No to AV’s new campaign is beyond parody

“Do what we say, or the baby gets it.”

There are some things in life that seem so far beyond parody – Sarah Palin's continued credibility, for example, or Michael Winner's Twitter feed – that the sceptic in me keeps waiting for the moment when we all get made to look like fools for taking them seriously. But the longer these things keep going, the more we have to face up to the unsettling probability that actually, they're not a mock-up at all. This is what people really think. Not for a laugh, not just to get attention, but because that's just how they are.

And that's what I keep thinking to myself when I see the No to AV campaign's bizarre range of adverts. I keep expecting someone to say: "Doh! Of course that's not a real No to AV advertisement, you big silly! We'd never put out something as crass to make a political point – what do you take us for, a bunch of jerks?" But that doesn't happen. It's a real advert. It's actually earnest, po-faced, this-is-what-we-think campaigning.

If you've not seen it, I'm sorry to have to bring it to your attention, really. It's a picture of a newborn baby, with the shouty slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system". The implication is, I suppose, that there's a binary choice – either we have a cardiac facility or a new voting system. There's a pair of scales with electoral reform in one pan and the life of a child in the other. In another advert, we're given the choice between bulletproof jackets for our brave boys in Afghanistan, or an alternative voting system.

Hang on a second, though. Does that mean it's an alternative voting system, or bulletproof jackets for soldiers, or a cardiac facility? If so, who gets to choose that bit? (You could argue that we don't, because the voting system is not proportional enough, and that's exactly what the Yes to AV campaign is about; but that's another matter, and I don't really want to get sucked into the vortex on this one.)

The problem with creating either/or choices on subjects that are slightly more complicated than "tea or coffee?" is that the fallaciousness of the argument can be exposed by simply adding another choice. How about electoral reform, or bulletproof jackets, or a cardiac unit, or a free pint of beer for everyone? Does that change anyone's mind?

AV or not AV, that is the question. What I can't understand is why, when there are reasonable and rational answers in the No to AV camp, such as those put forward by my fellow NS blogger David Allen Green the other day, they are eschewed in favour of "Do what we say, or the baby gets it". It's infantile in every sense, and just seems like shock value for the sake of it, the kind of angry argument that assumes voters don't have a clue and see the whole world as a series of either/or choices.

If this is the quality of campaigning we're going to have in the coming days and weeks, it's no wonder that the issue could fail to grasp the public imagination. Come to think of it, I suppose that a distaste for the whole thing is something that would benefit the No campaign – but, having seen what they've come up with thus far, I doubt they're that smart.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.