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The turn against the BBC, a new role for Nigel Farage and London’s sewage problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

As I understand the government’s approach to childcare, outlined by the early years minister, Elizabeth Truss, it’s fine for one person to look after six babies and toddlers, provided that person has grade-C GCSEs in English and maths and somebody with A-levels is at hand. This seems to me a particularly insane example of what I call “the diploma disease”. The possession of general educational qualifications is assumed to be both a necessary and a sufficient condition of competence.

Childminders and nursery staff need training, to be sure, but they are not required to subject toddlers to synthetic phonics or long multiplication. They need to talk to, play with, empathise with and generally stimulate children. They need patience, energy and dexterity. Grade-C GCSEs in English and maths – achieved by only 60 per cent of pupils – do not guarantee these quite rare qualities and they are likely to exclude many who have them in abundance.

As a childcarer battles to take half a dozen cantankerous two-year-olds to the park or library, it is hard to see how GCSEs can help. Perhaps the minister thinks maths is needed to keep count of the children.

Oxbridge too far

The government’s sole strategy for improving social mobility is fatally flawed, I fear. In another instance of the “diploma disease”, rising numbers of professional careers require postgraduate qualifications. Yet, as revealed by a 26-year-old who is suing St Hugh’s College, Oxford, for “selection by wealth”, Oxford requires postgrads to prove that they have liquid assets to pay both course fees, which can reach £40,000, and living costs. Few grants or loans are available. Part-time jobs are unacceptable because colleges insist postgrads must concentrate on their studies. Some 15 per cent of students offered places turn them down because they lack the funds.

So, even if state school children from poor homes, following the course mapped by the government, get high-grade A-levels, secure entry to elite universities and emerge with Firsts and Upper Seconds, they are likely to find almost insurmountable barriers to further progress. Which shows education is not the solution to inequality and class division and never has been.

Effluent speech

London’s sewers are struggling with increased population, causing the annual discharge of 39 million tonnes of untreated sewage into the Thames. Something must be done. But by whom? One expects it to be Thames Water, the private company responsible for water and sewerage services in the capital. It would recover the £4.1bn cost of a new super-sewer from higher bills. But it is worried about “unusual construction risks”. Would the taxpayer mind underwriting those risks?

The government, on our behalf, usually says something like, “Of course not. Here’s a blank cheque.” But the awesomely clever Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin has what the Financial Times calls a “radical” plan. The government will build the super-sewer itself. The Treasury, according to the FT, advises that “if the state is guaranteeing the risks . . . there is no point in outsourcing it to the private sector”. A “government insider” said: “Why should we nationalise the downside and privatise the upside?”

I think I’ve seen arguments like that – even those very words – somewhere before, perhaps in old NSleaders. I’ve also seen “radical” arguments that water services should be publicly owned. Will Letwin be a late convert?

Times a’changing

To the London College of Communication to hear the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans defend Leveson’s proposals for press regulation and excoriate newspapers’ claims that they entail state control. Evans had several digs at Rupert Murdoch, who removed him from the Times editorship in 1982, and he expressed admiration for the recently ousted Times editor, James Harding. But some of the lefty hacks and senior parliamentarians at the lecture and subsequent reception seemed bored with reviling Murdoch. Instead, they told me about the awfulness of the BBC and how executives award each other enormous salaries and pay-offs. The BBC has been corrupted, they say; its managers are as guilty of rent-seeking as those in private corporations.

“I’ve always supported the BBC in the division lobbies,” said one Labour life peer. “Never again. Attacking it is the one thing Murdoch’s got right.”

When even people like that turn against the BBC, I fear for its future.

Plans for Nigel

Worried about Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain when the EU lifts migration restrictions next year, the government proposes an advertising campaign to explain that it’s cold and wet. I have a better idea. Send Nigel Farage to Sofia and Bucharest. That should scare them off.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.