I’m often asked by other free school proposers what lessons I’ve learnt over the past five years. Any pearls of wisdom I can pass on so they don’t make the same mistakes?
My standard response is to reel off a checklist of things I would have done differently if I’d known then what I know now. To take just one example, we probably wouldn’t have introduced a “no packed lunch” rule if we’d known that we’d have to provide all our 4-7-year-olds with free school meals. But the biggest lesson is one I daren’t share, which is that trying to give children a better education than the neighbouring local authority schools, with no additional funding, is really, really difficult.
When I embarked on this crusade, I thought I’d just be able to sweep in, create a blueprint based on a traditional model, and sweep out again. Opposition from the teaching unions, left-wing activists and the local authority? No problem – just bulldoze straight through it. Keeping all the different stakeholders onside? A simple matter of being a good communicator. Dealing with contractors, planning consultants, environmental health officers, technical advisors and party-wall surveyors? To be honest, I wasn’t aware I’d have to do any of that, but if someone had pointed it out I would have taken it in my stride. I assumed that my goodness of heart and will of iron would be enough to overcome any obstacles. (To read more, click here.)
I’m ashamed to say it took me a while to watch an episode of The Walking Dead, the fifth season of which has just begun. I was put off by the zombies. Too sophomoric, as far as I was concerned, only one notch above vampires. I’d stick with more grown up fare, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.
I changed my mind after seeing The Mist, a forgotten horror film directed by Frank Darabont, the developer of The Walking Dead. I’m not a fan of The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont’s most famous film – all that heavy-handed Christian symbolism – but The Mist is a solid B-movie. It’s about a group of ordinary townsfolk trapped in a supermarket by giant, squid-like monsters. These monsters are no less silly than zombies, but the film isn’t about them. It’s about the human beings they are trying to kill and the lengths those people are prepared to go to in order to survive. It explores the age-old question of whether our sense of right and wrong is integral to who we are or just a luxury that we’re happy to dispense with in the face of adversity. (To read more, click here.)
An interesting article appeared yesterday by Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, in which he speculates about why Douglas Carswell defected to Ukip. You can read it here. Katwala's thesis is that Carswell is on a mission to "modernise" Ukip. Why? Because what Carswell really cares about is winning an in/out EU referendum and he recognises that, in its present state, Ukip is hurting the Eurosceptic cause. Here's the key paragraph in Katwala's article: "As Ukip won the European Elections… it became clear that the rise and rise of Ukip has done nothing to significantly boost support for Britain leaving the European Union. If anything, the opposite is true. As Ukip’s profile and poll rating has risen, it has been associated with rising support for staying in the EU."
It's one of the paradoxes of contemporary British politics that the more support Ukip attracts, the more solidified pro-EU opinion becomes. Katwala's thinks this is because gays, women and ethnic minorities are turned off by Ukip. Because of the party's position on gay marriage, sexual equality and immigration, they think of Ukip as a backward, antediluvian force that's fundamentally opposed to their interests. Consequently, if Ukip is in favour of leaving the EU, they automatically feel sympathetic to the pro-EU case.(To read more, click here.)
I’ve been thinking about the Conservative Party’s proposal for a Bill of Rights and am finding it difficult to make up my mind. On the one hand, I like the idea of making the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom the ultimate guarantor of our human rights rather than the European Court. British judges are surely more reliable guardians of liberty than the jurists in Strasbourg. But on the other, I’m nervous about the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights becoming less sacrosanct, particularly Article 10 which deals with freedom of expression. I’ll explain what I mean by that a little bit further down.
Let’s start with a straw man. The fact that David Cameron has said he would like to repeal Labour’s Human Rights Act doesn’t mean he’s seeking to disapply the European Convention. On the contrary, his proposal is to embody the Convention in a British Bill of Rights. Nor is he arguing that the European Court should be completely disregarded. Rather, if the judges in Strasbourg rule that a particular British law is incompatible with the Convention that would be treated as advisory rather than binding under the new proposal. Whether to amend or repeal the law in question would be a matter for Parliament.
The news this morning that the Conservatives intend to hold an open primary in Rochester and Strood shows how serious the party is about winning the by election triggered by Mark Reckless's resignation. Primaries are expensive to organise - particularly an open primary in which any registered voter in the constituency can participate - but the Prime Minister and his advisors believe that selecting a "people's candidate" will be a good way of countering Ukip's populist rhetoric and is their best hope of victory.
Most of the Tory MPs I spoke to at conference said the Rochester by-election is a perfect opportunity to stop Ukip in its tracks. They are resigned to losing to Douglas Carswell in Clacton on October 9, but believe that if the party can win in Rochester that would discourage any other Conservative MPs from defecting. Nigel Farage admitted as much in the Independent: "I think that anyone considering making the leap will wait for the results of the by-elections before they decide to do so," he wrote.
There are a number of reasons to think Reckless will lose. For one thing, he's no Douglas Carswell. Carswell has been Clacton's MP since 2005 and has built up a large personal following in the constituency thanks to his energetic and innovative campaigning. Reckless, by contrast, has only represented Rochester since 2010. (To read more, click here.)
I initially thought Nigel Farage had made a mistake in unveiling Mark Reckless on the final day of his party conference. Wouldn’t it have been more disruptive to announce the news during the Conservative party conference?
But after spending the first half of the week with the Tories in Birmingham, I now think it was the right decision. It put the fear of God into the party faithful. The dominant topic of conversation at the bar of the Hyatt Regency was who would be next? My colleague Dan Hodges compared the atmosphere to the Antarctic research station in The Thing, the horror film in which an alien takes on human form before transforming into a giant insect. You could never be certain the Tory MP you were talking to wouldn’t suddenly tear off his mask to reveal a purple monster.
I’ve met Nigel Farage several times and enjoy his company a good deal, but it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that this is what he got into politics for. Forget about securing Britain’s exit from the EU. After all, our best hope of doing that is to vote Conservative and get a referendum in 2017. What really excites him is messing with David Cameron’s head. Not because he hates him, but because it’s a way of forcing the Prime Minister to pay attention to him. He wants Cameron to regret not showing people like him more respect. To borrow another film metaphor, he’s like the villain in The Incredibles who devotes his life to destroying his hero after being rejected by him as a boy. Somewhere deep in Farage’s psyche is what Freud called a “narcissistic scar” – an irreparable blow to his self-esteem that has left him with an unquenchable rage. He’s not in politics to create anything, but to bring down Mr Incredible. (To read more, click here.)
Delegates at the Tory Party Conference woke up this morning to some depressing headlines, not least this one in the Telegraph: "Labour will win 'comfortable' majority at general election, says Lord Ashcroft."
Nevertheless, I think there are several reasons why the Conservatives should not be too downbeat.
1. The Labour Party, as led by Ed Miliband, isn't exactly a formidable fighting force. As the Prime Minister said in his speech to ConservativeHome last night: "If we can't defeat this shower of an opposition we don't deserve to be in politics." (To read more, click here.)
For veteran Ed Miliband watchers like me, it came as no surprise to learn that he'd forgotten the two most crucial passages in the biggest speech of his career. Throughout his time as Leader of the Opposition, Miliband has been making headlines for doing weird and unexpected things. These aren't gaffes, exactly. They're closer to faux pas – doing something wrong as a result of not knowing the form. At some basic level, Miliband lacks an awareness of elementary social convention. During his leadership campaign, his aides contrasted him with his brother David by claiming that he "spoke human". But he doesn't, not really. He's like a political robot from the future who does a good impression of being human, but who occasionally gives himself away by getting things slightly wrong. He hasn't been properly de-bugged. He's more like the T-800 model cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator than the shapeshifting T-1000 model played by Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.
Here are seven examples of Miliband's malfunctioning since becoming leader of the Labour Party (To read more, click here.)
Women spend 10 days a year in a grumpy mood according to the Daily Mail. The top triggers include being overweight, feeling undervalued, having a bad hair day, breaking a nail and the wrong time of the month.
The standard reaction to this among the men I know was to question the number of days. [Itals] More like 100, surely? [Itals] My reaction was slightly different. I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as a “grumpy day” for most women, any more than there is a “happy day”. Rather, all days contain peaks and troughs and the variation isn’t between good days and bad days so much as days on which their mood swings are violent and frequent and days on which they’re relatively stable.
Okay, okay, I’m being provocative. Trolling politically correct feminists is such easy sport it’s difficult to resist, but the truth is I recognized more of myself in this Daily Mail article than my wife. (To read more, click here.)
Ed Miliband's attempt to change the subject today by unveiling a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m is unlikely to work because it raises too many awkward questions about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. In no particular order, these questions are:
1) Is Ed Miliband proposing to impose a mansion tax on properties in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK? If so, how does that square with granting Scotland more fiscal autonomy in the new Devo Max arrangements that Miliband is keen to put in place as soon as possible?
2) It seems likely that, post-Devo Max, a British government won't be able to impose a mansion tax in Scotland. So does Labour's costing of its increased spending on the NHS exclude any revenue raised by the mansion tax in Scotland? If not why not? (To read more, click here.)