure many LibDems feel the same about Mr Clegg.

So here is where I would expect the Tory Chairman to step in, and say all the things that our members and supporters want to hear (and, I warrant, a majority of the country). Where was our Chairman going from studio to studio, radio mic to daytime sofa, giving those no-nonsense tough talking interviews? Nowhere; almost invisible. The few media appearances she did make were, frankly, poor. That's why it was Michael Gove who - the PM aside - made all the running and gave the party faithful something to go door-to-door with. What stopped Baroness Warsi? Where was she and what was she doing?

When we have a Tory Leader who cannot be, and say, all that he wishes it is paramount we have a "Fighting Chairman" who goes out there and punches for us.

Now I know what my critics would say - Baroness Warsi is also a member of the government and a member of the cabinet. Her (almost) LibDem equivalents, President Tim Farron MP and Deputy Leader Simon Hughes MP, both sit outside of the government.

So I have a suggestion to make.

Use the undoubted talents of Baroness Warsi elsehwere in the government and give us our "Fighting Chairman". Then, remove the holder of the Tory Chairmanship from the cabinet to give them the freedom to speak (or shout) up for us without the constraints of collective responsibility.

Because when the Conservative Leader cannot lead the Conservatives above all else, the Chairman should.


I have had a fair few comments, emails, tweets and calls from fellow NASUWT members also requesting information on the massive payout given to our General Secretary. I hope she does more than just putting deeply inaccurate and flawed information into union magazines.

Anyway I have now send Ms Keates around half a dozen tweets asking for a conversation or a chance to communication about her renumeration package - but no reply (yet). What is she, or her spokespeople at NASUWT, so afriad of?

Friday, August 19, 2011

NASUWT Watch: The Union Fat-Cats

According to my Union magazine, the General Secretary of the NASUWT Christine Keates has a salary package worth touching-on £140,000 per year. I wonder who in the educational profession earns anywhere near that? That is a package not far off the Secretary of State himself.

As a sub-paying member I phoned the NASUWT HQ to ask them if anybody would like to justify that sort of wage. I was put on hold for a few minutes, before being told nobody was available to speak to me. I then asked to speak to Ms Keates herself; after all, she ought to know why she is paid so much. I was told that she was away - or busy, they weren't quite sure which - and they would pass on a message.

This was 2 days ago and still nobody has returned my call.

Can I suggest that the Union movement might have slightly more public support and credibility if its leaders weren't such obvious fat-cats themselves? Why shouldn't union leaders take, for example, the average salary of their members - I'm sure that would get support amongst the public and ordinary union members. As I'm overly-generous why not offer them the average plus 25%?

I look forward to Ms Keates calling me back; and in the meantime I may just look into other ways of advancing this cause.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Public & PMQs

"The Public don't like it, and I don't like it."

Well, that's the usual refrain of Commons Speaker John Bercow as things get a little loud at Prime Minister's Question Time. I have spoken before (here) about the fact that I like it when PMQs gets lively and think that the pressure, or otherwise, put on MPs in a good thing.

I cannot remember a week when Speaker Bercow hasn't stopped the flow of an arguement, and even on some occassions silence our Prime Minister, to repeat his charge that the public doesn't like the noise and bustle of the questioning. I know that Speaker Bercow was elected on a reforming platform and much that he has done I personally approve of, such as increased use of Urgent Questions, but his attitude and behaviour at PMQs does worry me. And what worries me more is that he uses "the public" as a method backing up his own views.

At the end of my previous post, I asked the question "who are these public that tell Speaker Bercow they want a santised PMQs" and it has played on my mind ever since. So I ended up putting in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking the Speaker exactly how many memebrs of the public have complained about the behaviour of MPs at PMQs.

After all, to change the whole tone of PMQs must suggest massive public fury; members of the public firing off angry letters and emails to vent their fury that MPs should ask reasonable questions in reasonable ways and recieve them in utter silence. They demand, these public, that the Speaker acts as a teacher would, insisting on decorum and threatening any MP, including the Prime Minister and both frontbenches with detention unless they play ball. He should even pick out a few and make jibes at them in order to control the commons.

So my FOI request asked how many pieces of communication (letter, phone call or email) the Speaker had recieved complaining about behaviour at PMQs. Go on, take a guess.

Well the answer may surprise you. The Speakers office only hold communications for sixth months, but in the half year until 22 July there were ...

... ready for it ...

... 36 ...

... yes, thirty six.

36 members of the public have complained about the standard of behaviour at PMQs in six months.

I am amazed that our bossy, overbearing Speaker has the cheek to call forth public opinion on this matter when less than half of one percent of one average constituency in the UK has registered a complaint.

That's fewer people than complain about your average Eastenders storyline and even fewer than most e-petitions, no matter how obscure the topic, gather.

And how many people have written to complain about the Speaker's constant interruption? Well apparently they are working on that figure for me as I blog. I am sure it'll be less than 36 but it shows how few people really, actually care enough about an issue to take up pen, keyboard or telephone and do something about it.

So let's hear slightly less about how the public dislike the format of PMQs, Mr Speaker, because at best the public haven't spoken yet on the issue.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

If you have a spare tenner, put it on Michael Gove to be the next Conservative Leader ...

Michael Gove is an absolute master of his Education brief, his media performances over the riots this morning were very good indeed and I have just caught up with his absolute mauling of Labour's Harriet Harman here:

If you have a spare tenner, a flutter on Mr Gove might not be a bad idea. A few years transforming our education system, Gove would make an excellent Home Secretary and then who knows - the next Leader of the Conservative Party?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Pickles 1 - Shameless Labour Councils 0

Eric Pickles has done what Eric Pickles does best today.

He has put information in the public domain that has 2 points to it - most importantly he is opening up the books of local government and shwoing tax payers exactly what they are (or aren't) getting for their money. But this has the added bonus side-effect of humiliating some councils (generally Labour run, but Tory ones too) who aren't doing their job properly.

Imagine this scenario. You are a large Labour-run authority interested not in the best for your local people but in your own re-election locally and in damaging the national coalition as much as possible. Along come those dastardly cuts (you know, the ones that take us way-way-back to 2007 levels) and you see an opportunity. Cut massively, slash services, impact as much as you can. Then blame the government and sit back as the votes roll in for Labour at the next local election and, hopefully, the next General Election. This is exactly what is happening up and down the land.

The trouble is that these councils have other choices before they start making deep cuts in local services. And today Eric Pickles shines the light on the assets those council have and urge them to think about using them before cutting. If I lived in one of those large Labour-run authorities I would be rightly angry that they were cutting, say, rubbish collection whilst owning an airport/football club/cinemas/golf courses (delete as appropriate).

Now I totally accept that many of these assets will actually be investments; we can't sell off the family-silver if, in fact, the family silver is generating income for the council (especially above that which could be obtained via other methods like banks, and a lot safer!). Councils locally, such as Breckland, I understand draw a decent income from their asset-investment and use this money to hold down council tax. Mr Pickles would approve I am sure. But frankly any asset which has been consistently either breaking even or making a loss needs to go.

And there is one last question - should councils own this stuff in the first place? If the asset doesn't produce an income (like a golf course can) and isn't in the community interest (as some football clubs can be), then why own it? And if possible could the poitn of the asset be achieved in some other way?

This is a complex issue which needs to be taken case-by-case. But the brilliance of the Communities Secretary (I am a self-confessed Pickles fan) is that in one sweep he has destroyed the arguement in the public eye about the need for deep and painful cuts at local level in certain places.

In the same way I don't believe Norwich City Council should cut one iota of service before "political assistants" (council employees paid to work for party political councillors) are removed or the salaries of top staff is cut, I wouldn't accept any cut whilst a council asset portfolio hasn't been publicly examined.

Take a look at any message board today - the standard comment is "I can't believe my council have cut X whilst they own a Y!!!". Another round to Mr Pickles, me thinks.

I urge everyone to get online, see what their council owns and start asking questions about it!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Death Penalty: For The Avoidance of Doubt



However ... what it does raise is an interesting discussion regarding indirect democracy.

As I often ask my A Level students; if democracy is a good thing, what happens when MPs and the public collide on an issue such as - the death penalty? A few years ago a very bright young student called it "pick 'n mix democracy"; the public get to choose which issues it ought to have primacy over (death penalty, Europe, single currency, immigration to name a few) and which issues it delegates to parliament (everything else you don't find on the letters page of the Daily Mail, he quipped.) But we don't have a "pick 'n' mix democracy", we just have a parliamentary democracy, I said.

Ah, my padawan learner replied, and there-in lies the issue. Under "pick 'n' mix democracy" the pubic get the choose what they decide about, under "parliamentary democracy" the MPs do. I was reminded of this conversation when the AV Referendum was announced - the classic example. We, the people, don't get to decide on the death penalty (which a lot of people care about about) but do get to decide on AV (which very very very few people care about).


(Oh, and I say this as somebody absolutely and totally opposed - to both the death penalty and AV).

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The People's Jury: Guilty or Not Guilty?

In his excellent piece for the Telegraph (here) blogger Graeme Archer does a grand job of knocking down the rather, ahem, inetresting idea in the Guardian (where else?) that a randomly selected "jury" of 1,000 Britons ought to hold court on some of the big issues facing the public.

Putitng aside Archer's point about this unelected clique telling our elected parliament what to do and think (I am rather fond of the idea of parliamentary sovereignty and voting at election time to make my voice heard) the idea is doomed because it almost certainly won't get the protagonists what they want.

By dangling 3 big issues - MPs expenses, the banking crisis and phone hacking - in front of the public, all issues where the public take issue with "vested interests" and "big businesses" - they make the idea sound attractive. But consider this. Britain is - wait for it - a conservative (small "c") country. For the vast majority of the last century or so, we have had Conservative, Conservaive-led or Conservative-dominated National governments. There is, as we are now finding out, a big conservative element to the LibDems and also to the Labour Party too. We have had precious few radical socialist, or even just socialist, governments and the only time recently when Labour have "won big" is when they shifted to the right (i.e. to where the people of Britain are). Sorry Guardian readers, however few of you there are left, it is true. Go to a council estate anywhere in the country, where you might expect Labour support to be strongest. Ask them about Europe, or immigration, or taxation levels and see what they say; I distinctly remember one voter last time in the heart of Lakeham lecturing me about the evils of Europe, too many immigrants, tax too high etc etc and - you guessed it - he would still be voting Labour. Even Labour folk have a conservative element to them.

So if you take 1,000 random Britons you wouldn't get the spread I think The Guardian expect. And instead of asking them about MPs expenses, as Archer suggests, you put other issues in front of them, you might not get the answer you expect either.

So I lay this challenge to The Guardian, The People's Jury and its fans. With some polls putting support for a return to the death penalty at over 70%, would you be happy for the first idea for discussion to be the death penalty?

Dontcha just love indrect democracy - when it suits you, eh, Guardian readers? ;-)