Progressive reformers desert Labour: John Kampfner on why he’s now backing the Lib Dems

The journalist John Kampfner has established a formidable reputation as broadcaster, writer, political campaigner and commentator.

In 2002 he won awards  for Journalist of the Year and Film of the Year from the Foreign Press Association for his documentary on the Middle East, The Dirty War. Under his editorship from  2005 to 2008, The New Statesman reached its highest circulation figures in thirty years. In 2006 The British Society of Magazine Editors gave him their award for Political Editor of the Year. Both the Observer and the Evening Standard listed his book Freedom for Sale as one of their books of the year for 2009.

Yesterday, Kampfner published an article in the Guardian and a pamphlet through CentreForum, “Lost labours”, both of which address Labour’s record of failure and its betrayal of the British people’s trust. He explains his difficult decision to switch his political allegiance away from Labour to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, arguing that only they can ensure a fairer Britain and urging other reformers on the centre left to acknowledge the Liberal Democrats as the most progressive force in British politics.

If you are uncertain of the case that politicians make for themselves, take a moment to read Kampfner’s coherent and compelling account.

If you are interested in finding out more about John Kampfner, check out his listing on evri where you will find a number of video clips of debates and commentaries on a range of political issues.

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Fearing franchise change: why it is a mistake to ditch C2C

As a commuter and regular weekend passenger it is very easy to vent about the state of the railways.

Make that rant about the state of the railways.

I have always resented the insidious shift in terminology that, over the years, has seen me redesignated as a customer. I can choose where I buy my fruit and veg. I can’t choose who provides the train I get on. (More on that another time).

My family will have lost count of the number of occasions I have erupted on the phone about the basket-case services provided on the railways at weekends. Why is it that in one of the most prosperous Western countries, in the 21st Century, we still can’t run a comprehensive week and weekend service? It is a pathetic indictment of our national capacity to organise.

Taxi drivers will know my outbursts about the fact that the Germans appear to be able to run (and maintain and repair) a huge national rail network, with far fewer problems than us Brits, and with timetables that link in buses and trams. To the minute. It is astonishing we cannot, bearing in mind our national readiness to computerise and database our entire existence. (Sod the ID card database – lets try and get our buses to meet our trains!)

And on various occasions Em and I have cursed the running of short trains at busy times and the resultant cram into trains which simply aren’t designed for standing.

As I said. It is very easy to rant.

Much harder is crediting rail companies for their successes. And some, with the unlikeliest parent companies, have successes in abundance.

C2C operates the busy commuter line between Shoeburyness and London Fenchurch Street. There is a further loop line from Barking to Pitsea that runs through the old towns along the north flank of the eastern stretches of the Thames. These include the vast industrial wildernesses of Rainham and Dagenham, as well as Tilbury Town and East Tilbury, both of which have extensive maritime histories of civil and military significance, and the towns of Grays and Stanford-le-Hope, each home to a rapidly expanding commuting population.

I use Basildon, Laindon and Pitsea and, on the fastest trains, am a mere 25 minutes from central London.

C2C is owned by Network Rail, the company that ruined the East coast main line. I’ve always been a little schizophrenic on rail privatisation. To me, the railways as a service industry, unlike say HMV, but – as we have privatisation – I have wanted to see healthy and sensible competition to drive up standards. When Grand Central appeared on the scene, challenging National Express (the then principal operator on the East Coast Main Line), Em and I cheered, loving their livery, the uniformed presence of enthusiastic staff and the refurbishment of the well-designed intercities, with seats that line up with windows. Even now, Grand Central are going from strength to strength, introducing refurbished Class 180s and committing to re-engineering their existing High Speed Trains.

The Government were right to strip them of their franchise on that line.

I don’t know much about the East Anglia routes and how they operated. All I know are the anecdotal complaints from friends and colleagues bemoaning the state of their trains and stations. They suggest, unscientifically, that the decision to remove that franchise was justified.

C2C is different.

C2C is one of the very real success stories. And yet the Government has decided, apparently, that National Express will not be allowed to bid to retain the franchise. To my mind it is madness to punish the franchise operator, and a clearly able and committed management team, because of the various sins of the parent company.

When C2C announced that it was to change its livery from the distinctive purple and yellow to National Express’s bland white, I wrote to C2C expressing my dismay. Why on earth rebrand as failure? Why spend tens of thousands of pounds of commuter cash on making yourself look like a company that is despised? It was the most peculiar piece of PR – unless of course you were the owners of C2C and desperately wanted to repair your reputation by having it more closely associated with success.

Unlike the rest of the failed National Express rail enterprise, the team that manage C2C has shown a very real dedication to their passengers and services.

Unlike many lines, C2C manage all the stations as well as the trains. The only station managed by Network Rail is Fenchurch Street. (West Ham is managed by London Underground.) The difference between the investment at Fenchurch Street (minimal) and elsewhere on the line is marked.

New doors, stairs, waiting rooms, information systems and security systems have all been provided by C2C.

The management team engage passengers regularly, with meetings between a representative passenger panel and C2C – and C2C actually respond. C2C produces Commuter News, a monthly ad-free informative newsletter that explains the causes of problems, highlights coming improvements and draws attention to the engineering works scheduled for weekends.

C2C modernised its entire fleet of trains – yet retains a sense of the old romance with trains named after those who have worked their lives on the railways. They have won awards for introducing regenerative breaking across the entire fleet – something that has made them one of the most environmentally-conscious train-operating companies in Europe.

Most ironically, whilst the Department for Transport rail against National Express and C2C, both the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office point to C2C as an exemplar of a UK train success story.

It would seem that this tired and failing Labour Government is either ideologically sclerotic or determined to prioritise a petty retribution over genuine achievement in the passenger’s interest.

If there is any sense left in Government, Adonis and his crew will at least allow National Express to bid. Regardless of their other failures, National Express/C2C know this line, have shown commitment to their trains, stations and passengers.

They have transformed the “misery line” into one that regularly tops the customer satisfaction surveys and became the first in the country to achieve a punctuality score of 96%.

Ditching C2C would be a big mistake.

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Basildon’s Conservatives and borough status: ignorance and the inappropriateness of pomp in a recession #toryfail

On Wednesday night, immediately following a Cabinet meeting that witnessed the collapse of the Tories regeneration plans in Wickford, we had the farce of Council meeting to decide if Basildon should apply to the Queen to become a Borough

The result was a foregone conclusion.

All but one Tory councillor was present, all three Liberal Democrats were there, but Labour decided not to turn up –  despite saying they opposed it in the paper.

Quite how Labour councillors opposed this by taking a decision not to be there to vote against is completely beyond me. It wasn’t something that happened by accident – work over-running or a train arriving late, for instance. This was a decision not to be present.

It was a complete and utter abdication of political responsibility in two regards.

Firstly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as official opposition, failing to represent the many thousands of residents who have an opposite view to the Conservative administration. Secondly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as elected representatives. Their constituents expect them to represent their views. On Basildon and borough status, any comment they made in the paper is worthless as they singularly failed to follow up that stated opposition with votes.

Did Labour really oppose it? Or were they simply too divided that they thought it better not to turn up at all? We will never know as they abdicated their elected responsibilities: there are no votes to record their views.

The Conservatives argued that borough status would enhance the status of the district and with enhanced status would come investment. They explained that there is currently confusion when the “chain gang” get together [the other mayors] as Basildon is one of only two councils local to us  with a Chairman. To be honest, I think that most people these days think of a very different “chain gang” when it comes to politicians…

Most importantly, the Tories believe Borough status would allow them to recognise people of importance and grant them “Freedom of the Borough”. They made an emotive and compelling case, based on the Royal Anglian Regiment and the fact that, in the Leader of the Tory group’s words, they had missed a trick by not having borough status so they could grant “Freedom of the Borough”. They also said that they would spend no money on signage as all the signs say Basildon Council and they wouldn’t buy regalia or cars etc.

I was against the application. So were my colleagues. And we were there to make our points and vote against it.

For my part, I don’t have a principled objection to being Basildon Borough. However, politicians have never been regarded with so much contempt in modern times as they are now. There is a justified and deep-seated cynicism out there about the motivation of politicians and anything that appears to be self-serving, even when it is not, should be very carefully scrutinised.

I believe that the sight of politicians talking about whether they are called a “Mayor” or a “Chairman”, and whether or not they need to have regalia etc, is one that sits uncomfortably when so many businesses are going to the wall, as families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and when there is so much uncertainty out there about jobs and recovery.

And whilst deciding not to spend on new signs and stationery etc is the right decision, it does prompt the question, what’s the point? As far as the world out there is concerned, there is going to be very little visible difference. Basildon Council will be Basildon Council – Borough or District.

Part of me also thinks that this need to be like other Councils shows a spectacular lack of confidence. Basildon has a lot to be proud of, both in terms of its community and in terms of its national leadership in local government terms. We shouldn’t feel an obsessive need to be like other places, when one of Basildon’s strengths is that it is not. Conservatives don’t seem to be able to cope with being different and develop an entirely unnecessary inferiority complex. To my mind, the people we represent want us to simply get on and do the job.

Finally, on the business of offering distinguished individuals and organisations “Freedom of the Borough”, the Tories did indeed miss a trick.

It is perfectly in order for a District Council to offer “Freedom of the District”. They might have erroneously believed that that is a privilege that only a district with the status of city, borough or royal borough can confer.

However, they would be quite wrong.

Last year, Uttlesford saw the 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) parade through the town. Uttlesford decided it wanted to honour its soldiers for their service.

Uttlesford is a District Council and so doesn’t qualify under Section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 to offer “Freedom of the Borough” or “Freedom of the District”. However, they did identify that the general power of well-being contained in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 was broad enough to entitle them to grant the regiment freedom of entry. Accordingly, Uttlesford District Council resolved the following:

So it was that, on Sunday 14 June 2009, soldiers from 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) marched through Uttlesford and were awarded the “Freedom of the District”.

Why didn’t this happen for the Royal Anglian Regiment when they marched through Basildon Town Centre on St George’s Day, 23 April 2009?

Not because Basildon is a District.

But because the Conservatives missed a trick.

In his summing up, Cllr Ball said that the reason they are applying for Borough status now is because it shows community leadership. If it is the right thing to do, you lead.

For me, though, and knowing what we do about Uttlesford, it’s hard to see Wednesday night as anything other than an exercise in politicians wanting fancier titles.

I agree that if it is the right thing to do you should lead.

What a shame that leadership didn’t mirror Uttlesford’s, with the Royal Anglian Regiment being granted the “Freedom of the District”.

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Brown, bullying and international perceptions

Regardless of the truth of the bullying allegations surrounding Brown and Number 10, they appear to be creating an even less savoury picture of goings on with our friends in the international community.

Apple Daily runs an online news channel called Next Media that, instead of using actors, animates its newscasts in order to make them more exciting. Launching simultaneously on 26 November 2009 in Taiwan and Hong Kong, it quickly courted controversy with parents complaining about explicit, erotic and violent content. If you are interested, Media, the marketing and communications newspaper for Asia-Pacific carries an interesting article on the rows surrounding Apple Daily on its website.

In any event, the sales-boosting bullying furore around Rawnsley’s new book, The End of the Party, has clearly attracted attention in the Asia-Pacific region and has made its way into the most extraordinary news bulletin I’ve yet seen on the matter:

It is difficult to know quite what to make of the provocative way in which Next Media presents current affairs. Suffice to say that their coverage of the bizarre legal dispute in Colarado over who owns the head of Mary Robbins (the Robbins family or Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation) suggests they like to sensationalise sensational stories.

However entertaining it is, it makes me grateful for the BBC and public service broadcasting.

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Cameron’s Conservative Party, Con-coctions and Torydiddles: Anger as Tories increase teen pregnancies (The Fib List No. 2) #toryfail

In a decimal point slip of breath-taking ineptitude, David Cameron’s Conservative Party proclaimed an increase in the number of teens getting pregnant in Britain’s most deprived areas that was hugely in excess of the official figure.

Yesterday, the Tories published a document on Labour’s “Two Nations” that, as well as serving as a vehicle for cribbing Lib Dem policy such as the pupil premium, loudly proclaimed that 54% of Britain’s poorest teenage women became pregnant before the age of eighteen. The document, issued in David Cameron’s name, laid responsibility for this 54% increase squarely on the shoulders of Gordon Brown and his Government.

The actual figure is 5.4% – and this latest row comes just ten days after the Tories were lambasted by Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Agency for misusing crime figures in a way that could damage public trust in official statistics.

So how did the Tories make such a stupid mistake?

The first question is did they? A cynic might assume this was a deliberate ploy, designed to fuel the prejudices of traditional Tory voters whilst inflating a general sense of outrage at the country’s moral breakdown. It would certainly fit with the apparent Tory habit of manipulating statistics for sensational political effect.

More likely, though, it was cock-up. In that case, one has to ask how on earth such a blatantly ridiculous statistic made it past the combined fact-checking powers of the Shadow Cabinet, their advisers, the Tories’ Parliamentary Research Unit (who I assume was asked to check it) and the Conservative Party Press Office – especially when David Cameron put his name to its foreword.

The frightening thought is that perhaps they are that out of touch with the country that they simply passed it over, shaking their heads as they collectively “tut-tutted”, assuming it was true.

An increase of 5.4% is nothing for Labour to be proud of.

Britain is regularly reported as having the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. The most recent figures for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts the rate of teenage births in the UK at 24.8 births per 1000 women aged 15-19. (Note – this is teenage births. Pregnancies would be higher – and this statistic does not account for births in teenagers under 15.)

A 2001 paper by Alice MacLeod, published in the British Medical Journal said:

“In England reduced rates of teenage pregnancy have been found to be associated with proximity to youth family planning clinics.”

The lack of access to proper advice would be consistent with a more recent YouGov survey for Channel 4 that found that almost a third of teenagers want more sex and relationships education.

The experience of other European countries, who have equally sexualised societies (and arguably more-so), but more comprehensive education about sex and relationships, is that rates of teenage pregnancy are lower. For instance, there has been controversy over proposals to end the parental opt-out of sex education in English schools once pupils turn fifteen (currently parents in can opt their children out until the age of nineteen), yet no such opt-out exists in most European countries. (There is an interesting comparative paper available from the National Foundation for Educational Research which, unfortunately, doesn’t include Britain, but does look at the way sex education is structured elsewhere in the world.)

Teenage pregnancy is an issue that needs tackling with proper understanding – firmly, calmly and compassionately. That isn’t achieved when you are electioneering from the campaign scrimmage, trading the misery of broken lives for the votes of “Disgusted of Tumbridge Wells” with utterly wrong information.

Concoction or cock-up, it doesn’t leave you with any confidence about the Tories’ real commitment to tackling social deprivation beyond their election re-branding.

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