5 things about this week (24 July 2018)

by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2018

I’ve been reflecting on the row about the Conservatives’ decision to break the House of Commons’ ‘pairing’ convention, which matches MPs forced to be absent for votes with an opposing member so they cancel each other out (just as they would if both were present). Lib Dem deputy leader, Jo Swinson, a new mother, was supposed to be paired with the Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis, who at the request of the Conservative chief whip Julian Lewis just happened to make the “honest mistake” of forgetting the arrangement for the two closest votes (wile honouring it for the other seven which didn’t matter).

It says a lot about the current government. Not only the dodginess of cheating to win, but also the sheer incompetence of changing its story so often that no-one but Theresa May could maintain the fiction it was actually an “honest mistake”, rather than a “calculated deception”.

A sensible legislature would allow MPs to vote by proxy (just as we electors can), both removing the bother of pairing and also ensuring MPs’ voting records were more transparent. But then a sensible legislature would also not have voted to trigger Article 50, the two-year countdown to Brexit, without having a clue what would happen next or even insisting on a final say. But that’s exactly what almost all Conservative and Labour MPs did 18 months’ ago so I’m not holding my breath for an outbreak of sensibleness.

Workplace discrimination against new mothers is nothing new, of course. The Pregnant & Screwed campaign records that 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave, while 77% of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work. And it was experiencing my partner having to find a new job after our first son was born because her then company (female boss, incidentally) made her return-to-work impossible — while my working life glided on pretty much unaffected — which (in part) turned me properly feminist.

The simple fact remains women face an awful lot of structural barriers in everyday life which the other half of us don’t. But you’d hope Parliament would try and remedy them, rather than exemplify them.

**

I’ve been a loyal Lib Dem member two decades, but there are moments which test my patience. It happened twice this week.

Party president Sal Brinton, when asked at if she would be happy if half of Parliament were trans women, replied: “Absolutely. Trans women are women. And we support them.” It worked as a clap-line, at least for that audience apparently, and I guess/hope was intended rhetorically. However, given that it’s estimated maybe 0.5% of the population identifies as nonbinary I find it somewhat (let’s use the term) problematic to suggest a 100% male-born parliament would be a democratic utopia. (You can read my fuller thoughts on why I don’t accept the statement “trans women are women” here.)

And then secondly, a party email pinged into my inbox from Scottish MP, Christine Jardine, with the subject line: ‘Cheating, Lying, Tories’. It wasn’t just the superfluous second comma which irritated me, it was the aggressive language. That’s the kind of venting I expect from alt-left sites like The Canary and Skwawkbox, not a serious party aspiring to government.

John Harris wrote an excellent column in The Guardian this week deploring the everyday coarseness that the public and media are complicit in promoting, whether Remainers hailing Danny Dyer calling David Cameron a ‘twat’ or ITV’s Piers Morgan “venting his own prejudices while baiting this or that guest”. Here’s his conclusion:

Too many of the people who want something better seem to have mislaid a pretty basic insight: that you find the key to a world beyond Trump, Brexit and our grim version of capitalism not by narcissistically shouting into the void and carrying a placard that says “Prick”, but grasping the deep reasons why so many people are all right with those things, and trying to convince them to think slightly differently. Contrary to what you might hear online, to do so is not to surrender, but to honour a basic leftwing principle I once saw stitched on to a Welsh trade union banner: “Civility always; servility never”.

Civility always; servility never. That’s a ‘leftwing’ principle I can sign up to.

**

So why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better in the polls? It’s a question I get asked a lot, as the Lib Dems pootle along at 7-8%, despite there apparently being a sizeable chunk of the electorate crying out for a progressive, moderate, Remain-committed party.

There are two main explanations, unpicked recently by Matt Singh in Prospect:

  • Still toxic: ‘a majority of hard Remainers thought the Lib Dems were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and that about a third had not yet forgiven them for doing so’
  • Too invisible: ‘the party as a whole has a visibility problem. Asked what the Lib Dems stood for, only a third said they knew.’

Put simply and bluntly, the Lib Dems are currently a sideshow.

Can the party stop Brexit? No (though obviously turning up to vote against it is a necessary first step).

Can the party overturn Brexit? No. The action, for the moment at least, is elsewhere, as Nick Clegg frankly admitted last year: “for as long as parliament is dominated by Labour and Conservative MPs, it is undoubtedly true that what happens within the two larger establishment parties is of the greatest importance”.

There’s no easy answer to this. The reality is the Lib Dems’ prospects are not in the party’s own hands at the moment (which isn’t to say there’s nothing that can be improved in the party’s performance; but there needs to be realism about what impact such improvements could exert).

I suspect it’ll need an external shock — such as a new mainstream centre party breaking out from the current ‘Labservative’ duopoly — to get the Lib Dems back in the game. Otherwise, I can’t help feeling it’s a case of long-haul, incremental, hard slog… sorry.

**

I’ve been reading ‘The great academy schools scandal, by the Observer’s Sonia Sodha on the huge educational experiment of ‘academisation’, started under Labour but driven by the Conservatives, by which some 7,500 state-funded schools (roughly one-third of them) have become independent of their local authority.

This ‘creative disruption’ — rooted in ideological distaste for local authorities, part of the so-called progressive education “blob” Michael Gove decried — was supposed to unleash innovative excellence which would (somehow) ripple out across England’s 20,000 schools. The reality?

… it hasn’t quite happened like that in practice. There have been several studies in the past few years that have invariably reached similar conclusions: there doesn’t appear to be an inherent benefit to a school being run by an academy chain instead of a local authority. “There are a handful of trusts achieving amazing things, but a much longer tail of trusts performing really poorly,” says [Prof. Becky] Francis. Her analysis shows six in 10 academy chains have below-average attainment for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Pre-1997, Tony Blair observed that good education was about “standards, not structures”, and he was right. The key point about structures has always been how to build proper accountability into the schools system, twinned with the capacity to improve schools which are failing their pupils.

Accountability we get (to some extent) through national testing and Ofsted. But school improvement capacity has become the victim of politicians’ tinkering. Instead of building out from the successful local education authorities, while simultaneously challenging the under-performing ones, the Conservatives simply threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Result? We still have a patchwork of school performance, but with far less capacity to fix it.

**

I’ve survived my first two full weeks back at work, after the privilege of my two months’ shared parental leave. I miss my time with the boys, though the blow’s been softened by realising I have a stockpile of annual leave which means I can work ‘9 day fortnights’ for the rest of the year. Here’s a photo of how I put last week’s extra day to good use.

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2 comments

No, we are not “pootling along at 7-8%”; an average of the last 10 Polls gives us 9.2%, accuracy is important. Sorry if I sound grumpy, I cant handle the heat.

by paul barker on July 25, 2018 at 10:35 am. Reply #

I was looking for inspiration for my new tattoo, and now i have it:

‘Civility always; servility never’.

by Sharon Pyner on July 25, 2018 at 10:56 am. Reply #

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