Tuesday, 31 July 2012

End the speculation: Cameron won't sack Osborne

When the media, old and new, sink their teeth into a story, it’s hard to prize it away. All it takes is a scent, a glimmer of hope that they may be proved right, for momentum to take over. As is the scenario with Chancellor George Osborne. Speculation over his position has been rife since the Budget: the brilliant, shrewd, future leader in waiting, reduced to a laughing stock, in a matter of months. As long as the economy continues to tank, the questions will keep on coming, with the comment pieces piling up.

But, we can all calm down. Because, like the British economy, George Osborne ain’t budging. The ramifications for David Cameron would be enormous. The most important member of the Cabinet after the PM failing to last a full parliament. It just won’t happen. Ironically, on this occasion, Cameron’s judgement – were he to sideline his Chancellor - would probably be hailed rather than derided.
Whilst the country has everything to gain, Cameron has too much to lose. Osborne is a vital ally, a friend, and founding member of the Notting Hill set. Dumping him would provide the right wingers with a martyr. He would quickly become the go-to man for any grievances.  Why? For starters I can’t see him accepting another role in the Cabinet, bar possibly Foreign Secretary. Anything else would be a humiliating step down. Once you’ve been Chancellor, the only way is up, or out.

William Hague is spoken of as a possible successor, but would he really want the job and the microscopic scrutiny that goes with it? For someone of his experience, Foreign Secretary is as good as it gets. He seems to relish his current role. Why trade diplomacy, where many of the big decisions follow an expected path, for the suffocating spotlight that accompanies the top person at the Treasury?
Vince Cable’s name keeps cropping up, but can you imagine the barrage of abuse unleashed by the already gobby Tory backbench? A Lib Dem Chancellor would be enough to see them apoplectic with rage and foaming at the mouth. Vince would be a popular choice amongst the centre-left, his chance to redeem himself, re-unveil his progressive feathers, but he may also pose a threat to his own leader’s position. Cameron seems too close to Clegg to so publically challenge his authority.

All this reminds me of the endless speculation over whether Tony Blair would sack Gordon Brown – something his wife Cherie had urged, if Andrew Rawnsley’s political tome is to be believed - although for very different reasons.
Osborne is Cameron’s economic mouthpiece. They have jointly mapped out our decade of austerity. Ideological certainly binds them together. A permanent dwarfing of the state is their co-authored project.

The Independent’s Steve Richards believes that:
“Osborne [has become] trapped by a narrative that had been adopted for electorally partisan reasons.”

This was a strategy that pinpointed blame on Labour for the state of the economy. Clearing up its mess is going to take a lot longer than two and a half years. We’re in it for the long haul, so the cry goes.
As Richards correctly points out, Osborne is also protected by the coalition agreement. Neither party is prepared to back down now:

“From the beginning, the Liberal Democrats have described the main purpose of the Coalition as "rescuing the economy". As a result it is almost as hard for them to accept that the economic basis of their original partnership is causing more harm than good.
"We have reached the strangest point yet in the Coalition's bizarre life. Its political survival depends on a very big leap away from Plan A – yet its origins make it almost impossible for such a leap to be made.”

And this is why we’re lumbered with him. To give Cameron some credit, he’s been extremely loyal to his team. Enough to make LabourList editor, Mark Ferguson, speak of his ‘begrudging admiration,’ for him. A settled group of ministers is usually preferable to:
The hyperactive reshuffle fever that used to come over Labour periodically during our time in government.”

“Whether it’s loyalty or weakness, on balance it’s a positive thing. Stable, knowledgeable government is always preferable to that of a government that is desperate to show that it is doing “something” (anything).”
The first government reshuffle, expected in the autumn, may be the most anticipated in years, but to turn the conservative maxim on its head, it’ll probably be a case of: ‘if it’s broke, don’t fix it.’

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 31st July 2012

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The opening ceremony: spectacular and triumphant

I’ve woken up feeling extremely proud. That was the first time I’ve ever sat through an entire opening ceremony from start to finish, and boy was I rewarded. As the countdown got nearer, I could feel myself getting butterflies, hoping that everything would pass off smoothly, hoping that there’d be no major, obvious, glitches, and most of all, just hoping we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves in front of a worldwide audience of FOUR BILLION!

I needn’t have worried. It was simply spectacular. A four hour British triumph. Danny Boyle has pulled off a masterstroke. I think we all know who’ll be heading up the New Year Honours List.

I had a strange feeling before it all began. Armed with a bottle of plonk and a tub of Pringles, I thought to myself: “right, this is it. It’s been a long seven years. So much has happened since we won the right to host the Games.” That awful day after still firmly fixed in my mind. What a cruel turn of fate.
And then the wait was finally over. The opening scene, that quintessentially British one, the countryside, giving way to the industrial revolution, war, the swinging sixties, an homage to the NHS (bet the coalition loved this sequence!) modern day Britain, accompanied by music from some of our greatest ever artists. Boyle pulled out all the stops. Some of the biggest names in British culture made an appearance, from Kenneth Branagh, to J.K. Rowling to Sir Paul McCartney, to...the Queen!

Possibly the highlight of the night for me: Daniel Craig, as James Bond, pays a visit to Buckingham Palace, and meets her Majesty. Well, at first you see the back of a Queen. None of us really believing it would be the Queen. Oh, bet it’s Helen Mirren, my wife said to me. That would be great if it was, I replied.  And then she turns round with a “Good evening, Mr Bond.” Hilarious!  Off they both go to catch a helicopter where they are then (this is where the stunts take over) “parachuted” into the Olympic stadium.
My overriding view was that this ceremony was a lot of fun. It was deliciously quirky. It had the all important self-deprecating sense of humour. At times it was slightly bizarre, and I wasn’t always sure what was going on, but that didn’t really matter. Most importantly, it was a celebration of all things British. Not English, but British. I defy anyone across all corners of the island not to have been bowled over by at least a section of it. The organisers have always maintained that whilst London is naturally the focal point, the Games will take in all of Britain.  Everyone is to feel included.

I realise that much of last night’s ceremony was probably (okay, definitely) lost on the rest of the world, or those not au fait with the ins and outs of our culture, but that didn’t matter. The spotlight was on us. The world came to London. This was the best four hour ‘Visit Britain’ video anyone could ever make. Labour Councillor and New Statesman columnist Rowenna Davis summed up the mood perfectly for me when she tweeted:
“Danny is having one giant in-joke with the whole of the UK. Awesome.”

Never before I have felt so patriotic, so proud to be British. I’ll admit, I’m not the Royal Family’s biggest fan, so whilst I still enjoyed the Jubilee, and Kate and William’s wedding more so (don’t ask why!), this was on another scale. This really was a monumental coming together, with the whole world invited. We don’t do patriotism well. It makes many of us cringe and feel slightly uneasy, a most British reaction. But last night, the stirrings of patriotism came to the surface like never before. What a night. What a triumph. Now, can we please win lots of medals.
This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Saturday 28th July 2012

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Immigration, identity and the ‘culturally threatened’ DEs

An outbreak of psephology has infected the Labour ranks since May 2010. There are few of us left who will hear the words ‘five million votes,’ and not offer up our own interpretation as to why Labour lost them. But converging on a single explanation has proved fraught, almost tortuous at times. Partly due to voter volatility, and partly nowadays because more of us unite around single issues rather than be bowled over by one party’s over-arching vision for governing. It’s getting harder to pin voters down. Hence, the myriad of reasons proffered, with many more on their way, no doubt.

It’s the DEs (22% of the electorate), the semi and unskilled workers, and those dependant on state benefits, who I’d like to concentrate on.  With the C2s (skilled workers, 19% of the electorate), at the last election, they switched to the Tories on a 7% swing. Together, they make up the working class, or Labour’s supposedly ‘core vote.’ Put another way, they are now the minority.
Labour has seen a 20 point drop in DE support: 60% in 1997, down to just 40% in 2010. A similar 20 (50-30%) point drop occurred amongst C2s. As Paul Hunter, from The Smith Institute notes:

Indeed, in 2010 for the first time ever, more middle class than working class people voted for Labour.”
Turnout amongst DEs was a massive 20 points adrift of the ABs (managerial and professionals, 29% of the electorate). And yet their support remains key:

“Of the four socio-economic classifications, Labour still retains its biggest support amongst DEs. And it is those lower earners who saw their relative wages stagnate during the New Labour years.”
So, where did the DEs go? In its excellent dissection of Labour’s missing five million, The Smith Institute, found that:

For men, the biggest drop was for DE voters, with Labour’s lead just three percentage points over the Conservatives. Further to this it is worth highlighting that one fifth of male DEs voted for ‘other’...this is probably only explained by the rise in support for the BNP.”
Similarly, a 2009 study by Channel 4, following on from the BNP’s success in the European elections that year, found that it was mainly men (61%) who backed the far right, despite only making up 48% of the electorate. In total, 36% of the BNP’s votes came from those classified as manual workers.

Whilst Paul Hunter cautions against the prospect of the BNP winning any seats from Labour, he notes their increasing impact on elections:
In 1997 the BNP’s vote stood at just 35,000 representing a meagre 0.1% of the national vote. Today its vote is well over half a million and has almost 2% of the vote. In 2010 it put up 339 candidates, 216 of these candidates were in Labour held seats and 70% of the BNP vote came in seats where Labour won.

“In 2010 if the BNP vote went straight to Labour it would have kept 14 seats that went to the Conservatives and taken three seats that went to the Lib Dems.

“If Labour had won those 17 seats it would have had a total 275 seats and would have been in a much stronger position to form a coalition.”

We can thank our disproportionate voting system for keeping the far right out of parliament, but that doesn’t mean the trends of a core constituency normally sympathetic to Labour won’t play havoc with the electoral arithmetic, denting its chance of winning potentially crucial seats and suppressing its vote elsewhere.

It’s stating the obvious that worries (exaggerated or not) over immigration are behind the BNP being able to cherry-pick disenchanted Labour voters. The seemingly accepted view within leftist circles is to pinpoint the blame on the economy. Struggling to find work, levels of pay (in real terms) decreasing, shortages in social housing, have sometimes produced a highly-charged and scapegoat-inducing backdrop. Immigrants are convenient fodder for those fed on a diet of right wing propaganda and distortions on a mass scale. 
However, according to Matthew Goodwin, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, this ignores the reality pre the crash of 2008:

“You have long argued that – ultimately – anxieties about immigration and identity can be resolved by tackling economic grievances...The fact that the far right was rallying immigration and identity concerns during periods of economic stability and growth is conveniently ignored.”
It also fails to acknowledge what Channel 4 found which was that the average household income of the BNP voter (in 2009) was £27,000, only just below the national medium of £29,000. 

In an open letter to the Labour Party, published by the Policy Network think tank, Goodwin takes up the theme of the ‘culturally threatened:’
“Decades of research in the social sciences deliver a clear message: it is a perceived sense of threat to the cultural unity of the nation – rather than economic threat – that is the strongest driver of prejudice, and also the desire for more restrictive immigration and asylum policies.”

Rather than just playing the economy card, the left needs to be more adept in facing up to questions of cultural disunity. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these are the ‘non-quantifiables’ that the right comprehends and the left ties itself up in knots over. Ed Miliband’s speech on Englishness was a good start and showed he’s prepared to tackle the contentious issues head on. Not that addressing notions of Englishness should be contentious. You can see where the endless knots come in.
Addressing the ‘culturally threatened’ would help solidify the welfare state. Bringing disparate groups together, united around a common theme (Englishness, or something similar) benefits society as a whole.

“Research in the U.S. has shown that – as a result of perceptions of cultural differences between groups - citizens become less favourable toward using the institutions of the state to reduce poverty and provide welfare.”
Goodwin notes that across Europe the far right have been so effective:

“Not because it has pitched to concerns about resources but because it has spoken to fears about a loss of cultural unity, national identity and ways of life. These concerns are not rooted in individual experience: they are concerned mainly with the impact of diversity on the wider national community.”
Labour needs to ensure that it speaks directly to the DEs, such as the 59% of BNP voters who believed the party "used to care about the concerns of people like me but doesn’t nowadays". Doing so won’t guarantee Labour victory, but it’ll be a start. The days of agonising about not wanting to give oxygen to the far right should be over. A debate on immigration and its impact on cultural unity and identity should begin. There are some things that just can’t be put down to economics.   

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 25th July 2012

Monday, 23 July 2012

Latest mega Tory poll: Cameron still their best asset

When Lord Ashcroft speaks, the political right listens. The last few years have seen the release of three meaty publications. In 2010 he gave us his Minority Verdict, a look into the reasons why the Conservatives had failed to secure an outright majority. In it, he gives his blessing to the coalition and argues that the party had put the country first in agreeing to govern with the Lib Dems. At the time, the country needed stability. He also asked Tories to consider the context:

“The elections of 2005, 2001 and 1997 produced, in descending order, the Conservative Party’s three worst ever results. The Conservatives had never before managed to return to government from a position as weak as the one they faced in 2010.”

The gist was that rather than just seeking to discredit Labour’s record, failing to make immigration and crime key electoral issues, the Tories lost (or failed to win outright) because the public never truly grasped what they were about. They wanted change, but were confused as to what type of change the Tories were offering.

In Project Blueprint: Winning a Conservative majority in 2015, out last May, he gave his now infamous warning that:

“...while the Conservatives struggle to piece together two fifths of the electorate, Labour’s core support plus left-leaning former Lib Dems could theoretically give Ed Miliband close to 40 per cent of the vote without needing to get out of bed.”
With Labour now regularly polling above 40% this is becoming more of a distinct possibility. The verdict of the 10,000 people he sought provided some worrying news for the Conservatives.  Whilst nine of ten of those who voted Tory in 2010 were largely satisfied with how things were going, believing the right decisions being made, recognising the need for compromise in a coalition, it was the first time Tory voters who were most likely to grumble. Almost half said their view of the party had changed for the worse, with a large number not too keen to see a Conservative majority at the next election, with only a small majority pledging the party their support in 2015.

Last week saw Project Blueprint Phase 3: The quest for a Conservative majority. As with his previous publications, its findings will provide food for thought for the strategists at Tory HQ. The size of the samples, 8,000 on this occasion, mean these reports need to be taken seriously.
Lord Ashcroft identifies those whom he calls the ‘Conservative Universe’ (terrifying thought, I know): the Loyalists (the over 65s disproportionately fall into this category), Joiners (most voted Lib Dems in 2010, but have been impressed by Cameron and Osborne’s handling of the economy, many would vote Tory at the next election), Defectors and Considerers (more likely to vote Lib Dem, favour a coalition over a Tory majority). Winning the support of all four groups may well win David Cameron his much prized overall majority. In theory at least.

It’s the ‘Defectors’ who should be giving the Tories most concern:
One third of those who voted Conservative in 2010 say they would not do so again tomorrow. Two fifths of these say they do not know how they would vote in an election tomorrow, and most of this group feel the Conservative Party is not on the side of people like them. Around three in ten say they would vote UKIP.

The one thing that unites all four groups is their view that Cameron/Obsorne are better trusted to run the economy than Miliband/Balls. Most support the austerity programme but are sceptical as to what it has achieved in practice.
The government’s propensity for u-turning has been greeted with some suspicion:

“For a government to change its mind was not a bad thing in principle, and could be a sign that it was listening. However, the number of reversals suggested to people that policies were not being thought through properly”
As he has been since he took over, David Cameron is still the reason Tories and Tory considerers have stuck by the party. Despite George Osborne’s reputation taking a nosedive in recent months, Cameron is the glue that binds the loyalists and waverers together.

When asked whom they thought would make the best Prime Minister, all four groups plumped for Cameron by some distance. It’s hardly surprising to read 97% of ‘Loyalists’ and 91% of ‘Joiners,’ saying this, but the 69% figure from both ‘Considerers’ and ‘Defectors’ should trouble Ed Miliband. Only 21% of ‘Defectors’ and 12% of ‘Considerers’ – the kind of people Labour should be targeting – opted for Ed.
If David Cameron is still seen as an asset to his party, according to Lord Ashcroft’s poll, the same can’t be said for Ed Miliband. When asked whether they were more favourable towards David Cameron or the Conservative Party, and to either Ed Miliband or the Labour Party, the results are quite stark. Amongst all responders (i.e. excluding the ‘Conservative Universe’), the results are close: 19% are more favourable towards the PM than his party, 21% the other way round. Damningly, only 9% are more favourable towards Ed than the Labour Party, but this rises to 41% when the question is reversed.

For ‘Considerers’ the figures read: 39% versus 23%, and 15% versus 47% for the ‘Defectors.’ When applied to Ed and Labour, only 5% of ‘Considerers’ prefer him to his party, with 47% the reverse. For ‘Defectors,’ 8% and 29%, respectively. As previous polls have shown, and continue to show, the Labour Party remains far more popular than its leader.
Even though this study aims to look at the viability of a Conservative majority in three years time, there is plenty for Labour to ponder. The knocks the Tories have taken in recent months haven’t done too much damage to David Cameron’s standing. Whilst he seems to be on the attack from the right on issues such as Europe and House of Lords reform, he can take comfort from the fact that on the Tory frontbench only William Hague, who maintains he wouldn’t want to be party leader again, comes close to matching his popularity. Overall, Boris Johnson remains, head and shoulders, the most popular Tory. For now, he is safely ensconced in London. For now.  

This article was first published by Speaker's Chair on Monday 23rd July 2012

Monday, 16 July 2012

Cameron and Clegg need each more than ever

All together now: “Paaaaarliament’s out. For. Summer.” Who will be the most relieved? Probably both of them. It’s been several months to forget for the coalition. Cue a summer of recriminations, backstabbing, briefings, and counter-briefings.

The Tories, in particular the school of 2010, pin the blame on those pesky Lib Dems, getting in the way of them being able to force through proper Conservative policies. Funnily enough, many of them accuse David Cameron of much the same. The saner wing of the Tories are easier to please, recognising that being in coalition demands compromise, and much of the government’s agenda is still being pursued anyway.

The Lib Dems are on the verge of blowing a fuse. Any opportunity they get to show the electorate that there is in fact more than one party in government, that the authentic voice of the Liberals is on its way, seems to fall by the wayside. Constitutional reform, no matter how important (very, if you care about having a genuinely democratic and representative system) just doesn’t cut it with the public, and gets drowned out by the usual “we should be focusing on the economy and jobs,” criticism.

The media now has a good couple of months to speculate about the coalition’s future, which should keep them amused. Dead before the next election, according to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, a body of backbench Tory MPs, very much on the right of the party:
"I think it would be logical and sensible for both parties to be able to present their separate vision to the public in time for the public to form a clear view before the election.”
Some have taken to threats on Twitter, with Tory MP Stewart Jackson promising the Lib Dems political annihilation if they hold the government hostage on Lords reform:
“Memo to bolshy Lib Dems: Break deal on boundary changes and you'll be out of government the next day and maybe for ever. That vote has consequences too."
Senior Lib Dems, such as Sir Menzies Campbell, fret that not getting through at least one of their constitutional pet projects would further damage the party in the eyes of its supporters. Others gaze forlornly into the future and wonder if it’ll be possible to count on two hands the number of Liberal MPs left after permanent coalition scarring.
It’s no surprise then that as the coalition heads towards half-time, Clegg and Cameron seem to increasingly find comfort in each other. Their latest public display of affection comes in the form of a £9 billion rail investment package for the north of England. The Lib Dem leader can probably take a little more solace in the fact that Cleggites seem to be a lot more loyal (in public at least) to their man than the wavering Cameroons. Much of the venom directed at the former has come from the public and Labour.
It is Cameron’s rapid fall from grace that should most trouble Conservatives. It was, after all, his rebranding of the party that got them into government (that, and of course other factors, notably Gordon Brown). It was no longer shameful to vote Tory (it’s all relative of course). As I’ve argued on these pages before, the Tories give the impression of a party who were told they only had a few weeks to prepare for government, and not the five years they actually had.
Cameron seems to have no answer to Britain’s economic woes and rising unemployment. All he offers the country is a recipe of cuts and more cuts. Not much of a sell on the doorstep.
Many Conservatives question his Conservatism, calling for a return to bread and butter issues. Ex-Cabinet minister, David Mellor, speaking for many of the party’s grass-roots, decries the current state of the party:
“I think they’re desperate for David Cameron to show fundamental Conservative credentials.
“The worry is for a lot of Tories is that David Cameron is not enough of a Tory...why vote for this pale sad shadow of what the Tory party used to be.
“I think the Tory party is rather ripping itself apart now because of the sense that David Cameron is a prisoner of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.”
But, it seems that David Cameron understands the electoral arithmetic more than most, with the latest projections showing that under current boundaries, a huge swing of 10.5% would be needed just to deliver his party an overall majority. This falls to 7.6% under the proposed new boundaries. Is it any wonder the Conservatives are so keen to see this piece of legislation go through? Cameron needs to calculate whether this is more or less likely in coalition. Considering the Tories trail Labour by anything from eight to ten points, his interest lies in keeping the coalition together, and hoping for a significant upturn in the economy.
For Nick Clegg, it’s a question of enjoying it (or not) whilst it lasts. If polls are to be believed, armageddon awaits. Convincing a sceptical electorate that the Lib Dems have tempered the worse Tory instincts will be a priority in the lead up to 2015. No easy task. A change in leader would certainly help.
Both men face enormous challenges, both within and outside their parties. It is within their interests to keep things going. Calls by some for a snapshot election, possibly in the autumn or next spring, will surely be resisted by both leaders. Reality dawns.
London mayor Boris Johnson summed things up perfectly when he said that the coalition was ‘doomed to succeed.’ That’s pretty much how I feel too.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Monday 16th July 2012

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Now is not the time to ditch Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver. I probably don’t need to write anything else. Just mentioning his name should be enough to start a lengthy conversation. Or rant. Everyone’s heard of him. Some like to stick an expletive in the middle of his name. Many of us seem to have strong views about him, one way or another. To some, he’s a bit of a hero for championing healthy school dinners, to others he’s an over-exposed celebrity chef whose prime motivation is self-promotion. Either way, you can’t ignore him. Although the government is doing just that.

I sit firmly on the hero fence. He could have stuck to the cookery books and TV shows, and then sat back, watch his chain of restaurants multiply, getting exceedingly rich in the process. As a high profile social campaigner it’s impossible for him to escape the limelight. And now he finds himself embroiled in the political shenanigans that can sometimes come with it. Once flavour of the moment with the last Labour government, he’s getting the snub treatment from the current lot.

Jamie Oliver’s mistake has been his very public scolding of ministers, angry at what he sees as much of his good work going into reverse. Under Labour, hundreds of millions of pounds was pumped into radically improving the quality of food served up in schools. Minimum nutritional standards were set, menus were changed, some of the junk was binned. The healthier options have been warmly welcomed by pupils. Fewer schools serving pizza, more children ditching the chips and other fatty and greasy foods in favour of lasagnes and salads.

What has irked Oliver in particular is Michael Gove’s insistence that academies and the new free schools be exempt from dishing out the same healthy fare as maintained schools. Something Oliver argues is ‘short-sighted and dangerous.’

And then the news last week that the Education Secretary has launched an inquiry into the standard of school food, to be headed by two restaurateurs, followed by an ‘action plan’ for how to make things better. In other words, repeating what Oliver found out for himself seven years ago. It all seems a colossal waste of time and borne more out of a desire to be seen to be leading something, rather than adopting several years of work already in place.

No wonder Oliver seemed incredulous:

“Now is not the time for more costly reports. Now is the time for action and that doesn't seem to be what we get from Mr Gove when it comes to school food and food education. This [inquiry] just delays action for another year or more."

Whilst Oliver does not doubt the motives of Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the men charged with leading this inquiry, he worries that it’ll end up being ‘another report by good people, destined to be ignored.’

The Sunday Times reports that their initiatives will probably be a lot cheaper than Oliver’s, focusing instead on ‘lots of little ideas,’ including setting up a website to allow children to comment on their school lunches. The paper writes that Oliver may be:

“too pro-Labour, too much in favour of tight regulation and too supportive of big spending programmes for Gove’s taste.”

For speaking out, Jamie Oliver is paying the price. There’s nothing a minister’s ego hates more than to be lambasted in the media by an expert. In particular one who worked so closely alongside another party.

The crazy thing is that Oliver’s proposals back in 2005 weren’t really in the least bit controversial. How could anyone object to what he was trying to achieve following his School Dinner’s series? The only question surrounded funding. Oliver’s persistence and boundless energy was rewarded. It beggars belief that the government seems so ready to sideline him.

In fact, Oliver’s campaign should have been the start of a concerted effort to remove all junk food permanently off school menus. I have never understood this obsession with giving children a choice at lunchtime. Schools surely have a responsibility (with the necessary resources) to only offer them a nutritional and balanced meal. Some are still falling well short. The School Food Trust has found that only 22.5% provided its pupils with at least one portion of fruit and vegetables a day. A majority still bring their own packed lunches, which itself brings up a separate problem. Now is the time we can least afford to cut adrift someone like Jamie Oliver.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 11th July 2012

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Labour's biggest risk: renationalising the railways

Back at the beginning of April, with Labour starting to make some headway in the polls, I wrote a piece for LabourList entitled “7 Steps to Re-election.” I drew up a list of possible, some slightly tongue-in-cheek, policy ideas that could catapult the party into power. The need to take the odd risk, get a bit radical, was uppermost in my mind. Among them a personal favourite: renationalising the railways.

Predictably, this drew derision from the comments section - some wondering whether this was a belated April Fools - and Twittersphere. You can always rely on fellow Labour folk for support!

And then last weekend, when doing my own Sunday paper review online, I stumbled across this gem in The Observer, and the headline: “Labour backs calls to return railway network to public control.” According to the paper:

“Plans to bring the national rail network back under public ownership in order to halt big fare increases and prevent private companies siphoning off huge profits will be considered by Labour as part of its policy review.”

This comes off the back of a detailed report released this week by the Transport for Quality of Life think tank, and its publication, Rebuilding Rail; a union funded report, although its authors maintain that their research is thorough and wide-ranging.

The report claims that over a billion pounds a year could be saved if the railways came back under full public control. The current system of privatised railways is:

“failing society, the economy and the environment, whilst draining taxpayers’ money into the pockets of private shareholders. Common sense and expert railway knowledge have ceded to a misguided private-must-be best ethos, leaving Britain with a fragmented dysfunctional railway system that other countries view with disbelief.”

The biggest myth surrounding privatising is that our system was ever truly privatised. Taxpayers have gone from forking out £2.4bn pre-privatisation (the period 1990/1-1994/5), to around £5.4bn post-privatisation (2005/6-2009/10). Renationalising the railways could see users benefit from an 18% reduction in their fares.

At present, Britain’s commuters pay far more than their European counterparts (four times more in some cases), and are continuously faced with a baffling and convoluted ticket price structure, which, despite assurances, never seems to get any simpler.

The report notes that throughout Europe between 80% and 100% of passenger train services are run by the public sector.

Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle, welcomed many of its findings and recommendations, and said the party was keeping an open mind:

"Labour's policy review is looking at all options to make our railways work better for passengers with nothing ruled out, including whether the not-for-dividend model that works for rail infrastructure should be extended to rail services."

According to Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, transport could well play a part in deciding the outcome of the next general election. He points out that a key number of marginal constituencies in outer London and the south-east are stuck in commuter belt territory. Every fare rise hits families hard, eating into the wage packet.

Whilst passengers get treated like fools, the bosses of Network Rail reward themselves handsomely with bonuses of £1.7m, despite missing many punctuality targets last year.

I have long wondered why political parties are so reluctant to make transport an election issue, considering how many people rely on buses and trains. Inevitably, the economy will take centre stage, with the NHS following closely behind, but Labour will be missing a rather large trick if it doesn’t seek to use the trains as a potential voter winner. Surveys consistently show the public rejecting private ownership.

It could start off by distancing itself from the flawed HS2 project, which may well be dead in the water come 2015, anyway. If £58bn can be found for such a misguided and poorly thought out scheme, surely something which saves taxpayers money should be in the offing? A commitment to renationalising our railways would be Ed Miliband’s riskiest and boldest move yet. But, it could also be his most rewarding.

This article was first published by Speaker's Chair on Thursday 5th July 2012