As a political junkie and avid America watcher, I’ve had the back-to-back pleasure of watching first the Republican and Democratic conventions before the Liberal Democrat, Labour, and Conservative party conferences in the United Kingdom.
Seeing how they compare and contrast has been immensely entertaining. Some elements are mirrored in both – rising stars in early time slots have their talent scouted and evaluated by watchful journalists keen to out-scoop their contemporaries and declare the kings-in-waiting before the time of accession has dawned. Boris Johnson’s speech was the most hotly anticipated event of the conference, his public and private antagonism with David Cameron ensured the media demanded he use the podium as a personal launching pad – his inevitable backing of his party leader spun as a bold and loyal move, as if there was any chance he was about to use the platform to declare a leadership challenge in the middle of a term. Platitudes rain down on Yvette Cooper, and Chuka Umunna, the most likely of the next generation of Labour leaders – just in case a newspaper could be accused of not having ‘called it’. The likes of Julian Castro and Susana Martinez are applauded beyond their ability and delivery, by an audience all too aware that they could well be the eventual candidates from the next great underrepresented American demographic.
What is lost in the conferences, unsurprisingly, is universality. Broad attempts to speak to the nation at large and appeal to the floating 10% that decide every election are lost in soundbites, and never absorbed by a disinterested public, who don’t care, because they simply aren’t watching. The most effectual and well received speeches are always those that pander to the base, who after all, make up 100% of the audience. Delegates in America take their role very seriously, with procedure, protocol, and process playing a large part of the Democratic convention in particular. In the United Kingdom, the conference is very important for reconnecting the front line politicians with the base. This is particularly salient with regards the Liberal Democrats as many in the party at large feel increasingly isolated from the politicians who have had to make so many concessions in coalition with the Conservatives.
Leaders speeches are undoubtedly important – if a Party leader or Presidential candidate can’t score well facing the friendliest audience they’ll ever orate to in their careers; the media spiral that will accompany their failings could be terminal for their ambitions. The most important element is to appear competent and personable – two qualities Ed Miliband has been accused of lacking prior to his speech, which was suitably inoffensive enough to gain rave reviews from a UK media as willing to write the Ed Miliband comeback story as the US media was to write the Mitt Romney comeback story.
Where the events differ dramatically is their approach to style and substance. The Conservatives used this season to test the waters with regards to policies to be implemented in the next budget. The Liberal Democrats used the opportunity to remind the public, and their base, of the ‘brake’ effect that they will seek to have on the Conservative led coalition. The Republicans constructed their entire event around a Barack Obama quote – “You didn’t build that” and had Clint Eastwood talking down to a chair. As Americanization sets in ever deeper in the United Kingdom, you feel it can’t be long until Gary Barlow is on stage performing his new single ‘Keep the pound’, or Wayne Rooney is asked to wave the Red flag as the curtain comes down.
Ultimately, the events are about avoiding embarrassment, providing a temporary shot in the arm to your base, and enjoying a week of good PR as you receive a temporary bump in the polls of between 2% and 4% – which inevitably fades as the political zeitgeist moves on. The real policy behind the politics still happens behind closed doors – in back rooms, or at fringe events. But the peculiar political shows we tune in to at this time of year still hold a remarkable appeal even to those of us who know how little they really mean.
The political equivalent of football’s transfer deadline day, David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle at the start of the new season excited political anoraks everywhere, even those who admitted they should know better by now than to expect substantive political change arising from minor cast adjustments. The age of twitter has only served to enhance the inherent tacky glamour of the day, politicians followed in cars and hounded for information like third rate celebrities on a catwalk by a succession of scrap hungry journalists, determined to out scoop each other.
But they retain an appeal and a resonance with the public, perhaps because we can identify with the base concept of there being winners and losers, perhaps because we like to take joy in the misery of the departing minister being sacked when so many of us are so unsecure in our own labour markets. We also like to stoke our own indignation – politicians are so unpopular it is barely conceivable that there was a single combination of changes in personnel Cameron could have made that would have elicited a positive response.
On the flip side of this, its startling to see just how much the media and opposition romanticises those who have been moved on – Kenneth Clarke is suddenly revered as a great liberal statesman, Cheryl Gillian, Sayeeda Warsi, and Justine Greening are suddenly profiled as poor vulnerable women tossed aside by the patriarchal and overwhelming white male cabal at the heart of the cabinet.
Labour initially tried to market the changes as a ‘lurch to the right’ but settled on calling it a ‘no change reshuffle’ as the biggest news of the day were the moves that didn’t happen – Iain Duncan Smith reportedly refused a move to Justice from the Department of Work and Pensions, and George Osborne was of course retained as Chancellor – despite fervent and futile media hype. These were the moves that would have made a lasting impression on the British public – not whether Chris Grayling will take a harder line towards the European Court of Human Rights than Ken Clarke did on prisoners rights. So the reshuffle was portrayed as the ‘same old faces’ on the front bench, as stagnation.
Inadvertently Labour may have been right that the reshuffle changed little – but not for the reasons they have suggested. It seems to have been temporarily forgotten that we have a coalition government in Britain, meaning that the distribution and execution of power across Government departments does not only lie with the political leanings of the Cabinet minister or even of the governing party or Prime Minister. It also relies on the political malleability of the Liberal Democrats who often have a counterbalancing effect on the Conservatives.
There is a Liberal Democrat junior minister in almost every department across government who have a ‘watchdog’ brief to make sure that policy that passes through their department is suitably coalition friendly. To this end, the one area in which this cabinet reshuffle may have actually had an impact that we may be able to monitor was the removal of Nick Harvey from the Ministry of Defence in order to place Lynne Featherstone in the Department for International Development; a move that many have suggested has taken place so that the Liberal Democrats can maximise their visibility in government with policies that they want to be associated with.
However, the overall constraining factor for both parties is the Programme for Government; the document outlining the result of coalition negotiations between the parties and setting out a legislative agenda in a way that no single-party majority government has ever done. Both parties have explicitly ruled out the possibility of a ‘Coalition 2.0’ arrangement where a new set of policies are negotiated, and David Cameron’s pronouncement that a third runway at Heathrow is off the table in the current political cycle reinforces the idea that the Programme for Government will remain the guiding bible for the coalition.
While those promoted may be more palatable to the Conservative right, this Government’s policies are still driven through the ‘Quad’ of David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, and Danny Alexander, and there has been no change in the ratio between Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs that would facilitate any ideological tilt in one direction or another.
The number of people unemployed in the three months to June fell by 46,000 to 2.56m – how do we square this fact with the continuing recession? In the second quarter of 2012 the revised GDP Growth Rate was -0.5%.
It is not uncommon for a set of economic statistics to be interpreted different ways to further an existing political agenda. It is rather more uncommon when a single set of statistics seem to be inconsistent with dogma from either the left or right.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith attributed the growth to the ‘robustness of the private sector’ but was non-committal with regards analysis of what the fall in unemployment meant for the economy. His Labour counterpart, Liam Byrne pointed out that while any fall in unemployment is a good thing, the figures masked serious deficiencies as 90% of the jobs growth had occurred in London, and many other parts of the UK actually suffered a net jobs loss in the period.
The Olympics has been cited as the most obvious reason for the fall – and indeed, London accounted for 42,000 of the jobs created, which may prove to be purely a temporary boost and not a long term sign of regrowth.
But under the surface there are some serious deficiencies in the labour market. Underemployment is less theorised than unemployment, but just as detrimental to the economy. The number of people working part-time because they could not attain full-time employment increased by 16,000 to a record high of 1.42m.More worrying still was the fact that the number of people suffering from long-term unemployment – being unemployed for a year or more – rose by 1,000 to 882,000.
It is for this reason we need to take decisive action and deal with the root of the problems in our Labour market. We need to find innovative approaches to help the long term unemployed back into work that attempts to deal holistically with the many barriers to attaining meaningful employment.
Key to achieving this is taking into account the wider personal circumstances and life stories of the long term unemployed; and of the various dilemmas and stages they go through in their fight for sustainable employment. Many organisations claim that their services take a holistic approach, but it is possible that these could be further enhanced through more extensive use of ‘systems-based approaches’ that look at every factor that can affect someone’s employability, and build this into a personalised, peer-supported service model.
This is why the RSA will be running a consultative workshop in early September with leaders from business, academia, think tanks and work programme providers to formulate a ‘whole person’ approach to the issue of long-term unemployment, in order to deliver a fresh approach that does not duplicate existing work and produces actionable research.
Tackling unemployment and underemployment is the key to helping the United Kingdom to emerge from recession and create sustainable growth. There is hidden potential in our labour markets that we have not yet tapped into that can aid our recovery.
The news that the First Group has been awarded the franchise of the West coast Mainline at the expense of Virgin was greeted with equal parts glee and dismay from different segments of the public. Transport companies, like mobile phone network providers, are not much loved because the services they provide are so vital to our everyday lives that we take them for granted. The only time we consider the services we are being provided is when they go wrong, and we are thrown into disarray. A delay free journey is our minimum expectation, anything less will leave us feeling negatively about the service we feel that we have increasingly overpaid for in the first place.
Anecdotally, people on the street could provide you with a multitude of reasons why one train company is less customer friendly or provides an inferior service to another. Comments on the BBC and Guardian websites range dramatically from stories of train drivers reversing back into stations to help pram pushing mothers onto carriages, to unexplained 8 hour delays. The reality is that the majority of these complaints are subjective and based on one person’s negative experiences which have understandably stuck with them. It’s a fair bet to suggest that when the first drop of snow falls this January Britain will be plunged into another bout of predictable travel chaos and whether the lines are ran by Virgin, First, or the Government directly, it won’t matter.
What does matter though is the way the bidding process has been run, and what this says for the future management of the line. Richard Branson has called the outcome of the bidding process ‘insanity’, and despite his obvious sour grapes, he does have the semblance of a point. First Group’s bid wasn’t just larger than Virgin’s, it blew it out the water – £5.5 billion, compared to £4.8 billion. First Group have promised the earth, extra routes, 11 new trains, and 12,000 extra seats. But many doubt that First Group will able to run the line profitably without reducing the quality of service and laying off staff – and just today the Telegraph reported that the firm’s BBB- credit rating could be downgraded to junk if its credit profile deteriorated over the next two years.
There is precedence for this. Both GNER and National Express tabled huge bids for the East Coast Mainline, and were unable to deliver on the full term of the contracts, finding their budgets unduly squeezed by the size of the initial bids they made. Railways are after all, not a profit making business – they are still subsidised by the government, a direct recognition of the vital part they play in civic life. The East Coast Line is still owned by the government three years later.
Whether the railways should have been privatised in the first place or not given the central role that transport plays in the British economy is a much bigger discussion. But whether they are publicly or privately owned; if the railways are not running safely, affordably, and efficiently, everyone suffers. The government’s desire to reduce subsidies to the railways (and thus make them even less profitable for the private sector to run) seems incompatible with this decision to sell to the highest bidder and create a situation where a public service will be run for profit on an ever diminishing margin. Coupled with the news this week that rail fares are to increase on average twice the rate of inflation, these are worrying times for the average rail traveller.
This decision making process could have been improved by a stronger analysis of the different elements that go into producing a bid. First Group calculated that the West coast line will grow by 10.4% a year compared the Virgin estimate of 8.5%. Unions and passengers alike will be hoping that both the Government and First Group have done their due diligence and the shambles on the East coast isn’t replicated on the West.
Morning is a difficult time for many, with anything more taxing than a coffee and the successful buttoning of a shirt often a bridge too far for the most disorientated among us. Olympic events that begin so early in the day are anathema to me – there may not be life before coffee, but apparently there’s Archery.
Using the machines to top up my Oyster card before noon feels like a cruel form of sensory overload, but despite this, I have been taking part in the most authentic event of the whole summer- the Olympic commute.
The frantic desire to get to a place of work is surreal (not all are as lucky as to work for the RSA!), but odder still is the détente that permeates the air; an acceptance between passengers that you can’t blame that last person for squeezing through the doors and raising the combined body temperature of the carriage to 40 degrees Celsius. Whatever qualms we might have about dragging ourselves out of bed; we collectively recognise that someone, somewhere, is later than us.
Morning rush hour is often characterised as a noisy time of day; but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are no cockerels, or town criers, or newspaper salesmen; just the rhythmic march of feet, almost military in their unison. Heaven help the soul that breaks the silence with chatter; or worse still, with poorly muffled music.
It’s for this reason that entering Waterloo and hearing the by now familiar “Hi folks, this is your Mayor here” announcement ring out over the loudspeakers feels so horribly intrusive and inappropriate. A commuter who has just unpeeled himself from the side of a packed 8.32 does not need reminding that London will be “exceptionally busy” over the next few weeks! One can’t help but be reminded a little of 1984; the constant repeated messages; the cult of Boris in full effect – fresh from his rock concert and standing ovation in Hyde Park, boasting poll numbers that David Cameron could only dream of; Mr Johnson sounds positively exuberant; completely out of keeping with the morning spirit.
Weary; but wary of motorized transport after stage one; this commute now resembles a modern biathlon; the second stage to Charing Cross takes place on foot – a migration; not quite as disorganised as the stampede when a long distance train’s platform is announced; but hardly as regimentally constructed as the queue for an ATM either. Only one set of traffic lights controls the herd; but the tension that awaits the green man is physical; electric; driven not by poor timekeeping but by a sense of obligation to not break the morning cease fire and become an obstacle for those marching behind you.
Through Royal Festival Hall we go; and over the bridge; surreally serenaded by an ever changing cast of street musicians; who could treble their income by tapping into a now awakening sense of humour by playing ‘Chariots of Fire’ or ‘The Imperial Death March’. The sight of Embankment station momentarily brings questions about whether the walk was worth the hassle of having travelled just one station’s distance; but a step inside the station reveals a gust of hot, stuffy; and frustrated air that makes the modern biathlete romanticise the bridge; and push on to their final destination.
The transport system might be creaking; but nobody could accuse London of being caught unaware of the havoc that was bound to ensue; the ‘Get ahead of the Games’ campaign has been running for months; and the busiest stations are filled with more pink shirted assistants than your average phone shop. Many people will have either ignored the pleas; or decided that regardless of the disruption, they simply have no other feasible choice but to push on with their regular route. But perhaps; if you genuinely want to feel like you’re part of the Olympics; and don’t have a spare 50 quid to watch Fencing at half 11 in the middle of the working week; you could do worse than to lace up your boots and join myself and thousands of others who are experiencing the most authentic race of the summer.