Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"The Good Right" is a symptom of Conservative malaise. Well meaning, thoughtful. But doomed without Leadership.

I always thought that the oft-quoted remark of Aneurin Bevan's :

"No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin."

a little over the top! But I am not alone in having consistently opposed and voted against Conservatives ever since I first got the vote. Vermin they may not be, though some are pretty nasty, but most Conservatives seem utterly different in the way they approach Society, and some believe that there is no such thing of course.

A few weeks ago I attended the launch of "The Good Right" - an attempt by Tim Montgomerie, Stephan Shakespeare and others to achieve a conservatism which is "compassionate and electorally successful". Oddly they chose Michael Gove to launch their initiative and he gave a speech which seemd to me to be old-fashioned tub-thumping Conservatism. In it he said this:

"Inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time. Fighting it is central to our mission in Government."

It won't be just Lefties like me who see this as ringing hypocrisy. And that brings us to the heart of what Conservatives are really about. Let me give you a couple of quotes:

"No one seems to care anything but about money today. Nothing is held of account except the bank account. Quality, education, civic distinction, public virtue seem each year to be valued less and less. Riches unadorned seem to be valued more and more. We have in London an important section of people who go about preaching the the gospel of Mammon... who raise each day the inspiring prayer "Give cash in our time , O Lord"

and then this one:

"I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them..."

You can perhaps tell from the language that these are historic quotes - in fact both one hundred years old. And both by Winston Spencer Churchill ! Churchill was at that time ratting to the Liberal Party where he became a successul early practitioner of a nascent Welfare State. Later he was to double-rat back to the Tories of course and later still he was to be an outspoken opponent of Socialism and of the Attlee government. But on his return to power in 1951 and during the administrations of his Conservative successors Eden, Macmillan and briefly Home, there was to be little in the way of unravelling of the 1945-1951 Labour government's model. The Welfare State was here to stay.

The thirteen years of Tory Government 1951-1964 can be seen as compassionate Conservatism in action - although there were few revolutionary changes. Socially liberal progress had to await the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments during which, among many other moves forward, Capital Punishment was finally abolished and the beginnings of acceptance of homosexuality was legislated for.

Modern 21st Century conservatism was set in position not by the post war Butskellite middle ground or by Macmillan and Heath and co. When Margaret Thatcher died she was hailed by just about every Conservative Grandee and commentaator and all of the current cabinet. And Michael Gove, at the launch of "The Good Right" name-checked not Macmillan (other than for his house building programme) but, at length, Thatcher:

"The leadership of Margaret Thatcher...led to the liberation of billions - and not just from political tyranny but also from poverty." 

This is the conceit that the free market will create wealth for all (a hyperbolic "billions" in Gove's argument) - trickle down time! But actually the world that Thatcher created has far more in common with the world of the "gospel of Mammon" that Churchill condemned than with the compassionate world that Macmillan and all the post war Prime Ministers presided over.

The Tories do have a dilemma. They do not want to concede compassion to their opponents, fair enough if you want electoral success. But equally their ranks are full of passionate neo-liberal free marketeers and to be accused of being "Statist" is the ultimate crime. I have no idea what, if anything, David Cameron stands for. But I know exactly what the Tory Right wants. During the Blair years they had in Hague, Howard and Duncan Smith three standard bearers of that Right. They got nowhere. But notwithstanding this much of the rhetoric is not for middle-of-the-road Conservatism but for another swing to the Right post Cameron. 

"The Good Right" is a welcome corrective but in truth it is a touch on the tiller not a major tack. There are some decent people in the Conservative Party but until there is a credible, strong leader who can do for the Tories what Blair did for Labour (Clause Four, et al) they are condemned either to opposition or to the shifting to the Thatcherite Right. Leadership is the key, strong decisive and compassionate. Is it there?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The lottery of education in Britain

The Education system in the United Kingdom is the most diverse and divisive in the free world. It almost defies belief the extent to which the haves can assure that their children go to good schools and the have-nots have to take pot luck. The richest haves can buy privilege at independent schools many of which are truly outstanding and all of which are very good. The next tier down in the haves heirarchy comprises the comfortably off with a decent family income who can convert a proportion of that income into the purchase of a family home in an area with good State schools. There is a precise correlation between income demographics and school performance. For most of the rest parents are subject to the serendipity of school standards which vary from the good to the appalling. 

I would never argue for levelling down. I support independent schools, academies, free schools ... indeed any school which educates our children well. But let us not delude ourselves that the existence of these good schools means that we have a good general system of education in Britain. We will only do that if we have education for all that gives genuine equality of opportunity. That is my objection to Labour's Academies and the Conservative's Free Schools. They both ( and they are very similar) took the eye of successive Education ministers off the ball of their primary task, which is to raise education standards across the board. 

Our education system needs a radical review. Boasting of the success of a Free School is one thing (and not all have been successful) but that is window dressing. This Government has added to the diversity of our system and frankly done little to raise overall standards. Many of the Free Scools are religious institutions adding to the already grotesque fact that all too many schools are religion-based and indoctrinate as well as teach. 

I want an education system that is fair. That has choice within it, but where choice is not a shibboleth to be pursued at the cost of ignoring the general but improving the particular. As with the Health Service education is a Public/Private partnership and you don't improve the quality of public provision by removing or inhibiting the private sector or by closing other good schools . But it is simply unacceptable in a civilised State (and a wealthy one) that the postcode determines the quality of our schools and that the average standard is so far behind the best. If Labour believes that it can raise the average standard by concentrating efforts on ways and means other than the establishment of more elitist schools for the lucky that's fine by me.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

On Love !

"Romantic Love" is the favourite subject of creative writers in every medium and every culture. Indeed such love is crucial to all or part of the vast majority of plays, novels, poems and the rest. It dominates popular song and Grand Opera alike. It inspires sculptors and artists even composers of orchestral music. It is all around, and it's wonderful.

So what is "Romantic Love" ? Is it a phenomenon that cannot be defined, but you know it when you see it or better still experience it? And how do we separate it from related ideas like, physical attraction, lust and friendship? How do we know when we're "in love"? Indeed is that very idea more than an abstract and a sentimental one? 

As human beings we are separated from the rest of the animal kingdom by many things, and love is one of them. It's perhaps marginal, some creatures other than man do establish monogamous lifetime bonds but that is comparatively rare. And evolution tends to favour those with practical benefits and who look to be good breeding material. This is the antithesis of love.

In Jane Austen there is a clear distinction made between those who will make good husbands (occasionally wives) because of their wealth and status and those who have romantic potential. When the two combine that is the perfect situation. How many young men and women in our times have fallen for what they are told are "unsuitable" men or women? The courageous ones ignore the advice of others and let "Amor vincit omnia" - but how many bow to convention and deny themselves and their prospective partner happiness? And how many drift into loveless marraiges with "suitable" partners who turn out to be someone else's choice rather than their own - often in more ways than one.

The thing about "true love" is that it's unpredictable. This worries me a bit about dating agencies. They seem to bring "compatible" people together but isn't it all a bit soulless? You can love somebody who is by any conventional measure not "suitable" and with whom the data suggests you will not be compatible. Indeed these are often the strongest love matches of all. I knew one senior executive in Shell who was, you would think, your archetypical pin suited bore. His wife was extrovert, noisy, gossipy and fun. Was she the classic Director's partner? Not really. Was it a successful marriage. Absolutely!

When you look at the extraordinary love match between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor who see that love is not always easy. In that extraordinary union with its on-off character and its uber-powerful sexual element you see a wonderful real life love story played out in the bright light of the public eye. This was as far removed from some phoney Hollywood romance as you could imagine. 

I have no doubt that the words "I love you" have been used and abused since the beginning of time. But when they are said with sincerity and when they are accompanied by that tightness across the chest and that shortness of breath that signifies "Love" - that moment of sublimation of everything else (including perhaps reason !) - well that's rather special isn't it?

Monday, April 06, 2015

The melting pot, and the Tebbit "cricket test" in modern Britain

"Take a pinch of white man
Wrap it up in black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty bit of Red Indian boy

Curly Latin kinkies
Mixed with yellow Chinkees
If you lump it all together
Well, you got a recipe for a get along scene
Oh, what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true, you know, you know

What we need is a great big melting pot..."

Blue Mink's song "Melting Pot" dates back to 1969 a time when a solution to lack of racial harmony and tolerance was seen to be greater assimilation of non majority communities in society. The admirable starting point was the obvious, but not always believed or accepted, premise that under our skins we are all the same. Nearly 50 years on the melting pot idea has not vanished. Take this from David Cameron: 

"Our [British] values have a vital role to play in uniting us. They should help to ensure that Britain not only brings together people from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, but also ensures that, together, we build a common home...We are making sure new immigrants can speak English, because it will be more difficult for them to understand these values, and the history of our institutions, if they can’t speak our language...We are bringing proper narrative history back to the curriculum, so our children really learn our island’s story – and where our freedoms and things like our Parliament and constitutional monarchy came from...Britain has a lot to be proud of, and our values and institutions are right at the top of that list. It’s not just important to promote, understand and celebrate these things for their own sake; it is absolutely vital to our future. And that is why I’m absolutely committed to doing  in so."
Fair enough you might say. But what about the cultural heritage, language and traditions of the immigrant  communities? Are they not worth preserving as well? If I was of, say, Indian heritage and a Hindu I would, perhaps, want to maintain my religion and that heritage. Does it make me less British if I worship in a temple and speak Hindi at home ? Clearly no British citizen should act in a way that is contrary to the mores of the majority of British people. But that "common home" Cameron speaks of does not have to be uniform and monocultural. If a second or third generation immigrant wishes to assimilate and adopt a lifestyle indistinguishable from that of his white Anglo-Saxon neighbours that's his choice. But is that in some way more admirable than the individual who prefers to retain his heritage lifestyle, language, religion and dress? Providing in doing this he stays within the law I would say not.
There are elements of the "melting pot" in multicultural Britain, but there is also plenty of continuing cultural diversity as well. And if a young third generation Indian, born and bred in Bradford chooses Virat Kohli as his cricketing role model rather than Joe Root does it matter? Of course not. 

Friday, April 03, 2015

Political murmurings.....


Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, was impressive in the Leaders' televised debate. What she said made a lot of sense to anyone whose politics are progressive. My reaction is I suspect typical of English liberals unattached to any nationalist sentiments. She was smart enough to keep her "Independece for Scotland" agenda well buried (one brief mention). And her fellow leaders, amazingly, didn't try and expose Ms Sturgeon for her and her Party's raison d'être - the break up of the United Kingdom.

Ms Strurgeon is playing a long game. Her predecessor, in his cups after the emphatic win for the "No" campaign in the referendum, said that the matter was settled for a "generation". Then something remarkable happened. The "45" - as they christened themselves - instead of fading away got a new strength from somewhere. They focused not directly on Independence, per se, but on the Westminster elite who - as they saw it - conspired to deny them. Labour were the main casualties of this though the Liberal Democrats seem to have been mortally wounded in Scotland as well.

Electoral Reform

Scots in large numbers flooded to join the SNP. And the polls moved so emphatically in the Party's direction that a near wipe out for Labour and the LibDems seems likely at the General Election. With the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system there is a breakthrough zone at which under-representation becomes over-representation. The SNP has passed this comfortably in the polls and they could have as many as 50 MPs (out of 59) for just under 50% of the vote. 

Meanwhile down South we have UKIP likely to get 10-15% of the English vote but no more than one or two MPs. The Greens will be similiarly grossly under-represented in Parliament. About the only issue on my I agree with Nigel Farage is electoral reform. FPTP is simply undemocratic. Which is why it is not used in Scotland, a Northern Ireland or Wales for their own legislatures. And why it's not used for the European Parliament elections either. 

One thing that might happen after the election is a demand for PR. A multi-party system, which we now have, requires a fair voting system. The SNP should not have 85% of the seats for 50% of the vote. And UKIP should not have perhaps less than 1% of the seats for maybe 15% of the vote. 

The Media

Ed Miliband did pretty well in the debate - no gaffes and an engagingly strong performance. Theost debate polls, though they varied a bit, confirmed this. So what about The Sun and the Daily Telegraph front pages ?

It's hard to be sanguine about this sort of thing. It brings the media into disrepute when to large circulation newspapers lie so outrageously. It won't, sadly, be a one off! 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

For me Tactical voting in Twickenham this time around won’t do!

In the first General Election of 1974 the Liberal Party gained 19.3% of the vote – their highest since Lloyd George in 1929. But they only won 14 seats – a hugely disproportionate number. Over the next five elections they ( and their successors) ranged from 13.8% (1979) to 25.4% (1983) but their seat total never exceeded the 23 they secured in 1983. Then, in 1997, a breakthrough occurred. Although in that Labour landslide year the (now) Liberal Democrats vote fell to 16.8% they more than doubled their seats to 46 – and this was to rise to 62 in 2005 against 22% of the vote that year. What was happening?

The answer to the question as to how the LibDems improved their seat numbers even though their percentage of the votes only went up a few percentage points is twofold. Firstly excellent organisation on the ground. Second tactical voting.


Percentage votes:
























In my Constituency of Twickenham (see above)  the breakthrough came in 1997 when, despite the Labour vote rising on Tony Blair’s coattails, Vince Cable won the seat for the LibDems for the first time (they had been in second place since 1974). At the next three elections the Labour vote fell with the Conservative vote shifting little. Significant numbers of Labour tactical voters almost certainly voted for Cable to block the possibility of the Conservatives regaining the seat. Between 1997 and 2010 the Labour vote fell from 9065 to 4583 (-4482) while the LibDem vote increased from 26237 to 32483 (+6246). Cause and effect.

The point here is that not all voters voted tactically – Labour had a residue of 4583 votes in 2010 – but that sufficient did to help Vince Cable turn Twickenham into a “safe” LibDem seat

The First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system makes some people do strange things! I am a natural Labour supporter, but I haven't voted Labour for more than fifteen years! It seemed to me that in Twickenham the best anti Conservative option was to vote for Cable, a good constituency member and as an ex Labour and SDP man - my sort of person. Or so I thought!

Vince Cable has been a Cabinet Minister throughout the Cameron years. He has been loyal (good, I suppose) but hardly a force for liberalism (except, perhaps, economic neo-liberalism). Cable contributed to the 2004 LibDem “Orange Book” and while to the Left of other contributors like David Laws and Nick Clegg he remains in that broad neo-liberal economic consensus that many if not all Conservatives share. In 2010 Cable said:

"The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour party. There is no future for that; there never was."

As I have hinted I voted tactically in 2010 and in previous General Elections. Labour was not going to win in Twickenham and frankly Vince was the next best thing. So what about the 2015 General Election next month?


I don't want the Conservatives to be in Government but with The national LibDem vote falling spectacularly (possibly to the lowest level since 1959 when the Liberals got 5.9%) they are under pressure - here in Twickenham as well. The Labour Candidate Nick Grant (in the picture with me above) seems a good man but the hill he has to climb from the 7.7% Labour got in 2010 is steep. But a recent poll (below) suggests that he is climbing it. It also suggests that the Tories have overtaken the LibDems. Cable has a fight on his hands!




So what to do? My tactical vote for Vince Cable in 2005 and 2010 wasn't really necessary but this time around he might need it. And yet I’ve decided he hasn't earned it (please excuse the personalisation of the argument!). I'm going to vote Labour. If Nick Grant over the rest of the campaign can prise a few more percentage points away from Cable it could be interesting. On the other hand in doing so he could let the Conservatives slip in!

When I met Grant recently he argued rather well that we should do what our consciences tell us, and see what happens. This resonates with me. Tactical voting is all very well but in truth voting tactically for Vince Cable in 2010 didn't really work did it? He was part of a Tory dominated Cabinet - so why should I vote for him potentially to do this again? And if others in sufficient numbers think like me well we may get a Conservative MP in Twickenham for the first time for nearly twenty years. Or we might, just, get a Labour MP – well that would be a turn-up for the book wouldn't it!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

General Election 2015–First thoughts on the likely outcome


Cameron's "Sneering socialists" was a big mistake. Those of us who won't be voting Conservative generally don't sneer (though some do!) and are not Socialists (though some may be). What we are is a mixed bag of people who see the Tories as the problem not the solution. That's a done deal. What for some is not yet done is the anti-Conservative choice we make.

I doubt that there will be many Labour ->Conservative switchers in this election and not many in the other direction either. The battle ground is for the Tories (and Labour to a lesser extent) to haul support back from UKIP. For Labour to persuade previous LibDem voters to support them this time. And for Labour somehow to make the likely disaster in Scotland not TOO disastrous.

I have a feeling that the LibDems will lose support across the board, but hang on in many seats in England where they have a sitting MP and/or a very good operation on the ground. Away from their incumbency seats I expect the LibDems to collapse and for most of their votes to go to Labour. This will give Labour many gains from Tories as the LibDem vote moves not to them.

I do not expect Labour ->UKIP switchers to damage Labour much. In seats where it happens the Tories are weak so despite some loss of votes Labour should hold on.

The Tory ->UKIP switch is potentially damaging to the Conservatives in seats where Labour was a good second last time. This is the second good source of Labour gains.

In the campaign these are the Party priorities:

  • LibDems: Hold on for dear life where they currently have an MP. Forget the rest.
  • Tories: Persuade UKIP defectors to return to the fold
  • Labour: Claw back in Scotland. Make sure ex LibDem voters turn to you not anyone else.