Saturday, May 26, 2007

What's in a Name?

Basildon District Council's Conservative administration wants to change the name of the Council to Basildon Borough Council. This changes the Chairman of the Council to a Mayor, some stationary, and not a lot else. Total cost around £1000. So, why bother? Well, Basildon is surrounded by boroughs, they are pretty much the norm in Essex, and successive Chairmen of the Council have had to put up with being called the Mayor by, well, almost everyone outside of Basildon District. There is also another reason; Basildon proper was a New Town, but that was decades ago. The image the Council wants for Basildon District today is of a mature community, that no longer needs to be treated as a special case and which can compete with any of the Boroughs in Essex as a place to live and do business. Branding is important, and name is a key part of brand.

Anyway, to change to a Borough there has to be a two thirds majority for the motion at a Council meeting and then a petition is sent to the Queen. Pretty straightforward you would think, but no. The local Labour Party had the idea, pure genius this, of having a local referendum on the subject, and when that was refused their Councillors voted against becoming a borough. At once they decried the expenditure, wanted to spend a tens of thousands of pounds on a referendum, declared the matter unimportant, and put their opposition to it in their election material. Consistent they are not. Still, they like Gordon Brown.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Grammar Schools and Reality

David Willetts has been taking a bit of a caning over his comments on Grammar Schools. Well, frankly, he should have thought to put an exercise book down his shorts if was going to come up with lines like 'there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it'. The 'advantage' that grammars entrench is the one children get from having parents that care about their education. This trait is not just confined to the middle class; I have personal experience of working-class families that supported their children into a grammar school and university education and middle class families that 'supported' their children into leaving school early to work at a Tesco checkout. But in the midst of poor delivery and damaging the Party's standing with its core support, there is a serious point: grammars schools simply are not the answer to education as it has to function in the 21st century. Academic selection is very good at finding those with a particularly strong academic bent and grammars are very good at developing them to a high level. What is also required, however, is a system that takes the vast majority of children of average academic ability and equips them to function in a high-skill, knowledge-based economy. It is no longer good enough to sift out the top 10-15%, because a modern developed economy requires a much higher proportion of people with a good education to function. Grammars have their place, and Willetts was wrong to think that to suggest that they weren't all of the answer he had to rubbish them, but something else is also required.

The problem is that the Labour government took education backwards in scrapping the Conservative grant-maintained system that was starting to work very well indeed. Then they had an epiphany on school independence, gifting us academies and foundation schools. Willetts is right to seek to build on that, but it is poor politics to stir up opposition by ineptly articulating a position that nearly everyone agrees with anyway.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

No Contest

It's Brown by coronation. This is good news, for just about everyone except the Labour Party. A contested leadership election, even one as mismatched as the bout on offer, would have given Labour a rolling primetime six-week platform to lay out new policies and build new enthusiasm. Instead we got one press conference and a palpable sense of anticlimax. Brown looked smug, but already there are a few rumblings in the Labour blogsphere that this might have been a bit of an own goal by the great clunking fist.

Labour Party rules required that the MPs nominate candidates for the subsequent election. It did not require that they support the nominee, just that they nominate. However the PLP decided that getting in with the new boss was more important that little things like allowing the ordinary membership a voice, and it is inconceivable that they would have come to this conclusion unless it was also the view of Brown's campaign team. So, no election, which has a corollary of reduced legitimacy when the going gets tough, and the going is already pretty tough if you are a Labour MP in a southern marginal seat.

Democracy may be inconvenient for candidates to high office, but the alternatives can be far worse. Ask Nicolae Ceau┼čescu.