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12 February 2015updated 17 Feb 2015 10:51am

The wrong Miliband, sex lives of jihadis, dressed-down Greeks and well-dressed Maoists

Leather, onanism and the wrong brother in this week's First Thoughts.

By Peter Wilby

Poor Ed Miliband. Is there no end to his troubles? Already beset by niggling from Blairites, he now has to contend with criticism from the playwright David Hare, the Labour donor John Mills, the editor of this magazine, and – oh, cruel blow! – Boots’s executive chairman, Stefano Pessina, better known in Monte Carlo than in North Warwickshire, Wolverhampton South West or other Tory-held seats that Labour needs to win in May.

I do not say the critics are wrong. As an early Ed supporter, I am coming round to the view that Labour did indeed elect the wrong brother. David Miliband, secure in the knowledge that Blairites saw him as one of them, could have dared to be more radical. By now, Labour would probably be committed to the renationalisation of railways and power companies, rent controls, a more relaxed attitude to deficit reduction, and other policies that (according to opinion polls) command the support of a majority or near-majority of voters. Moreover, unlike Ed Miliband, who was a Treasury aide when Gordon Brown was chancellor, the elder brother bore no responsibility for the Labour government’s economic and fiscal policies. That line of attack on him would be closed.

But it is too late for Labour to change its leader now, even if an obvious replacement were available. Besides, the popular mood has changed and voters are unlikely to heed advice from metropolitan chatterers and foreign-domiciled corporate executives.

 

Prize and punishment

Nor are voters likely to be impressed by David Cameron’s promise to stamp out “mediocrity” in schools. Politicians of all parties have made similar pledges for 30 years. If they haven’t got it right now, they never will. Tory education policies are more about asserting central control over schools than about raising standards.

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The coalition government has used a clever pincer movement to wrest schools from local-council control. Like Labour, it believes the best answer for very bad schools is forcible conversion to academies, handing them over to private sponsors who sign contracts with the education department for direct Whitehall funding. But it argues that very good schools would also benefit from “autonomy”. Academy status thus plays a curious dual role in which it becomes both a reward for high performance and a penalty for underperformance. Local councils are left with a rump of middling – some would say mediocre – schools that are neither very good nor very bad. Now, as a Downing Street press release puts it, ministers are “turbocharging” the policy. In future, schools that Ofsted rates as “requiring improvement”, as well as those it deems “inadequate”, will be subject to forcible conversion to academies.

This puts around 3,500 schools – or one in six of the total – in the firing line. Some of them are academies already and, according to research by the Local Schools Network, sponsored academies achieve worse exam and test results than council schools with similar pupil intakes. But the Tories find no difficulty with that. If local-authority schools do well, they say, it is because of the competitive stimulus provided by academies. On that logic, Peter Moores, England’s cricket coach, can take the credit if Australia win the World Cup and the Ashes.

 

Blame the Mail

The Daily Mail has introduced “BBC Watch” to “monitor” whether or not the corporation, bound by its charter to be politically even-handed, “lives up to its obligations”. Given the belief of the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, that the BBC is a stronghold of liberal leftism, this seems a test it is likely to fail. NS readers may prefer “Mail Watch”, a well-established and very active online forum in which contributors blame the Mail for everything, including how airline passengers crowd round baggage carousels instead of standing four inches back as they should do. The Mail’s “fury”, expressed on almost every page, has nothing on the fury of its critics.

 

Leading by libido

Islamist jihadists are “severe onanists” who “are not making it with girls”, Boris Johnson says in an interview with the Sun. This may well be true. But one can’t help wondering how Johnson would cope if he had more weighty responsibilities than running London. If he were in Downing Street, would he, for example, remember that Russia still has an arsenal of nuclear bombs before delivering his judgements on the sex life of Vladimir Putin?

 

Don’t dress the part

When the new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, met our own George Osborne, he wore an open-necked blue shirt and a leather coat, compared by the Guardian to what drug dealers wore in the early 1990s. Since I never met any drug dealers in the 1990s, I wouldn’t know, but I am fairly certain that Syriza’s leaders are wrong to hold on to informal dress styles, however “cool” they think they look.

As a young reporter in the 1960s, I rarely wore a tie, much less a suit. Nor did I often have my hair cut. Reporters should be outsiders, I thought, and not present a front of bourgeois respectability. Around 1976, I explained this to the late Sir Denis Hamilton, editor-in-chief of Times Newspapers (not then owned by Murdoch), when he interviewed me for the Times Higher Education Supplement editorship. Hamilton, a wartime army officer under Field Marshal Montgomery, didn’t give me the job.

Only later did I understand that, the more left-wing your opinions, the more important it is to dress conventionally so as not to create unnecessary alarm. Maoists used to be the best-dressed leftists. Syriza’s ambition is to overthrow the 30-year-old “Washington consensus” on economic policy. That is quite frightening enough for Osborne and other European leaders without unsettling them further.

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