Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Do the Conservatives know what the House of Commons is actually for?

This is ridiculous:
A Tory government will introduce a law guaranteeing no rise in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020, David Cameron is to announce.
The Conservative leader will pledge legislation within 100 days of assuming office to ensure rates do not rise in the next Parliament.
The law is not a plaything, what exactly is the point of this idea? Just make a promise and keep to it, how hard can that be? Oh yes, 'no top down reorganisation of the NHS', immigration, I see your point. I could just about see the point of the fixed term parliaments act, and we've bee spared 18 months of wittering about when the election is going to be. But simply passing a law which says that you will do what you've said you'll do is both a betrayal of the purposes of law, and a very revealing act in itself. It's an admission that, whatever politicians say, we can't trust them. 
Two questions
1. Will David Cameron be arrested and tried if the Conservatives do raise income tax, VAT or NI? And I'm assuming that not raising thresholds at least in line with inflation counts as a tax rise. 
2. How do we know they will keep this promise? The promise itself is only made because we know that politicians don't keep their promises, but it's subject to the same trust deficit. As far as I know, the LibDems are the only party in recent political history to have made a promise, broken it, and then admitted that they broke it and apologised. 
Could we pass a law making political gimmicks illegal? David Cameron seems to think that just about anything can be turned into a short-term electoral asset: the unity of the UK, the legislative system, fear. Stop for a minute and think, please.

In the meantime, if you want to pass a popular law, how about one forcing Conservatives to turn up to election debates ?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yeovil Election Hustings 5th May

Yeovil churches are hosting a hustings on Tuesday 5th May, 7.30pm at the Gateway (home of Yeovil Community Church) Addlewell Lane, Yeovil. All 5 candidates are going to be there, which is an improvement on last time, when (due to the presence of the BNP, and some not wanting to share a platform with them) the candidates appeared one by one and never got to engage directly with each other.

Questions can be put on the night, but you'll need to be there by 7pm to give us time to sort through them and choose a good cross-section of issues. There's refreshments afterwards, and the event is free.

the local candidates are:
David Laws                Liberal Democrats
Emily McIvor             Green Party
Marcus Fysh               Conservative Party
Sheena King                Labour Party

Simon Smedley           UK Independence Party

David Laws won the seat with 55% of the vote last time, but faces the double headwind of the Libdem post-coalition slide, and his personal involvement in the expenses scandal. Despite that, YouGovs 'nowcast' snapshot has Laws as the favourite again, which may leave him as the last Libdem standing in Somerset. 

There are blue and orange posters starting to appear in greater numbers around Yeovil, and David Camerons flying visit the other day is a sign that the Conservatives are after Yeovil too. It's not in the top 75 seats where the Conservatives were closest last time, which probably indicates that the blues are giving up trying to topple the tougher Labour marginals and going after the Libdems instead.  

If you're in the area, come along, should be an interesting night....

Mental Health - all the party policies in one place

The Mind and Soul website, which is one of the best things on the internet. has produced a helpful summary of all the mental health proposals of the main parties. There are quotes from each main leader, a list of what's in their manifesto, and what isn't, and it all looks pretty fair and balanced.

It's been put together by Will van der Hart, who concludes thus:
However you choose to vote in the General Election, enjoy the democratic freedom that empowers you. Pray for those who are in leadership and carry the responsibility for seeing a huge improvement in the provision of mental health services within the UK. Also pray for those in other nations and our own, who through discrimination, repression and stigmatisation are denied their basic rights becuase of mental ill-health.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Put your mushrooms in the sunshine

Jeremy Clarkson, mushrooms, Acts chapter 5, back stage passes. Its amazing the connections you find sometimes.

Yesterdays challenge was preaching on Acts 5, the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who conspire in secret to buy a good reputation in the early church, forgetting that God sees what we do when we think nobody is looking. Whether it was greed, or desire for the kudos which went with appearing generous whilst trousering some of the proceeds, we don't know. But they sell some property, present what they claim is the full amount to the church, whilst conniving between them to keep some back.

The result is pretty dramatic: God shows Peter the secret scheme, he confronts them with it, and they drop down dead. Be wary of what you put in the collection plate, it should carry a health warning.

Simon Walker has written some excellent leadership books, where he talks about the front and back stage. The front stage is performance, what we let others see. The back stage is private: fears, decisions, research, private crises, the things we normally keep people out of. The election campaign is all front stage: a frenzied attempt to manage what is seen and heard, and an equally frenzied attempt to keep all the 'back stage' stuff out of view. Nobody wants another Gillian Duffy moment. So, David Cameron was in my constituency yesterday, a fact I only discovered on the news later. Why? Because the only people who knew were Conservative supporters and invited journalists. God forbid he should meet a real voter.

Politicians dread the moment when the back stage mess falls through the curtain onto the front stage. Don't we all. It can be very public - Jeremy Clarkson has gone into some of the 'back stage' reasons for his well publicised blow up a few weeks ago. They don't excuse it, but a combination of divorce, bereavement, cancer and a high profile highly scrutinised job probably isn't a recipe for mental calm.

There was a recent food programme which mentioned that mushrooms, if exposed to sunlight for an hour or two, turn from nutritionally useless fungi into a rich source of Vitamin D. Something grown in the dark, when exposed to the light, becomes a health benefit rather than a mould.

Paul writes "you were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light". If Ananias and Sapphira had let someone else backstage, had brought the mushrooms out into the sunlight, they might have realised that trying to decieve God was a stupid idea, and thought again. God already knows everything we're trying to keep secret, as we try with varying degrees of anxiety to manage our front and back stages. What a gift to find someone who we can allow back stage, and who treats kindly what they see. What a gift to find someone with the integrity and character to allow some of their back stage to be visible.

The more stage managed the appearance, the more we think 'you must be hiding something'. My draft question for our local hustings next week is 'in your personal life, or in your parties policies, what are you not telling us?' Just because a politician, (or a vicar, or a TV personality, or a friend, or...) doesn't admit to having a back stage, doesn't mean it isn't there. The church should be a place where we are aware of the damage it can do to keep things in the dark, and where we find sufficient trust and grace to bring things out into the light. Put your mushrooms in the sunshine.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Worship Minefield

There are all sorts of minefields you think you need to overcome when you first start going to Church. Like where to sit. Everyone has their usual spot, and woe betide the unknowing newcomer who pinches it, right? And, what if I don’t wear the right clothes and people think I look scruffy? My fiancĂ© was mortified on one occasion when he forgot himself while going up to receive Communion. He was first out of the pew and rather than stepping back and waiting for the rest of us to file out and walk up ahead of him he just stalked off up the aisle, eager for his bread and wine. When I pointed this out to him later he spent all of the after-service tea and coffee time apologising to everyone else in our pew!
I managed to best this little faux-pas however, when, on a visit to Salisbury Cathedral for a Sunday service I, not being aware of the protocol, took myself off for Communion before the Steward instructed me to and managed to cause a bit of a hole in the line-up. So, if you’re going to make a mistake, go big and do it at a Cathedral.
The thing I’ve started to grasp though, and admittedly it’s probably taken me longer than it should have, is that people don’t care. 
read the rest here. Essential reading for any church (don't think to yourself that because you don't have Anglican formalities, you don't have traditions and in-house language, its just different to ours). This person, thankfully had her fiance to navigate her through the oddities. 
How many others just find it weird and don't bother coming back, because there are so many house rules they feel like an outsider, rather than a welcomed son or daughter?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Altruistic Voting

What is my vote for? Is it a token I trade in to serve my own interests, or is it there to be used for the good of others? Should the following stories and quotes make any difference to how you and I vote on May 7th?.....

"What we have seen and heard has again shocked and inspired us.
  • We have heard from community workers who have seen three generations of the same family out of work and where local employers fly workers in from Portugal because they cannot find people with basic skills.
  • We have been to communities where nearly three quarters of children are growing up without their father at home.
  • We have been to schools where it is normal for parents to turn up drunk and fight at the school gates and where dealers stash drugs in the school hedge.
  • We have met people stuck on methadone for 20 years and a man who has lost one kidney to drug abuse and now has the other only functioning at 15 per cent.
  • We have spoken to people who have tried to take their own lives because they could not face their spiraling debt.
  • And we have been told of children so neglected by their parents that all their teeth had rotted away.

These are only small snapshots of what is wrong but they reflect the wider problems with
which the country is still grappling."

‘defeatism (has) defined policy-makers attitudes towards family breakdown too. The pervasive view of successive administrations appeared to be that after four decades of continuous decline in family stability, mainstream family breakdown had become inevitable, that government was powerless to act and should not interfere.’

and some prophetic words written before the campaign began:
During a parliament that may be heavily dominated by unfolding international crises, intense deliberations about Britain’s relationship with the European Union, further deficit reduction and the fall-out from the imminent referendum about Scottish independence, the importance of political parties remaining committed to the necessary social justice reforms we have outlined cannot be overstated. 

source here. It may have been set up by a Conservative minister, but the Centre for Social Justice has plenty of critique of Coalition welfare and family policy. Several of its ideas have found their way into the manifestos of other parties. However that middle paragraph still applies, there is no party which sees family breakdown as a key policy area for social change. They go on about immigration, waiting times, class sizes, the welfare bill etc. yet family breakdown is a social factor which affects millions of lives each year and what do we hear? Almost nothing. Maybe we, the voters, need to interrupt the media narrative and ask some louder questions.

Enough about the SNP, lets get back to stuff that matters. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Conservative Election Strategy - the final fortnight

Do you find yourself yearning for the phrase 'long term economic plan?' I know I do. From the day of its manifesto launch, the Conservative party has changed tack to a two-pronged electoral strategy

 - offering public assets (or in the case of social housing, the assets of charities) for sale at a discount. The ideas so far are all remixes of policies tried in the 1980s.
 - blood curdling threats about the SNP and what will happen if they get into power.

Confidential strategy documents found on a disused husky sled in a Witney garage show us David Camerons key messages from now until election day:

Weds 22 April  Warn that if the SNP get more MPs all school children will be forced to eat porridge and wear kilts.

Thurs 23 April  Proposals to sell off the whole of the East coast to private ownership, in the 'Shares for Shores' scheme. Politically astute, since that's where all the UKIP voters are, and allows border controls to be put into the hands of competent private operators like, um SERCO.

Fri 24th April  Propose to ban all Scottish MPs from parliament during any 'English Votes for English Laws' sessions, and use the savings in expenses and train fairs to install border checks at Hadrians wall, or wherever it is in the North the border with Scotland is.

Sat 25th April chillax with Sam

Sun 26th April Find a big church somewhere with some cameras. Canterbury Cathedral? No those lefties at the CofE wouldn't let me into the pulpit.

Mon 27th New poster: picture of Andy Murray looking grumpy 'Always coming second to a European, do you want people like this running the country?'  (Small print at the bottom reminds people that when he wins a major trophy, Murray still counts as one of ours)

Tue 28th  Remind the nation that the Scots used to fight and kill the English 'and given half the chance they'll do it again'. New poster of Nicola Sturgeon with a Rosa Klebb style shoe blade and blue face paint. Journalists point out Braveheart was set 700 years ago.

Wed 29th With the polls showing Labour inching ahead, time to remix another hit from 1980s. Memories are hazy about both about the spelling, whether it was a good idea or not first time around. Time to relaunch the Pole Tax, a levy on immigrants from Eastern Europe and suggestive dancing. Proceeds to be used to fund an unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS, because we haven't had one for 4 years.

Thu 30th  Trident to be outsourced to a consortium headed up by Rupert Murdoch, with shares sold at a discount to hard working families. 'Now every family can be a nuclear family'

Fri May 1st Warnings that for every vote cast for the SNP, a fairy dies. Pictures of sad children splashed across the Daily Mail.

Sat May 2nd Warnings that for every vote cast for Ed Miliband, a banker has to sell his yacht. Pictures of sad bankers splashed across the Daily Telegraph.

Sun May 3rd leave this day free for a random policy announcement not in the manifesto, like the Lloyds one.

Mon May 4th Get Eric Pickles to visit the one remaining coal mine and provoke a miners strike. That worked well last time.

Tues May 5th Get Jeremy Clarkson to visit Argentina and provoke an international incident, then we can invade the Falklands, that worked well last time.

Weds May 6th Last minute changes to voting rules: anyone eating shortbread, wearing a sporran, with red hair, or singing Auld Lang Syne to be banned from voting. Or being elected. Or saying anything.

Thurs May 7th  Kick back with a bottle of Scotch and a plate of smoked salmon. Job done.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Retail Politics: why we ignore everything politicians tell us

With each passing day of the election campaign the Bishops warning becomes more and more relevant:

The time has surely come to move beyond mere “retail politics”, where parties tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need, regardless of the good of the majority, whilst lobbyists, pressure groups and sectional interests come armed with their policy shopping lists and judge politicians by how many items they promise to deliver. Instead of treating politics as an extension of consumerism, we should focus on the common good, the participation of more people in developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another

We have not merely 'retail politics', but marketing politics. Marketing is, in Douglas Couplands acidic definition 'The art of feeding people's own c**p back to them in such a way that they don't realise it's not real food.' To put it another way: creating a need where none existed and then offering to satisfy it. It's the engine room of consumer capitalism, and increasingly its the engine room of consumer capitalist politics.

A couple of examples:

Scotland: on the back of the referendum, David Cameron declares that the real injustice is English Votes for English Laws. Think of it as inserting a political wedge into a split log and hitting it with a mallet. Result: SNP gets more popular. Result: Cameron tours the TV studios claiming that SNP involvement in government will result in 'chaos', and that its something to be frightened of. So DC creates the need, markets the fear, and then presents himself as the solution.

NHS: Labour are going to tell us this week that the NHS is on life support and the Conservatives will pull the plug. Its a potent image, but it's utterly false. The NHS is struggling badly, and the truth is that it might get slightly worse under the Tories and it might get slightly better under Labour. The parties may all do a slightly better job than each other of managing the system (another point made by the Bishops), but the rhetoric is inflated to ridiculous levels. The Conservatives are not going to willingly destroy the NHS. They may have some poor ideas, just as Labour did/does, but overblown language doesn't help.

The result? Like the friend who's always posting self-pitying messages on social media in order to fish for sympathy, we take less and less notice. We simply assume that politicians are overstating their own strengths and their opponents weaknesses. We know we are being marketed to, rather than engaged with as adults. And what do we do with marketeers, on the phone or the doorstep? Yup, that.

Andrew Marr wrote that the story of the 20th century was the triumph of shopping over politics. Shopping has triumphed within politics too, except I wouldn't call it a triumph, more a tragedy. I'd happily vote for a party which treated me like an adult, if I could find one.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Are 50% of the Unemployed Using a Food Bank?

The Trussell Trust is due to publish figures next week on food bank use in 2014-15. It served over 913,000 people in 2013-14, and as not all food banks are affiliated to the TT, the total number is probably close to a million, if not past it. The new figures are likely to show a rise to over a million for the Trussell Trust alone. (Given that setting up a foodbank through the TT involves a £1500 franchising cost, I wouldn't be surprised if there are plenty of 'independent' food banks. Like this one, which has over 1000 users.)

Locally, the Lords Larder food bank has been going for nearly 25 years. In 2013 it gave out just over 59,000 items to help 3979 people, in 2014 it was over 60,000 items to help 4175 people. So the numbers are still rising in and around Yeovil, but not as steeply as in previous years: 2012-13 saw a 25% increase. Around 2/3 of the people helped are adults, 1/3 are children. Just think about that for a minute - 1/3 of a million children in the UK are relying on food handouts from charities.

It's a sign of the disintegration of the welfare state that food banks exist in such large numbers, and cater for so many people. With unemployment down to 1.84 million, the number of adults using food banks is equivalent to between a third and a half of the unemployment total. The benefit system is supposed to rule out the need to rely on charity handouts. It's great that so many are so generous with time and food, and one of the many blessings of having a church in every community is that it means a collection point in every community, and a reminder to every community of the needs of their neighbours.

Maybe there's a wider debate here: the welfare state is the backstop for people who can't support themselves, and don't have the support of family and friends. We'd all see it as a duty to support family members and close friends, less so to support people we've never met. At the moment the pecking order is, crudely put:

Support self
Support by family and friends
Welfare state
Support by strangers (i.e. charity and voluntary groups)

so food banks are picking up people failed by the welfare system, MIND are picking up people failed by NHS mental health, Shelter are picking up people failed by the housing market and social housing, etc.

Some questions:
1. Is the Big Society an attempt to reverse the bottom two?

2. For Christians, would we want the bottom two reversed anyway? Who is my brothers keeper, me, or the state?

3. I suspect that most of the extra volunteer time in the Conservative manifesto will go on school governors, as Academy governors are now trustees, and carry a lot more financial and legal responsibility, with less support, than the school governors of 5 years ago. But perhaps there's a chance for a discussion of work: not the cracked record of 'hard working families', but how sometimes its a good thing that not all of our hard work is about providing for ourselves, that its good for the soul, and for the stranger, to put in a shift for something that doesn't directly reward you. Altruism.

4. 1 million people helped through food banks is a sign both of the generosity and success of the voluntary sector (a very high proportion are church run), and of the failure of the welfare system. Because if a food bank isn't there for you, where do you go?

5. If you have a local hustings event, ask the candidates if they know how many people use the local food bank, and how much that's risen by since 2010. If they don't know, or don't want to answer, then they probably don't care.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Libdem Manifesto: Green Monster with Medicinal Purposes

The smaller the party, the bigger the manifesto. Labour, the Conservative, Green and UKIP all clock in at around 80 pages, but Nick Cleggs little monster, channeling a 70s wallpaper designer, is 158. The pages are a bit smaller, and a couple of them are taken up with an index (bravo!). As with Labour, and the Conservatives, here are a few things which stood out.

1. There is some genuinely radical stuff in here, which the Libdems have either been a bit coy about, or the mainstream media aren't interested in because they'd rather have arguments about maths. That's a shame, because the radical stuff is potentially the most significant.

2. At the same time, spot the consensus: more free childcare, more nhs funding, 0/7% on overseas aid, control immigration, devolve power both to the countries of the UK and to local governments and cities, reduce tax on the low paid, build more houses. All 3 main Westminster parties are saying the same thing in these areas. They all use the word 'plan' on their first page as well. Snore....

3. It may be that the other parties have put their detail elsewhere, or just left it out of public gaze entirely, but there is a lot of detailed thinking and policy here. This document has the only fully-fledged strategy on climate change and the environment, nearly a fully-fledged strategy on mental health (see below), and a lot more finesse in several areas than Labour or the Conservatives. Before you think I'm getting carried away, there are several things I'm completely opposed to....

4. Greenery: there are more nods from Labour towards this than the Tories, but the Libdems tackle climate change and the environment head on. It's one of their 5 'front page' priorities, along with education, balancing the budget, fair taxes and the nhs, and there are '5 Green Laws' which cover a whole raft of stuff, from conservation areas, to zero emission cars to renewable energy. 60% of energy from renewables by 2030, zero carbon economy by 2050 with zero carbon traffic, 70% recycling rate by 2020 and (I liked this) a commission to look at what resources we're using in an unsustainable way, with power to push us to cut consumption. At the same time there's the only proposals I've seen to build houses resilient to rising temperatures, and a lot more incentives towards insulation, energy efficiency etc. And every time a child is born, a tree will be planted. Not many of these will be popular, or cheap, or give a short-term gain, but the Libdems seem to be the only party who are thinking beyond the 8th of May in these areas. Well done.

5. The other one I really like, and you'd expect me to say this, is their policies on mental health - more money, better standards of care, clear waiting time targets. There's a target of getting 25% of of those suffering mental illness into appropriate counselling treatment - that seems a very low target, but perhaps its symptomatic of how poor the support currently is. Imagine of only 25% of people with a broken leg got a plaster cast.... But, for a party which has clearly done a lot of thinking, there wasn't enough on prevention. Yes there's a plan for a '5 a day' type public health campaign on mental health, more on reducing stigma etc. But a lot of mental illness is rooted in what happens when you're young: family breakdown, poor parenting, poor relationships with main carers. As with Labour, and the Tories, this seemed to be a no-go area. Nobody has the courage, or the ideas, to tackle the epidemic of fatherlessness and family breakdown, or to use the network of health visitors and new mums support to give input on parenting and relationships, as well as caring for the new baby. The Libdems are streets ahead of the rest on mental health, but there are still some streets that are no-go areas, and until we walk them, we'll always have a massive problem on our hands. To be fair, the Libdems say more than the Conservatives about promoting and expanding the Troubled Families programme, and want mediation for all separating couples, but wouldn't it be better to build stronger relationships to start with?

6. Cunning plans: everyone is offering more free childcare, the Libdems is are a bit more tailored - 20 hours per week from age 2, but if you're a working parent then it's available from 9 months in, which is when a lot of new mums go back to work part-time after having a child. Discount bus travel for students aged 16-21 is good, to get them into the habit, out of cars, and support the bus network. Getting landlords to insulate houses to an approved standard, putting RE back into the core curriculum alongside some key life skills like finance management.  Oh yes, and giving local authorities more power to cut down on betting shops and the use of addictive betting terminals in their communities.

7. A few contentious ones: minimum unit pricing on alcohol (which has been suggested for a while but nobody has done it), legalising cannabis for medicinal use, and a looser drugs law put under the Health department rather than the Home Office. Decriminalising having drugs for personal use would raise a storm of protest at other times, but there hasn't been a peep about it (yet). Perhaps the Daily Mail is too busy looking for celebrities in badly-fitting bikinis.

8. Being liberals, there's quite a bit on civil liberties, control over what data people can hold about you, freedom to be rude about people and to swim where you like, more support and promotion of equality for people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and gay, bisexual and transgender people. The cuts to legal aid are going to be reviewed,  and different forms of punishment trialled (badoom-tish) for crime. 'A large prison population is a sign of failure to rehabilitate, not a sign of success'. So they want more tagging, curfews, weekend prison etc., and if you go to prison there's a skills and education assesment in your first week. After the confiscation of books by the Tories, this is a welcome change of direction.

9. Fair play to Clegg, he hasn't given up on proportional representation, there it is again, alongside an elected Lords, more devolution, caps on donations to parties, and a formal process for working out who is in the leaders debates (tick).

10. One which elevated my eyebrows: 'liberalise rules about the location, timing and content of wedding ceremonies'. I guess it depends how liberal, but the gay marriage reforms raised question marks over whether the government even knew how to define marriage, and this takes it a step further. At what point does marriage stop being marriage, and start being something else? There's a difference between pledging 'all that I have I share with you...till death us do part' and singing each other something by Robbie Williams.

11. Housing - again, plenty of detail and evidence of a lot of thinking. Right to Buy is there, but left up to local authorities not enforced by central government. But again, it's frustrating that a party which has done so much work misses some obvious issues. One is housing density - new estates are crammed, with every home overlooked, miniature gardens, and short on facilities. Many new homes have more space for the plasma telly than for a meal table. Joined up thinking on mental health and wellbeing would ask for a maximum housing density and a minimum standard on social space within a home. The Libdems mention loneliness as a problem - well at least give people the space to invite friends round then!

12. There's some thinking on faith, discrimination etc., mostly around supporting interfaith work, protecting Jews and Muslims from hate crime, but also putting RE back in a more central role at schools and giving freedom for 'religious doctrines' to be explained.

13. British Sign Language will be recognised as an official language of the UK. Excellent. Now offer it at GCSE. Outside London and premiership football, most of us are more likely to come across a deaf person than a Frenchman.

And great news for anyone from the SW who likes the Brecon Beacons - once the debts on the Severn Bridge are paid off, the tolls will be scrapped.

Overall, I was quite impressed. Much more than either of the other two parties, the policies seem to be designed with people in mind, and the stress on the environment and mental health is the kind of long-term thinking we need from our politicians, but rarely get. There are some sensible policy reviews (e.g. the constitutional convention on devolution, rather than Camerons divisive populism, legal aid),  and more of a sense that this is rooted in vision and values, rather than managerialism and presentation. It's the nearest thing to what the bishops were asking for a few weeks ago, and is mercifully free of the snide political bashing you find throughout the other manifestoes. I wonder if somewhere in a backroom there are Labour and Conservative strategists going 'why didn't we think of that?'

Because of course, that's the context. Clegg is pitching to 2 sets of people. One is us, the voter. The other is the two other main parties. The Libdems main shot at power is to be a more attractive coalition partner than either the SNP or UKIP. To do that he needs as many votes and MPs as possible, and as many policies as possible which the other parties think they can work with. Given all that's in the manifestoes, a coalition with Labour looks much the better fit: the Conservatives will spend 2 years taken up with an EU referendum and take their eye off the ball, and Labour is offering much less in terms of policy anyway, so there are plenty of gaps for the Libdems to fill. Libdems and Labour are both ok with borrowing to invest, and the Conservatives are riddled with people who simply don't get climate change and green energy, from Owen Paterson to Eric Pickles.

However, I still think that doing all this is a massive challenge if 300,000 new people are arriving in the UK every year; all the money and effort that goes into the nhs, housing and education will only enable us to stand still. Meanwhile there aren't any big ideas, from anyone, on how we integrate communities at a local level. Nobody is producing an evidence-based immigration policy (why do people come here, how many will stop coming if we do x or y) based on a sustainable level of immigration, and leaving the EU is a blunt instrument with too much collateral damage. So we still need UKIP to keep this debate on the table, but probably not UKIPs solution.

AND IT DOESN'T MENTION HARD WORKING FAMILIES ONCE! YIPPEEE! If you're as intermittently lazy as I am, at last, a party you can vote for.....

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Conservative Manifesto: The Longest Coalition Document in History?

Hot on the heels of Labour, David Cameron published the Conservative manifesto yesterday. What was most immediately striking, apart from proposals to create social housing ghettoes (see below), was how much overlap the headline policies had with someone else:

 - no tax on people earning the minimum wage (UKIP)
 - raise bottom tax threshold to £12.5k (libdems)
 - extra £8bn on the nhs (Libdems, except it isn't, Clegg is promising £8bn per year, the Conservatives promise 'a minimum of £8bn over the next 5 years', which isn't the same thing)
 - freeze rail fares (Labour)
 - 30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds (Labour, though they only offer 25)
 - build more houses (everyone)
 - Right to Buy (Mrs Thatcher)

With the exception of the SNP, there are bones thrown in all directions, which either highlights political consensus, or flags up the scope for coalition discussions, depending on how you look at it.

Compared to Labour, it was a much easier document to work through, with some pretty detailed policy sections, and what looked like a comprehensive programme in a lot of areas. Here's what stood out for me:

1. Of the £30bn needed to reduce the deficit - it's 'fiscal consolidation', not cuts folks - £25bn is coming from public services, roughly half from welfare and half from other departments. There's no detail of where most of the welfare cuts will come from, apart from a reduced cap on total welfare income and scrapping Job seekers allowance for under-21s. There'll be a temporary Youth Allowance instead which stops if you don't take one of the 3m apprenticeships or a job.

2. There's a lot of specific regional and infrastructure spending, which makes me wonder why we couldn't have done some of it in the last 5 years. This is a bit of a dividing line with Labour, who despite talking about using borrowing to invest more, don't have the same commitments on infrastructure investment. Curious. However, it does allow them to name drop pretty much every region in the UK, which is politically clever.

3. A lot of devolution - more powers for all the bits of the UK, and for anywhere that chooses to have an elected mayor (and not if you don't!).

4. Tony Blairs Labour had a reputation as the champions of reannouncement, repeating declarations of new spending on several different occasions as though it wasn't the same cash over and over again. The Conservatives go one better, repeating the same announcement within the same paragraph. The pledge not to tax the minimum wage is basically the same as the pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500 per year. At the moment, if you work on the minimum wage for 30 hours a week you earn £10, 452. And the threshold is 10.6k. How convenient! The Tories pledge to get the minimum wage up to £8 an hour, which will earn you £20 per year shy of the £12.5k threshold. So effectively it's the same policy, but announced in two different ways.

5. The married couples allowance stays, and rises marginally, and this is what qualifies as supporting relationships. There's passing mention of the 'troubled families' programme, but no indication of whether it will be renewed, expanded or scaled back. No mention of epidemic rates of relationship breakdown, fatherless families, and the effect all this has on the mental and emotional health of the adults and children involved. There is almost a conspiracy of silence around the family and how to support and invest in it.

6. On education, it looks like things will get a bit quieter - more of the same, rather than revolution. Worryingly for students, there is no mention of the level of the tuition fee cap, so it's left open for this to be increased. Watch this space. There'll also be loans for postgraduate degrees. The education budget is 'protected' - which means that if the number of pupils rises, so will the amount of money. It's not protected against inflation. So there will be a real terms cut in money going into schools under the Conservatives if inflation ever rises above 0%. So the word 'protected' actually means 'cut'. Again and again I was frustrated at the slippery way things were presented in this document, which then made it harder to give credit where it was due. Interesting that they keep the two flagship Libdem policies, free school meals for infants and the pupil premium.

7. The NHS - I really struggled to get my head round how politicians think about this. There's no point recruiting extra doctors and nurses if they're leaving as quickly as they arrive. 5000 nurses are leaving the NHS each year, mid-career. But responding to that entails accepting there's a problem, and like every other section, the bit on the NHS starts with a section on how poorly Labour did and how well the Conservatives have done. Sorry, but there needs to be more reality here. The section on mental health, apart from supporting mums during and after pregnancy (good) had very little. No specific targets, money, or policies. Not good enough.

8. The Big Society is back! All quiet for 3 years, whilst most of us got on with staffing food banks, there's now the new initiative to encourage volunteering (you'll need those extra 3 days a year if you're a governor of an academy, it's a couple of leagues up from being governor of a normal school, and that was demanding enough). I wonder what the Italian paymaster of Westlands, whose workers here in Yeovil will all be entitled to 3 days a year off, will think of that! It's an odd policy, but I think I like it. What I didn't like was the manifesto taking credit for £8bn a year going into heritage art and sport. It claimed this was 'public and lottery funding', but since the lottery puts in £1.6bn a year, that doesn't leave much for the government! In fact, it gets a tax from the lottery, so it makes a profit. Better controls on online pornography are welcome, but I'd have liked to see something on gambling and payday loans.

9. Not many people have picked up on the plan to cut the number of MPs to 600 and revise parliamentary boundaries. That could be quite significant in the long run.

10. Sorry but the Right To Buy plans are like the AV referendum (remember that?) a potentially ok plan scuppered by dreadful delivery. The AV option put to the vote was probably the worst form of proportional representation, and there are a lot of things wrong with the RtB format. Forcing the most expensive properties to be sold off? Well lets have a think. They'll either be the biggest ones (which Housing Associations have previously pulled down to build more, smaller units), or those in the nicest neighbourhoods. Smaller dwellings, and poorer neighbourhoods, will remain social housing. The long term effect is obvious: nicer areas will become almost 100% owner-occupied, and social housing will become more concentrated in areas of lower value. Around here, house prices in Sherborne were recently shown to be £100k higher on average than those in Yeovil. So if you applied the policy locally, all the social housing tenants would end up in Yeovil.

There's also an inevitable time-lag. It takes 10-20 years round here to find and buy land, get planning permission, and build new houses. Without being able to take out big loans, the housing associations won't have the money to buy land and build houses until the RtB units are sold, you can't replace them like tins on a shelf. So RtB will build in an extra shortage on top of the 1.4m that currently exists, around the time it takes to build the replacement properties.

11. Goodbye wind turbines. Subsidies for onshore wind will be scrapped, and they will 'change the law so that local people have the final say on windfarm applications'. Giving local people 'the final say' is a nimbys charter, nobody is campaigning for wind farms to be built on their skyline. What will Eric Pickles do with his time now that he hasn't got all those wind farms to veto? Words about 'cost effective' green technology suggest that economics, rather than carbon emissions, will be the deciding factor for any Tory greenery.

12. I'm worried about propsals to ban 'extremists' from working with children. We all know they mean ISIS sympathisers and the like,  but the way the cultural wind is blowing, anyone like me who takes the 'traditional' line on marriage is seen as a phobe and an extremist. Will there be unintended consequences?

13. The manifesto alludes to 'space for resentment to fester' over Scottish MPs voting on English laws. As I recall, this wasn't that much of an issue until Cameron stoked it up after the referendum last year. Standard marketing practice, create a demand ex nihilo then produce a product that meets the manufactured need. Shabby.

14. I was glad to see the case being made for keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of GDP, with some stats on lives saved, children immunised, access to clean water etc. This needs to keep being said. Well done.

There is a lot more to get your teeth into here than the Labour manifesto, but aside from the economy and infrastructure, where there seems to be a fair bit of thinking, other areas of policy get a token nod. There's nowhere near enough on climate change, family support, and mental health. The loud silences in some areas (food banks, details of welfare cuts) the slippery presentation in others (tax on minimum wage, EVEL, school and NHS funding) and the awful ideas around Right to Buy, don't inspire me with confidence. There's a programme of action, but true to Cameron there isn't much of an underlying philosophy.

Despite the levels of detail in some areas, it just doesn't leave me with a sense of a party which has really got to grips with all the issues we face. It's not just about the economy. The Bishops call for an 'attractive vision' of a society has fallen on deaf ears. The most eye-catching policies are of the 'retail politics' variety - vote for us and we'll give you this. There isn't much here, aside from the aid target and the volunteering scheme, that calls on us to put others first, to think of 'us' rather than 'I'.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Labour Manifesto - Working Hard for The Kingdom of Ed

I wonder if its ever struck politicians that if 'hard working families' are as hard working as they're cracked up to be, most won't have the time or the energy to read an 86 page manifesto, even if a lot of it is pictures. They/we are too busy working hard, getting on, doing the right thing, or whatever it is the Stakhanovs do most of the time.

Maybe Labour knew they wouldn't get beyond page 1, so they stuck this on the cover:

Britain only succeeds when working people succeed. this is a plan to reward hard work, share prosperity and build a better Britain

Odd that they pitch the manifesto to a minority of the British population, given that over half of us aren't working, being too young, too old, too ill, or too busy volunteering (of which more later)

It's a clear pitch to be the Labour party, the party of working people, but with a lot less socialism and toff-bashing than in the good old days. There's a brief swipe at the Conservatives, and no mention of the LibDems (keeping the door open for the coalition negotiations which are bound to begin on 8th May).

There's plenty of commentary elsewhere, but a few things really stuck out to me:

1. There are pledges to increase the number of GPs, nurses and midwives. Unless there's a big change to GP training in the pipeline, it takes longer than a single parliament to train a new GP. So, where do they come from? Will Labour be trying to get health professionals who have quit the NHS to return, or (as under Blair) will they be recruiting overseas? There is a massive moral question mark over this, we have one of the best health services in the world, most other countries need their doctors and nurses more than we do. The Labour manifesto makes much of the UK re-engaging with the world, promoting the Millenium Development Goals (good) but if we poach doctors from developing countries then white man speak with forked tongue. 

2. Kids, wave goodbye to your parents. You'll see them again in 18 years. Labour wants an education system that starts with 25 hours free childcare at age 3 (provided by your renewed Sure Start centre), extends to 50 hours by the time you are 4 (yes, 50 hours. schools will have to provide access to 'wraparound' childcare from 8am - 6pm), and continues until you are 21. Out of work benefits won't begin until you turn 21, prior to that it's a Youth Allowance dependent on whether you're in training. Some of this will be welcome news to parents who need more flexibility so that they can work to bring in the pennies, some of this will simply mean families spending less time together. It's bizarre that in a document which declareLabour believes a decent society grows out of family life and relationships the main policy direction is one which will mean families seeing less of each other. Does Ed Miliband not get on with the rest of his family? 

3. The wraparound school clubs are all going to be provided by volunteers. Really? How? It's a nice aspiration, but there's no suggestion of how it could be achieved. Worse, if it is achieved, where do those volunteers come from? There's no national strategy for encouraging volunteering, so they will have to come from the existing volunteer pool. That's the folk who look after the elderly, run playgroups, staff foodbanks, pop in on neighbours etc. Good luck on either score. We can't even find the handful of adults needed locally to keep a single council youth club up and running for one evening a week.

4. Also on family policy, there are warm words about 'strengthing the institutions that help individuals, families and communities to thrive' but nothing about strengthening families themselves. Sure Start will be resurrected, but mainly as a national childcare agency. 'Early years intervention' is fine, but there's no suggestion of tackling the reasons why this might be needed. Family breakdown remains the elephant in the room, responsible for vast levels of misery, mental illness, educational failure, substance abuse etc. Labour wants a constitutional convention to look at how the UK can hold together, but when did it (or any other party) ever give serious thought about how to hold families together?  

5. One oddity: Labour want to abolish Police and Crime Commissioners, but set up an equivalent version in education, a local Director of School Standards who monitors performance, intervenes in underperforming schools and can commission new schools. Local authorities will continue to be players in the school system, so I'm not quite sure where that leaves LEAs. The roles of PCC and DSS are slightly different, but it seemed odd to be scrapping one and inventing the other!

6. 200k new houses a year won't go very far if 300k people are being added to the population each year. There are no targets for sensible immigration, just a few policies around benefits and controls. This is a real problem. Yes we need immigrants, but there is surely an optimum rate at which people can be assimilated, and infrastructure be put in place? We are adding a new county's worth of people every 3 years to the UK, but short of a specific cap, I haven't yet seen a policy that amounts to more than hoping the problem will go away if we look tough. That hasn't worked yet.

7. Foreign policy: Labour propose a 'global envoy for religious freedom'. Good. Gordon Browns next job perhaps? It would be good to see a specific role though: they also propose an envoy for LGBT rights whose goal will be to secure the decriminalisation of homosexuality worldwide. I'd be thrilled if the goal for the religious freedom envoy was to secure the decriminalisation of conversion to Christianity.

8. Labour seem to be taking climate change more seriously - there's a welcome goal of a zero-carbon electricity supply by 2030, and interest free loans for energy improvements will reboot the domestic solar energy market. Right noises, but I don't see enough on, for example, public transport (most of the policies are devolved to local level) to see a thorough response. There's a welcome commitment to keep the 0.7% aid target and refocus it on the poorest countries.

9. Mental health: will be 'given the same priority as physical health'. I wonder what that means in practice? The document says there'll be the same right to psychological therapies as to drugs. If true, that means free, lifelong access, rather than 8 weeks after a 5 month wait, as is the current (approximate) situation. Do they really mean that? Access to drugs doesn't stop after a set number of weeks, so if that's what's really being promised for talking therapies, then that's a very hefty commitment. And please, not just CBT, it doesn't fix everything. And if you do offer CBT, please lets have proper professional counsellors, not a nurse who's done a short course. Labour wants more access to counselling at schools (good) and there's a suggestion of putting mindfulness on the national curriculum. There's no extra money committed here, only a promise that a higher % of the mental health budget will be spent on children. That, of course, means a lower percentage on adults, so without a significant rise in the overall budget, there's the prospect of a cut to adult mental health funding. Surely not?

Overall Labour are trying not to frighten the horses, but I'm not sure whether the horses will be very inspired either. I guess a proper rationale for the policies (e.g. the 50 hour school week), or proper details of how they'll work (adult mental health) would have needed a longer document. Labour seem more aware of the vulnerable - disabled, users of food banks, low wages - than the current government, but I don't see much of a great vision here. It's a bit more of an engineers budget, how do we make this system work better, and produce more of what we want (houses, good healthcare, clean energy at affordable prices). I can't see it setting many pulses racing, and as the first page states, its a 'plan...for a better Britain'. The P-word again. The 2015 election is the Battle of the Plans.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Contortionist skills of local Tory candidate

I'm not sure which of these is more unnerving, George Osborne's expression, or the fact that local Conservative candidate Marcus Fysh has managed to fit his whole body into a vacuum cleaner.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Coalition Spirituality

Caroline Wyatt has done an impressive job as the BBC's religion correspondent, and has an interesting reflection on Easter observance in the UK
Perhaps Lent is now seen by some as a secular opportunity to cleanse the body from daily abundance, if not the soul.
Yet while many of us may be able to sate our hunger for treats more often than in earlier decades, and the majority in the UK are either avowedly not religious or far less religious than in previous decades, there is a hunger that remains.
It is a hunger for some kind of meaning in life, above and beyond the materialistic.
From the growing popularity of humanism and mindfulness, of non-religious "Sunday services" or "kabbalah", and the enduring popularity of yoga, not to mention the growth of some of the non-established churches, and books such as Alain de Botton's 'Religion for Atheists', many in the west are clearly still searching for the answer to the question "why are we here?", even if they no longer believe the answer lies in organised religion.
The new organisations and individuals offering answers could perhaps be seen as the "independent retailers" in this market for higher meaning, as the former established retailers of the Christian Church in the UK lose worshippers, albeit more gradually than the steep decline of previous decades.
The founder of the 'atheist church' Sunday Assembly recently visited 3 London churches including Hillsong. I was struck by how positive he was about all three. It also sounds like he experienced God in various ways, though he wouldn't put it in those terms. 
Spiritually we have done what the party system is doing. There isn't a binary choice between Christianity and Atheism, though there are spokesmen on both sides who like to present it that way. There are 7, actually more like 77 alternative voices, and many people's spirituality is a coalition: a mixture of afterlife, fate, morality, mysticism, belonging, family traditions and prayer. The challenge for the church is how to encourage people to consider Jesus as a candidate, let alone prime minister. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Christianity: Public Benefit, Personal Benefit

The contrast between the Christianity I see our culture belittle nightly, and the Christianity I see our country benefit from daily, could not be greater.
The reality of Christian mission in today’s churches is a story of thousands of quiet kindnesses. In many of our most disadvantaged communities it is the churches that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals who have fallen on the worst of times. The homeless, those in the grip of alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health problems and those overwhelmed by multiple crises are all helped — in innumerable ways — by Christians....
...genuine Christian faith — far from making any individual more invincibly convinced of their own righteousness — makes us realise just how flawed and fallible we all are. I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused, self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…And there is no health in us.’
Christianity helps us recognise and confront those weaknesses with a resolution — albeit imperfect and fragile — to do better. But more importantly, it encourages us to feel a sense of empathy rather than superiority towards others because we recognise that we are as guilty of selfishness and open to temptation as anyone.
More than that, Christianity encourages us to see that, while all of us are prey to weakness, there is a potential for good in everyone. Every individual is precious
guess the author? It's worth reading the whole article. He probably has a slightly better grasp of the heart of Christian faith than his boss