In which I proffer a little opinion on the whole Jack Straw/Malcolm Rifkind thing

This morning’s headlines are all about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind falling for a Channel 4/ Telegraph sting to where they were filmed apparently offering their services to a private company for cash. Both men have ‘strenuously denied’* any naughtiness, but have also referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards authority. I have thoughts on this issue. They are threefold, and so, because I haven’t done one for a while, I shall share them with you through the medium of a numbered list.

1. The oft repeated idea that politicians need to tackle the perception that they are out of touch with voters completely misses the point.

Malcolm Rifkind, apparently, charges £5-8000 for half a days work. £5-8,000. The average (mean) salary in the UK is somewhere around about £27,000 pa. If we take the lower end of Rifkind’s half-day rate, that’s about 2.5 months income for an average earner. Or to put it another way, the average annual salary equates to less than 3 days work for a senior MP offering their services to a private business. A single jobseekers’ allowance claimant in this country is entitled to £72.40 per week. That’s how much the government has decreed an individual needs to live on after their rent has been paid. Someone claiming jobseekers’ allowance would take roughly a year and four months to get to an income of £5,000.

Rifkind talks about not being paid a salary. He has pointed out that he was referring to a salary from private business, over and above his MP’s salary, but it’s hard to get away from the impression that his £67,000 income from being an MP is insufficiently substantial to stick in his mind.

This isn’t a situation that creates a perception that MPs are out of touch with the rest of the population. It’s a situation that highlights the reality of just how out of touch they are.

 

2. If the best thing you can say about your behaviour is that it’s not actually illegal, that’s too low a bar

Both Straw and Rifkind have been at pains to emphasise that they don’t think they’ve broken and codes of conduct, and believe that their behaviour is well within the letter of the law. Well, so what? We don’t live in a world where there’s ‘illegal behaviour’ and ‘good behaviour’ and nothing in between. It’s the same situation as when UKIP get tied in knots explaining how some specific comment wasn’t racist, as if ‘racist’ and ‘fine’ are the only available categories of activity, and so long as they’re not racist they must be a’ok.

It’s entirely possible for behaviour to be entirely legal, and still abhorrently unethical, or a bit dodgy, or slightly disappointing. ‘Not illegal’ isn’t the same as ‘right’ or ‘good.’ There’s a whole range of behaviour that isn’t illegal but also fails to add to the some total of joy and kindness in the world. More than that, there’s a whole range of stuff that isn’t illegal, but still makes the world a little bit sadder, greyer and more disappointing. Which brings me to my final point…

 

3. Voters aren’t going to respect the office of MP, if MPs don’t respect it themselves

Two former ministers of state, prostrating themselves in front of an overseas agency for a quick buck. Really? Show some self-respect gentlemen. Neither of you, I’m guessing, is short of cash. You’re members of what should be considered one of the most august institutions on the planet. You’ve both been members of government, and you’re both still serving MPs in a period when the reputation of MPs has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and repeated ‘cash for influence/access/questions’ type hoo-hahs. This is a moment in time when you need to be better than this. This is a moment for saying actually we ARE all in this together, and my MPs salary is more than sufficient to compensate me for spending all my working time on constituency and parliamentary business.

I’m not saying MPs should never have outside interests. I’m very much in favour of MPs coming to Parliament after spending some of their working lives in a real non-Westminster-bubble job, but if you’re an MP who wants to broaden their world view while serving in Parliament, can I politely suggest voluntary work? It’s good for the community. It’s good for the soul, and it won’t cause your voters to think you’re obviously just on the take.

 

And breathe… So there’s the rant for the day. A day earlier than usual I note, but the news world will have moved on by tomorrow, so I figured why wait?

 

*Why are politician’s denials always strenuous? Are denials never issued wearily, angrily, or cheerfully, or are journalists subject to strict limits on adverb use?

 

And if you want to read me in more jocular, more fictional, and less shouty mood, my first novel, Sweet Nothing will be out in paperback from August, and is available to order right now.

In which I do a little bit of a politics catch up

During my period of non-blogging, on account of all the book-finishing and holibob-going, a range of politics has occurred. Three things in particular caught my wandering attention: firstly, David Cameron had a little cabinet reshuffle; secondly Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the government; and thirdly Mark Simmonds resigned from the foreign office.

The cabinet reshuffle was generally seen as a pre-election attempt to move aside some of the less popular figures in the government, notably Michael Gove, and to bring in some new blood, specifically lady blood, on account of how David Cameron is totally down with equality, at least now it’s been explained to him that holders of a uterus are also allowed to vote. What the reshuffle was trying to say was that the cabinet are modern; they’re in touch with the normal people; they’re just like us. What would be quite poor, from a PR perspective, then would be to lose one of your most prominent female, and most prominent non-white, minister shortly after the reshuffle.

Baroness Warsi resigned in protest at the government’s failure to come out with a strong response to Israel’s military action in Gaza. Since quitting she’s been pretty vocal about the difficulties she feels she experienced within cabinet in terms that only serve to exacerbate the image of a group of privileged, out of touch, old public school boys unable to engage with the wider world.  But that’s just one person’s opinion. So long as it’s not followed up by another minister complaining publicly about how terribly hard done by he is by being paid shedloads, I imagine David Cameron will probably still feel that things are going ok.

Oh dear.

On August 11th, Foreign Office Minister, Mark Simmonds, resigned citing the impossibility of housing his family in central London on his meagre expenses allowance as his reason for stepping down. Now I actually feel that it’s really important that MPs are reasonably paid and remunerated for their costs. If they’re not, then politics really does become an avenue only open to people who are already wealthy. However, this is Mark Simmonds, who was employing his own wife as his office manager on a salary of £20k+ on top of his own £89k salary, and refused to consider the horror of renting a property in outer London. This is an expenses system that allows for 30 return trips per year from constituency to London for MPs’ family members, and would have allowed Mr Simmonds around £28,000 per year towards rent on a London property. The reality is that however ‘intolerable’ Mr Simmonds found his situation, most people, in a country where food banks and rough sleeping are things that happen, will struggle to sympathise with someone bemoaning the meanness of only being allowed slightly more than the national average salary to pay for his second home.

So, if you’re a Prime Minister trying to look open to diversity, modern, in touch with the country at large, I would have to conclude that it’s not been a great couple of weeks. Having said that, part of me is slightly cross with myself for writing this post. If I’m going blog about politics it probably should be about stuff that matters: like education; or the NHS; or the feeble international response to the situation in Gaza.

But actually I think the other stuff – the stuff about perceived privilege and lack of equality – is more than just PR and Westminster bubble vacuousness. We are supposed to be a representative democracy, but the people who are supposed to represent us don’t reflect the range of people in the country, and I think that does matter. Diversity is one of those concepts that people pay lip service to. ‘Yes, it would be great to have more women, but they don’t apply.’ ‘Obviously we’d be open to more disabled candidates, but there are practicalities to think about.’ ‘Of course we want more black people, but they just happen not to have made it through the selection process this time.’ More diversity in government gives you a broader range of experiences to pool into policy making. That gives you a broader range of ideas, and a broader range of expertise. That gives you a much better chance of coming up with a good idea, and of spotting the flaws in the terrible ones. It makes decision making less cosy, but ultimately better, and that should be what matters – that our politicians make the best decisions and pursue the best possible policies for the whole country and for the gloriously diverse mixture of people who live in it.

So that was day 4 of the Week of Awesome Blogging. Come back tomorrow for some more, when I shall be writing about something. I have no idea what. Jolly good.

In which I go to a party and consider a political tsunami

Two weeks ago I confidently announced the Friday was blogday from now on. And then last week I failed to post anything, so I think we can all agree that that idea’s going well. I have an excuse though, which given my mother’s reluctance to write me a note excluding me from blogging duties*, I shall explain myself.

I was at a party.

Ok, so it’s not a great excuse. It’s pretty much on a par with taking a  day off school to go to the Radio 1 roadshow, a common practice at my school, but another one I could never get my own parents on side with. Anyway, last week was the RNA‘s Summer Party which includes the presentation of the Joan Hessayon Award for new writers. As an award contender, I squeezed myself into my spanx, did my hair, applied actual make-up and made my merry way to London town. There were seventeen of us up for the award, which mathematically equated to a 5.88% chance of winning, and the winner was… drum roll please… not me. Ah well, never mind. It’s fantastic just to be a contender etc. etc. Cue much use of my excellent ‘magnanimous loser face,’ and many many congratulations to the very lovely and clever Jo Thomas who actually did win. Hurrah for her!

2014 Joan Hessayon contenders
2014 Joan Hessayon Award contenders

Whilst I was glamming it up in London Town being all writerly and control-panted, there were European and local elections going on across the country. The results of those elections caused a political earthquake, or tsunami, or storm (depending on the natural force metaphor selected by your news provider of choice), which is a media way of trying to make the story that UKIP did quite well and the Lib Dems did quite badly sound significantly more exciting than it actually is.

If you look at the actual numbers – I know boring, but potentially actually informative – you end up feeling that rather than looking at a tsunami you’re looking at a moderately sized wave, and nobody ever uttered the phrase, ‘Look! A moderately sized wave – run for the hills!’

There are a few reasons for thinking that politicians from the main parties should dial down the panic levels in relation to the UKIP surge (and be warned – there are very few jokes in this bit, but there are a number of moderately interesting statistics). Firstly, turnout in the European elections is always low. This year, in the UK, it was around 34%. As a comparison the turnout in the 2010 general election was just over 65%, so there’s an awful lot of potential voters who simply didn’t participate in this election. Within the 34% who voted, UKIP secured around 27.5% of the vote – that’s less than a third of the vote from a third of the electorate, and it’s always wise to be a little bit cautious about electoral figures based on relatively low turnouts.

Secondly, it’s very difficult to assess how much of the UKIP vote is either likely to translate into UKIP votes at a general election, or is suggestive of strong anti-EU feeling. Mid-term European elections are traditionally a repository for protest votes and dissatisfaction with the government of the day. A YouGov poll looking at general election voting intentions yesterday put Labour’s lead over the Tories at 7% (38 to 31) with UKIP down on 16% – significantly different from the European election results just a week ago. And we can add to that the fact that pre-election polls suggested a disjoint between voters choosing UKIP in the European elections, and voters who actually want to leave the EU. A YouGov poll just before election day suggested that 42% of voters who planned to vote UKIP, would actually vote to stay in the EU in a referendum on the subject.

All in all, that suggests that what we’re dealing with here is a significant protest vote, and the main parties have to decide how they deal with that. The answer to that question all depends on what they think people are protesting against. Is the appeal of UKIP that they’re anti-EU and anti-immigration? Or is it that people feel Nigel Farage is an ‘ordinary bloke’ rather than a media-trained slick politician? Some of those polling figures, combined with the fact that scandalette after scandalette during the campaign failed to dent UKIP support suggests to me that it’s probably more the latter than the former.

So here’s a crazy idea for the other political parties – less spin, less focus-groups, less trying to guess what the electorate might want and pretending to care, less trying to make Ed Milliband look like a ‘regular guy’ when he’s clearly the natural born leader of the political uber-nerds, and more saying what you really think and letting the electorate decide. The European election results suggest to me an electorate grown weary of politicians, tired of the disingenuous streak that runs through political debate, and which isn’t often challenged effectively by the Westminster bubble political press. So stop wittering on about which party leader has the best idea of the cost of a pint of milk, and try actually thinking something’s a good idea and then doing it. It really doesn’t seem that complicated. *Sighs wearily in the direction of Westminster*

So there you go – a writerly awards party and a little bit of electoral statistics. A lovely start to the day.

Comment your little hearts out and come back tomorrow when there will be a bonus blog post following on from Laura E James in the Main Character Blog Hop.

 

* At least I assume she’d be reluctant. I haven’t actually asked. That would seem like I was taking the whole endeavour far too seriously.

In which I wonder whether it’s even worth having an opinion

There are some truths which, in this little hippy liberal corner of the interweb at least, we hold to be self-evident. Things like the idea that extreme weather events definitely aren’t caused by Katy Perry kissing a girl and liking it, and that the welfare state is, on balance, A Good Thing. Other Good Things would include the NHS, the BBC, free movement of people across borders and the recognition that newspaper headlines that are phrased as a yes/no question can almost always be answered, ‘Probably not.’ (EG ‘Is your iPod giving you cancer?’ ‘Are floods of immigrants going to establish sharia law in Melton Mowbray?’ etc. I made those two up, but you get the idea.)

What is depressing this little corner of the interweb today, is the unfortunately equally self-evident fact, that none of these opinions matter. My opinions, like most of yours, are irrelevant to my political overlords. I’m not rich enough to be likely to donate significant money to any political party. I’m not a hard-working family, being childless and generally quite lazy, and therefore, it would appear that very few politicians see me as a demographic worth pursuing.

Having said that I do live in a relatively marginal parliamentary seat with a current majority of less than 3000. Marginal seats are the places that actually matter in general elections – the seats where the sitting MP has a small lead and where the seat could plausibly change hands. That should mean that I’m one of the people who politicians are spending stupid amounts of money trying to please. So why aren’t the papers full of stories about politicians competitively trying to outdo one another over how lax they want to make our border controls, and aggressively trying to give passing unemployed people free monkeys and tv licences, and maybe a nationalised railway to play with? All of that would appeal immensely to me, but none of it is happening.

And it’s not happening, because although I live in a relatively marginal parliamentary seat, I’m not an undecided or swing voter. The problem is that I know what I think, so when my hereditary Tory MP turns up on the doorstep, our views are already too diametrically opposed for there to be any significant risk of me voting for him, so, although I might berate him lightly for a while, neither of our hearts are really in it, and in the end we just shrug at one another and he pops off to try to woo someone more plausibly wooable. Essentially the people whose opinions matter to politicians are the group of people who:

a) live in marginal constituencies;

b) are undecided about how to vote (and ideally are undecided between the 1st and 2nd place parties – people umming and aahing between the Greens and a friendly looking Independent are less relevant); and

c) are definitely intending to vote for someone.

In the 100 most marginal seats in Britain at the moment (based on 2010 electoral boundaries and results), the total number of votes between the 1st and 2nd place parties is just over 120000. If we keep things simple (simpler admittedly than they actually are) and just think about votes shifting from the 1st place to the 2nd place party, you only need half (plus one) of those voters to move to change the result. So that’s 60000ish voters whose intentions politicians are actually interested in. The current population of Britain is roughly 64 million, and the number eligible to vote in general elections is around 46 million. That means, in practical terms, somewhere around 0.1% of the electorate actually have the electoral clout to influence political debate and policy. Obviously that maths is massively dodgy and oversimplified but the conclusion pretty much holds. A very small section of the population actually cast votes that make a difference to the outcome of major elections, and I’m not one of them, and if you’re not one of them there is very little incentive for career politicians to care what you think. And I find that rather depressing. That is all.

In which I weigh into the debate on qualified and unqualified teachers

The coalition have had a little falling out recently over education, specifically over the rules regarding unqualified teachers. Currently free schools and academies are permitted to appoint teachers who don’t hold qualified teacher status, and in September 2012 the rules on teacher qualification for all state maintained schools were slightly relaxed. As yet, it’s not clear how big an effect this most recent change has had, but there’s some more information on numbers of unqualified teachers in free schools here.

I’ll pin my colours to the mast upfront, and say that I am a qualified teacher. I’ve never taught in school, and specialise in teaching adults in the workplace and community. However, I still have a bit of a bee in my bonnet over the perceived professionalism of teaching.

The idea of allowing, or encouraging, schools to appoint individuals without a teaching qualification seems to be an attempt to get more inspirational individuals from different professional backgrounds into schools. On face value, that’s laudable. A big part of education is about engaging and inspiring students, and having direct contact with people who’ve achieved success in different professions is one good way of doing that. It’s also a way of bringing up to date expertise into the classroom, and it’s perfectly possible that some of those individuals will be charismatic classroom teachers. Others won’t – in-depth knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge are not necessarily overlapping skills.

However, subject expertise and charisma aren’t the be all and end all of good teaching. You need to be able to do behaviour management, lesson planning, formative assessment, summative assessment, designing learning outcomes, designing learning activities and resources, differentiating within your lesson for different abilities and learning speeds, adapting your lesson plan to the realities of the class in front of you – and all of those things are skills that need to be thought about and developed.

That doesn’t mean that someone who joins a school without a teaching qualification can’t learn those skills, but I do think it demonstrates that teaching qualifications have value. It also suggests to me that politicians in the department of education don’t really understand the complexity of a teacher’s role. It appears that they equate good teaching with simply knowing about your subject and being able to talk about it. Both those things are important, but they’re not everything. A teaching qualification demonstrates that you’ve spent time gaining an understanding of the theories and practice that underpin good teaching and effective learning.

Michael Gove (oh come on – you knew I’d get to him eventually, didn’t you?) has been vocal about GCSE and A’Level ‘grade inflation,’ and spoke last week, defending his preference for more rigorous testing of children. He said:

“Imagine that you had a choice not of schools, but of airlines. There is Test Airlines, very rigorous, and there is Warm and Fuzzy Airlines. What’s the difference between the two? In Test Airlines they actually insist that the pilots have passed a test so that they can fly a plane. How old-fashioned can you get?

“At Warm and Fuzzy Airlines, they don’t bother with these tests to see if pilots can fly. They just concentrate on all of the pilots giving the customers a warm and fuzzy feeling as soon as they get on board. Which would you fly with?”

Well yes. Quite. What I simply don’t understand is why you would apply that logic in one case and decide that tougher qualifications are good for children, but, at the same time, conclude that formal qualifications in teaching aren’t necessary for their teachers? Either qualifications matter and tell us something about a person’s skills and expertise, or they don’t. The bottom line here, I suspect, is that Gove simply doesn’t see teaching as a complex, expert profession; he sees it as something that anyone who knows a bit about a subject can probably have a jolly good stab at. And conversely, that attitude is probably exactly the one that will discourage the most expert and highest achieving individuals in different fields from considering teaching as a career. Rather than opening up teaching, it lowers the status of the profession, and discourages both current and potential teachers. You wouldn’t want an unqualified doctor, dentist, pilot, solicitor, or electrician. So why would you value your child’s (or your own) education less highly than your fusebox?

In which there is a little scandalette and it gets me thinking

Demonstrating the dizzying pace of the modern news agenda a small political storm has brewed and passed over just in the time I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what to blog about.

The Electoral Commission in the UK releases quarterly figures showing donations made to political parties. The figures released today showed a bequest for half a million which was split between the two Coalition parties. A little bit of light journalistic digging showed that the bequest was made in the will of a Joan Edwards who specified that the money should go to “whichever government is in office… in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.” It was speedily pointed out that thinking fit to keep it for yourself was probably not quite in the spirit of the thing, and within a morning both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had conceded the point and agreed to hand the money over to the Treasury. Cue many editorials about the grasping nature of modern politicians and their lack of engagement with the notion of public funds for the public good. Some of those editorials may even be wise and worth reading, because, yes, if you’re the government and you get a wodge of cash to spend as you “think fit” and your first thought is that you could use it to pay for a better wine selection at your party conference then shame on you.

However, my first thought on reading this story wasn’t about how disappointingly grasping and self-serving the politicians involved seem to be, it was about the bequest itself. Somewhere out there a woman decided to leave half a million pounds to the government of the day, not knowing, presumably, which party that would be or how they would choose to spend the money. I can’t decide whether that demonstrates a refreshing faith in government and democracy or simple naivete. Maybe it’s neither – maybe the woman in question had fallen out with her local cats’ home and left the money to the government just to spite them.

What I am fairly sure about is that I wouldn’t do the same. If I had half a million pounds to spare (and a quick rummage under the sofa cushions confirms that I don’t), I can imagine wanting to use the cash for the greater good. I am a proper hippy bleeding heart liberal after all. I believe in outdated stuff like the welfare state and universal healthcare and higher taxes for the comfortably-off. But to voluntarily bequeath half a million to the government of the day like Joan? I don’t think so. And there are three reasons why not:

1. I’m a bit of a control freak. Sure, I want to improve the world with my money but I want to choose how.

2. I want to see what happens to the money. That kind of rules out the whole bequest thing. I think I’d want a scheme where I just went “Here is some money. Please tweet me if you’ve got something cool you’d like to do with it, and I shall pick stuff that sounds good/interesting/worthwhile…” Back to the control freakery again.

3. I don’t quite trust that any political party would definitely use my money for the greater good, and that’s a really bad thing. Polls repeatedly show that the British public lack faith in their politicians. This Ipsos MORI poll from June 2013 is a good example, showing the extent to which we believe our politicians to be self-serving. It is, therefore, really annoying when they act in ways that reinforce that belief. After expenses scandals, and previous question marks over party funding, politicians should be going out of their way to clean up their act, rather than opportunistically divvying up bequests between themselves. Perhaps that perception is that if the mistrust extends across the party divides then there’s no comparative loss if the public don’t trust you, because they don’t trust the other guy either.

And at this point I feel I should have a pithy conclusion as to how to fix the break down of trust between electorate and elected, but I don’t I’m afraid. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments. And feel free to share your spending plans for any unexpected (or, indeed, imaginary) cash you might have lying about.

In which I struggle to muster the energy to get annoyed with Ian Duncan Smith

So Ian Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, thinks he could live on £53 per week. In fact he’s sure he could because he’s been unemployed before and is therefore very much down with the common man. If you’ve missed out on this little news titbit, it’s worth reading the Guardian’s version of the story, not least for the supreme piece of editing that butts IDS’s claim to have experienced poverty right up next to the additional detail that he’s married to the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe.

And clearly, he probably could live on £53 for a week or even a couple of weeks, but that’s not really the point. You can probably get through the first week without needing to go to the launderette and eating only value beans on value toast. The second week is more difficult. By the third week you smell bad, you’ve run out of stuff like soap and toilet roll and you’re starting to want to throw value beans at passersby.

All of that is so utterly self-evident and not really worth the energy it took to type, that it’s making me wonder if I’ve actually reached the point of anger-fatigue with the current state of British politics. I used to get mad about this stuff. There are sufficient ranty blog posts on this very site to show my ability to get a tad worked up about major and minor policy issues. But today I’m struggling to work up a good head of rant. Maybe the triple whammy of Legal Aid cuts, welfare cuts and NHS “reform” is just a bit overwhelming for my poor liberal bleeding heart, but I feel tired. Tired of complaining. Tired of virtuously keeping myself informed, writing letters to my MP, signing petitions, retweeting links to campaign sites, and actually turning up to exercise my democratic whatnot at every election from local council to Westminster to Europe, without it really seeming to make a blind bit of difference.

I feel confused by a political landscape in which poor people and immigrants are unquestioningly talking about as scroungers right across the political spectrum. I feel confused by a set up where jobseekers’ benefit rate is experiencing a real-terms drop, but large companies are allowed to negotiate how much tax they feel like paying. I feel confused by an Education Secretary who talks about the importance of evidence-based education policy only after he’s announced a whole set of major education policies. And I feel like, in voting terms, there’s nowhere for tired confused liberals to go and have out metaphorical wounds licked. Maybe we need a new political party, born out of disenfranchisement, like the early labour movement. A party peopled by slightly over-anxious liberals who’s main contribution to parliamentary debate would be to suggest that it might be a bit more complicated than that. Or maybe I just need to take a break from reading the papers and come back when I’ve got the energy to get properly wound up again. Ho-hum.