Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The ups and downs of a travelling salesman

Gordon Brown's drama today reminds me of a time, long ago, I worked with a pair of travelling double-glazing and central heating salesmen.

My task was to walk estate streets, knock on doors, and make appointments for their sales visits. When sufficient appointments were gathered the sales guys swept into the estate in their top-of-range limo, smoothed down their mohair suits and began their staged sales blag inside each family home.

To prospective customers they presented themselves as successful entrepreneurs, oozingly sympathetic to domestic problems, with every solution to a home's structural needs. It was a sleekly experienced pursuasive act, using every psychological cue, with the sales guys aiming to become adopted as the decision-maker's best friend and even godfather to any children.

Back in the car, the story was very different, whether they'd experienced a sale or a fail. Those who had rejected the sales guys extended efforts were illiterate, no-hoping idiots. Those who had succumbed to their sales act were idiots too—soft-headed, malleable suckers who'd fallen for all their tricks.

Fortunately for the salesmen, there were no hidden microphones recording the their real feelings toward the often vulnerable people they sought to pursuade, befriend and lift money from.

The nice man, nasty man trick. Sometimes when interviews went badly, a sales guy would return with a colleague who would harangue the householder in front of his family for not taking advantage of the opportunity he'd been offered. Nice guy would then intervene to calm and resolve the situation, playing down disagreements and smooth-talking the customer into gratefully accepting a very special offer.

Comparisons between these professional styles and those of our Prime Minister are, of course, subjective.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Keep the Genie in the Bottle
(fair votes, hung parliaments & coalitions)

David Cameron has improved but Nick Clegg has got worse. Now he insists on 'fair votes' as his price to support a minority government.

Clegg says the genie can't be put back in the bottle: coalition government is becoming a reality and electoral reform must follow. But what would this really mean?

Quite simply, coalition government is inefficient and ineffective. The policies it introduces can never be the policies of its member parties. Policies will alway be compromises and fudges—agreed by arguments behind closed doors—and not designed to effectively address the issues.

The Lib Dems say proportional representation will deliver 'fair votes'. In fact, PR would lead to none of the voters receiving their electoral choices. Neither Lib Dem voters, nor Conservative voters, nor Labour voters would get the party policies they want.

Indeed, the only way to ensure any votes delivered a guaranteed result would be to add a box marked 'Coalition Government' to the ballot paper for voters to approve. Following this to its conclusion, all party names on the ballot may as well also be removed, since coalition government would always be the only electoral winner.

Acute observers will note that just one voting option at elections is the format used in countries like Cuba, North Korea and Burma. But this is effectively what would result from introducing Lib Dem PR. Election after election the result would be the same. No matter how disastrous the previous coalition government, the next election would produce yet another coalition. And so it would go on— for ever and ever.

So those who think voting Lib Dem would be a novel idea to freshen up the parliamentary system should be careful what they wish for. The Lib Dem insistence on introducing PR would mean an electoral dictatorship and the end of democracy in Britain.

If you're thankful to live in a democratic country then don't give that choice away. You won't ever be forgiven.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Hollow Man

On last night's first TV debate, David Cameron was empty of anything to suggest he should be a Conservative Prime Minister. The fact he chose to accept the script of his US advisers, rather than talk straight Conservative policy to the British electors, is poor decision making itself. But I'm now left with the suspicion that without his script he would have had nothing to say at all.

In my last blog, I observed how the style stasi at CCO were now directing Cameron in the same disastrous way they had ruined the aspirations of the last two Tory leaders. After watching Cameron's peformance last night – Hollywood-style to a T – I put the blame not just on the advisers but on the man himself.

It is Cameron who has chosen to make this election a presidential race rather than a policy one. He has long sought to present the Conservative party as almost a one man band. But US Presidential races are about style not substance. In contrast, the problems in Britain are simply too great to believe they are for one person to solve. We have always had a cabinet government system, albeit the power of the primus has waxed and waned among the pares. But a cabinet of various talents offers observable strength as well as the confirmation of a team of like-minded conviction.

Cameron has sought to offload his one man responsibility for fixing the country by inviting us all to become members of the government. This ties in well with Conservative philosophy of personal independence and smaller government, but the public still need leadership, direction—and policies.

Last night, Cameron failed to elucidate Conservative policy on any question. Although the party has just issued a thick manifesto (which voters will never read), at this great public opportunity Cameron failed to illustrate it at all. Which suggests he is still too scared to reveal Conservative policy to the voters (i.e. his lack of conviction) or he really is just a hollow man and doesn't have Conservative philosophy in his bones.

The rise of Nick Clegg in the TV debate, illustrates another flaw for Cameron in adopting the US Presidential style. US elections are bi-partisan, enabling two contestants to fight each other and be compared directly. The three-way format negates the opportunity for Cameron simply to be compared with Brown on style. Put Mohammed Ali, Frasier and Foreman in the ring together and style would not be the winner. The revealing factor from Clegg was that he showed himself as a conviction politician. Even Brown, is his boring way, seemed to believe in much of what he said. Only Cameron remained aloof, refusing to really engage with the solutions he was offering, and restricting his answers to single well-rehearsed examples of the points he wanted to make. It must be the way they do it in the United States!

There are more debates to come and more pitfalls to fall into for each contestant. I hope Cameron learns that he needs to engage with the public as a potential Prime Minister rather than as a distant President. Sacking his American presentational advisors might be a good first step on this path.

Left as it is, Cameron's leadership of the Conservative party appears ever more like an exercise in management rather than of political conviction. I hope I'm yet to be proved wrong on this. If Cameron goes on to win his election, and becomes a good party leader and prime minister, I'll support him all the way. But at the moment, my doubts are rising.

P.S. Naturally, I will still be out on the doorsteps supporting my local candidates—parliament and government is a collective exercise.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Cameron Real

I've begun to dislike Dave Cameron's TV appearances. This began around the time the election was called. I'm sure there is a connection.

I have observed, with dismay and eventual horror, how the last two Conservative party leaders at their respective election times were grabbed by those responsible for 'style' at Party HQ and turned into performing seals, devoid of recognisable human behaviour.

For some time, I thought Dave was on top of this threat and had the measure of the style stasi at CCO. He's a former PR man himself, after all. He could justifiably say "I just don't need any of that—I'm already a PR pro". But never dismiss the power of the psycho-image-makers.

We know William Hague today as intelligent, suave and cool. But back then, he appeared as a teenaged rebel in order, apparently, to impress the voters. The baseball cap worn backwards against a backdrop of funfair rides, was more 'Princess of Wales–average mother' than wise party statesman. At party conference, he seemed like a frog-marched marionette—this time more 'Andy Pandy' than wise leader—with his ever-present minders pulling all the strings.

Then there's the debacle of the much respected, IDS, which has passed into infamous management history. Prior to his elevation to party leader he was known in Conservative circles (eurosceptic ones) as a thoughtfully concise man of clarity, integrity and high principle—and an excellent public speaker. But after emerging from the style gurus' mill he became a walking and talking disaster.

Dave has begun to suffer no less. Watch him arrive for his public performance set pieces. The self-concious walk. The wave. The look. Surely this is a man about to walk on the stage of the highest accolading body known to man—the Hollywood Oscars. And as he speaks—deliberately turning to left, right, and centre, arms consciously embracing all—do we hear sincerity? No, we hear Hollywood scripted sound-bite-speak. No wonder the voters are beginning to doubt the message.

Just occasionally we get to see the real David Cameron. At the press Q&As, immediately after the manifesto launch, he forgot to look directly at his questioners, forgot to place impact pauses into every seventh word of his replies, and forgot to be kind, sympathetic or understanding to the gathered reptiles. Instead, they got his message direct. He was forceful, uncomprising, sraightforward and coherent—and most of all ordinarily human. Just the way a campaigning party leader ought to be.

Will the voters ever get to see such a Cameron? Perhaps, as elected Prime Minister, the image controllers may let him be. But for the moment, as long as the image-makers can spot a video camera they'll control the shots. We can only hope that by the time polling day arrives voters will be prepared to do just anything to get Brown removed.

In the meantime, I'll watch the upcoming Presidential Prime Ministerial debates on TV with interest.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Why I'm backing the teachers — for once

—Teachers threaten strike action over spending cuts.
—Teachers threaten strike action over SAT tests for 11 year olds.
—Teachers threaten strike action over excessive workloads.
—Teachers threaten strike action over Pupil Councils appointing teachers.

Have you seen any of these headlines over the past 48 hours?

The annual strike calls from the NUT conference (in Liverpool next week) come as no surprise. But what struck me most forcefully today was the anguished complaint from the NASUWT teachers' union—broadcast on Radio 4—which explained the cause of the last strike proposal I've listed above.

Apparently, pupils in state schools are now accorded the right to vet future teachers at their interviews for a teaching job.

The exasperated union leader described this process on the Today programme as 'demeaning, embarrassing and humiliating'. Pupils were regularly rejecting potential teachers simply for their appearance or their mannerisms. She regarded the process as unprofessional and undignified and was willing to call her members to strike to get this pupils' right removed.

The irony of this teacher's complaint didn't fail to leave its mark.

For years, teachers have objected to the disciplined diktats of Ministers of Education, who insist on tests for pupils, yet have supported the socialistic, child-centred agenda that has poured out from the educationalist civil servants at the Ministry itself.

Now, the dystopian vision—the inevitable and ultimate consequence of the fervent child-centred activism of the DofE—has come to pass. And teachers realise they don't like it.

Margaret Thatcher, on assuming office, set about shaping up the Civil Service with a zeal of her own. The impenetrable obfuscation and personal agendas of the 'Humphrey Appleby's' of Whitehall were to be a thing of the past. Their role, henceforth, was to implement government policy. But the one Department she admitted she never penetrated was the DofE.

For decades, the Department of Education, or whatever it has come to be renamed, has got away with ploughing its own destructive path through the lives of successive generations of eager, open-minded, optimistic children.

By removing adult rules and discipline and replacing them with a theorised notion of child-centred human rights they have left a void in terms of behaviour, values, direction and aspiration. Too often this void is filled with the anti-social behaviour that we almost expect now from many children and teenagers.

Twenty and twenty-first century educational psychology has failed. It has produced a nightmare for teachers and a hardcore community of feral children and wasted youth.

So I say to all Conservatives, and others—when teachers start striking for the right to teach, go out and join these hard-pressed evangelists on the picket line.

Raise your voices and harmoniously cry:

What do we want? —a decent disciplined education system.

When do we want it? —as soon as Gordon Brown calls the general election!