Monday, 31 August 2015

There is plenty to attack IDS on... it's just that made-up welfare benefit quotes aren't one of them - my Catholic Universe column

Thank heavens for small mercies. 

As parents are busy buying new school uniforms and desperately hoping to get just one more year out of that hand me down blazer at least political silly season is drawing to a close.

OK, I know we are not quite there yet. Whilst the vast majority who are eligible (and probably a fair few of those that aren’t) have cast their votes in the circular firing squad that is the Labour leadership election we still have a couple more weeks to wait before the result is declared and the real, even potentially litigious, recriminations begin.

But as often happens in the dog days of late summer there are still a few gloriously silly stories out there to capture the imagination of a political hack aching for serious politics to start once more.

It used to be when the media was looking to fill a few pages over the summer they would manage to dredge up a good scandal from the party whip’s bottom drawers. There was nothing like some judiciously leaked extra-marital shenanigans to keep the public interest sated for a few days and otherwise rebellious MP’s in check until the Christmas break.

Fortunately for all of us these days sleaze is just so, well, 1990’s. Who needs to recall the darkest days of John Major’s premiership when it’s possible to whip up a little indignation and faux outrage with the help of social media?

This week the internet’s ire, and subsequent media coverage, has been drawn by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith. The reason for this outpouring of anger? Mr Duncan Smith’s department has been found culpable in creating quotes from fake benefit claimants to promote the positive effects of its benefits sanctions regime.

I’ve never met Mr Duncan Smith, although funnily enough he is one of the politicians whom I would very much like to. By any objective measure he had a disastrous time as Leader of the Conservative Party but his period of rehabilitation after that debacle has seen him return to the front line of politics in what is one of the most high profile roles in government. 

Mr Duncan Smith is one of the few parliamentarians who proudly wears his Catholicism on his sleeve and the teachings of our faith on the duty to work  in no small part seems to drive his zeal in getting benefit claimants back to work, by hook or by crook.

The revolution on welfare that has been evident during Mr Duncan Smith’s time in office, particularly the draconian nature of a sanctions regime which sees benefits being withdrawn all too readily and reportedly as part of staff appraisal targets has made him one of the most divisive figures in politics.

Being responsible for such a high profile department whilst displaying the same type of ideological drive as Michael Gove did in his time at the Department for Education is undoubtedly going to make people dislike you, especially when the department you manage  is at times literally responsible for the lives and deaths of the most vulnerable people in the country.

So it comes as no surprise that revelations of made up quotes will send the chattering classes into overdrive and calls for resignations to come thick and fast, but this is where those silly season stories full of faux outrage need to be given a little bit of proportion. So let us put a few facts on record.

It transpires that someone in the DWP communications team approved the production of leaflets that contained case studies of benefit claimants who had been helped by the new sanctions rules, within those case studies the benefit claimants who were identified by their first names gave supporting quotes. The only problem was the claimants, case studies and quotes were fabricated.

On the face of it government departments shouldn’t make stuff up and it appears that that is exactly what has been done but I want to take a step back for a moment and admit my own guilt in a very similar situation.

Several years ago I was a manager at a local council when it became apparent to us that based on demographic information not enough local residents were claiming housing and council tax benefit. For whatever the reason it appeared that statistically not enough people were receiving assistance.

Now, falsely claiming benefit is undoubtedly wrong at the same time old people living on the breadline and not getting the help due to them is just as egregious and so I decided that we should undertake a poster campaign to promote the take-up of benefits.

Getting the intricacies of the benefit system across to people in a poster, often those who don’t have the highest standards of literacy, is not easy and so after a great deal of thought my team came up with a campaign which contained nothing more than quotes.

The fact is my posters showing that Mrs Smith, 78, from a village down the road saying ‘I didn’t think I would get any help but £5.00 a week makes a difference’ was a great success.

Being directly responsible for the production of the poster campaign  would also have made me far more culpable than Mr Duncan Smith is. I don’t care. My campaign helped people and it was the right thing to do.

For many years communications professionals have created quotes, and indeed people, to meet a need. There was no way in my campaign I could have used real benefit claimants as, I would venture a guess, there was no way the communications team in the DWP could have either.

Creating quotes for the purposes of promoting an idea is something that we have all either knowingly or not bought into. In our society it has a place but, lets face it, that place isn’t in the removal of a Secretary of State.

The fact is those who are against many of the punitive changes to welfare, and I am one, by all means should oppose Mr Duncan Smith but for heavens sake do so because you perceive his ideology to be wrong. IDS is no Al Capone so please don’t try to get rid of him by the analogous offence of tax evasion.

Inevitably all of this righteous indignation has led to the one thing that always follows in these modern times. A petition.

Petitions are now synonymous with outrage, and there are thousands of them.

In the past week I’ve been asked to sign a petition calling for Mr Duncan Smith’s sacking, calling for dog theft to be made a ‘serious crime’, a stamp to be issued honouring Sir Nicholas Winton and another calling for Justice for Cecil the Lion.

Astonishingly all of these petitions have gathered well over 10,000 names, Cecil has more than a million.

There are thousands and thousands of petitions out there and social media means that it is getting easier and easier to gather signatures.

The law of diminishing returns, or as my mother used to put it ‘the boy who cried wolf’, means that each one is having less and less influence.

There is more to be said about petitions which I will return to in a future week but it is vitally important to remember that there is a fine line between outrage and bluster. All too often the speed with which petition totals rocket up suggests that that line has been well and truly crossed.

So in writing this weeks column I am taking a risk. If the ‘Sack IDS’ petition is successful this page could be woefully out of date by the time you read it. I doubt it will be

In the meantime you can rest assured that as the government continues it’s reform of welfare benefits Mr Duncan Smith won’t be disappearing from the headlines and this column will be revisiting him too.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

A Labour leadership that is facing growing 'reality gap' - my Catholic Universe column

This week rather than simply commenting on the news, as I usually do, for a short time I actually found myself being tangentially involved in it. Let me explain. 

As I sat reading my copy of The Times the other morning I found myself being astonished by a story which reported a police force who had stopped visiting attempted burglaries if they had been carried out at odd numbered houses. It wasn’t until I read down the page in question that I realised the force in question was my own Leicestershire one. 

As you will imagine astonishment changed to incredulity and I contacted our Police and Crime Commissioner, Sir Clive Loader, via the medium of twitter to ask more about the situation. 

Although Sir Clive and I are from different political parties, he is a Conservative PCC, he is a thoroughly decent man for whom I have the highest regard. As I fully expected he responded to me very quickly informing me that he had not been aware of the trial alluded to in the newspaper report but had he been he would have informed the Chief Constable ‘strongly against’ running it. 

I found my comments on twitter, and much more relevantly those of Sir Clive,  were subsequently reported in other outlets of the national media as the apparent lunacy of the story gained traction worldwide. 

Simon Cole is the Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police and is a man I admire greatly. He and his team have done a great job of managing ever decreasing resources with the lowest degree of impact  in tough financial times. For a man of his very senior rank he is extremely accessible, kind and has a great sense of humour. I have no doubt that Simon was a worthy recipient of the Queen’s Police Medal, an award he was given in the 2013 New Years Honours. 

As it turned out the reporting of the story was a little skewed. In all cases of attempted burglary a police officer would attend, however, on the basis of a three month trial, it was only forensics officers who would be deployed to even number properties unless it was thought there was a specific reason to send them to other homes in the event of a specific crime.  

I have no doubt that in managing the operational aspects of the force Simon Cole  was well aware that if a prospective burglar was unsuccessful at one property they would go on to others until they did manage to break in somewhere or other.. The argument goes that it would therefore be statistically almost certain that evidence would be picked up from some of the burglars attempts and successes and therefore perfectly arguable that there would be no need to deploy stretched resources to every incident. Indeed, I understand, that is what the evidence of the trial period confirmed. 

Both the PCC and I, as well as countless others, were however concerned about the perception of the force. If you happen to live in an odd numbered house, as my elderly mother does, you would be understandably concerned that you were not receiving the same level of service as someone living at number 22 down the road. There may well be a case for forensics attending some crimes but not others but doing so on the basis of house numbers all seemed a little too arbitrary. 

In the 1980’s I was a big fan of the comedian Ben Elton. He had a term for a problem such as this, he called it ‘the reality gap’. 

Of course we all pay taxes and would  like it very much if the full resources of the police, possibly alongside Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Inspector Morse were used on our case but the reality is somewhat different.  

There is very much a gap between what we may like and what we can reasonably expect.  

Which takes me on to my other point today. Ben Elton used to say that ‘the reality gap’ was all around us and indeed it is and with that in mind I shall have my very final word on the seemingly endless Labour leadership contest. 

The Labour leadership election has now been running for more than 3 months. Although the ballot does not close until some time in September if you are a member or are a  registered supporter by the time you read this you will have received your voting papers. 

As you will have seen in the pages of this newspaper over the past few weeks your columnists are not the biggest fans of Jeremy Corbyn, although I fully accept that there are a number of readers who are very much in his camp. 

I must admit I am from the third way tradition of the Labour Party who counts being electable as being rather important. For that reason I want to see a leader who is very clear about winning a parliamentary majority and speaking to the voters and issues which matter to achieve that. For that reason I have supported Liz Kendall throughout this whole interminable process. 

Liz was very clear early on that she was not too concerned about party political dogma but rather focussing on ‘what matters is what works’. She isn’t ideologically opposed to the ideas of, for example, academies or free schools. If they are already established and they are delivering a good education  for our children then it would be stupid to get rid of them. 

I honestly think that type of pragmatic approach is what most parents and just as importantly most voters actually want. 

During the whole leadership process Liz has been continually barracked from some quarters of the party in some nasty ways. She must have lost count of the number of times she has been called ‘a Tory’, some rather sad people have even gone to the trouble of creating websites on the sole basis of this ‘joke’. Others have questioned Liz’s suitability for leadership because she is not a mother, talk about clutching at straws. 

The truth is in the Labour leadership race we have a reality gap. As much as I like Liz, or for that matter the other candidates, I am not truly convinced that any of them can win in 2020. 

Whilst they all have their strengths they all have significant weaknesses too,  which may well be insurmountable in 5 years time.  

In an election when a big swing will be needed for Labour to take control it may well be that Jeremy is too ‘left’, Andy has too much baggage, Yvette is too nondescript and Liz has difficulty taking her party with her. 

In reality because of the electoral maths, a new Tory leader and a supportive media, unless there any seismic shifts, Labour will not be winning in 5 year times. 

The challenge for Labour is handling that reality. With Liz, or for that matter Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, it will be possible to get Labour closer to winning.. With Mr Corbyn you can easily add 5 years on to that aspiration. 

If you have a vote in this leadership election as much as you might like Jeremy, and I do, please mind the reality gap, sometimes what we like isn’t the best thing for us. I shall say no more.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Governments lose elections, Mr Corbyn doesn't win them

I hadn’t been involved in politics very long when a veteran Tory councillor of with many polling days on his CV said to me ‘Leon, oppositions don’t win elections, administrations lose them’.

I had never heard the saying before so did a little digging. I discovered that it was an adage that had been doing the rounds for many years and although sometimes the words were rearranged the meaning always remained the same. 

Even those establishment commentators and academics Bartle, Crewe and Gosschalk when they spoke of the 1980’s  said ‘the new conventional wisdom was that governments didn’t win elections, oppositions lost them’.

The premise remains the same. 

I mulled over the idea for a long time, never quite sure whether I agreed with the concept or not, and then a couple of things happened. Two referenda in fact. 

We all remember the ‘scintillating’ debate of the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum and the genuinely more interesting one around Scottish independence. The results of both, for me at least, were extremely informative. 

Rather than stepping into the unknown when both questions had very strong arguments for change in both cases the electorate voted for the safe, conservative status quo. 

I finally understood what the adage meant. 

Providing things aren’t completely screwed up most of us stay, not always quite so happily, with the devil that we know. 

That’s what happened on May 7th. 

I honestly believe that the electorate didn’t have a great love of the Tories but enough voters saw them managing the economy and public services in a competent enough way that there was no pressing need to change. In other words the Tories didn’t lose the election. 

Now it might be true that in general administrations are voted out but it is undoubtedly the case that oppositions can lack the credibility to be voted in, and that is where we may have massive problems in the coming weeks, months and years. 

Jeremy Corbyn is undoubtedly popular. He has run a superb campaign playing to the traditionalist Labour base and will in all likelihood become Labour leader in a few weeks. 

But what will his brand of politics, his brand of uncertainty, do for those voters who need to be persuaded to move away from an uninspiring but solid government? 
What will voters do when they are offered day after day talk of expensive nationalisation? scare stories of tax hikes to pay university fees? continual op-eds about a man who is friends with terrorists? and editorials about downgrading defence? 

My guess is that just like those referendum campaigns, just like nearly every general election of my lifetime, overwhelmingly voters will return to their inherently conservative viewpoints and keep what they have. That’s not because they are bad people it’s because that’s human nature. 

During the leadership campaign I have heard time and time again the Labour must be a real opposition, and indeed when the Tories do something wrong indeed they must. But we mustn’t be different for the sake of being different, not enough people think this government is doing a bad enough job. 

In some respects the role of the opposition is to not foul up so badly that they can’t be seen by the electorate as a credible alternative.  

So far as a party we are doing spectacularly badly in that arena. I’ve got a feeling we may soon be doing even worse.   


Monday, 10 August 2015

Like Blair? You would be more popular if you took up lion hunting - my Leicester Mercury column

I’m one of those rarest of rare members of the Labour Party, someone who signed up in the later days of Tony Blair.

I had, of course, always voted Labour but political restrictions in my role as a local government officer meant that it was impractical ever to join the party.

As soon as I changed jobs and my restriction was lifted I decided to become a member.

The reason I joined is simple. I could see our New Labour government making people’s lives better.

The Labour government I knew had introduced a minimum wage and tax credits for those working in low paid jobs, it had rebuilt schools and hospitals left to deteriorate by 18 years of Tory control, it had built hundreds of SureStart centres seeking to tackle inequality from birth, it had introduced civil partnerships, for heaven’s sake it had even delivered a winning bid to host the Olympics and made entrance free to world class museums.

If in 1997 Labour’s theme song was D:ream’s ‘Things can only get better’ by the time I joined in the mid 2000’s for countless people in a multitude of ways things indeed had.

Of course, just like any government, Tony Blair and his New Labour team didn’t get everything right. I know many, many decent people had grave reservations about Iraq and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been told ‘Gordon Brown sold all the gold’ (although few at the time would have questioned the policy of diversifying reserves).

For my money though our nation was better off under a moderate, enterprise friendly socially democratic Labour government than it ever had been under Prime Minister’s Thatcher and Major.

Years have moved on. I’m now 42 years old, and have children nearly old enough to leave school, and the truth is the only Labour government in my lifetime that has ever been electable is the one who reached out to middle England and took seats from the Tories in Kettering, deposing Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate and capturing my own North West Leicestershire.

Right now, amongst Labour members at least, admitting you like Tony Blair is the worst possible thing you can say. You would be more popular if you took up lion hunting.

But I do like Tony Blair and the current leadership election depresses me.

Every indication is that Jeremy Corbyn, the idealist, rebellious, anti-Blair is going to do very well and that Labour will retreat to its public good, private bad comfort zone.

The truth is that, rather seeking to win them back, we are at risk of ostracizing everyone who voted Tory in May and being in danger of giving up on middle England for at least a generation.

I see many people who desperately need a Labour government I very much hope ideological purists think about what a least 10 more years of opposition will do to those in most need before putting their cross for Corbyn.

The Cecil message defeats that of desperate migrants - my Catholic Universe column

With the clothes on their backs, they came through a storm and those that didn’t die want a better life. And they want it here. Talk about impressive. – Aaron Sorkin
When I was first elected I was taken aside by an experienced councillor and told that getting my face into the newspapers was easy. My advisor told me that as the years had passed by the resources of local media had become so depleted that young, inexperienced journalists were so stretched that more often than not if you gave them an item already written up as an article it was almost certain to get printed.
I became very adept at writing press releases starting with the words ‘A local councillor has expressed his dismay…’ and sure as anything they nearly did always get printed word for word as I had typed them.
I noticed a problem though. The stories that I would feed to the stressed cub reporters only ever ran for one edition, how could I make a campaign last longer?
So I went back to my advisor to ask him how I could make sure my issue made it to next week as well. His response was that doing this was tougher but still achievable.
‘What you need is a name and a face, someone who has experienced the problem you are campaigning on. Personalising a problem reaches out to readers more than any councillor expressing dismay ever can.’
I’ve been reminded of that advice this week.
Big game hunting has been going on for many, many years. I can’t understand why anyone would want to kill lions or elephants myself but I understand the arguments that whilst many find it barbaric others argue that attracting big money from wealthy enthusiasts actually helps the preservation of the species.
Regardless of the fact that lions kill hundreds of humans a year and at times are a blight on local tribes this week both traditional and social media has gone made. It’s gone mad because those against hunting have personalised the issue.
No longer is it a man eating lion that has been hunted, it’s Cecil, and his cubs may well be next.
All of a sudden a United States dentist has been demonised and, despite the fact we are told he thought his actions were perfectly legal, is facing a costly battle in the courts to avoid extradition to a country with more than a little suspect human rights record.
All of this because the ‘victim’ was anthropomorphised. Good old Cecil.
The other big news story of the week has been the one constantly emerging just over the channel, although having major repercussions for us Brits, in Calais.
We heard about thousands of migrants trying to force their way into the channel tunnel, we’ve heard of the economic damage being caused to hauliers and we’ve heard about the significant inconvenience causing misery to holidaymakers and residents of Kent.
It’s probably fair to say we haven’t heard quite so much about the 10 migrants seeking entry to Britain who have died in and around Calais in the past two months.
10 is a number, it isn’t personal.
Whilst we can think of those people living rough in ‘the jungle’ as nothing more than a number then it is fine to think of them ‘swarming’ our borders, it’s fine to call for the army ‘to be sent in’.
So let me personalise the issue for you.
As Christmas 2014 turned into a grey January a discovery was made on a beach in Norway. A wetsuit was found which upon closer investigation contained the unidentifiable remains of a human being. There were no signs of gunshots or other obvious causes of death, the remains didn’t match any missing person cases in Norway itself. The case was a complete mystery.
Then somewhere along the line a link was made. Another body had washed up on another beach, two months earlier in northern Holland.
A remarkable piece of investigative journalism followed by Anders Fjellberg, published in the New Statesman and Dagbladet, which managed to piece the puzzle together, to personalise a tragic story.
Mouaz al-Balkhi had been on a journey to find a new life. He had left a war-torn Syria in February 2014 before travelling through Jordan, Turkey, Algeria and Libya and being picked up by the Italian navy on a dangerous Mediterranean crossing before heading on to Dunkirk and finally Calais.
Mouaz was desperate to reach Britain because, according to his sister, not only did his uncle live here but because we are a country who are fair to refugees and because he could study and build himself a good life.
Some people may call it illegal immigrants wanting to live off the state, to others it is the epitome of what those in the US call the American Dream.
Shadi Kataf was from Syria too. Shadi’s Damascus home was in a part of the city virtually destroyed by the civil war, a suburb where the population has reduced from 150,000 to less than 20,000.
In an interview Shadi’s father Omar says he told him to get out of Syria to have a chance of building a better life.
No one quite knows what happened to Mouaz and Shadi apart from the fact that on 7 October last year they walked into a Decathlon sports shop in Calais and using their savings bought two wetsuits, snorkels and flippers.
DNA tests show that Mouaz al-Balkhi was discovered on that beach in Holland, Shadi Kataf’s remains were discovered further north in Norway.
Two young men were prepared to face the Channel, probably in an attempt to swim it, in autumn to live their lives here. Talk about impressive.
Some might say ‘it’s because when they get here they get benefits’. The truth is that for asylum seekers housing, money, healthcare and education are virtually the same between France and Britain.
There is an important difference between asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and EU migrants but we can be certain of one thing. Virtually no one seeks entry to this country primarily to claim benefits. They seek entry, no matter how treacherous that may be, because they see Britain as a place that is fair and where you can aspire to have a life better than the one you left.
That makes me proud to be British.
Not for one second am I saying that we should open our borders and welcome everyone who wants to move here, quite frankly that isn’t sustainable and the solution (if there is one) cannot be squeezed into this column.
But never let us again think of those trying time and time again to get to their promised land as a swarm.They are Mouaz, they are Shadi, they are someone’s nephew, brother and son.