What a Tory cabinet minister said to me tonight: “I don’t know why you Lib Dems aren’t doing better”

by Stephen Tall on April 26, 2016

I don’t think this counts as name-dropping because I’m not going to say who it was. But, anyway, I was chatting to a Tory cabinet minister tonight, as you do, who was genuinely curious to know why the Lib Dems aren’t doing better in the polls.

“I mean, this government is giving you loads of free hits. And Labour’s so hard-left there’s no-one else around to be the voice of sensible opposition,” they said.

I defended my party. After all, we were ignored enough by the media when we were supported by 1-in-4 voters and had dozens of MPs. Life’s a lot tougher now with just eight (MPs, that is, not voters: things aren’t quite that bad).

Taking a sensible position on mainstream issues gets you ignored — it’s our out-rider policies, like Norman Lamb’s attempts to get cannabis legalised and Tim Farron’s calls for the UK to take in 3,000 child refugees from Europe, which attract what little publicity the Lib Dems still get. Worthy, important stuff. But not the bread-and-butter economy and public services issues which will decide how folk vote in 2020.

My ‘senior Tory source’ said they wouldn’t name the issues on which their party was vulnerable… before mentioning schools and the Conservatives’ daft plans for ‘forced academisation’ and abolishing parent-governors. “Champion parents,” they advised, “stick up for local, democratic accountability.”

To his credit, Tim Farron has spoken out against the Conservatives’ plans. But — as I’ve pointed out before, and will continue to point out — education didn’t make it onto the list of the party’s top seven priorities. Our education spokesman John Pugh’s contribution, Hard lessons from coalition, is more notable for its discursiveness than its solutions.

In any case, this isn’t just about my beef with the party sidelining what, for me, is the key, liberal issue: education. It’s bigger than that. My nameless Tory cabinet minister is right: given the gaping hole in the centre of British politics, we should be doing much better.

I think it’s too easy to pin the blame on the leader. Tim has probably the most thankless task in British politics right now. He’s set about it with his usual brand of energy and enthusiasm. It’s not cut through yet, but it’s still early days.

Inevitably, and largely understandably after last May’s trauma, the party has been inward-looking this past year (for example, the internal row over all-women short-lists). More importantly, we have felt keenly the lack of big-hitting talent at the top of the party, with most of our defeated MPs focusing on re-building their careers beyond politics. Add to that the loss of policy advisers and key party staff, and it’s not surprising if the Lib Dems appear a shadow of our former selves. We are.

If you were hopeful that I would finish with some gleaming insights, a prescription for headline-grabbing liberal initiatives that will give the Lib Dem fightback mainstream currency, I’m sorry to disappoint. This was never going to be easy. As far as I can see, there’s no alternative to hard grind, starting in local elections this May, clawing our way back.

Which is what I (more or less) told this Tory cabinet minister. For the record, (S)he Who Will Not Be Named wasn’t impressed and said we should hire them as a consultant. I said I’d rather have Lynton Crosby, but knew we couldn’t afford him.

My must-reads this week April 22, 2016

by Stephen Tall on April 22, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Victoria Wood RIP – aka, why she was my Bowie

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2016

Was Victoria Wood my Bowie? I guess in some ways she was. Bear with me on this.

After all, I was about 15 when the BBC repeated her breakthrough series, As Seen On TV. And I loved it. Still do. Acorn Antiques with Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall and Celia Imrie’s Miss Babs, Patricia Routledge’s self-righteous Kitty, Susie Blake’s superior continuity announcer, Duncan Preston as token male. Her songs, her stand-up, her sketches. They made their impression on me. Most of the jokes I got; some I didn’t (usually to do with ladies’ things) so I made sure I found out so I could.

And like all my generation, I remember her big gig, An Audience With, probably the sharpest, funniest 50 minutes ITV has ever knowingly broadcast. She played the old favourites, including the Ballad of Barry and Freda with its immortal line, “Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly”. The camera cut-away to Emma Freud rupturing with laughter, triggering a teenage crush which has never faded (though I’ve always tried to be happy, actually for Richard Curtis).

When I got my first paid job (waitering), the biggest joy I got was being able to buy my own ticket to go and see her perform at the Oxford Apollo. I didn’t know anyone else who’d be up for going so I went alone. I sat next to an old-ish bloke who left before the second half: it was the set which included some earthy language not to his taste. I even bought a programme, probably still have it somewhere — I recall its dedication to her then husband, Geoffrey Durham: “I could have done it without him. But it would have been crap.” That was her.

It sealed the deal. I watched all her live shows, bought the videotapes, later upgraded to the DVDs. Even Dinnerladies (which, truthfully, wasn’t quite as funny as I wanted it to be; though that didn’t stop my tearing-up at its final episode).

Her Christmas specials remained my highlight — All The Trimmings showcased her at her very best: the spoof of Brief Encounter, the Anne Widdecombe ear-worm, even a cameo by my other teenage comedy fave, Bob Monkhouse. Throughout today, I’ve been recalling half-forgotten lines (“Have you met my friend, Kim-ber-ley?”, “I’ve given gallons of blood and I can’t stomach whelks, so that’s me for you”, “Wendy comes to us from the Geneva school of sterilised blackhead-popping”), admiring again her deft, light touch — ridiculing, but with affection never contempt.

Her later departure into drama I admired and respected (Housewife 49), though it wasn’t what first inspired me. Perhaps, like Bowie, her best was behind her. We’ll never know now. For me, she wasn’t just the best female comedian I’ve seen: she was the best comedian. A writer, a stand-up, an actor, a musician. Slapstick, one-liners, pathos, satire. She could do it all. But, above all, there was always warmth. You didn’t just laugh: you smiled.

My must-reads this week April 15, 2016

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week April 1, 2016

by Stephen Tall on April 1, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week March 25, 2016

by Stephen Tall on March 25, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Do you know the difference between unequal pay and the gender pay gap?

by Stephen Tall on March 22, 2016

gender pay gap

I have written before about how the debate on the gender pay gap irritates me.

It is lazily reported in the media as if the whole problem is down to evil companies flouting the 45 year-old equal pay act and refusing to pay women the same as they pay men for equivalent work. Now, I’m not about to deny that doesn’t ever happen, doubtless it does; but it’s increasingly rare and has little or nothing to do with the continuing gender pay gap, a much more ingrained problem which we are still nowhere near solving.

The graphic above is nicked from an excellent new report, ‘Gender Pay Gap’, published today by the Women and Equalities select committee.

It succinctly summarises the main issues which explain why women, particularly those over the age of 40, earn far less than men:

The key issues of pay differentials are: the part-time pay penalty; women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and other forms of unpaid caring; and the concentration of women in highly feminised, low paid sectors like care, retail and cleaning.

It also highlights that this is not just a ‘wmmin’s issue’, but one of vital importance to our economy:

There is strong evidence of the economic and productivity benefits of tackling the gender pay gap. The best organisations recognise this and are taking steps to offer flexible working and improve job design to attract and retain talent. However, the productivity case for reducing the gender pay gap has not been made strongly enough to all employers across the UK. The Government, business, trade bodies, unions and public sector organisations must work to move the discussion about the gender pay gap beyond one of equality, to one of economic necessity.

Its recommendations are sensible, but also far-reaching and bound to be controversial (especially with men, for whom the current system operates very nicely, thank you):

There is clear evidence flexible working benefits the UK economy and individual employers. However, a culture of presenteeism and a lack of creative thinking about job design are hampering progress towards flexibility as the norm. Too few employers are considering the benefits of offering jobs as open to flexible working. … All jobs should be available to work flexibly unless an employer can demonstrate an immediate and continuing business case against doing so.

The evidence is clear that caring responsibilities are a significant barrier to women’s pay and progression prospects. As long as women continue to take disproportionate responsibility for the care of children and other family members, the gender pay gap will persist. More equal sharing of childcare responsibilities can help to reduce the gender pay gap by facilitating women’s return to the labour market and changing perceptions of men and women as being equally likely to take on caring responsibilities. … If Government is to achieve its objective of reducing the gender pay gap it needs a more effective policy on shared parental leave (SPL). Current weaknesses can be addressed by three months paid paternal leave for second parents. This can only be taken when the mother returns to work and would be additional to current parental leave benefits.

Many women who have left the labour market due to caring responsibilities, or for other reasons, will need to return to paid employment. This may be because of pension shortfalls or changes in circumstances like divorce. Others will choose to return to work. In both cases, the skills and experience of this group of women can help improve UK productivity. The Government should therefore invest in supporting their smooth return to the labour market as a matter of urgency. … The first task of the Government’s new ministerial group on the gender pay gap should be to create a National Pathways into Work scheme for harnessing the skills and experience of women over 40. This scheme would give women a clear entry point into a support system offering careers guidance; retraining where necessary; and information on local skills shortages and job opportunities.

Women over 40 are concentrated within highly feminised, low paid sectors. Their low pay and lack of progression play a significant part in the gender pay gap. There must be more focus and investment aimed at these low paid employees if the goal of reducing the gender pay gap is to be achieved. … The Department for Business and Skills should develop industrial strategies for low paid highly feminised sectors, beginning with the care sector. This would bring together policies on training and skills; increasing productivity; the use of technology and innovation; regulation; and the role of LEPs.

If gender pay gap reporting is to have any impact it must help employers understand why pay gaps exist and lead to action to address these problems. It must be seen as the beginning of a process rather than the culmination of a tick box exercise. … We also suggest that the Government should produce a strategy for ensuring employers use gender pay gap reporting as a first step for taking action rather than an end in itself. This strategy should be published a year before the regulations commence.

It’s an highly readable report, and a very important contribution to a debate which too often gets mired in dodgy stats designed to shock rather than to explain.

Hopefully future debates can be based on the real issues facing women – that caring responsibilities primarily fall on them; that we lack a culture of flexible working (bad for all parents, not just mums); and that we under-value highly feminised sectors – and the ways in which we can tackle them. Not only because it’s the right thing to do for women, but because it’s also the right thing to do for the whole of the economy.

Trying to explain ‘forced academisation’, aka the Tory nationalisation of schools

by Stephen Tall on March 18, 2016

The last Labour government introduced academy status for schools that were adjudged to need it. The Coalition government extended academy school status to schools that really wanted it. Your government is now imposing it on schools that neither need nor want it.

That was the punchy question BBC Newsnight’s James O’Brien put to Conservative schools minister Nick Gibb, following the Tories’ proposal (not included in their manifesto) to turn every single school into an academy, regardless of the wishes of the school’s leaders, governors, parents or local community.

Much of the insta-opposition I saw accused the Conservatives of being hell-bent on privatisation of schools, a sleight which attributes far more ideological coherence to the policy than is deserved.

In fact, the opposite is true: this is a massive act of nationalisation. By order of the Department for Education, every school will be made accountable to a regional schools commissioner, in turn answerable to the secretary of state.

This diktat has also abolished any notion of choice — the idea schools could decide for themselves which structure would best suit them, to continue within the fold of their local education authority, or to strike out as an academy within a chain or as part of a multi-academy trust.

It is also, of course, extremely risky. Over the past 15 years of academisation, about 5,500 schools have made the leap: two-thirds of secondaries and almost one-fifth of primary schools. This means that of the 15,000+ schools the government is going to forcibly convert to academy status in the next five years, the vast majority will be primary schools — ie, smaller units with thinly-stretched leadership — which will now face this massive distraction. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for Tony Blair’s clarion call, “standards not structures”.

If all this upheaval were likely to improve educational outcomes for children and young people, then fair enough. But there’s no evidence to suggest this will happen. The performance of academy chains is about as patchy as that of local education authorities used to be – some outstanding, many not – while multi-academy trusts are so untested no-one knows what their impact might be.

Lots of people are searching for an ulterior motive behind this rushed policy. I’m not sure there is one. Generously, I could put it down to what Yes, Minister termed Politicians’ Logic: “Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

At least as likely is, I think, Tory politicians’ unfamiliarity with state schools. They look at grammar/public/private schools, like what they see, and assume it’s because they’re independent of the state (rather than because of their selective intakes). They then look at the exceptional state schools bucking the trend, and seem to assume they can flick a switch marked ‘academy’ which will turn those outliers into the norm.

The key question they have, as yet, completely failed to address is this: where will the capacity for schools’ self-improvement come from?

From local education authorities? They won’t have the money or expertise soon enough. From academy chains? The evidence so far is distinctly mixed. From multi-academy trusts? Perhaps, but who knows? That’s a lot of question marks if the Conservatives really do want to see ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’, as their white paper proclaims.

It’ll be interesting to see what the House of Lords makes of it all. But, as it stands, schools’ governance will be transformed by 2020. There will be a temptation among those opposed to the plans simply to want to turn the clock back: to re-invent local education authorities. That’s unlikely to be workable or desirable: un-making forced academisation will be at least as messy as making it.

Chances are, the best policy will be to leave well alone and focus instead on fixing the problems this massive experiment is likely to throw up, to grow capacity through whatever institutions emerge from the fug.

Alternatively, I’d suggest devolving the secretary of state’s powers to elected mayors, making the regional schools commissioners accountable to a politician with a local mandate who the voters can boot out or re-elect.

When do liberal ends justify illiberal means?

by Stephen Tall on March 15, 2016

It’s a question worth wrestling with. Here are three issues on which I struggle, or have struggled:

All-women shortlists.

A major topic for discussion among Lib Dems this weekend, with the party conference voting that “If any sitting MP elected in 2015 decides not to contest the next General Election, his replacement should be selected from an all-women shortlist” (as well as giving the right to any local party “to be able to vote for an all-women shortlist or an all-disabled shortlist, or reserve some spaces for candidates from other under-represented groups”).

Once, I would have been firmly opposed. We shouldn’t promote equality by openly discriminating against individuals based on their sex. Nor do I see why we should privilege a white, female barrister over a black, male bus driver. Also, the Lib Dems’ leadership programme had proved itself successful in ensuring women were selected in roughly equal numbers as men in what we had thought were “winnable seats” (unfortunately, in 2015 very few seats proved remotely winnable for the Lib Dems).

I still hold those views. But, equally, I cannot deny that progress will be much, much quicker with all-women shortlists. That increased diversity will benefit the party and (if they’re elected) the country.

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

Smoking in public places.

One of my most popular articles to this day is something I wrote more than a decade ago – Why we shouldn’t ban smoking in public places – based on a speech I gave in an Oxford City Council debate at the time when the smoking ban was a hot topic.

I’ve just re-read it and found myself nodding along. Not only did the ban re-define private businesses as public places… not only did it ignore the increasing number of pubs etc which were already declaring themselves smoke-free zones (meaning customers had a choice)… not only did it ignore that the real threat to public health was from passive smoking at home… More fundamentally, “I believe that every time governments impose a law designed to compel individuals to improve their health – whether they like it or not – we make the individual less responsible for their own actions. But a functioning liberal society depends on individuals taking full responsibility for their lives.”

Yet I can’t deny that the evidence suggests the policy has worked, according to a government review on its effects: ‘The law has had a significant impact. Results show benefits for health, changes in attitudes and behaviour and no clear adverse impact on the hospitality industry.’

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

Freedom of expression.

I’ve long been a First Amendment-er, reckoning that absolute freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberal society. It’s why I’ve long stuck up for the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-same-sex marriage slogan for a gay customer: they shouldn’t be forced to write something they don’t agree with, even if it is as a transaction.

As Peter Tatchell wrote, “This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs?”

And yet, and yet… Do I really want to turn the clock back to the pre-anti-discrimination laws days of the 1950s, complete with infamous landladies’ signs declaring, ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’? Of course not — but curtailing the rights of businesses not to turn away paying customers on the basis of who they are was a crucial step in ensuring the UK is a more tolerant society.

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

There you go, then. Three issues on which my views haven’t changed, fundamentally, but on which I’m now much more ambivalent.

I agree still with my former liberal principles; but cannot pretend that those liberal principles being flouted won’t result in a better, healthier, happier reality. Maybe that’s a function of growing older — our youthful certainties are gradually broken down by life experiences — or maybe it’s a liberal character trait of seeing both sides of an issue. Whichever, I’ve found it interesting to reflect on the issues on which I now find myself conflicted.

It’s also a useful reality check: most people put outcomes before ideology, prize ends above means. Unless you can show how your principles will improve their everyday lives, don’t be surprised if you fail to persuade.

My must-reads this week March 11, 2016

by Stephen Tall on March 11, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

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