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Iain Martin: Like any revolutionary, Carswell enjoys chaos and disruption. But will it end happily?

For now, Farage and his first MP are singing the same tune. But Carswell will be difficult to please, says Iain Martin

 

Douglas Carswell is a fan of Oliver Cromwell’s early work. The Conservative Member for Clacton – sorry, the Ukip Member for Clacton – admires the insurgent leader of the parliamentary forces in the English Civil War to such an extent that he quoted him approvingly in The Plan, his 2008 treatise on how Britain might be saved in a mere 12 months. All that was required, apparently, was a programme of radical decentralisation designed by Carswell and his friend Dan Hannan, the Conservative MEP.

“I find the country bleeding, nay, almost dying,” Cromwell told MPs in 1644. “The people are dissatisfied in every corner of the nation, all men laying at our doors the non-performance of those things that had been promised.”

In The Plan, Carswell used that quote to draw a parallel with the anger felt in the early 21st century at the alleged failures of Westminster. Radical change was required in the 1640s to address popular concerns, and it is needed now, he suggested.

Carswell was certainly prescient. During the six years since he and Hannan published their radical manifesto, the pace of deterioration in the reputation of Parliament has, if anything, accelerated markedly. The financial crisis, in which Westminster was judged complicit, was followed by the expenses crisis and a deep recession, all of which further eroded trust in established institutions.

The traditional players in the Commons were never going to be immune from the effects of this transformation, and so it is proving as the party system fragments. Carswell is now a Ukip MP after resigning his seat and thumping his old party in a by-election. After that result in Clacton and Labour’s narrow escape in Heywood and Middleton, both of the major parties find their assumptions about the next general election being stress-tested.

With only seven months to go, Labour risks leaking core votes to Ukip and the Tories fear that large numbers of their former voters are, for now, unmoved by warnings that voting for Farage means putting Ed Miliband in No 10. The Lib Dems are melting down and the SNP in Scotland is surging after the referendum.

Carswell – who now grins almost as much as Nigel Farage – is loving all this, of course. Like any revolutionary he enjoys chaos and disruption, believing it to be a sign that the old system is dying and something better is about to emerge.

The creative destruction which he believes is necessary in economics is being applied to the electoral map of the UK. In this way, Carswell has long been a radical rather than a conventional Tory. Typically, Tories tend to be interested at least to some degree in order, stability and evolutionary change rather than unpredictable upheaval.

But will Carswell and Farage’s revolution end any more happily than that of the 1640s? They are united in wanting the UK out of the European Union, although the Ukip surge could easily alienate undecided voters on that question by tarnishing Euroscepticism as noisy, screechy populism. That approach seems to appeal to anywhere between 10-20% of a deeply disaffected electorate, which is only enough to cause chaos in 2015 but not to build a winning majority for a ‘better off out’ position.

For now, Carswell and Farage are singing the same tune, although those who know this usually independent-minded MP are amused to see him ‘taking the line’ faithfully from his leader and so far parroting a holding position on policies such as immigration, where the pair have very different instincts. Carswell is a huge enthusiast for immigration, while Farage is not.

The Ukip leader is also notoriously intolerant of internal rivals while Carswell is – as David Cameron knows – difficult to please and pretty much unbiddable if he gets fixed on an idea. In the end, Carswell regards even the regicidal Cromwell as being insufficiently radical. Cromwell, who became a practitioner of power politics, outflanked the Levellers who wanted to go further towards full democracy. Carswell thinks that when he got into power he was a big letdown.

Iain Martin is a political commentator

 

 

Dialogue: Should universities be free to buy up student debt?

Every issue two commentators email each other with different ideas on a particular subject. This week David Willetts MP and Wes Street...

 

From: David Willetts

Sent: 09 October 2014 11:42

Dear Wes

Going to university is a fantastic experience and worthwhile in its own right. But young people are also considering what their job prospects might be. I think we agree that this is legitimate and understandable. At the moment universities have little incentive to focus on this. And currently legislation actually forbids the Student Loans Company from giving them information to universities about their graduates, even with the graduate’s consent.

If universities actually held some of the outstanding student debt they would have an incentive to boost the earnings of their graduates. They would want to stay in touch with their graduates who were out of work and help them to refresh their skills and get back into work. No university would be forced to do this, but I think they should have the option when the stock of student debt is being sold.

The critics say this penalises courses or universities where graduates earn less. I value the wide range of different courses that are studied, including of course the humanities and social sciences. I also recognise that universities that take more students from tougher backgrounds will find it harder to get them into well paid jobs. The point is that the debt of those students can be bought at a lower price as the assumption may be that they will earn less. But then the incentives are to invest in and help those graduates so they earn more and pay back more. It is improvement on current performance that matters, not where you started.

The biggest gainers from this policy would be students and graduates, and so I hope that as someone who cares about their interests you will support it.

Very best wishes

David Willetts

 

 

From: Wes Streeting

Sent: 13 October 2014 09:00

You’re absolutely right that students are concerned about their employment prospects after graduation. I have been concerned for some time that universities – and the Government – are selling degrees on the promise of greater financial reward in the workplace without sufficient support to help students to plan for their future careers.

 Your plan has some superficial appeal, not just because it would incentivise universities to focus on employability in the way you describe, but I’m worried that your proposal also creates some dangerous incentives with detrimental consequences. It would reward universities that take ‘low-risk students’ – those from wealthier backgrounds who already dominate our elite universities. These students are more likely to graduate into higher paid jobs and are more likely to repay their debts. Conversely, it would penalise those universities that are most successful in recruiting students from working class and other non-traditional backgrounds. These students benefit from higher education, but they are more likely to study locally and more likely to go into lower paid jobs. Higher education is an important engine for our economy, but it should also be an engine for social mobility.

Finally, higher education is about so much more than cashing in a degree for higher earnings. While some will go on to lucrative roles in the highest paid professions, many graduates choose to follow their dreams in lower paid roles, particularly in the public and voluntary sectors. Graduates and universities shouldn’t be penalised for this.

All the best,

Wes

 

From: David Willetts

Sent: 13 October 2014 12:07

Dear Wes

Thanks for your response. I completely agree with you that universities and their students come in all shapes and sizes and a good thing too. It is also a great strength of our system that people study such a wide range of courses. I think you have just misunderstood how my scheme would work.

Of course there will be different repayment rates depending on the course and the university. That will be reflected in the value of the debt. If a university has highly employable graduates it will have to pay more for its debt than a university whose graduates have historically done less well in the jobs market. What really matters is improving on previous expectations – not the absolute performance. So you are not penalised if you have students doing courses with poorer employment prospects: you are rewarded if you do better than market expectations.

We are talking about selling existing debt which has already been accumulated. So you don't gain by changing what or who you teach. To caricature the point, if you close down your sociology department and do more law to improve your employment outcomes then when it comes to buying the loan book for those graduates you will find that the higher employability is reflected in a higher price you pay for that graduate debt. The rewards are only for doing better than is expected for that type of student on that type of course.

Hope that helps.

Best

David

 

From: Wes Streeting

Sent: 13 October 2014 18:53

Hi David,

Thanks for sharing the detail. I can see how your proposal seeks, in principle, to mitigate against the risks I spelled out, but I fear you may still see negative consequences in practice.

You note that this scheme would be voluntary. Which universities have both the desire and the capacity to participate in this scheme? The initial response from the majority of the higher education sector seemed at best lukewarm and at worst critical. I think we both know that there are a small handful of universities that are already talking to banks about running their own student loan schemes in order to go private. Beyond those, there is little capacity for universities to invest in student loans in this way. Where there is capacity through budget surpluses or additional borrowing, universities are understandably investing in estates and ICT to cater for students who want more bang for their buck with fees at £9,000.

I worry that those that would have the desire and the capacity to participate would be those academically elite institutions that remain far too socially elite for their own good and the good of the country. Their employability outcomes are generally excellent, but we need a world class higher education system, not simply a handful of world class universities. How would we improve the lot of those students studying on courses that proclaim to be widening participation success stories, but in reality are selling students from disadvantaged backgrounds short by charging full fees for poor graduate outcomes?

All the best,

Wes

 

From: David Willetts

Sent: 14 October 2014 09:24

Dear Wes

Thanks for your response. I agree with you that it is a good thing that we have a diverse higher education system with great regional universities and universities focussed on teaching as well as the prestigious research-intensives. You worry that only those prestigious universities will participate in a voluntary scheme. I think that is based on a misunderstanding as I tried to explain in my previous note. But here are two more points.

First you are assuming that universities have to find all the funding themselves. That would be a serious constraint even for the richest universities. But my scheme would be much more flexible than that. A university would find a commercial partner – a pension fund or a bank – who would fund the purchase of that university's student loan book and they would share the gains if the earnings of their graduates could be improved.

Secondly I think you are still not grasping what this could do for social justice. There is no big gain from a university with high earning graduates owning the loan book – most will be repaid anyway and this will be reflected in the price it pays for the loans. The real prize is when a university with low graduate earnings and employment rates has the funding and the incentive to help them. Imagine a university which found that 50% of its graduates were out of the work force or on low pay and invested in refresher courses and return to work programmes to help them. Too many universities lose contact with all but their most affluent graduates when I want them to have a real incentive to help the low earners. This would require a change in the law which at the moment prohibits any information about graduates being passed to universities by the Student Loans Company. Provided the individual consents I think universities should be able to access that information. A university careers service should be for life not just for your years as an undergraduate. In fact I think we should work together on a proposal which we should take to the universities whose graduates don't do so well at present. Imagine designing a programme to help their life chances with the funding and the incentives to make it happen!

Best wishes

David

 

From: Wes Streeting

Sent: 15 October 2014 00:15

Hi David,

Thanks for the clarification about the financing arrangements. I still have some concerns about this. Clearly there would need to be incentives for the bank or pension fund involved. I’m not sure that the carrot on offer for the universities you describe would have the same appeal to potential investors. Under existing arrangements, we’re in a position where 45% of student debts will need to be written off, and the Government had to abandon plans to sell off student debt because of over-optimistic assumptions about receipts for the Treasury.

After more than a decade of political knockabout on higher education funding, we need to reach a cross-party consensus about how we fund higher education in the longer term. I fear we’re left with an unsustainable system that fails universities, students and the taxpayer that needs a more fundamental rethink than this debate has allowed.

But your idea is characteristically thoughtful and I hope we continue to benefit from your contributions to debates about higher education beyond your departure from the Commons in May. I think we are agreed that we need to improve outcomes for graduates from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and think creatively about how we incentivise universities to do so and I’d be happy to work with you further on this to achieve the outcomes we both want to see.

Very best wishes,

Wes

 

David Willetts is Conservative MP for Havant and was Universities and Science Minister from 2010-14

Wes Streeting is Labour PPC Ilford North and was President of the NUS, 2008-2010 

 

 

 

 

 

Ian Paisley: What I learned from my father

Ian Paisley remembers his father and former Northern Ireland First Minister Lord Bannside, who died last month aged 88

 

When I was a wee lad, my dad – who was one of the first to bring his kids to work – brought me and my twin brother Kyle to Parliament. In those days – in the early 70s – Parliament was an all-night affair. I have vivid memories of sitting there very, very late at night in the special strangers’ box under the gallery on the opposition side. Some Members were sleeping; others had their feet up on the benches. My brother followed the honourable members’ example and fell asleep; he was soon snoring. One of the doorkeepers came over and woke him, telling him he couldn’t sleep in Parliament. Kyle pointed at the MPs and said in his defence that they were sleeping. The doorkeeper kindly informed him: “Yes son – they are Members; you are a stranger.” It’s an experience that stuck with me and egged me on to one day try to be a Member of this mother of parliaments.

In 2010, in my first week as the new Member of Parliament for North Antrim, succeeding my father after his 40 years of service, I was walking down the corridor with dad from the library towards the Speaker’s office. We were going to nip down the little staircase and out into New Palace Yard to get to dad’s car. As we walked along, I was brimming with pride to be an MP with my dad, who was about to be elevated to the Lords. I said to him ‘dad, you know until you’re elevated you’re a stranger here and I’m the Member’. We both stopped and had a real laugh. Dad told me it was the first time since his retirement that it had struck him that he was no longer an MP. He had walked that corridor for four decades and was no longer a Member; it was a page-turning moment.

I loved watching my dad perform in Parliament, and it was always a performance. From his maiden speech until his farewell, he made his presence felt. With his commanding stature, powerful voice and eloquent oratory, he made the job look so easy.

I remember in 1985 when he spoke from the upper galleries denouncing the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It made headlines, and he came home to rapturous applause. I also remember him being ejected for telling John Major during his premiership that he’d uttered falsehoods to the House.

Remarkably, dad always got on well even with his political adversaries and opponents; it was his nature. I share a corridor office today with Nick Hurd. His father, the distinguished Douglas Hurd, had come under dad’s wrath at one time. Some time ago Nick and I shared a laugh about our fathers' run-in.

Something dad has passed on to all his children is a drive to do everything to the full. If you are going to have a sense of humour, make sure it’s outrageous. If you’re going to speak out, be outspoken. And if you’re going to be outspoken, be heard! I suppose that’s what was so attractive about him as a politician – he was both rebellious and clever. He also knew where the limits were and was incredibly self-aware.

The weekend before recess I had been with dad. His condition had deteriorated, and while he had miraculously bounced back in the past, I didn’t think that would be the case now. I carried out my duties in the select committee and asked the Speaker if he would be kind enough to call me early on the Tuesday to question the Northern Ireland Secretary so I could get home early and spend some time with dad.

Mr Speaker was so obliging and very kind. Without fault, anytime I have met John he has always asked after both my father and mother. I got home and spent Wednesday and Thursday with dad. On Friday morning, I kissed him farewell and went to my constituency office. Dad’s advice was always ‘put the people first, look after them and they will look after you’. During my constituency surgery, I got a call from my sister to get home. I spoke to dad on the phone and told him again I loved him. He passed away a short time later, surrounded by my mum and family.

Dad was a great man of faith, and his faith never failed him. It was his life, and it served him in a remarkably peaceful passing. Throughout the last eight months of illness and deterioration, dad never once required as much as a painkiller. That is so comforting to us now.

When I made my maiden speech, nerve-wracking enough as that moment is for any Member, I looked up into the Speaker’s gallery and my father and mother were both sitting there. Now, given that I had to mention the previous Member, it was great to see him. I felt his own pride in his broad, beaming smile as I spoke.

Dad was one of the great parliamentary orators, and one of the few who could really command the House and seize its attention. That’s because he had a cause, a belief and a purpose. When we chatted, he often asked: ‘What are we going to change? What are the things that need to be done?’ He always had a mission. It’s a lesson to anyone in public life to have a purpose – don’t just be a Member for the sake of it.

I believe his legacy after years of championing his cause has been to do the right deal at the right time to achieve a lasting peace in his beloved Ulster.

He has certainly ensured that the combination of weak Unionism and IRA terrorism has not prevailed, and today Unionism is in a strong and dominant position in our country. Last month, as I carried his remains to the open grave and lowered him into his beloved soil of Ulster, I hoped that a seed had been planted afresh in our country, and that this peace will continue to grow and progress. 

 

Ian Paisley Jr is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for North Antrim 

 

 

 

 

Olly's Army

Baroness Grender talks to Paul Waugh about the merits of the Second Chamber, the ‘incumbency factor’ – and why the Lib Dems are up for...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

“You’ve got an awesome, kick-arse woman like Martha Lane Fox in there. And then you’ve got some of the oldest, most experienced politicians who you frankly last saw on Spitting Image – and actually thought were dead.”

Olly Grender’s views on the House of Lords are nothing if not candid. Nearly a year after she was ennobled, no one could claim that she’s been seduced by the traditions of the red benches.

“Everyone describes it as a very polite place and individuals within it are polite. But then if you stand up as I did and speak out against Betty Boothroyd’s ‘constitutional outrage’ of Tina Stowell being ‘in attendance’ at Cabinet, then it’s a lot of people baying, basically. You just have to be quite thick skinned,” she says.

“What I would say is that it desperately needs to be elected and it should be elected. You almost want to say ‘right, so we are really angry that everyone around the Cabinet table is now elected, is that what we are angry about? We are angry because an unelected body doesn’t have representation there?’ Sometimes I sit in the chamber and when I see it is described by many others as [Parliament] ‘at its best’, I struggle to understand that phrase.”

In a political career spent both behind the scenes and on the media, Baroness Grender of Kingston-Upon-Thames has never been afraid of speaking her mind. And as the General Election looms, her frank advice will certainly be heard loud and clear by the Lib Dems in coming months.

Reunited with Paddy Ashdown, her former boss and fellow Lords sceptic, Grender has been appointed ‘Political Co-ordinator and Director for Special Projects’ as her party gears up for one of the toughest electoral campaigns in its history. Ashdown and his loyal lieutenant want their army of volunteers to dig in deep in their current 56 seats, while taking the fight to other key targets.

Her multitasking will be stretched to the limit as she juggles her election post with her duties as a full-time working peer. But although her frustration with the Lords is palpable, she points out that the Upper House (which she prefers to call the ‘Second Chamber’) can effect change in a way the Commons simply can’t.

“Because you don’t have guillotines, because it’s a committee of the whole House, because anyone and everyone can get involved, because you can spend a good proportion of time on each amendment, that is where I think the Second Chamber is superb,” she says. “I’m conscious that our dirty laundry gets sent through to the Lords and then it gets starched and pressed and returned in a good condition.”

Typically, however, she has a caveat. “I think where it doesn’t necessarily work is with some of those set-piece grandstanding speeches. Sometimes my heart sinks a little bit if I’m hearing someone talking about how the economy worked in the 1970s – partly because I’m not entirely sure why we need a 30th speech on why the economy did or didn’t work in the 1970s.”

One area where she’s trying to drag the law, if not the Lords, into the 21st century is on the issue of ‘revenge porn’. Acting on a campaign launched by party member Hannah Thompson, she is currently trying to amend the Justice Bill to make the publication of private sexual images a criminal offence.

“It’s a generational issue, a lot of people won’t understand. But in the world of instant [communication] and smartphones, a lot of people own a lot of images. There are terrible websites like MyEx.com where people publish photos and say ‘this woman is a slag’ and stuff like that. It’s really, really nasty stuff. And it’s out there and it means that your friends, employer, can see. It’s a very brutal thing to happen.”

The Ministry of Justice is looking at the proposal. “There’s some debate about how you can ensure that it’s seen as a criminal act, and of course in the House of Lords for every peer there are 17 lawyers. So that will be much debated,” she says.

But the Baroness hopes the practice can become law in the next few months. “And it should, because it is on the increase. And it is a form of abuse. It’s not even that it’s a form of sexual abuse, it’s abuse against an individual.”

Grender is undoubtedly one of the strongest female voices the party has. But she’s more aware than most that the Lib Dems’ image among women has been undermined over the past year by the Lord Rennard controversy.

“Will it have a long-lasting impact? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s been damaging and divisive in the party but I think we are where we are and we all need to just move on.”

As someone who’s known him for years, was she shocked by the claims? “Yes, I was shocked,” she says. She has not spoken to Rennard about the allegations and has said nothing publicly until now. Does she agree that the party could have done more to listen to the women who made the complaints?

“Oh yeah. Here’s the thing. I think that politics is going through a transition and I see it as a really good transition. And the silver lining out of what is no doubt a dark cloud for our party is that no woman will put up with any kind of behaviour that is inappropriate and will know that there are now all sorts of structures in place,” she says. The new anonymous helpline and support staff at Lib Dem HQ, plus heightened awareness, will all make a difference.

“I think that all institutions are going through turmoil and I’m glad they are. Is it fast enough for me? No. But am I delighted that it’s happening? Yes.”

Did she ever suffer from harassment herself? “Yes, from an MP. Who’s now dead,” she reveals. “When I first started working in Parliament in my early 20s, I would say that I had no idea I could complain that I was being sexually harassed by somebody who was a Member of Parliament. It just didn’t even occur to me. And I’m really pleased it now occurs to people.

“And by the way one of the most sexist places I thought at the time was the Press Gallery. I was a person going round as a young female and I’m delighted that the Press Gallery has changed as well.

“I wouldn’t say that it in any way held me back from anything that I wanted to do, and I would say that in contrast, for that one person there have been 200 people who have promoted and supported me in an amazing career that my party has given me. I’ve just had an extraordinary career.” 

 

 

That career began when Grender was a young activist in Kingston, acting as agent, leafleter, occasional candidate. Christened Rosalind, she tried to say her own name but the word came out as ‘Olly’. “I’ve been called that ever since,” she explains.

“I could have changed it back, but it just stuck.” Ever the party hack, she also points out that when she first got involved in campaigning, a shorter forename came in useful. “It was less Letraset on leaflets for letterboxes. ‘Rosalind’ – too many letters!”

She didn’t go to university, opting instead to become a party researcher, and within a couple of years her talents were spotted by Paddy Ashdown. First as his speechwriter and then as his communications director, she fought alongside him in the trenches at the 1992 general election. After working for Shelter and public affairs firm LLM, she became the Lib Dem pundit of choice for Newsnight, alongside Tory Danny Finkelstein and Labour’s Peter Hyman. When Nick Clegg needed maternity cover for his deputy comms director in Downing Street, Grender was the natural choice.

“I would say that the work-life balance in No 10 was much, much harder than it is being a peer,” she says. “That was very, very demanding and I really didn’t see my little boy at all.”

In parenthood, as in her politics, she again defied the odds. After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth at the age of 43. “I had IVF and a 7% chance of success, according to the HFEA figures at the time,” she explains. “I did do everything I could to make sure it was successful, no alcohol for two years, no caffeine.” She adds swiftly: “Don’t worry, I’m back on the booze again.”

Grender’s main task from now to May is to help the Lib Dems fight their key seats against a combined onslaught of Labour, Tory and UKIP, all seizing on voter disillusionment with Clegg and his party.

With a string of experienced MPs standing down, from Alan Beith to Malcolm Bruce to Don Foster, is there a danger that the party is losing its crucial incumbency factor?

“There are some great models for MPs standing down as incumbents and someone coming in and taking over their seat,” she smiles. “Just one I’ll pluck out of the air randomly: Sheffield Hallam maybe?”

Yet the Lib Dems have again come under fire for the lack of women in their ranks. She says the ‘Leadership Programme’ has worked in getting women candidates selected in winnable seats, but stresses there’s a bigger problem. “The critical issue, and this is where we struggled in 2010, is getting them elected. And that requires money,” she says.

All-women shortlists have been avoided by the party, though “both Nick and Paddy are minded to have a look at this” after 2015, Grender says. But is she personally keen on the idea? “It’s not that I’m not keen, it’s that I would need to see the science and be persuaded that that’s the issue. I think the issue is money, money, money.

“It’s about proper decent funding of female candidates. Because to stand for Parliament you give up so much, it costs you personally, it costs you in terms of your kids, it costs you in terms of your salary. What Labour have always had is a way of bumping up salaries via trade union funding to help people overcome this.

“If you want loads of people to get involved in politics, somehow you have to find ways of ensuring that people on very low incomes feel engaged and involved and that is wider than us.”

In the absence of state funding of political parties, an idea which she says seems “almost impossible” given government austerity, wealthy donors are the only solution.

Lack of funding prevents diversity among not just MPs but peers, she adds. “What you don’t get is a hairdresser, what you don’t get is a bus driver. And why don’t you get those people? Because it’s unaffordable for most people to do this kind of thing unless you are relying on a partner.

“A salary in the Lords alone, a bank won’t accept it as payment for a mortgage. It varies dramatically because you clock on when you sit because it’s an allowance rather than a salary.”

Grender’s Lords allowance is supplemented by her major role working at Lib Dem HQ alongside Ashdown. And it’s clear she’s happy to be back in partnership with the former party leader.

“It’s a riot, we share an office. Paddy and I get along very, very well. You just have to read his acknowledgment to me in his latest book to understand. It’s so funny, it says something like ‘I am sure that Olly has not read a single word of this book however she was kind enough to put up with my rantings and ravings while writing it and lent me her red pen!’ I think almost every acknowledgement of almost every book Paddy has ever written, somewhere there’s a reference to me that makes me sound like a complete dweeb.”

Grender insists all of the trials and tribulations of Coalition have been worth it. “While we’ve had ups and downs in Government and we’ve had trust issues, we’ve stuck to our word on tax threshold, we have delivered something that has been dramatic in terms of the value you place on work rather than the value you place on personal wealth. I think that’s been transformative. As has the pupil premium. I sit on a board of governors and I know how significant it has been.”

But given the state of the polls at the moment, does she have a sense of cold realism about the months ahead, or a dogged optimism?

“There are very few Liberal Democrats I know who are pessimists,” she replies. “I think if you believe in Liberalism there’s such a streak of optimism about you anyway. And also we are real grafters. If you’ve grown up through the grassroots as I did in Kingston or Paddy did fighting again and again and finally winning the seat after so many goes, there’s just this sense of the fight in you. And we all have that.”

“People say ‘isn’t it grim at the moment?’ And you think ‘pfft!’ We are in government right now, in government. Ed Davey, Vince, Nick, these people get to pull the levers of power. I talk to Labour Members who have lost power and they feel it. What you want in politics is to deliver things.”

And as for the task ahead, Grender is irrepressible. “There’s the question ‘do you want to be involved in the next general election, isn’t it going to be a real rollercoaster?’ To which the answer is ‘oh, you bet! You bet!’ I think that reflects almost everyone I know in the party.”   

 

GRENDER ON...LORDS ETIQUETTE

“It’s no more or less polite than the Commons. I think it’s overblown, this business about politeness.”

GRENDER ON....LORDS REBELLIONS

‘There are some times when you know you are going to enhance negotiations and other times when you are going to damage it.”

GRENDER ON ...BEING A PEER

”It’s easier being a peer than an MP. I’m still slightly surprised I'm in the House of Lords. I’m a kind of backroom person."

GRENDER ON...NEWSNIGHT

“A little confession, I normally watch Newsnight while I’m washing up and filling the dishwasher, it’s an efficient use of time."

GRENDER ON...HER PARTY JOB

"I've worked in Government, and at HQ and in the Commons. So I’m the person who can cross all divides. That’s really important."

 

 

 

Laws Abiding

David Laws has his hands full as a minister and chair of the Lib Dem manifesto group. Having outlasted Michael Gove at Education, what...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

Michael Gove is gone but not forgotten in the Department for Education. Its ground-floor reception area has an impressive gallery of photos of every single Secretary of State since 1944, from Rab Butler onwards. But Nicky Morgan’s picture is for some reason missing, and instead Gove continues in his place as the most recent incumbent. His image stares out at visitors as if he’d never been away.

For David Laws, the departure of his former boss was something of a mixed blessing. As Schools Minister, he often shared his Tory colleague’s passion for higher standards and radical reform. Yet given Gove’s poor image among many teachers, his removal has allowed the department a fresh start in selling Coalition – and Lib Dem – achievements. Asked if the building is a happier place without Gove, Laws laughs. “It’s a different place without Michael,” he says. “Michael and Nicky are different personalities. Obviously, having a Secretary of State who has been involved in the education space, leading for his party as well as in Government right back to 2007 meant that you had somebody who had been through a lot of these arguments before.

“Which is different from having a Secretary of State who’s fresh to the area and is obviously going to take a while to consider a lot of the policy challenges and decide on what the forward agenda is. So that is absolutely bound to create a change in the atmosphere. But I got on with Michael very, very well, even when we were having arguments. We had a lot of similar aspirations; we fell out over a few things – over oversight of academy chains, over qualified teacher status and around Ofsted. But we were never unable to deal with each other on a personal level. He is a charming and humorous and well-educated and fascinating member of the Government. I really enjoyed my time working with him here at the Department.”

Is it true that Gove’s poor ratings among teachers and some parents undermined his own efforts to tackle disadvantage? “He certainly prompted among people in education a very strong, gut feeling which, if I can put it this way, wasn’t always favourable,” Laws says, diplomatically.

“It did strike me that even when there were areas where we were working in close agreement or where he shared an aspiration to tackle disadvantage, that wasn’t the image of him you saw in the outside world. And once people in politics get an image of an individual, good or bad, it can be quite difficult to shift.”

Ever since he played a leading role in the creation of the Coalition back in 2010, Laws’ own image as a smart, hard-headed pragmatist has endeared him to Lib Dems and Conservatives alike. Highly rated by both Nick Clegg and David Cameron, his loyalty was repaid with a swift return from government exile after his expenses controversy. He’s thrived at the DfE since 2012 and has in recent months found time to lead party policy for the next election, as chairman of the Manifesto Working Group.

The education policy most dear to many Lib Dem hearts is, of course, the pupil premium. Laws is in no doubt about its importance. “I think personally the pupil premium, and the impact it will have over the medium term and long term, is the biggest and most important thing that we have done in Government by a mile. The tax allowance policy is very popular, but I think this will be the most transformative of all the things we’ve done,” he says. “I think it’s exciting to be a part of this, championing and implementing the pupil premium. Not only because we can see the money on the ground, but because we can see the way in which it has changed the whole mindset of schools about disadvantaged youngsters.

“I went into one of the schools in my own constituency recently and went into one of the teaching rooms where they had got on the wall all of their data monitoring of the pupil premium pupils. Photographs of every single one, a life story for each one. And the focus that they now had on them, compared with what they would have had two, three, four years ago, it’s transformative.”

Yet while he’s as proud of the policy as any in his party, he’s also keen on ensuring the money is well spent and tracked by hard data on performance. Evidence so far is thin, but Ofsted reports suggest attainment gaps are beginning to narrow between poorer pupils and their wealthier peers. Laws says that because pupil premium was only rolled out fully this year, he’d be “deeply suspicious” if the data suggested “the world had changed” on attainment. “But the data is good, and it is improving,” he says.

Crucially, the pots of money come with the requirement that schools have to show it is making a difference in Ofsted inspections, the minister says. “They are really conscious that not only have they got the money, which they welcome – it’s probably the most popular thing by a long, long way that we’ve done in education since 2010 – but also the accountability.”

The impact of the premium on school budgets is “enormous”, Laws points out. It is now worth £1,300 per pupil per year, and in schools with 80% of children eligible for the cash, that’s a big chunk of extra funding. But what about the criticism that the cash has only helped make up shortfalls in budgets from other Coalition cuts, and that some schools spend it on maintaining staffing levels rather than driving up performance?

“You’re quite right, the budget for the Department would have been considerably smaller had it not been for the presence of the Lib Dems,” he replies. “Right back in the negotiations in 2010, we insisted on the pupil premium being delivered in a real, tangible way. And without that we just would have had a frozen cash budget, in which case the real budget of schools would have been declining year on year.”

But he says that while the DfE is not prescriptive about how schools spend their extra cash, the Ofsted inspections – with a right to review how underperforming schools are using it – will ensure taxpayers get value for money. “It’s freedom with accountability,” he says, sounding every inch the Orange Booker.

 

 

The minister is also keen to highlight the enthusiasm among young graduates who now want to become teachers. A recent DfE recruitment advert showcased ‘Mr Burton’, one of the stars of Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire. “There are lots of people who do want to go into education,” Laws says. “Not necessarily because they want to get paid as much as they would in investment banking, but because it’s a highly motivating and inspiring career where you can really change the world and people’s lives for the better.”

As a former investment banker himself, those words could also be applied to his own decision to swap the City for politics back in the 1990s. And another education policy area where the Lib Dems have been trying to ‘change the world’ has been in tackling homophobic bullying in schools, following up on the party’s 2010 manifesto pledge to step up efforts on the issue.

Laws, along with other education ministers, took part in the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign last month to highlight homophobia in football. The Stonewall initiative was a huge success, but Laws knows it will take time to change attitudes. “I think there are causes for optimism, but these things do take time. A lot of this depends on attitudes and culture and those things don’t turn around on a dime,” he says.

“But the pace of change in attitudes in wider society over the last few years has been quite rapid. If you think that we have had a coalition government led by a Conservative Prime Minister that has legislated for equal marriage, most people wouldn’t have guessed that such a thing could have happened even in the last parliament. There’s now a campaign in sport and things like football that have been closed areas in the past, so all of that suggests things are changing quite rapidly. And young people’s attitudes I think are changing more rapidly than older people. But I’ve no doubt it’s not universal, and it would be unwise to take for granted that there isn’t prejudice still in some schools and institutions.”

The Lib Dems’ policy of tax cuts for the lower paid has been central to their mission in Government over the past four years, and increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500 is a key plank of the pre-manifesto Laws and Nick Clegg recently unveiled. George Osborne has been keen to present tax cuts for the low paid as a Conservative agenda, but on welfare policy and spending, Laws makes clear that he and the Chancellor have not seen eye to eye. And with the Tories proposing further deep cuts in welfare after 2017, the dividing lines between the two parties are clear, he says. “One of the risks the country would face if they return a Conservative majority government is that a lot of these extreme cuts would then be more easily implemented.”

Instead of more cuts, the Lib Dems propose a range of wealth taxes, from pension reliefs to capital gains tax. With Labour now also shifting towards a mansion tax, it’s hard to distinguish between the two parties on that policy. And there are plenty of other areas where they appear to be converging: scrapping Police and Crime Commissioners, compulsory sex and relationship education, more money for housebuilding and opposing welfare budget cuts. Does any of this open up space for a Lib-Lab coalition after 2015?

“No, I don’t think so,” Laws says, firmly. “The Labour party has converged towards us on things like the mansion tax. But on some of the other really big issues there’s still a big gap, and the biggest one of all is on the critical issue of deficit reduction.

“We are saying very much we want to finish off the job, that we want to deliver the existing coalition plans to balance the current budget by 2017/18 and the Labour party are saying ‘well, we will look to do this by the end of the next parliament”. The parties disagree on increasing the personal allowance too. “So on the economic agenda there is still quite a big gap,” he says.

So would it be a dealbreaker in any coalition negotiations if Labour doesn’t sign up to the Coalition deficit-reduction plan? “The economy is absolutely central territory,” Laws replies. “It’s an issue of critical importance, not just with Labour but also with the Conservatives. Because we are also parting company with them post-2017 on welfare.” He adds that the Lib Dems also differ with the Tories on wider spending: “We don’t just want everlasting austerity. We also want to borrow for productive capital investment.”

Ever the pragmatist, Laws stresses that the main factor driving any future coalitions will be the electoral arithmetic. But if there is another hung parliament, he believes that at least the parties will have more time to come to a deal. “I think that last time the circumstances were peculiarly favourable to getting decisions taken quickly because we did have a backdrop of economic crisis. We hadn’t seen a coalition like this before; there was a lot of pressure to form a government very, very quickly.”

He adds that each party will also want to look carefully at any deal offered. “We have a lot of scrutiny in the Lib Dems, but I suspect in any other potential coalition partners, the backbench MPs won’t be as compliant as they were last time where they were just essentially letting all their leaders make the decisions,” he says. “So I don’t think the process can be shorter next time. I think there will be pressure for it to take 24 or 48 hours longer. It could be useful for us to take a little more time. But I’m not in favour of going on for ever. Unlike the [Belgians] we don’t want to be waiting for a year.”

It has been claimed that in those frantic five days in May 2010, Gordon Brown at one stage offered to stay on as PM until a new Labour leader was elected. Would Nick Clegg be open to staying on as DPM while a Lib Dem leadership race was conducted as a condition of any Lib-Lab deal? Laws smiles. “I think that we’ve got a leader who we are proud of who will lead us into the next election, lead us into any coalition talks if there are any, and we won’t be looking for any advice from other parties about who we should have as leader.”

Laws certainly used one infamous piece of advice from Labour to the Coalition’s advantage back in 2010: that Liam Byrne letter to him, declaring ‘there is no money’ left in the Treasury. “It did end up being totemic of the condition of the public finances that Labour left to the UK Government,” he says. “I’ve now had the National Archives ring me up to ask for copies of it. It can sit next to the Magna Carta!”

The publicity severely damaged Byrne’s reputation, as much as Labour’s. As Gove has also discovered in recent months, it proved that Laws can fight his corner as fiercely as anyone. “I felt marginally embarrassed about the amount of publicity that it got. But politics, as I know, is a tough old affair. And I think that it was a risky thing to joke about for a Chief Secretary leaving the public finances in the state that they were.”

Michael Gove, his former ally in the DfE and now Chief Whip gearing up for possibly the roughest election campaign in years, probably couldn’t have put it better himself. 

 

LAWS ON… THE PUPIL PREMIUM

“The awareness of teachers and headteachers about attainment gaps and their determination to close those gaps are much greater than they have ever been before.”

LAWS ON… CHILD POVERTY MEASURES

“We came up with a very good suite of child poverty measures. I was very, very disappointed indeed when this was vetoed by the Treasury.”

LAWS ON… THE RICH

“A part of the process of deficit reduction will have to be through a higher contribution from well-off taxpayers, either through wealth taxes or some taxation of income.”

LAWS ON… FIRMS PAYING THE LIVING WAGE

“It may simply be that they take a decision to prioritise the lowest-paid employees, and their pay increases, over the rest of the workforce.” 

 

 

 

 

 

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