In which I think about PE at school and try not to succumb to the trauma

So, the Olympics is all over bar the politics, and it’s time to get back to normal telly. The nation is sharing a communal “just back from holidays” feeling where our two week refusal to tear ourselves away from the tv and do laundry or buy sensible food is coming back to haunt us. Mundanity is back with force.

The Olympics haven’t just provided a distraction from normality for us little people though. Our lovely politicians have also had a nice break from boring stuff like the economy and how we used to have a health service. All of a sudden all a politician wanting a picture in the papers needs to do is pop on a Team GB baseball cap and make a pronouncement on how bad we are at teaching PE in school. We are into a period of political PE inflation.

David Cameron kicked off be announcing that what we needed was a more competitive ethos in school sport, a cultural change, no less.  It was quickly pointed out that the current government had actually cut the previous requirement that children do at least two hours of PE per week, but Cameron was quick with his response. The requirement had been cut in recognition of the fact that some schools were not teaching Proper Sport. Some children were doing things like Indian Dance, on which Cameron commented, “Now, I’ve got nothing against Indian dancing classes but that’s not really sport.” This from the Prime Minister of a country that won two golds and a bronze in Horsey Ballet. Now I’m not criticizing the Horsey Ballet – so far as I’m concerned any day when a horsey pirouettes to songs from the Lion King on my telly is a good day – however, we probably can’t afford to be too draconian about the question of what counts as Proper Sport.

Since then we’ve had a kind of sport in schools inflation. Boris Johnson, I think,  managed to win the prize for the most pro-PE politician, when he announced that two hours per week was insufficient and children should be doing two hours of school sport per day. It’s not instantly clear where the rest of the business of education fits into this timetable, but then we’re all going to be athletes and shot putters don’t need to be able to count or read, do they? Of course, that was Boris, so it’s not entirely clear that two hours per day is what he meant. It’s perfectly possible that the data being transmitted from the Mother Ship simply became corrupted and mangled the distinction between hours, days and weeks.

All of the above somehow misses the point. Actually there are two points and it misses both of them. Firstly, we’ve done quite well at these Olympics. This presents an opportunity to get more people enthused about sport. It doesn’t obviously suggest that everything we’re doing at present in the teaching of sport is wrong. Secondly, it fails to ask what the point of PE in school is. Is it to breed new generations of elite athletes or is it to encourage an exercise habit and promote health? There’s no reason that it can’t be both, but if it’s only about elite competitive sport, that screws over the fat kids, the slow kids, the unco-ordinated kids who get turned off exercise for life and grow up into fatter slower less co-ordinated adults. I went to schools with a strong emphasis on competitive sport, and I was terrible at it. I was a podgy child. I’m not a natural catcher or thrower or jumper or runner, so I went through PE in school being not good enough. My favourite PE lessons were those where the teacher abandoned any pretense of involving the whole group and let the fat girls “field deep” (a schooldays euphemism for “sit on the grass and make daisy chains.”) I was probably twenty-seven before I worked up the courage to even enter a gym or go to an exercise class – and imagine my delight when I discovered that plenty of forms of exercise are not competitive. No-one loses. Why was I not told about this earlier?

So, if you’re a politician who likes to pop on your Team GB polo shirt and wander around the Olympic Park like you actually helped in some way (you know who you are), probably the best bet would be to actually talk to some elite athletes about what they need to reproduce these levels of success, and then, maybe, get on with doing that. It’ll probably be very boring and to do with funding and coaching programmes and not very much to do with primary school PE at all. Then, you can leave the primary schools to concentrate on getting children excited about sport and exercise and, if they enjoy it and it gets kids moving, why not a bit of  Indian Dance?

In which I offer advice on how to be a government

Well it’s all been a bit quiet over here in blog world for the last few weeks. This has been for the simple reason that I have been super busy. Some weeks I have had to go to work on more than one day. You can only imagine the level of stress and exhaustion this causes to a silghtly flakey freelancer like myself.

However, it has come to my attention that, in my absence, the whole government has got itself into a terrible mess, which would appear to be pretty much entirely of its own creating. Thankfully I’m back and ready and willing to offer some simple tips on how to give at least the appearance of competence whilst in government. Obviously I’m entirely qualified to do this, based on my years of experience as Queen of Narnia. Running a medium sized country is a totally transferable skill. (Please note: some of the experience relayed in that paragraph may only have occured inside my mind).

1. Don’t draw attention to stupid stuff that no-one cares about

So imagine you ran a country where, for reasons forgotten long ago in the time of dragons and crusading and the like, VAT is paid on some items of takeaway food but not others. Imagine as well that, in the rules governing takeaway VAT, there was a whole lot of guff about ambient temperatures, and what constitutes freshly baked and whether food is to be eaten straight away or at a later point. Clearly these rules are not the best thought out regulation ever designed, but, unless you draw attention to it, no-one cares. No-one is marching on Downing Street demanding reform of the unfair fried chicken VAT rules. No-one is camped on the moors building stockpiles of VAT-free pasties to feed their anarchist army during the long years of civil war ahead.  By drawing attention to this issue you would simply pull yourself into the great big pool of stupid, and that is not the right image for a competent government to project.

2. Never express a (spin doctor pre-approved) “personal” preference on anything that isn’t a direct issue of policy.

Don’t comment on what your favourite biscuit is. Never disclose the contents of your iPod. And definitely, never relay in any sort of detail the precise circumstances of the last pasty you consumed. Primarily this rule is in place because, as an electorate, we simply don’t believe you anyway. Announcing that you’re partial to a jammy dodger doesn’t make voters think, “Well my nan likes jammy dodgers and she’s delightful. Clearly this bloke must be an ok sort.” It makes us think either, “Well, that’s stupid. Jammy dodgers aren’t chocolatey,” or “Hmmm… I wonder how many focus groups it took to identify that the jammy dodger was the biscuit that projected just the right level of empathy with the little people.”

And definitely don’t make up pasties that you “bought”. Because you didn’t. If you’re the Head of Government for a medium-sized nation, you don’t go on trains and get stuck at Leeds Station and realise you’ve missed lunch and end up buying an overpriced pasty because there’s nothing else available that you can confidently identify as food. You travel with an entourage – with security people, political advisers, civil servants, and other minions. In the circumstance of needing sudden sustenance on a journey one of those minion’s minions would be dispatched to cater to the party’s culinary whims. So when you’re asked when you last had a pasty, just point out that that’s an inane question and move on. There are 1001 things that you don’t regularly experience personally that it’s still entirely acceptable for a Prime Minister to have policies about.

3. Remember it’s “Don’t Panic” not “Panic”

In any sort of crisis, shortage or other small impediment to the continuance of the nation’s daily routine, the only real role of government ministers is to appear on television looking reassuring and telling people not to panic. The NOT TO bit is quite important there, and it’s particularly important to remember that panic isn’t really measured on a continuum. One is either panicking or not – it’s intrinsically tricky to occupy a state of moderate panic.

So, if a hypothetical government responded to a planned strike by fuel tanker drivers, by advising the populace to “top-up” their fuel tanks, that would be fairly silly. If everyone tries to top-up on the same day, there’ll be no fuel left. Weirdly, that government would have managed to cause exactly the same effect as, for example, the fuel tanker drivers going on strike, without the tanker drivers having to actually go on strike. You would, in that situation, have become the first government ever to undertake a trade union’s strike action for them. Thinking about it, as a dyed in the wool leftie, I should probably be applauding the effort.

4. If all else fails take a break

Fortunately for the current UK government parliament is about to break up for Easter (I know – parliament breaks up for Easter and Christmas and for a really really long time in summer – it’s just like public school). This does mean that the media are temporarily distracted from your stupid policies. All you, as a politician, have to do now is get through the holiday period without any embarrassing holiday fashion photos cropping up in the Sun. I’m sure they won’t though. I mean you’d have to have really annoyed a major media tycoon for them to bother chasing after those sorts of pictures. Ah….

Where I explain why the Health & Social Care Bill is a Bad Thing in five easy to understand numbered points.

The Health and Social Care Bill is currently at the report stage in the House of Lords. The Lords’ amendments are going to bounce the bill back to the House of Commons and the bill will find itself in a game of Parliamentary ping-pong between the two houses as further amendments are debated and agreed (or not).

This means that both MPs and peers are likely to have further chances to amend or vote out this bill, and if you’re a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian (which I’m assuming most of you are) you really should be making use of those chances. Here’s why:

1. It ain’t broke…

Sometimes we need to take a step back and remind ourselves what an incredible achievement the NHS is. Comprehensive healthcare, free at the point of access, provided to everyone dependent on clinical need with no regard to ability to pay. That’s an impressive goal and one which the service largely delivers. It’s not perfect – outcomes are better for some areas of disease than others, and as a country we could still do more in the area of preventative medicine (particularly relating to alcohol and obesity), but actually it’s pretty damn good.

Looking at the OECD‘s figures on health we can see that our health system stands up pretty well to comparison to other countries. We spend approximately half as much per head of population on healthcare as America, and, on average, live for two years longer. Taking a couple of examples from within Europe, we also spend less than Ireland and Denmark, and enjoy higher life expectancies. The only country that enjoys significantly higher average life expectancy (83 compared to our 80.4) whilst also spending less per head on healthcare is Japan. That’s not all down to healthcare – Japan has very low rates of obesity and places a high cultural importance on health and wellbeing. There’s a quick overview of how the Japanese health system works here. What’s interesting is that, although the Japanese system includes some private funding,  all the competition has been removed from the market – more on that point later.

So, our health system isn’t perfect, but neither is it fundamentally broken. This bill proposes high level change to the way the system is organised and delivered – to put through that level of change I’d suggest you need to be pretty sure that what you’re doing at the moment isn’t working. Actually, the evidence we have suggests that it works pretty well.

2. …and this won’t fix it.

The list of groups who actively support this bill is tiny-wee. The against list is almost overwheming. The Health Select Committee, for example, think the change will be too disruptive on top of the current tightening of funding. The BMA, who initially supported the idea of health care being commissioned by clinicians, now say that “the positive vision of clinician-led, patient-focused, locally sensitive and accountable commissioning is being lost in the huge amount of often chaotic change taking place.”

The key elements to the bill that create this feeling of chaos are the shift towards healthcare being commissoned by local groups of GPs and the introduction of a requirement for competition in the provision of some services. For me, it’s this competition that’s the real problem. Competition is a market concept – it works where there is a clear market and a consumer that can choose between different products or services based on quality, price, convenience etc. A good way of thinking about how competition will work in a given situation is to ask yourself two questions. “Who’s the customer?” and “What’s the product?”

If you go to a store to buy a loaf of bread it’s easy. You’re the customer. The bread is the product. You choose the type of bread you want – white, granary etc. – you might also look at the size and price of the loaves, and then you buy your selected product. It looks simple in a healthcare situation as well, but actually it’s not. At face value, you might think that the patient is the customer and the medical care is the product, but that’s not quite right. The medical care is the product, but the customer is whoever is paying for/commissoning that medical care, whether that’s central government, local Primary Care Trusts or groups of GPs. The seller of the healthcare, whether that’s an NHS hospital or a private provider, has to make their offering the most attractive to the commissoning group, not the most beneficial to the patient. The market is skewed, so that the individual receiving the product isn’t the person it’s been tailored towards. Going back to the shop analogy, the patient isn’t the product or the seller or the customer. The patient is the carrier bag.

3. … and the arguments in favour of the bill are stupid

Now I know that this isn’t actually how parliamentary democracy works, but in principle the group that make the best arguments and provide the strongest evidence should win the debate. I understand that actually the party (or parties) that hold a parliamentary majority and whose Whips’ office work most effectively win the day, but let’s just pretend that the debates might influence someone.

Firstly, the fact that the Health Select Committee oppose the Bill should be a fairly big reason to vote against it. Otherwise what’s the point of the committee stage in the passage of any bill? The idea is that, at the committee stage, a smaller group of MPs examine bills more closely, identify any major problems and iron out the kinks. In this case the relevant committee has come back and essentially advised that this bill just won’t work at the moment. That’s strike 1.

Secondly, your own deputy leader wants the Health Secretary to move on. Simon Hughes suggested that Andrew Lansley should move on after the bill was passed on the Andrew Marr Show. This is a very odd thing to suggest. Hughes isn’t saying that the bill shoudn’t be passed, but he’s suggesting that the architect of the bill should lose his job. I don’t see any other way of interpreting this other than that Hughes is saying, “Yes. It’s a terrible idea, but we have to put up with it, and then do everything we can to try to forget…” Well, you don’t have to put up with it. There is no inevitability about the passage of this bill. You could vote against it. Then Andrew Lansley would almost certainly lose his job as Health Secretary. It’s a win:win. That’s strike 2.

Thirdly, the government’s main argument in favour of the bill is now that the changes just need to be voted through as soon as possible to give people as long as possible to forget before the next general election. It’s not really a position marked by huge idealogical commitment to a vision. “Let’s just get it over with…” is a legitimate position if you’re talking about ripping off a band aid, but not if you’re planning to pull out the underpinnings of one of the most effective public healthcare systems in the world. Strike 3.

4. It’s technically the right thing to do

Ok, so you’re a Lib Dem MP. You might not like this bill, but you are in coalition with the Tories and part of coalition is accepting things that might not have been your first preference for the greater good. Well, you don’t have to accept this.  It wasn’t in the Tory manifesto at the last general election. It’s not in the coalition agreement. In fact the coalition agreement says that the government will “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.” So there you go. It’s not that you personally want to scupper this bill. It’s that you have to. It’s in the coalition agreement. Voting against this bill is what you signed up for. Technically, you have no choice.

5. It’s politically the right thing to do.

Now, you do understand that the Liberal Democrat vote is going to evaporate at the next election, don’t you? Those of us to the left of the party are going to follow the boy wizard over to Labour in punishment for your buddying up with Dave and his massive shiny forehead. Anyone towards the right of the party has got a Conservative government anyway, so they might as well actually vote for them next time.

You need to set yourself apart from your coalition peers, and this is the issue to do it on. Nigel Lawson viewed the NHS as the closest thing the British have to a religion, and he wasn’t far wrong. We moan about it but suggest that we might change it, suggest, horror of horrors, that we might have to pay directly for health care, and all of a sudden we are unquestioning believers in the one true way.  Positioning your party as the protectors of the NHS might be your best bet to stave off electoral ruin next time around.

So there we go, five reasons for any Lib Dem parliamentarians to get behind the opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill. You can pick whatever reason works for you – ethical, intellectual, technical or self-interested. I don’t really care why you vote against it, just make sure you do.

And that’s me done getting my politics on for this week. Apologies for the lack of recent bloggage – my work life went a bit manic for a while, but normal(ish) service should now be resumed, so, as ever, if you like please subscribe and you’ll get a lovely email letting you know when there’s something new to read. The plan is that if you come back at the end of the week there should be some lovely crime fiction reviews here waiting for you all. Happy days.

In which democracy isn’t working

There is a well-known political saying, variously attributed to Joseph De Maistre, George Bernard Shaw and Alexis de Toqueville (if you’re a proper pedant, I *think* Toqueville is right, but feel free to correct me in the comments) that “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Looking at our current rulers I find this depressing. So just in case any of you were feeling prematurely bouncy with festive cheer, I thought a nice little blog post about the inadequacy of government might bring you all back down to earth.

Here’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Some people have ideas about how stuff should be and make those ideas public for the masses to consider. The ideas are scrutinised by other people with different ideas who point out the potential pitfalls. All of these people’s ideas are further scrutinised by an independent and rigorous free press, and by an informed and interested electorate. That electorate then pick the people whose ideas seem least likely to bankrupt the country. The winning people form a government and have a go at putting their ideas into action, all the time having their most foolhardy excesses checked and exposed by the opposing people, the judiciary and that lovely free press we heard about earlier. To break my own rule about never quoting a talking advertising animal in public, “Simples.”

But that whole system seems to have broken down. Rather than having politicians who believe stuff, we have a generation of politicians who see their role as being to identify what voters want and then present an impression that they agree, regardless of whether they do or not. We have no bravery in politics anymore, no willingness to say “I think this. Here’s why it’s a good idea,” and accept that if people don’t agree you won’t win.

We have reached a position where the suggestion that a politician has a definite ideology is seen as a weakness. Ed Milliband, for example, was elected Labour leader largely because he was seen as being willing to move the party back to the left of UK politics. That viewpoint won him considerable support amongst the trade union wing of the party, but he’s spent the months since trying to disassociate himself from the “Red Ed” tag. He hasn’t supported public sector unions on strike action. He’s been largely absent from the debate on cuts in areas like welfare benefits and legal aid. Reading his press coverage it is increasingly difficult to identify what Ed really thinks.

I’ve picked on Ed Milliband here. I could just as easily have gone for Dave or Nick or George or even Tony. None of these are politicians interested in standing out, in looking or sounding different, in making an impassioned case for a particular set of ideas. They’re interested in being elected. They may have passionate ideas about what they’d do if they were elected, but they don’t us to know what those ideas are.  

And that’s not entirely their fault. They are the babies of an informal system of political education that irons out difference and passion at every turn. We have a generation of politicians who attended the same schools, the same universities, worked in the same politics-related consultancies, and entered parliament with little or no work experience outside the Westminster bubble. They sound bland and samey because they are bland and samey.

A generation ago our Prime Minister was a grammar-school scholarship girl, who studied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist in the food industry whilst unsucessfully candidating in Dartford. Somewhere alongside the job and the political campaigning she also managed to qualify as a barrister. Voters also knew where she stood. She was, in my opinion, pretty much as wrong as one can be about most things, but at least you knew what she thought.

But that’s all changed. Telling voters what you think is no longer considered important. Getting the most favourable coverage, causing least offence and not making a gaffe are the new priorities. In political debate, meaning has been the primary casualty of the new media-savvy approach. Politicians are concerned about things like “hard-working families,” “the squeezed middle” and “creating a Big Society.” The broader the brushstrokes, the less specific the message, the less likely it is to offend.

And political reporting isn’t helping. Rather than questioning and scrutinizing politicians, journalists often simply copy and paste the pre-approved quotes from the press release and crack on with the rest of their day. There are reasons for this, ranging from commercial pressures in the newspaper industry to individual networks of friends and contacts too precious to displease, but too little political journalism is currently focussed on scrutinizing policies and ideas. (There are some exceptions – I know I’ve bigged it up before, but please allow me another quick plug for C4’s rather brilliant FactCheck blog). 

Where people outside the mainstream political parties attempt to throw open the discussion, news coverage still tends to engage more with the people and the side-controversies, than with the content of any real debate. Thus, coverage of the Occupy London camp focusses on whether the protestors really are using their tents overnight, which members of the St Paul’s clergy have resigned, and what legal action is being proposed/taken, rather than on what the protestors are asking for and how/if politicians are responding.

There are options to how we fix this inadequate state of affairs. We could jettison the whole democracy thing and just have a dictator. I’m more than happy to volunteer for the role, providing I can be known as Queen Alison, rather than President or Prime Minister. It just sounds so much foxier, and implies ownership of good jewellery, which I like.

However, populaces all over the world are currently rising all up and getting a bit fighty to try to win for themselves the voting rights we have taken for granted for too long, so maybe we should give democracy another shot. To make it work you all need to agree to make yourselves informed voters. It’s tricky but doable. Google will help you. Even mainstream newspapers will help if you teach yourself to read them with a critical eye (Andrew Marr’s book My Trade has a great section on how to sift the content from the fluff in an average newspaper article.) I’d also warmly encourage you to ask questions of your own representatives. We can all do this. Come the revolution I’ll be at my computer sending a tersely worded email to my MP.

At the same time, journalists need to start doing some actual journalism. Between us we might be able to start to pressure our elected representatives into saying what they really think.

Finally, our politicians need to collectively agree that, on balance, they probably ought to get out more and talk to people who don’t look and sound just like them. They could all agree to get jobs for a few years and only stand for future election after a full decade of doing something completely different. That might give them time outside the Westminster pressure cooker to grow a personality and, maybe even decide what they really think.