Saturday, April 12, 2014

University admission: time for affirmative action

The next Labour government may well take office at a time when social mobility in Britain has stalled, if not declined. For example for most of the past decade students who leave some of England’s highest-performing state comprehensive schools with the equivalent of at least three A grades at A level are a third less likely to go to one of the UK’s 30 most selective universities than their peers at independent schools. In fairness it is not unreasonable that any parent should want their child to do as well at school and in life as they have done themselves; often they want them to do better. In a free society if some parents choose to secure advantage and privilege by sending their children to elite schools there is little the state can do about it. However there are clear consequences for future social mobility that a future Labour Education Secretary would be wise not to ignore. British public schools have always been a production line for the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, with as many as two-thirds educated in the top 20 British universities. They can and do raise their fees steadily, they select their pupils; have a growing endowment income from their benefactors and some of the most impressive sporting and extra-curricular activities. What's more they have recruited from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage. One consequence is that state school children are still not reaching the highest levels in influential professions So what can be done? One answer might be to adopt the approach taken by the US state of Texas. Several years ago in one of the boldest-ever college admissions experiments, the Texas legislature passed HB 588, which guaranteed high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 per cent of their class admission to any Texas public college or university. HB 588, popularly known as the ‘top 10 per cent law’, sought not only to recover the drop in Black and Hispanic representation at its flagship institutions following the judicial ban on affirmative action, but also to increase the number of high schools that sent students to the four-year public universities. Has it worked? In 2008 a report carried out by researchers at Princeton University found that HB 588 ‘has triggered powerful mechanisms that, combined with the changing demography of the state and the automatic admission regime, have broadened access to the public flagships to high-achieving students from the entire state of Texas’. The report also found that by strengthening ties between the top universities and high schools with low college-going traditions the initiative had begun to improve high school climates and significantly raise the number of economically disadvantaged students attending university. Could this work here in the UK? The Texas model is ‘limited’ to a distinct geographical area, but for a similar scheme to work here in the UK a future Labour government could require each of our top universities to link to schools in a particular region or locality, schools that do not have a track record of sending their most able students to our premier institutions. If any student at one of these schools meets the entry requirements he or she would be guaranteed a place. Far from abandoning the very idea of social mobility, Labour should seek to legislate for measures that will reduce the very real barriers that prevent young people from certain social backgrounds achieving their full potential. This does not mean that personal progress should never be measured by the extent to which individuals escape their social background, but we must also accept that in order to overcome entrenched privilege and vested interests we must actively seek to open up society and end the present ‘closed shop’ that has, for too long, stifled meritocracy by supporting an aristocracy of the elite. If the conservative state of Texas can embrace affirmative action then surely a progressive Labour government of the future can as well.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Why I am supporting Lee Carter as the Labour PPC for the Wrekin

Wrekin Labour party members have a tough decision to make in the next few weeks: who will they be backing to become Labour’s PPC for the Wrekin? This task has been made all the more difficult due to the excellent number of able and committed individuals who have put their names forward. Having met most of them, listened to their views on various topics I have decided that I will be backing Lee Carter. Why? For 3 main reasons: Local person – it is important that we select someone who knows the area, knows the issues and knows the people. Track record – Lee has a superb track record as champion of community based activism. Conviction – Lee believes that collective endeavour is both a strength and a virtue, that as a society we are stronger when we act in the common interest. Lee is also a candidate who can reach parts of this constituency others will not be able to. He is my first choice, I hope he will be yours too.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My letter to Mark Pritchard MP

Below is the text of the letter I sent to Mark Pritchard MP in July 2013 - still no reply... perhaps he is too busy! Mark I know from things you said in the past that you believe that working as an MP is a privilege and the highest honour in a democracy. I agree with you but I also believe that being an MP is more than this; it is a public service that must not be misused. That is why I welcome Ed Miliband’s proposal to impose a limit on MPs having paid second jobs. Such a move will prevent conflict of interests and abuse of privilege and go some way to restoring public trust in our political representatives. In my view I think that an MP elected in 2015 should be banned from having any remunerated contracts to be directors of commercial companies or consultancies. Last year it is reported that you earned in excess of £75,000 in consultancy work which is greater than your current salary as an MP. You have also recently stated that you believe that MPs deserve a pay rise but not just yet. I have read your comments that as a nation we do want to go down the route of only the wealthy, whether with inherited or earned wealth, becoming MPs and living off their savings and their inherited wealth. This is a staggering assertion to make given that, according the Tax Payers’ Alliance, in the general context of UK earnings MP’s are amongst the top 3 per cent in terms of income. You have also stated that sensible people would recognise MPs’ pay was too low when compared to politicians from other European countries. Surely the counter argument is that many hard working people here in The Wrekin recognise that many of your European colleagues are paid too much! In light of this I would ask that you make clear that should you retain The Wrekin parliamentary seat – assuming you are standing - in 2015 you will: • Decline any pay rise that may have been awarded to MPs in line with commitments being made by your colleagues across the political divide. • You will not take on any other paid employment or consultancy work for the period of the next parliament. The people of The Wrekin rightly expect their MP to be full-time in representing their interests. That, surely, is the purpose of all MPs elected to Westminster. Best wishes, Mike

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Labour needs to be bolder

“At our best when at our boldest” the words of one Tony Blair to Labour's annual conference in 2002. Labour is - despite the cynics who argue otherwise - a centre-left party, not a centre-right one. Its centre-left credentials from its last term of office were impressive: the introduction of the minimum wage, the abolition of the assisted places scheme and the hereditary principle in the Lords, huge investment in public services, debt cancellation for the poorest countries, civil partnerships etc, etc. The problem is that many of its most radical and socially progressive initiatives were carried out during its first term. In the latter years of government, circa 2003 -2010 Labour was, on the whole, competent but not radical, managerial but not inspirational. So what might a 'bolder' agenda look like in 2015? How about the following as a start:- 1. Give all cancer patients access to the drugs they need regardless of where they live. 2. Create a 'People's Bank' in every High St and village and call it ... The Post Office. 3. Cap rents in the private sector. 4. Introduce a mandatory living wage. 5. Stop the renewal of Trident. 6. Legislate for a wholly-elected House of Lords 7. End selection by ability at age 11 8. Lower the voting age to 16 9. Repeal the ‘bedroom tax’ 10. Implement Leveson in full. 11. Abolish hospital car parking charges in England.

New Labour may well be over but Labour renewed is alive with possibility.

If Labour is to have any chance of returning to government at the first time of asking then it could well benefit from looking closely at how David Cameron and the Tory party used a period in opposition to reposition and ‘rebrand’ itself. The 2010 election result gave the party a clear and unambiguous message: renew or prepare for yet another long period in the wilderness years. If Labour is to continue to be a major force in British politics then it needs to look closely at its current image or ‘brand’ and remember that it cannot choose simply between ‘style or substance’ as though they are in some way mutually exclusive. However we need to also learn some other lessons from the Tories.

It took the Conservative party two lost elections before enough people were willing to back meaningful change. If Labour really is serious about getting swiftly back into government then it cannot afford to go through a long, painful and potentially damaging process of internal dissension. The truth is that many Labour members and supporters have opposing interpretations of why we lost in 2010 or about the direction we now need to take if we are to regain much of our lost support. Some will want the party to be more passionately principled whilst others will stress the need for sensible pragmatism.

There will be calls for the party to champion the state whilst at the same time allowing market forces to operate with minimal impunity; to attack the causes of poverty but to also be the party that promotes aspiration. The longer these conflicting priorities are debated and discussed the longer we are likely to spend in opposition. Our core message should be simple and unambiguous: our values have not changed and our mission as a party is a clear today as it was a century ago – we really are stronger as a nation when we come together than we can ever be apart. Therefore Labour’s next manifesto should only propose change for a purpose and that purpose should centre on renewing the party's policies, its systems and structures in order to ensure that we are properly equipped to exploit the opportunities to reconnect with our traditional supporters and with the millions of voters who feel so badly let down by the duplicitous Liberal Democrats.

If Labour is to learn from this defeat then it will need to be more proactive in its consultation and dialogue. For too long ordinary party members have felt ignored and removed from the leadership. The new leader should recognise that members want to be heard and they want to be listened to. Perhaps even more important though is the need for the party to be more proactive in consulting and engaging local communities. It is only when local parties reach out and get involved in their communities that people will see Labour politics as a way of helping them deal with their problems and realising their hopes for a better future. A renewed Labour party should be the natural place for people to turn to when they want to change things because a party that gets things done locally – and nationally – is a party that will keep winning elections. A renewed Labour party will need to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it will also need to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. The forces of conservatism are not confined to our new coalition government, they exist within our own party and it will be up to those of us who believe passionately in the core values of our movement to take on the cynics and the pessimists within our own ranks, to become the change we want to see – be it in our party or in our country.

Who we are is who we were. Labour's core values can and must inform any future 'rebranding' of the party but we should not be afraid to do things differently. New Labour may well be over but Labour renewed is alive with possibility.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ed Miliband and the politics of optimism.

The Labour government "contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment". This is not a comment about the Blair or Brown years; rather it is a quote from a 1954 New Statesman biographical piece about Clement Attlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Attlee's post-war government for its lack of ambition and for it not being "socialist" enough. In fairness we have been here many, many times before. It is an established truth that most Labour members and supporters simultaneously hold opposing requirements. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic: to be a party that proudly honours its past whilst also helping to shape its and the nation's future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.

When Labour took office in 1997, Britain was suffering from what Tony Blair later described as a "progressive deficit". What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well-paid staff. In the years up to 1997, Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay.

In its first few years in office Labour made significant headway in addressing this progressive deficit. On the constitution, Britain is now a much more pluralist democracy with devolution for Scotland and Wales, Mayors for London and others cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people, Labour delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted - a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, anti-social behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour established major programmes of inner city regeneration, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.

The truth is that many of the changes Labour made in 13 years of government - on the constitution, economic policy, the minimum wage and public services - are likely to last. The challenge for Ed Miliband will be to secure a progressive consensus around the further changes and improvements that need to be made whilst at the same time challenging and exposing the Tory party’s obvious, ideologically driven desire to reduce the size of the state which will result in more charging, less investment, good services for the well-off and second-class services for the rest.

The difficulty that Ed Miliband faces however, the real challenge to progressive politics will come not only from the Cameron led, ‘Thatcherite’ dominated Tory party but from some of the pessimists and cynics that exist within the ranks of his own movement. Miliband’s new generation politics needs to frame political debate in terms of progress versus conservatism and the world not in terms of right and left, but right and wrong. Throughout his campaign for the leadership Ed Miliband spoke about how all too often political debate seems irrelevant to the reality of ordinary peoples’ lives. He understands that too many voters feel that politics is too polarised, that parties and politicians portray their opponents as either pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, as progressives or dinosaurs.

History shows that the public trusts leaders who have the courage to lead. It is surely no coincidence that, in recent history, when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as debt cancellation, the introduction of the congestion charge or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind it. If Labour is to win next time round then its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action.

The politics of optimism, of hope, worked for Obama and touched a chord with the mainstream in the US. Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. Ed Miliband is fast approaching the time when, as Leader, he will need to ensure that the Labour party addresses its own progressive deficit, to be clearer about who we are, who we were and whom we want to become

Friday, May 17, 2013

Donating my Costa Coffee Club Card Points

Do you have a Costa Coffee Club Card? I currently have over £15 on my card and keep thinking to myself... do I really need these? When am I going to 'cash' them in and for what? A Panini? Eight skinny 'wet' lattes? A whole carrot cake?

What if a group of like-minded people were to offer to 'donate' their points to a good cause or causes? For example I would be happy for my points/cash to go to Costa's Foundation or perhaps to a local charity linked to my local Costa.

What do you think? Do you want to help me set up such a scheme? Any advice as to how I start?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Ed Miliband needs show that politics is about more than the desire to wrong foot your opponent

The sad truth is that (despite a few notable exceptions) the previous government did not make it easy for the electorate to vote Labour with any enthusiasm. On the doorstep in 2010 the divide between the concerns of core Labour voters and those of a PR-fixated cabinet never seemed wider. In fairness though; the history of Labour governments was ever thus. Since the 1920s the story goes something like this: Labour supporters are near euphoric when victory is achieved there is then a period of hard slog as the party faces up to the harsh responsibilities of being in government. The party then accuses the leadership of betrayal and the leadership accuses the party of ingratitude. Supporters then become disillusioned which leads to defeat at the polls. We then experience a long period of Tory government before the next outbreak of euphoria and so on and so forth.

The result in Bradford West is an illustration that after an unprecedented 13 straight years in power many of Labour’s own members are not certain what they want. Many want the party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a party that proudly honours its past while not neglecting to shape both its and the nation's future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but also support aspiration. Ed Miliband stood for the leadership of the Labour party on a platform that argued that the renewal that was undertaken in order to gain power in 1997 needs to be repeated if Labour is win at the next election. In the mid-1990s Labour successfully occupied the centre ground, it modernised and reached out beyond its own activists and turned the Tories into a replica of what it itself used to be – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old fashioned and out of touch.

Can Labour win under Ed Miliband? Of course it can but I strongly believe - and the failure of the tactics deployed in Bradford West seem to endorse my view - that the best prospects of future success for our party lie not in the puerile tactics of the spin doctor; politics has to be about more than the desire to wrong foot your opponent. The prospects for future success for Labour lies not in defending the status quo of what is still a highly unequal Britain, rather it is in working with the British people to help rid our nation of some ugly realities such as child poverty and the still endemic inequalities in both health and education, inequalities that could well be even further entrenched once some of the savage and unnecessary cuts begin to fully impact. The politics of ambition and optimism must also be the politics of principle - we should attack our opponents for what they espouse, for their policies and not for their personal shortcomings.

In the coming weeks I hope that Ed will put the case that for a politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution. He needs to show that a renewed Labour party will seek to better reflect the aspirations of ordinary people whilst being realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Ambition, hope and aspiration are far more appealing than a constant reciting of the achievements of the past. Ed has been consistent about the need for the Labour party to be clearer about what we stand for as a movement and for the need for the party to reach out to the communities that it seeks to represent and support. He now needs to show how, under his leadership, our party can set about winning back the trust and confidence of the British people.