Monday, July 31, 2006

Thoughts on the end of my time with Queen Mary Students' Union

Over the past three years I've served as an Executive Officer of Queen Mary Students' Union and today my final term of office comes to an end. I'd like to make public the email I sent to all those who served as Executive members alongside me:

To all those I have served with over the years,

Although terms of office last until the end of July, with the Mile End term ending tomorrow (sorry medics!) now seems an opportune moment to write some "finishing remarks".

The last three years on the Executive have been a roller coaster of a time, with spectacular highs and lows. There have been the high profile events, such as the collapse of the Chemistry department, the fight against top-up fees, the attempted College take-over and many more. There have also been the lower key matters, no less important in the grand scheme of things. And there have been the routine things, some of which can seem so mundane but are crucial to an organisation being able to function for the purpose it is there for.

There has been fun too, whether the intentional such as the parties, the unintentionally hilarious moments or the spectacles of academic meetings. Sometimes I believe Henry Kissinger was right when he said, "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." My Philosophy lecturer once told how when he was an undergraduate course rep he attended a department meeting with two of the biggest names in British philosophy of their generation. During the course of the meeting (meant to be primarily about logistics), the two highly educated academics got into such a row about the validity of each other's strand of the discipline that they ended the meeting have turned their chairs so as to have their backs to each other!

Disagreements often exist in students' unions too. Many have argued strongly, not because they wish to cause trouble or because of some obscure stricture, but because they passionately believe that the course of action they support is best. Often disagreements can get intense when different people approach the matter differently. But ultimately they have the same basic goal. There is so much more that people agree on than disagree and it is shocking when arguments over small matters get out of all proportion. It is never possible to please all of the people all of the time, but one can seek to understand motivations genuinely and seek to address concerns. At the end of the day people are all human beings, all needing help and safety, feeling pain, seeking understanding and are all still individuals. Many make mistakes - I know I have and am sorry for them - but that does not diminish them in value. To quote one of the best things I have ever heard said on this:

But at the end of the day, your Union is comprised of individuals - not of offices, not of positions, not of titles, not of money, not of committees - but of people. Try and remember that when you deal with them.

There are also frustrations, both at the seeming lack of action and the belief that serious errors are being made. In the case of the former, always remember that Union officers are not all-powerful beings. Much of the work involves negotiations with the College, University, Council and other bodies and the Union and its representatives do not always have the final say. It is very hard to change some things, especially when one also has to provide existing services. As for the latter, sometimes communications fail, even in an error of the internet and mobile phones, and information is not sufficiently disseminated or is misinterpreted, leading to confusion and concern. Also many will take a concern about an issue not because it affects them in the slightest - indeed to ignore it might be to their personal benefit, especially in regards time - but because they are concerned for the effects it can have on the Union and the ability to improve the student experience.

The "student experience" is an ever more diverse thing these days. When I was an undergraduate the first chapel service of each year saw the Chaplain deliver the same sermon about this, comparing it to the way that the way Lyons Restaurants have been succeeded by a plethora of different places with different cuisines offering one the chance to have a meal while in town. There was a time when most degrees were identical but now they are modular. Students used to be by and large drawn from the same narrow band of society - now they are far more diverse in many different regards. They used to primarily live in university accommodation - nowadays many commute great distances and an ever-growing proportion live with their parents. There are far more mature students studying, whereas in the old days the traditions of a single career for life resulted in universities being almost exclusively dominated by the recent school leavers. Globalisation has led to far more students than ever before being able to study overseas. And changes in qualifications and demands have led to a phenomenal expansion in postgraduate education, with far reaching consequences.

It is a changing world and the Union, like all students' unions, has to keep pace with changes in the nature of the student population if it is to successfully support and represent its members. For those facing reviews in the near future, I would this advice - try to ensure that the nature of a problem is identified and do not apply the wrong solution. One can divide the problems facing students' unions in their governance structures into a number of broad areas:

*Physical geography - i.e. things like whether the institution has a single campus or many sites miles apart, whether places are easy to get to, whether the bulk of the student population lives within spitting distance or spread out across the entire region and so forth. Such things are almost impossible to change.
*Building structures - such as where a facility is located on a campus or the capacity of rooms available. The opportunity to make these changes comes along probably much less than once in a generation.
*Technological developments - sometimes technology changes so fast and changes the way in which people interact that it is a struggle to keep pace.
*Constitutional and regulations - these can sometimes feel a pain but they are drafted the way they are for a reason. Sometimes they do need modification, but do not assume that all problems can be solved by a constitutional amendment.
*Cultural - not only changes in society, but very specific cultures exist in each university, with different emphases and expectations.
*Individual - you do sometimes get problems from particular individuals that make you feel things need to change. However, problem individuals happen all the time no matter what.

Food for thought for the future. If any of you are facing changes, I am willing to offer whatever help I can.

Finally I would like to thank all those that I have worked with. During my three years, there have been no less than forty-four other people serving on the Executive, all of whom I thank now:

Aran, Charis, Charlotte, Cindy, Dan, Dave, Dave, Ed, Emil, Faisal, Freddie, Gemma, Grace, Gugs, Hannah, Hari, Helena, Jason, Jeremy, Juliet, Karen, Kat, Kayleigh, Kish, Laura B (RIP), Laura BW, Martin, Michael, Michalis, Paddy, Paul, Pete, Punam, Rhiannon, Rinki, Rob, Rory, Sam, Somaya, Steve, Tom, Vicki, Vicky and Vina.

Some of you are now moving away from university, others still have study to go on their degrees, others are embarking on new course and others still have sabbatical posts to take up (and some of you aren't rid of me yet!). Some have already Whatever your path, take care.

One day I shall come back. Yes I shall come back. Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxiety. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Never believe something until it's been officially denied?

On his way back?Charles Kennedy has denied reports that he is planning to challenge for his party's leadership again. The old adage of never believing something until it has been officially denied seems very apt. Ever since he was stabbed in the chest, Lib Dems have been wondering if this was a mistake. And Kennedy has certainly dropped hints that he would like the members to be able to consider him, whilst reminding the world he is still about and is even being lined up to head the Lib Dem campaign for the Scottish Parliament. With so much speculation about Ming Campbell's future due to a constant stream of disaster with things getting worse, surely the time is coming for the Lib Dems' "king over the water" to come back and smite the Campbells?

Now there was someone who knew where to take things!Also in the news is a reminder that Friday was the eighteenth anniversary of the election of Paddy Ashdown as leader. Ashdown has the dubious distinction of having been the only Lib Dem leader to offer his party a sense of direction and leadership. And he's only three months older than Campbell. The Lib Dems must all be kicking themselves that he's no longer their leader.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Is Northern Ireland really bigotted?

There's an interesting post on Slugger O'Toole that I felt the need to blog about as it links to a report in the Belfast Telegraph that challenges the myth that people in Northern Ireland are generally homophobic:

Commissioned by the Lesbian Advocacy Services Infinitive, it found 75% of those questioned were very accepting of gay people, dispelling the myth that Northern Irish society was intolerant.

Almost 90% believed lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals should not be discriminated against and supported changes to current legislation.
Of 1,009 people interviewed by Ipsos MORI, 59% shared the perception that Northern Ireland was intolerant but only 21% of those surveyed actually were.
Much of the media reporting of gay issues in the province has been heavily negative. And yet the first gay civil partnership in the UK was enacted at Belfast City Hall. There have been a number of reports about the hypocrisy of some, especially the DUP, in opposing inoffensive gay rights marches when supporting the rights of rather more offensive marches to go where they please, but this is only one very small part of the story. And it seems even the Paisleys & co are not going far enough for some homophobes, who picketed the last DUP conference protesting the party's response to civil partnerships.

Friday, July 28, 2006

How far is the Treasury from Parliament?

Not So Very New Labour activists like to make big noises and pretend that lesbian, gay and bisexual voters should only vote Labour for one reason or another. When inconsistencies on this score are exposed they tend to go silent. We've already seen the furore over Ruth Kelly's voting record but there's an even more senior Labour figure whose record is hard to explain. This week it was revealed that Old Man Brown has never voted on any gay rights issue since Labour came to power despite no less the fourteen separate opportunities to do so.

Apologists for Brown are trying to claim that Brown has a busy workload. But even Tony Blair has been in the lobbies more times than Brown - and whereas Blair is going around all over the place pretending he can save the universe, Brown's department is within walking distance of Parliament! Nor does the claim that ministers have heavy workloads bear much fruit - on "flagship" votes Ministers will rearrange schedules to make a point of being in the lobbies. Brown's absence is nothing but deliberate.

Ming's leadership enters the endgame

In one of the most public blows yet for what Ming Campbell calls his leadership, Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly Member Peter Black has spoken out, "Time for Ming to shape up". He has had the courage to say publicly what everyone has been admitting for ages - under Campbell the Lib Dems are going nowhere:

The debate will, of course be critical but so too will Ming's performance at the Conference. We need to get some bounce in the polls out of that week in Brighton. When Simon Hughes said that Ming had until the end of the Conference season to prove himself he was absolutely right. So far the only people who appear to be totally content with the leader are the MPs. They have to realise that, important as they are, they are not the Party. Having experienced a coup de grace at the top, we are entitled to expect results. It is now time for Ming Campbell to start delivering on his promises and the expectations of success that are associated with him.
How much longer will I be here?Peter Black has been the first to go public and already the storm is generating headlines and he won't be the last. Campbell's leadership will not be able to sustain a stream of public criticism and he has two choices - step down with grace or hang about and get slowly dragged out of the leadership bit by bit. Truly things have got worse.

Is Raynes Park posh or not?!?!

Whilst glancing at blog stats, the one that made me think was "raynes park posh or not" on Google.

I've probably travelled through Raynes Park thousands of times (the railway station is the junction between the main Surbiton line and the Epsom branch on whatever South West Trains are now called) but I've only ever set foot outside the station either to get a rail replacement bus or to pick up a bottle whilst interchanging for Kingston. Otherwise I've never seen very much of the area at all. The only thing I can think of on this point are the stories that people living in Raynes Park claim they live in "West Wimbledon". I suppose by the same silliness I live in "South Wanstead"!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The 41st anniversary of disaster

On this day in 1965 Edward Heath became Conservative Leader. As is so often the case with these things, he was not the frontrunner in the contest. But the next ten years are perhaps the period above all others that most Conservatives would like to wish out of history.

Why anything thinks Ted Heath was ever a Conservative is beyond me. Conservatives believe in the rule of law and order, not in giving in to militancy. Conservatives believe in a strong approach to the economy, not chickening and U-turning at the earliest sign of problems. Conservatives believe in parliamentary democracy, not in imposing dictatorship on part of the country. Conservatives believe in the sovereignty of nations, not in submerging national identity into artificial constructs. Conservatives believe in giving clear leadership to the nation, not in making it a serious question as to whether the country is run by Parliament or the National Union of Mineworkers. Conservatives believe in traditional communities, not in ripping up and redrawing the map of the country.

Truly this is not a day to remember greatly.

Liberal Democrats losing here

Liberal Democrats not winning hereThe latest ICM poll shows the Conservatives advancing - and the Liberal Democrats at their worst in four years:

What can I do?
The level of Lib Dem support is the lowest for over four years in an ICM poll, despite the fact that Ming Campbell's own ratings did appear to be rising. A foreign affairs crisis is seen by many as an opportunity for Campbell, who is considered an expert on foreign policy, to shine - but yet the Lib Dems are down to 17%. I had thought that the figures in the ICM poll last month, which showed the Liberal Democrats on a lower level of support than during their leadership crisis in January, was likely to be a blip - it simply seemed unlikely that they would be in worse position now than when they were leaderless and embroiled in sex scandals and infighting - this poll however does support ICM's findings last month.
Is it time for me?Maybe Ming's own stock is rising because major international stories often bring out the best in him, but his party remains directionless and it needs real leadership, not a detached statesman. One wonders just how long Campbell is going to last.

And who will be the third in The Year Of The Three Leaders? Could we soon be seeing Sarah Teather on the television even more than we do now?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Doctor Who - The Hand of Fear

Following on from my previous reposting of my review of Inferno, here is my review from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide of this week's DVD release, The Hand of Fear:

A strong departure for a good companion

It is incredible just how small a scale this story takes place on, given the traditional perceptions of nuclear power being a threat to the entire Earth. There's a tiny guest cast, with only three additional actors credited for the final episode, two of them in the same role! The result is a story driven very much by characterisation and individual struggles than by a grand sweeping scale.

The opening scenes are initially confusing as it's not entirely clear just what is happening but this just adds to a strong sense of mystery. When the TARDIS materialises on Earth in a quarry there's a strong temptation to wonder just what sort of alien world this is but instead it's a visit to contemporary Earth. For once there are virtually no references to UNIT at all, with the air strike in Part Three being undertaken by a more generic military, and the result is a refreshing change from many years of the UNIT stories. The basic concepts underlying the story of an exiled and trapped being using others in order to restore its physical form and then return home to reclaim its position of power is not exactly new and could so easily become a cliché but it is done sufficiently differently here not to notice. The moving hand of the first two episodes is scary and surprising it is realised extremely well with relatively few obvious CSO shots. Also done well is the location work at the nuclear power station which gives a good sense of its scale and prolongs the fear. Kastria is less well realised, being obviously a studio based alien world, but wisely there are few attempts to show the remains of Kastrian civilisation on a grand scale.

Most of the small cast are not particularly memorable, although given that very few appear for more than a couple of episodes at most this is not that surprising. Glyn Houston manages to bring a strong sense of believability to Professor Watson, especially in the scene where he phones his family whilst believing the plant will explode and is determined not to make his daughter's last memory of him one of him being frustrated with her. Of the two Eldrads Stephen Thorne is probably the stronger since he has some good scenes such as Eldrad's realisation that he has been so spectacularly cheated of his destiny. Rex Robinson is weaker as Dr. Carter, at times seeming heavily out of place. But it's the regulars who steal the acting honours. For her final story Elisabeth Sladen gives a strong performance that shows all her best skills even when in situations when Sarah's more traditional independence has less of a chance to show itself.

Lennie Mayne's direction is competent and superbly complements Bob Baker and Dave Martin's script, as does Dudley Simpson's good score for the tale. As with many stories from this period there's a strong sense of co-ordination throughout the story which enhances it immensely. The result is a story in which the weaker elements areas outweighed by the stronger parts, especially in Sarah's departure.

Given the time they have spent together, it is surprising how quickly the Doctor and Sarah depart from one another. Nevertheless Sarah's reasons for leaving make a lot of sense, reflecting a weariness with repetitive elements in the series but nevertheless she leaves still wanting to see further adventures and is only denied them because it is forbidden for her to go to Gallifrey. The story ends leaving the viewer wondering what the Doctor will find on Gallifrey but also noting that in typical sign he hasn't even left Sarah in the right place! All in all this is a good story and a fitting departure tale for a good companion. 9/10
Oh and this is the story where the Doctor says that weapons don't work in the TARDIS because it's "in a state of grace" and somehow the occupants don't really exist.

The Hand of Fear can be purchased from here.

Bye bye Mark Oaten

And it's goodbye from himIn a move widely expected, Mark Oaten has announced he will be standing down as an MP at the next election. With all the other problems the Lib Dems have been facing recently they will no doubt be glad that "coprophillia" will not be a word heard during the next election campaign. But for Oaten personally this is a sad end to his career. In 1997 he was the darling of his party for first scraping home by two votes and then winning the largest Lib Dem majority in the subsequent by-election. I remember Paddy Ashdown doing a tour of media appearances to proclaim Winchester as a rock solid Liberal Democrat constituency. How times have changed when Winchester is widely considered vulnerable precisely because of Oaten and the local Lib Dems lost control of the council. Oaten has not helped himself either, by bringing the scandal back into the public eye and frankly one has to ask if he would have won an open reselection (I don't know how the Lib Dems handle candidacies).

All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
So wrote Enoch Powell. But has any career ended in such personal humiliation as Oaten's? Truly this is political and personal tragedy.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Yet more Paisley hypocrisy

This time it's Ian Paisley Jnr hitting the headlines. Slugger O'Toole reports on Paisley's reaction to a proposed dissident Republican march in Ballymena. He claims it is...
"intended to provoke public disorder and tension around this protestant town."
Perhaps he can explain how this is different from Orange Order marches provoking public disorder and tension in predominantly Roman Catholic areas. What ever happened to the right the DUP is always demanding for citizens (so long as they're straight) to be able to "march the Queen's highway"?

When it comes to consistency, it seems Ian Paisley Jnr is very much his father's son.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

University applications falling

It was reported today that fewer people are applying to university in this, the year in which university top-up fees take effect. And in 2004-2005 the proportion of full time undergraduates from state schools fell. So much for all that has been said on widening participation.

Since the 1960s there has been almost continuous expansion of the number of university places. But has that in itself really opened up university to more a broader range of social groups? Or has it, as many suspect but few seem willing to admit, merely turned university into an essential component of a middle class upbringing?

There are many good potential undergraduates who do not even consider university for one reason or another. What is the solution?

On one point that seems to be quite popular when figures like these come out, I'm not convinced that introducing quotas on the number of state and private school pupils taken is a good move. (And yes, I do have an obvious conflict of interest on this - don't we all?) I think quotas could actually hit a very different category of private school pupil from the stereotype that those who talk about them often invoke. Whilst many are from rich families, many others are either from middle income families who really scrimp and save to give their children a private education and others still come from less well off backgrounds and are only able to go because of scholarships and grants (forms of widening participation). And I think quotas will hit the latter far more than any stereotypical scion of generations of wealth. They will be able to use contacts and tricks to get round quotas. Does anyone else remember when Trevor Phillips claimed that introducing such quotas is likely to decrease the proportion of non-white students in top universities? * (Recently it was found that some top universities have less than thirty black students.) Any attempt to artificially "rebalance" one problem is likely to increase problems elsewhere.

Numerous initiatives have been made, whether directly through trying to foster aspirations or indirectly through attempts to improve schools, and yet we still see these declines. One common anecdote on the ground is that many people do not instinctively feel that university is for them, or that they would "fit in" there. This even exists within universities with many reported cases of students at the post 1992 universities stating that they would never even consider some of the more elite universities because of their perceptions. Do we need to tackle the basic image of universities to make real progress?

(* I've never been entirely happy with the way "the Russell Group" is used as a synonym for "the top/elite UK universities". Whilst there are clear overlaps, the Russell Group is primarily defined by levels of research and there are top universities outside it - indeed witness the regular confusion about its membership in the media. But then the Ivy League is really a sports tournament in the northeastern US states so maybe this one isn't worth fussing about...)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is Bush a President or an activist?

George W. Bush has used the Presidential veto for the first time in his Presidency to block a bill to lift the ban on federal funding for stem cell research. Rather than act as the leader of the US people, the majority of whom back the research which could help find cures for serious illnesses, Bush chooses instead to act in accord with a narrow ideological agenda.

Let me be clear that I've never liked the personal abuse of Bush. There's a lot about his policies and actions as well as about the way he came to power that one can quite legitimately criticise him for. Attacking him for being seemingly thick, incoherent or for passing out while choking on a pretzel devalues such criticisms. (Nor do I think Bush is as dumb as his detractors like to claim. He very much fits in with the US desire to believe their President is like them, one of the ordinary folk. How many of the masses at large would avoid the gaffes Bush came out with if they had the same exposure and pressure?) But what I really don't like is the way Bush has brought a religious zeal into politics (and here was ignorant old me thinking the US has a constitutional division between religion and state!), seeking to enact policies in line with a narrow sect of opinion rather than with the needs and wishes of the many. This is not a case of a President taking a lead - this is a man responding to one of the most disgusting elements in US politics. The statesmanly approach would have been to ignore the clarion calls and sign the bill into law. Instead Bush shows himself to be ever more a weak leader.

The pay dispute is over... it seems

Due to being out yesterday I didn't get to blog that the lecturers' unions have voted to take the pay offer. I'll admit I was wrong in fearing that this could go on and on. Now the next questions are how will the independent review report, and how will the UCU Left respond to the pay settlement. When the settlement was announced there was fierce internal criticism of UCU - one wag coined the term "utterly crap and useless" - but since then it's been rather muted and the ballot result has been much wider than expected.

So does this mean it's over? Well one can't really predict the independent review for a start. But let's hope there isn't any disruption to students' degrees for a good while yet...

Monday, July 17, 2006

The UKIP/BNP link

As is so often the case, thanks to Iain Dale for highlighting this story. In a council by-election in Dartford the UK Independence Party candidate (yes I know, what has the issue of leaving the EU got to do with town halls?) has asked the British National Party candidate to nominate him.

Given UKIP's record, from no less than their founder's words, as well as notable comments by their most likely next leader (and candidate in the recent Bromley and Chislehurst by-election) this doesn't come as much of a surprise. And this is a party that took in Kilroy after all! (Although I'm sure even they now regret that.) But still UKIP continue to present themselves as something very different from their true face.

Join the YouGov Panel

For over a year now I've been a member of the YouGov panel, regularly getting the opportunity to take part in opinion polls on everything from the political events of the day to product awareness.

Currently YouGov are recruiting new members so if you want to join click here. (I get referral fees for everyone who does so.)

So who actually enjoyed graduating?

Jo details how Antonia has finally got round to actually graduating (Oxford takes rather longer than most universities it seems) and comments on the ceremony:

(Did you enjoy the ceremony, Jo?)
About as much as I enjoy any ceremony conducted in Latin, filled with the joys of pomp and pageantry, whilst being seated on the most uncomfortable wooden benches in the world...
Even the subject of the ceremony agreed with my analysis of the situation and has been overheard advising people to take a book with them when it's their turn...
I've written about the tedium of graduation ceremonies before and wonder if Oxford offered Antonia the option to receive her certificate in the post. Having found them all to be interminably dull, I am strongly minded to skip mine when I finish my PhD.

Has anyone ever actually been to a graduation ceremony and not found it to be a tedious bore?

Keep it special, don't make a special

"Actress Jennifer Aniston has said the cast of Friends may get back together for a one-off return of the TV comedy." As I've said before, I think this would be a bad move. The final episode was spectacular (especially the line "I got off the plane") and I don't see how it could be topped. A reunion special some years on would never be able to live up to the original glory. Let's keep the show special, not have another special.

It's official - Labour members cause heatwaves

It seems that the heatwave is going to continue for a while and Labour activist Kerron Cross is responsible for it:

Almost every Summer during the few days I spend in the Isle of Man, England usually has its hottest days of the year. It doesn't matter when I take those few days away - it's nearly always the case.
Anyway, I'm off again to the Isle of Man again next weekend for a few days, so you can put your money on the heatwave continuing till then. Cheer up one and all. :-)
So now we know who to blame!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Yet more Lib Dems ignore Ming's word

Does anyone listen to me?Thanks to Yellow Peril for highlighting this one. It seems that Liberal Democrats in the London Borough of Sutton weren't listening to Sir Menzies Campbell when he declared:

What we need is smaller government and an end to bloated Westminster and Whitehall. Fewer Ministers, Fewer MPs, fewer special advisers, fewer civil servants, fewer Departments, fewer quangos – electoral reform for the House of Commons and local government and at long long last an elected second chamber.
Instead Liberal Democrat councillors in Sutton have gone and spent eighty thousand pounds of taxpayers' money on spin doctors for councillors.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Yet more university industrial action?

Today educationet returned to life as an online newssource for students, after a much missed absence. And one of their first new articles is What if they say No? - Strike action on the cards if lecturers reject pay deal.

At the moment the Universities and Colleges' Union (UCU - formed by a merger of AUT and NATFHE) is voting on whether or not to accept a pay deal following the university marking boycott this year. It is quite possible that the deal could be rejected - opinion polls of UCU members suggest the union is heavily divided - and industrial action will resume once the new terms start in September. If this happens then one has to wonder when all this will end. Students have been strongly against the boycott, despite the sometimes vague support of the National Union of Students for the boycott.

One thing that seems clear is that a marking boycott could not be easily reinstated now that exams have happened. Any industrial action would have to look for other outlets. Ednet reports some potentials:

The UCU Left, which is organising the No campaign, wants members to determine any future industrial action at a specially arranged conference, but leading figures in the No campaign have privately indicated that all-out strike action or a quality audit boycott were among the most likely options for consideration.

Graham Dyer, President of the SOAS branch of UCU, said on the record: "A lot of people are calling for all-out strike action in September. Exam boycotts don't work at that time of year. It would be maybe three days, something like that, at the start of the term, that period when students are being registered and start new classes. That would cause quite a lot of disruption."
Well that would be very popular with new students and do wonders to overcome the existing high levels of opposition!

Reports have suggested that academics could boycott registration of new students in September, but Dyer dismissed this. "We've got no control over that, that's all done through clerical staff, many of them are not UCU members. They could easily bring in temporary agency staff to do that kind of work anyway."
This is encouraging, though I wonder how many universities will seek to bring in outside staff to break such a boycott where the UCU might otherwise have an impact.

It seems everywhere one looks, there are more and more Groundhog Days.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The EPP issue should now be settled

A deal has been signed between David Cameron and Mirek Topolanek, the incoming Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and leader of the Civic Democrats, to form a new grouping the European Parliament and leaving the European People's Party from the next European Parliament elections. The Conservative-Civic Democrats group cannot be formed earlier because of complications in Czech domestic politics.

Hopefully this will be the end of the matter. But invariably on conservative blogs and messageboards the issue has become a key talking point, far in excess of things that matter.

At the end of the day nobody I've asked has actually produced the text of a pledge Cameron is alleged to have made stating quite clearly that Conservative MEPs would sit as independents rather than in the EPP, were those the only options.

Politics is about delivering and there are some pledges that one does not hold all the cards to deliver. A pledge to transfer to a new group of centre-right Eurosceptic parties can only be delivered if sufficient other Eurosceptic parties are available to form such a group. How can Cameron deliver this pledge right now?

I might also add that a lot of the people calling for EPP withdrawal for years claimed that as soon as we signalled it parties would come flocking to us and forming a new group would be easy. That this has been protracted is proof that this isn't as simple as they made out.

Some people say they made their decision about the leadership of a major political party and the next centre right Prime Minister of this country on the basis of seating arrangements in the European Parliament. Am I mad for thinking this or are they real and mad for doing this?

It is absurd that this has become such a major issue for some in our party. The reforms we want to see in Europe aren't going to be achieved by sitting on one bench or another in the Parliament. They can only be fought for from Downing Street. Ripping the party to shreds and keeping it in perpetual opposition over something as obscure as groupings in the European Parliament must constitute one of the stupidest political actions since Caligula made his horse a consul.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

So who's actually read Cameron's speech?

There's been a lot of spinning lately about Cameron's speech, dubbing it "Hug a hoodie". It was clear at Prime Minister's Questions that no-one on the Labour benches who tried make smart Alec remarks about it had actually read it.

Iain Dale has, and quotes the text. It's also available in full on the Conservative Party website and I quote it here:

It's always a pleasure to speak to the CSJ. On my first day as leader I went with Iain to the East Side Young Leaders Academy - an inspirational project working with black boys at risk of crime. And the first of the policy groups I set up was Iain's, looking at all the full range of social justice issues.

For the Conservative Party I'm leading, social justice is a vital issue. The reason is simple: the degree of social injustice in our country. One of the worst aspects of social injustice that people face is the fear and suffering caused by crime and disorder. In many communities, it's doing more to wreck the sense of general well-being than just about anything else. Everywhere I go, it seems to be the same story. People frightened to go out for a drink on a Friday or Saturday night because town centres turn into war zones. Neighbourhoods wrecked by vandalism, graffiti and a less tangible, but perhaps more damaging, sense of menace in the air. The complaints are identical. Young people are out of control. There's nothing for them to do. Why can't their parents do their job properly?

Today I want to talk about how we solve these problems for the long term. Too often, the debate is about short-term solutions: ASBOs, curfews and criminal justice. Of course, we need these things to protect the public from anti-social behaviour today. But my aim is a society where we need them less and less.

The long-term answer to anti-social behaviour is a pro-social society where we really do get to grips with the causes of crime. Family breakdown, drugs, children in care, educational underachievement - these provide the backdrop to too many lives and can become the seed bed of crime.

Let me start by saying something about a part of the world I know well. You heard earlier from Femi, the star of Kidulthood. That film is set in my own neighbourhood in London - North Kensington, Ladbroke Grove, Harrow Road. It's a very different Notting Hill from the one you see in Richard Curtis films. The film gives a disturbing insight into the pressures that teenagers round there are under. The fact is, it's frightening for a man in a suit to walk down certain streets at night. But think how much more frightening it must be for a child. Kidulthood is not really about bad kids. Even the villain is clearly suffering from neglect and the absence of love. The characters are simply children in circumstances none of us would want to grow up in. Their reaction to those circumstances is not good. But it is natural. Crime, drugs, underage sex - this behaviour is wrong, but simply blaming the kids who get involved in it doesn't really get us much further. It is what the culture around them encourages.

Imagine a housing estate with a little park next to it. The estate has "no ballgames" and "no skateboarding" notices all over it. The park is just an empty space. And then imagine you are 14 years old, and you live in a flat four storeys up. It's the summer holidays and you don't have any pocket money. That's your life. What will you get up to today? Take in a concert, perhaps? Go to a football game? Go to the seaside? No - you're talking £30 or £50 to do any of that. You can't kick a ball around on your own doorstep. So what do you do? You hang around in the streets, and you are bored, bored, bored. And you look around you. Who isn't bored? Who isn't hanging around because they don't have any money? Who has the cars, the clothes, the power? As Femi's character in the film found, even if you're not interested in crime, it's difficult to avoid the culture.

Of course, not everyone who grows up in a deprived neighbourhood turns to crime - just as not everyone who grows up in a rich neighbourhood stays on the straight and narrow. Individuals are responsible for their actions - and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong. But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour. It's easy to feel pessimistic when you see that film. But I think that's the wrong response. We can't just give up in despair. We've got to believe we can do something about the terrible problems of youth crime and disorder. We've got be optimistic about young people, otherwise we'll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes.

And I think there are three things that are vital if we're to make all our communities safe and give every young person the chance they deserve.

The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it.

In that context I want to say something about what is, for some, a vivid symbol of what has gone wrong with young people in Britain today: hoodies. In May last year, hoodies became political. The Bluewater shopping centre banned them, and the Prime Minister said he backed the ban. I actually think it's quite right for politicians to debate these matters. But debating the symptoms rather than the causes won't get us very far. Because the fact is that the hoodie is a response to a problem, not a problem in itself. We - the people in suits - often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters. But, for young people, hoodies are often more defensive than offensive. They're a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in, don't stand out. For some, the hoodie represents all that's wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society's response to the hoodie shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right.

Camila Bhatmanghelidj, of the visionary social enterprise, Kids Company, understands. In her new book, Shattered Lives, there is an account of a girl whose pastime it was to "steal smiles", as she put it. To viciously hurt people in the street who she saw smiling. It's the only thing that would give her pleasure. Of course we should condemn her behaviour. But that's the easy part. Because if you knew that that girl had suffered years of abuse and neglect from her family, and years of institutional indifference from the social services you would begin to understand that there is more to life on the streets than simple crime and simple punishment. That girl is getting better now, thanks to the deep understanding and patient work of Kids Company. She still struggles - Kids Company don't do miracles. But she's not offending any more and she's just completed a course with the Prince's Trust.

So when you see a child walking down the road, hoodie up, head down, moody, swaggering, dominating the pavement - think what has brought that child to that moment.

If the first thing we have to do is understand what's gone wrong, the second thing is to realise that putting things right is not just about law enforcement. It's about the quality of the work we do with young people. It's about relationships. It's about trust. Above all, it's about emotion and emotional development.

Of course we should never excuse teenage crime, or tolerate the police ignoring it. We need tough sanctions, protection and punishment. And if the phrase "social justice" is to be meaningful, it has to be about justice, as well as compassion and kindness. It has to involve a sense of cause and consequence - of just rewards and just deserts. One of the most important things we can teach our children is a sense of justice. Too many young people have no understanding of consequences - of the idea that actions have effects. This is bad enough for us - wider society, who have to suffer the crime and cost of delinquency. But it is truly disastrous for them - the children themselves.

Young criminals became older criminals, and they end up with wrecked lives, wrecked relationships, in prison, on drugs - either dead or with such a bad start in life they never really recover. So we have to have justice - we have to fight crime firmly and completely. Justice is about setting boundaries, and stepping over those boundaries should have painful consequences. But that's not the whole answer.

To build a safe and civilised society for the long term, we have to look at what goes on inside the boundaries. If the consequence of stepping over the line should be painful, then staying within the bounds of good behaviour should be pleasant. And I believe that inside those boundaries we have to show a lot more love. We have to think about the emotional quality of the work we do with young people.

That's where you, the social entrepreneurs, the voluntary organisations - the people doing the patient, painstaking work on the ground with young people - come in. If the police and criminal justice system guard the boundaries of acceptable behaviour - patrolling the territory beyond the pale - then community groups populate the interior. If the police stand for sanctions and penalties, you stand for love. And not a soppy love! I don't see anyone soppy here. But it is about relationships. It is about emotional security. It is about love. It seems sometimes that when it comes to these difficult social issues, we're obsessed with measuring the quantity of inputs. How much money. How many more staff. Whether targets are met. But if we're really serious about the issues, we should be measuring quality as well as quantity. What is the quality of the care and support we give young people?

We sometimes see young people described as "feral", as if they have turned wild. But no child is ever really feral. No child is beyond recovery, beyond civilisation. That girl who stole smiles, who suffered so much, and who made others suffer so much, is getting better now. It is an achievement that the police, or prison, or government itself rarely manages. The brilliance of Kids Company, or the East Side Young Leaders Academy, or the other fantastic charities and social enterprises like them is that they can provide the love that is needed to begin to restore a young person to health and happiness.

And that brings me to the third point I wanted to make today.

To tackle youth crime and disorder for the long term, we will have to place real trust in the hands of the people and organisations that understand the challenges young people face, and can offer the quality of care and emotional support they need.

We've heard a lot over the past few years about a partnership between government and the voluntary sector. Too often, the reality is that for "partnership" you can read "takeover." If we're serious about the social sector doing more, then government and the public sector has to learn to let go. To let the social sector and social entrepreneurs take wings and soar.It has to say to the youth club teaching kids excluded from school; the drug rehab with the best record of helping young people get clean and stay clean; or the faith-based charity bringing discipline and purpose to the chaotic lives of parents who've lost control...

"Our record is lousy; yours is great - so you should be in charge."

Over the past few years, we've seen the opposite - a massive expansion in the state sector. That's especially true in the Home Office. In the end, it comes down to a question of values. There are two values at the heart of modern Conservatism. Trusting people, and sharing responsibility. And it's the intersection of those values that provides the right way forward. We want to share responsibility for tackling youth crime and anti-social behaviour because we believe that we're all in this together. That we'll never get to grips with the problem if we leave it all to the police and the criminal justice system.

But sharing responsibility doesn't mean a fuzzy compromise where no-one is really accountable. It means really handing over power. Because we also believe in trusting people, we want to let them get on with what they do best.

It's exactly the approach I've taken in developing an idea I put forward nearly a year ago:…the idea of a national school leaver programme. I'm passionate about its potential to bring our country together and give every young person in Britain a sense of purpose, optimism and belonging. But I didn't sit down in my office and write a blueprint for how it would work. I brought together the real experts, leaders in youth work from over twenty different voluntary organisations. We discussed my proposal. They gave their views. And now they're in the driving seat. A new charity has been set up, called the Young Adult Trust. It has adapted my initial suggestions. And a pilot programme will soon be underway.

I've played my part, helping to secure funding and bringing the right people together. But I'm not pretending I've got the answers. My job is to give a lead, not to take control.

So today I don't just want to encourage you personally in the fantastic work that you do. I want you to know that a government I lead will give you the freedom to do it. Your work in the community, among the most difficult and the most marginalised of our children, is a central component of improving our society's sense of general well-being.

Of course we need to be tough on crime and tough on youth offending.But we must also follow the three principles I've set out today.Understanding what's gone wrong in order to put things right... Giving priority to the emotional quality of the work we do with young people... And giving real power to the real experts who can make the biggest difference...

If we follow these principles, if we approach this challenge with a sense of optimism and hope, I know we can make our country a safe and civilised place for everyone to live.
Can someone tell me where in this he said that victims of street crime should go and hug the offenders?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Is this what it's all about?

Since Slugger O'Toole is seeking to build better relations with the blogosphere, I thought I'd write a post in response to their 'Bonefire of the vanities'... about the bonfires lit every 11th of July. But first I've been asked by a few, even by those who've studied British politics, if I can explain what the annual celebrations are about.

Perhaps the best starting point is with the reign of James VII & II. The seventeenth century saw ferocious struggles between King and Parliament, with assertions of popular sovereignty and the Divine Right of Kings flying backwards and forwards, whilst elsewhere states such as France were reaching the height of their power under absolutist monarchs. In the three kingdoms in the British Isles events came to a head with James's reign. Many were prepared to tolerate James's conversion to Roman Catholicism in the short term as he was already in his 50s when he ascended to the throne and his heir presumptive was married to William of Orange, one of the leading Protestant rulers of the day.

There was a strong element of anti-Roman Catholicism involved, but it would be wrong to see the events of 1688-1691 purely as a religious conflict. In the eighteenth century there was a lot of political hypocrisy - a rejection of Protestant dissenters from Anglicanism co-existed with an establish Presbyterian church in Scotland; distrust of foreigners co-existed with first a king who also ruled the Netherlands and later with successive kings who also ruled a leading state in Germany; and a staunch anti-Roman Catholicism co-existed with alliances with Austria (and sometimes conflict with Prussia). Maybe the anti-Roman Catholicism was really a code for Francophobia and Spanophobia.

In 1688 James had a son who seemed likely to continue the Roman Catholic reign and many of the controversial policies and a result matters came to a head. Although there was division between those who wished to replace James and those who merely wished to see his actions curtailed, soon many came together to invite William of Orange over to England with his armies. Landing on November 5th 1688, William soon garnered much support and after a series of minor skirmishes and desertions James eventually fled (throwing the Great Seal in the Thames) to France.

The following year the Convention Parliament deemed James's actions to be abdication. The throne of England was jointly offered to William and Mary, with succession to James's daughter Anne. James's son was disregarded and many a story circulated about him being smuggled into the palace in a bedpan.

Part of the settlement in England was the passing of the Bill of Rights which remains to this day one of the fundamental constitutional laws of the country. The Estates (Parliament) of Scotland passed the separate but similar Claim of Right. And for many the "Glorious Revolution" was all about what the Bill stands for.

The Bill of RightsWikipedia sums up the basic tenets of the Bill of Rights as follows:
*Englishmen, as embodied by Parliament, possessed certain immutable civil and political rights. These included:
**freedom from royal interference with the law (the Sovereign was forbidden to establish his own courts or to act as a judge himself)
**freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without agreement by Parliament
**freedom to petition the King
**freedom from a peace-time standing army, without agreement by Parliament
**freedom [for Protestants] to have arms for defence, as allowed by law
**freedom to elect members of Parliament without interference from the Sovereign
**the freedom of speech in Parliament, in that proceedings in Parliament were not to be questioned in the courts or in any body outside Parliament itself (the basis of modern parliamentary privilege)
**freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, and excessive bail
**freedom from fines and forfeitures without trial
*Certain acts of James II were specifically named and declared illegal on this basis.
*The flight of James from England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution amounted to abdication of the throne.
*Roman Catholics could not be king or queen of England since "it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince". The Sovereign was required to swear a coronation oath to maintain the Protestant religion.
*William and Mary were the successors of James.
*Succession should pass to the heirs of Mary, then to Mary's sister Princess Anne of Denmark and her heirs, then to any heirs of William by a later marriage.
*The Sovereign was required to summon Parliament frequently, later reinforced by the Triennial Act 1694.
Note that once again basic principles that few today would dispute (the sovereignty of Parliament, the restricted role of the crown, regular Parliaments, freedom from punishment without trial and so forth) co-exist with anti-Roman Catholicism.

Not everyone accepted the Glorious Revolution with open arms. For some Jacobitism was merely about the personal restoration of James VII & II, and later his heirs ("James III & VIII" and Bonnie Prince Charlie) to the throne. Indeed there are a fringe few today who still assert that all monarchs since 1688 have ruled illegitimately and that the rightful ruler of the country is Francis of Bavaria. For others Jacobitism was a vehicle for the restoration of rights and privileges, especially those who lost out in the Glorious Revolution or its successors.

In 1689 James landed in Ireland with French troops and backing, seeking a counter-revolution and restoration, drawing upon the especial support he had amongst Roman Catholics and also in Scotland. The "Williamite war" lasted two years, but the turning point was the Battle of the Boyne on July 1st 1690 (because of the later change to the Gregorian calendar it is now celebrated on July 12th). James deserted Ireland not long afterwards, although the struggle with his supporters seeking better treatment lasted another year.

Today the Orange Order claims to celebrate the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights every year - though as shown above not every single thing in it commands universal support. How the annual celebrations became politicised is another story and one that is deeply controversial to tell.

Turning back to the 'Bonefire of the vanities'..., one of the points it raises is that the bonfires don't just alienate the nationalist community but also the middle class unionists are offended. "Burning tyres could create more of a stink in North Down than West Belfast."

Seeing the bonfires as a sign of working class manhood, with the competitions to have the area's best bonfire demonstrating skills and giving a clear message:
"Women of Ulster, be ye impressed by these tall, phallic objects, for yea, thou shalt be needing cupboards put up shortly, and ye are now witnessing the ultimate manifestation of our manly DIY skills."
But the bonfires themselves are frequently environmental hazards, made up of tires and old furniture and pile up in communal areas. One has to seriously wonder if this is quite how the Glorious Revolters would wish to be remembered.

So much has been said and written both for and against the July 12th Orange Order parades and whether or not they should walk down certain routes that I doubt there's much to add. The one thing that I do think is clear is that the Orange Order hasn't always been very good at promoting itself outside of Northern Irish Protestants. Images of riots against the RUC/PSNI over the right to march down a street where the residents do not wish to have the marchers do nothing to support for not just the Orange Order but for Unionism as a whole (although, as Slugger notes, Drumcree passed off peacefully this year). Hypocrisy from politicians, especially the DUP, in demanding the right to "march the Queen's highway" for the Orange Order but object to Gay Pride marches that wish to "march the Queen's highway", does little to endear their cause to the liberal minded.

And is there any obscure clause in the Bill of Rights that gives people to Right To Stink Out The Neighbourhood?

Bye bye Windows 98

Today Microsoft is formally shutting support for Windows 98. And so the march of computer technology goes on.

But am I the only one who wonders if eight years is too limited a lifespan for a product? I have always been struck by the way the computer industry frequently operates at one speed when the market is definitely two speed. An estimated seventy million are still using Windows 98 and it's not as easy for all to upgrade as some make out.

Broadly the computing industry and one section of the market operate on the principle that equipment and software get obsolete quite quickly and need to be upgraded every few years. That's all well and true but it overlooks the fact that many consumers do not operate on such a basis.

Many will buy an appliance and keep using it until it stops working - and indeed tend to heavily resent it when they feel they "have" to either buy additional equipment or replace the entire thing just to do what they've been currently doing. A lot of equipment lasts for years with careful care and attention - looking round my room my television is significantly older than Windows 98, so is the VCR (although nowadays it mainly serves as a glorified SCART adaptor) and the printer is at least the same age. All still work, all do everything they did when they were purchased and none have ever required an upgrade to just stand still. (Annoyingly though my Primax scanner is not compatible with Windows XP - so much for back compatibility and progress.) How many people treat their computers like this? I know some who still have the home PCs they purchased a decade ago.

It's easy to dismiss those who don't upgrade as dinosaurs. But many don't for one reason or another, the main one frequently being cost as most of the PCs that came out with Windows 98 don't have the hardware and memory requirements for later versions of the program. Should the industry force them into perpetual upgrades?

A related point on this that I do find a frequent irritant is the poor design of many websites when it comes older browsers. Because a lot of office and institution PCs do not allow the user to install software the browsers frequently get significantly out of date. At the university I invariably find web browsing a nightmare because of browsers that neither have Flash Macromedia on them nor allow me to install it. Similarly there a good number of fonts in use on the web that not all old PCs can actually read. Now this isn't as if it's a necessary evil as many websites have been designed to actually ask the browser first whether it has the plug in and if not just display the site anyway. But too many others just crash the browser. Some of the worst offenders are sites targeted at the education community - they should either do better research about their target audience's facilities or get a control on their website designers.

Is there a solution to this? I'd hope so, but at the moment it seems as though the computer industry just keeps sprinting on, leaving many behind in its wake.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Doesn't he look familiar?

My attention has just been drawn to this image of the eighteenth century French philosopher, Denis Diderot:

Am I the only one who thinks he looks like someone who's occasionally in the news?!

Apparently I'm "Euro friendly"...

Slugger O'Toole has a post about its poor links with the blogosphere, including a list of the top twenty referring blogs. It seems I'm number 12 on the list, one hit above Iain Dale!

I'm described as "Euro friendly" - presumably not meaning my stance on the EU!

For those who haven't yet encountered Slugger O'Toole, it's one of the best combined news/blog sites on the net, with discussions across the field of Northern Irish politics and culture and highlights of many news stories from across the media.

Friday, July 07, 2006

One year on

Inevitably there's one event dominating the blogosphere today. Amongst the many blogs discussing it are, in no particular order, Anorak, Keeping the tab on the tabloids, Slugger O'Toole, Dodgeblogium, An Englishman's Castle, Politics through the eyes of a teenager, Jo's Journal, Mars Hill, Kerron Cross - The Voice of The Delectable, Take back the voice, Paul Linford and Iain Dale.

My own memories of the day are mixed. The night before a friend had been crashing at my flat as he had been working too late to return home to Coventry. I think this was the first time I alerted him to existence and usefulness of the Gospel Oak to Barking Line which allowed him to travel from Holloway Road to Forest Gate (the stations are Upper Holloway and the misleadingly named Wanstead Park). Otherwise his route would have taken him via the Piccadilly through King's Cross and the Circle Line at Liverpool Street. The next morning he set off at about 08:20 and I got a bite to eat, then flicked on the television at about 09:00 to catch up with what was going on. Later I planned to go down to Mile End to do some work in the library.

It was around this time that reports were coming in of widespread problems across the tube due to "power surges". I thought to myself how lucky it was that I'd told Joe about the railway line, otherwise he might get caught in a tunnel (the GOBLIN mainly runs on viaducts above the street). I then went to tell my flatmate there were problems as, unusually, he had to go into central London that day en route to a course somewhere in Reigate and he might need to leave some extra time. Then I heard the television announce the problems were more serious and there had been explosions.

I sat down at my computer (next to the television) and opened up a mass MSN window with every single contact I had online. For the next few hours I just stayed in the flat, alternating between catching up on the television, making phonecalls to check friends were okay and sharing information online.

Maybe it's my degree, but I think I'd realised before the announcement that this was a terrorist attack. The "power surge" story just rang hollow - I couldn't understand why several explosions had occurred in very different parts of the network all at once. No this was clearly a co-ordinated attack by terrorists on London.

Much of the rest of the day passed in a blur. My flatmate and I set things up to use one phoneline for the internet and the other for phonecalls so we could keep in contact. I received a few "are you okay?" calls and sent out some emails. My flatmate had his course rescheduled because of the travel problems.

The thing that worried me the most was the number of people I knew who either worked in Bloomsbury or who could have been on one of the trains hit. Whilst the actual attack hadn't shocked me as I could remember the last IRA campaign all too well (at the time I was at school in the City and we regularly had bomb alarm drills), the possibility of those I knew being caught in them was concerning. Fortunately I was able to reach everyone eventually, but the difficulties of ringing to and from mobiles that day made many anxious.

It was one of those days when one felt London had pulled together. The emergency services were magnificent in their response and there was a real sense that all communities were united. What was saddening was to hear people like George Galloway being given airtime so they could dance on the victims' graves and use the event as an excuse to make their usual rants. Fortunately very few listened.

One year on I'm not sure much has changed. Maybe people are a little more cautious about abandoned packages and cases but has London stayed together? Current tensions and fears, especially both towards and amongst the Muslim community, enhanced by the notorious innocent shootings, have shown that the metropolis is still deeply divided and there are times when I think things are getting further apart. That would be to let the terrorists win.

Who cares where someone sits on the wrong train?

It seems I'm not the only one sick and tired of rows about where Conservative MEPs park themselves in the European Parliament. The row about leaving the European People's Party (is it me or doesn't that sound rather socialist?) is getting silly. Frankly it's like watching two people get on the wrong train and then proceed to argue to death about whether to sit in facing or rear seats.

I can't recall the actual wording of David Cameron's pledge, but it was always along the lines of transfering from the European People's Party to a new group made up of Eurosceptic conservative parties. I don't remember it being "we will leave the EPP even if it means sitting as unaligned independents." According to people who think what goes on in the European Parliament matters (mainly MEPs themselves and researchers on the gravy train) such an option would deprive the MEPs of any influence they may otherwise have. That Cameron and Hague have sought to build a new group is transparently obvious. That such a group is harder to build than some claim is equally clear. How can we join a different group that doesn't yet exist and shows no sign of coming into existance?

What's utterly irritating is the sight of MEPs getting themselves into the media to declare that they will personally implement one pledge or another on this, whether staying in the EPP despite a pullout or to leave the EPP of their own accord and sit as independents. The terms egotists, wreckers and scorched earthers all spring to mind. All they are achieving is the fracturing of party unity.

Many try to claim that the Conservatives in the 1990s lost their way and lost power because they weren't Eurosceptic enough. Such a claim is ridiculous. Thatcher wasn't deposed because she took a firm line on Europe and she only now claims that she was because it makes her out to be a victim who attracts sympathy from fellow Eurosceptics. Thatcher was deposed for an overbearing leadership style, for refusing to think again on the poll tax, for being an electoral liability and a poor party manager. Nor did the voters reject the party so decisively in 1997 because it was "soft" on Europe. It was rejected for failing to meet the day to day needs of the population, for getting obsessed with issues the population were not concerned about and for failing to offer a dynamic vision. The idea, made by one commenter on Iain Dale's blog today, that leaving the EPP already would have given us an extra two thousand votes in the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election, at UKIP's expense, is absurd.

Wreckers on all sides are as bad as each other. Let's stop rowing about seating arrangements in Europe and get on with things that matter.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Question Time - live blog

And so we begin. My comments on the panelists are on an earlier post. "There they are and here we go."

22.37 The titles have some different shots of the special production team setting things up.

22.37 David Miliband is the only panelist with a tie on!

22.38 Matt Pollard looks understandably nervous as Dimbleby introduces him. And the audience are all twenty-one or under.

22.38 Question: Should the government place the burden of tackling extremism on Muslim communities.

Goldsworthy: Calls for an independent enquiry and two way dialogue. Dimbleby pushes her to comment on Tony Blair's comments the community.

Miliband: He agrees its a role for all of us to build a just and tolerant society. He acknowledges the debate in the Muslim community between co-existanceists (the vast majority in the UK) and would be dominators who need to be stood up to.

This isn't really firing off yet but given the date it's understanable that this is the first topic. Miliband is trying to justify the lack of a public enquiry as unlikely to tell anything new. He has a point that a public enquiry could divert from the police focusing on preventing a repeat attack.

Audience: Isn't it all our responsibilities?

Madeley: The intelligence services don't have much of a reputation left after their failings like 45 minutes and Forest Gate so what would an enquiry tell us? He is more concerned that a survey found 13% of UK Muslims regard the suicide bombers as martyrs. Is something going wrong in mosques and discussion forums?

Audience (a female Muslim): Feels there needs to be more discussion of the role of US foreign policy.

Audience: Wouldn't an immediate withdrawal from Iraq be the best thing to tackle extremism?

Pollard: Rejects an immediate pullout because of the chaos in Iraq, being on the verge of civil war. His first comments are both sensible and confidently delivered. He doesn't like to agree with Liberal Democrats though... He thinks a key problem is ignorance of Islam in this country that needs better education.

Coe: Thinks Blair is right to say what he did, but wishes people had seen the Islamic Expo at Alexandra Palace. He feels the 13% needs to be tackled by engaging, explaining, listening and showing that we understand, but disagrees with Madeley about the efficiency of the intelligence services.

Madeley responds with the shooting on the tube as being a cock-up according to the leaks.

Audience: Picks up on Forest Gate and asks what would have happened if the situation had been reversed.

And another raises the issue of the war as a sign of the government not listening to the community.

Miliband points to the plot to kidnap the Canadian Prime Minister as proof that the Iraq War is not the cause of all the problems.

22:51 Is it fair for Londoners to pay for the Olympics when it benefits the whole country?

Madeley: Is from East London and feels the need to take responsibility for our own cities. "We'll be the first to benefit from it."

Questioner: Feels it unfair that the council tax should go up so much.

Pollard: Agrees it's a steep demand, but it will benefit London the most. Physical regeneration will mostly benefit locals.

Audience: Why do we need the Olympics to regenerate our inner cities?

Coe: We don't but it's the best vehicle he knows to do that. He thinks the majority of Londoners are comfortable because Londoners will be left with world class facilities we can all use. He also points out that there will be a cap on the council tax increase with other forms of funding.

Dimbleby asks how much it will cost by 2012 when the budget escalates. Coe responds that it wasn't bid for as just six weeks of support but as a way to regenerate a community (although I'm not sure Stratford is totally the "East End" - I've always felt the East End is west of the River Lee). Coe is being bombarded with figures by Dimbleby but isn't able to bat them all down. He is justifying it by the regeneration potential.

Audience: Why should we have to wait until 2012 to get these great facilities? Shouldn't more be done to prepare our athletes for 2012?

Miliband: Agrees. Dimbleby ask "so what are you going to do about that?" Miliband: More money going in. He feels that the Olympics have banished the British curse of falling at the quarter and semi finals and there is an inspiration to young people. The audience member isn't convinced and feels the need to invest now.

Another audience: Feels companies like McDonalds and Coca Cola are not the best sponsors to encourage people to take up sport.

Coe: Feels there's massive scope to encourage not just spor but much more. Also feels that London has fallen behind sportswise and the Olympics can help push it up the agenda. In the mid 1980s the Sports Council had £40.2 million for the whole country and much has improved.

Goldsworthy: Feels it's also about winning medals and needs to be reminded of the question. (She is a Cornish MP - for Seb Coe's old seat I think.) She thinks it's fair that Londoners makes a capped contribution but it should not have unlimited liability.

Audience members: What will happen to the greenbelt land around London?

How do we ensure it isn't late Wembley style?

Thinks the ones who will go forward as athletes will be those wealthy enough.

Pollard: Agrees that at the moment the audience members won't be athletes. "Why are our facilities so rubbish."

Miliband agrees that more needs to be done but points to the way facilities have been improved, but also feels it's key to improve the base.

23:02 When will Blair follow Beckham and resign for failing to deliver the nation's dreams.

And there are reminders of the way Miliband has been compared to Rooney...

Miliband: Blair will go before the next election. (How about a specific time?) He thinks there have been major changes to the UK since 1997 and that Blair shouldn't go on too long - defined as "beyond the next election".

Madeley: Has no idea when Blair will go and that it was foolish for Blair to announce his departure so early. (And yet in many other countries such promises are made with no problems, e.g. Japan.) Also thinks Prescott should go now.

Audience: Thinks the nation deserves to know.

Goldsworthy: Compares Blair to Sven. Thinks it's the same procress of protracted unwinding and losing all control.

Audience: Never mind when Blair's going, what about Prescott? (Dimbleby hints it's coming soon.)

Pollard: Thinks long term announcements of departure are bad and that Blair should go when it's best for the UK, not Blair's career.

Coe: Doesn't mind too much - it doesn't affect his task which is a cross party alliance.

(Is it me or is this a rather constructive and tame edition? There's no fierce arguments beyond Dimbleby picking up on a few individual details.)

Coe: "I will always be a William Hague man; he's my friend."

23:07 Is there a limit to amount of chapagne socialists can indulge in? Should Prescott go? (The most popular topic)

Goldsworthy: Thinks now it's being investigated by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner and the story won't die down until Prescott goes.

Pollard asks if the enquiry shouldn't be prejudiced. He thinks someone who is currently found innocent should not be forced to resign until found guilty. He thinks the issue is just driven by the ranch visit.

Madeley: It's way past a joke and credibile that he can remain Deputy Prime Minister. Thinks Prescott's belated registering the visit is tantamount to accepting a police caution and really should go. It may give the Labour Party problems but for the country's sake a Deputy PM should be reasonably above reproach.

Audience: Feels the government has performed well for nine years and this issue is overshadowing. (Does anyone recognise this guy.)

Madeley: Saying Prescott should go isn't a criticism of the government but of Prescott.

Questioner: Thinks Prescott has based his career as being supposedly on a morally higher plane with his attacks on other parties and has been exposed as a hypocrite.

Miliband: (Will he start a bid for the deputy leadership here? Probably not...) Tries to play the card that Prescott was a failed school leaver at fifteen who's pulled himself up - to groans. Dimbleby suggests this is a rather patronising approach. Miliband tries to go down the route of talking about "a fairer society."

Audience: Feels the whole image and hypocrisy of Prescott, doing what he viciously attacked others for, is why he should go.

Coe: Feels the enquiry is a little bit irrelevant. Points out that Alastair Campbell said anyone who does thirteen straight days on the frontpages is inevitably doomed, although not sure if Prescott has clocked that up yet. He points to the misfortune many good Conservatives were in when viciously attacked ten years ago.

Madeley picks up on comments in an interview Prescott gave that seem to hint there is more that could come out. Miliband thinks too much emphasis is being placed on words.

Audience: Shouldn't more pressure be put on Blair to resign because he did worse in taking the country to war.

(Interim as Dimbleby announces the audience.)

23:18 Is North Korea a greater threat than Saddam Hussein was?

Pollard: With hindsight it's clear Hussein wasn't so much a threat. North Korea is definitely a threat, although the weapons can't yet reach the US. China is a problem in not taking action. Diplomacy must prevail and military action should be avoided at all costs.

Audience: We can actually see North Korea has the nuclear capability and there's no scope that the threat could be spun.

Thinks there is hypocrisy as North Korea was known about in 2003 and there needs to be credible action not constant talking.

Goldsworthy: Thinks there is a need to learn the lessons of Iraq and ensure that it is the UN who takes action with the co-operation of neighbouring countries.

Madeley: Recalls the Cuba Missile Crisis which was sudden and intense, whereas this is a long term thing, with North Korea not yet a serious threat. He feels China is the key - it doesn't want South Korea building its own nuclear weapons, or Japan buying weapons from the US. Thinks that playing the China card will sort the situation out.

Coe: This is a destabilised country, it has been in difficulty for as long as he can remember. He thinks Bush's response was a reasonable approach, not an Axis of Evil type speech. He's more sceptical about comments about the "crappy nature of the missiles". Thinks the only thing that can come is that there must be a very measured and thought through policy.

Miliband: Thinks there is consensus and that Kim Il Jong has until now been a main threat to his own people but now branching out. Feels that this is something the UN can and must deal with, through China.

Audience: Wonders why no direct action against North Korea by the US - maybe because there's no oil?

Will this affect views on replacing Trident?

Goldsworthy: It's difficult to predict the future world stage.

23:26 At 16 & 17 you can buy a house, join the army and work but not vote. Why?

Miliband: Always pro reduction - either you raise the other ages to 18 or lower voting to 16. Admits his powers of persuasion are not the best across government. Is surprised to learn Gordon Brown is pro a reducuction.

Audience: 17 year old feels that too many don't understand politics and wouldn't use their votes wrong.

Pollard: Thinks it should not be lowered unless compulsory political education (the current provision is not broad enough) is introduced.

Audience: Thinks we should get PR in first. Dimbleby dismisses this sideshow.

Madeley: Thinks his children were equipped and able to vote at 16. If people don't feel they are up to voting they can then not vote.

Coe: Thinks political engagement is important, would reduce the age. But he gets nervous about the idea of "compulsory political education" and wonders who will set the agenda.

Goldsworthy: Agrees with reducing the age but also need to do other things as well. In true Lib Dem style she manages to get a shot at the electoral system in. (So too did an audience member who looked suspiciously like a member of Liberal Democrat Youth & Students...)

And that's it discussion wise. Dimbleby notes that there have been more hands up than ever before.

And now we meet the students who co-produced the show and present the awards.

An interesting if tame show tonight. What I think it proves more than ever before (not that it needs much proving) is that politics can sometimes not make for the best television when it is having reasoned short debate. But is the solution just to have more and more yahbooing to ever smaller audiences.

Nick 'n Dale: What are bloggers for?

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the blogosphere about the role of bloggers in politics. Well I guess it proves that the media enjoys nothing better than talking about itself.

Amongst the highlights are Nick Robinson's counter-attack about those who claim the BBC should have run with a story sooner:

Robinson really is making a spectacle of himself
Incidentally, this is another example of some blogs trying to make the political weather. First, they demand to know why the mainstream media - and, in particular, the BBC - are not covering an alleged "scandal". Then they report unsubstantiated allegations which have been denied by those involved, which some newspapers then report as second hand news.

Let's be clear. This isn't because they are better journalists, free from censorship. They often have a political agenda. This is a political phenomenon copied from the United States where the Swift Boat Veterans were used to damage John Kerry.

Here's proof, from my old friend Iain Dale - a former Tory candidate and chief of staff in David Davis's leadership campaign who chivvied the mainstream media for not covering the story of Cherie Blair signing the Hutton report to raise funds at an auction. This entry on his blog is titled It's Up to the Blogs to Make it Hit the Fan.
Iain has countered with, amongst other posts, this on Comment is free: I may be a blogger but I'm not an attack dog:

Are blogs purely a conduit for unsubstantiated gossip? In some cases, of course - just as newspapers and various radio & TV programmes are. We all know that the Westminster village is a hive of political gossip, much of it either wishful thinking or vicious innuendo. The fact that some of it is repeated on blogs like Guido Fawkes and Recess Monkey is actually having the consequence of allowing the public into the sometimes closed world of Westminster. It's up to them to judge whether what they read is healthy or not.

But it is also true to say that Blogs are no different from newspaper diary columns. They both specialise in the same sort of tittle tattle and they are both subject to exactly the same libel laws. The only difference is that if Jon Henley gets sued for something he writes in his Guardian Diary column, The Guardian will pick up the tab. If I get sued, I don't have any big media organisation in the background to help me out. The consequence is that I am careful what I write. Guido Fawkes, it has to be said, is less careful and is more gung ho. He has actually invited the Labour MP he names on his site to sue him. So far she hasn't.
The row could run on and on...

Ultimately blogs are the 21st century incarnation of private newspapers, newsletters and the like that have spread information and political debate in a new form. They operate to a different scope than the "mainstream" media organisations - indeed they're threatening to undermine information monopolies. Yes many are written by avowed party members but as the Prescott affairs have shown there are critics across the political spectrum. Isn't it better that the authors are honest? And many a party member's blog dissents from the party line many times.

Coming soon: another live blog of Question Time

Tonight is the special schools' edition of Question Time and I will be doing a live blog of the show, similar to the one I did a couple of months ago.

The panelists on the show tonight include:

David Miliband, Secretary of State for Environment and widely seen as the post-Brown (or even instead of Brown) future of the Labour Party. Recently he became the first minister to set up his own blog but I'm not sure if it was for better ministerial accountability or better profiling.

Richard Madeley, television broadcaster, for many the king of daytime television, an idol of many students and the star of umpteen nominees for the most cringeworthy moment ever on television. I wonder if another nominee will pop up tonight.

Sebastian Coe, athlete turned politician turned Olympic bid winner. Coe was an MP for five years but frankly his celebrity status was wasted - any celebrity currently hoping to be a Conservative MP should stop if they think it's going to give them constant media spotlighting.

Don't worry, we'll have the other image up as wellAn extra female muppet who appeared to balance up the numbers a bit betterJulia Goldsworthy, Liberal Democrat number two spokesperson for the Treasury. It's nice to be reminded there are young female Liberal Democrats whose names aren't Sarah Teather. Goldsworthy apparently was runner up on some show called The Games but I have to admit to never having caught it.

Matt Pollard, "the students' choice". For the first time ever Question Time will have an ordinary member of the public on its panel and Pollard, an international relations student at Exeter, won a strong selection for the post. But other than that we so far know very little about him... which is the idea!

Not the most exciting panel at a first glance but it will be interesting to see what an alternative selection criteria throws up. I'm not convinced that one should necessarily always try to get some of the youngest possible politicians - last year the schools edition featured an octogenarian who proved one of the most popular panelists!


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