Talking Politics
  • Livid in the staffroom

    Teachers, normally placid and well-behaved creatures, are ready to strike to protect their pensions.

    Brows in the staffroom have never been so furrowed. Nothing riles teachers like a threat to their pensions. "It's one of the few things that really get people stirred up," one deputy headteacher admits. She says the mood is "livid".

    In local meetings, National Union of Teachers (NUT) members are claiming a cover-up. They think the government is covering up the real reason for the proposed increase in pension contributions, from 6.4% to 9.5%. Ministers claim a "black hole" exists in teachers' pensions; union leaders challenge them to come up with the specific proof. "I think it's the one thing they would strike over," the deputy warns.

    Staffrooms up and down the country are on the warpath. Balloting is taking place now among members of the NUT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). The latter's decision to ballot is particularly surprising; the last time it did so for a

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  • As Amnesty International celebrated its 50th anniversary, the opponents of human rights were busy trying to emasculate it. Amnesty faces a challenge more powerful and pervasive than any despot: the libel against human rights. It's a PR triumph, if you're into that sort of thing. This phrase, which has enjoyed universal goodwill since the Second World War, is coming to represent something negative.

    The latest chapter in the mission comes in the form of a Daily Mail-generated row on a prisoner who was granted the right to father a child from behind bars via artificial insemination, costing the taxpayer something around £2,000. As usual, it's worth trying to establish the facts of the case before leaping to judgement.

    Much anger has been directed at Ken Clarke who, as justice secretary, would presumably have authorised it. Jack Straw, who treated tabloids like scary monsters under the bed, always turned down this sort of request when he was in the job. It looks like Ken did too, given

    Read More »from Fatherhood for prisoners? Just another human rights libel
  • Many councils in 'no overall control' are turning out to be Labour-run administrations — in what could turn out to be a gamble for Ed Miliband's party.

    Part of the reason that the surprising result of last year's general election didn't raise many activists' eyebrows was that grassroots politicos are perfectly accustomed to coalitions. Of the local authorities which were contested in 2011, 55 ended up with no party having an overall majority. As the initial impact of the results settled in, we weren't able to assess who would finally end up in charge.

    It's taken a while, but we can now. Unlike in parliament, where a government stands or falls by 'confidence motions' and votes on the Budget, council administrations are much more vulnerable. "Numbers usually mean everything," Andy Sawford of the Local Government Information Unit thinktank explains. Those making these calculations have to take into account whether or not they can pass a budget, major decisions, etc, etc. Talks with

    Read More »from Hungry Labour prepared to gamble in hung town halls
  • I want my MPs to make law, not love. Even thinking about the latter is enough to induce panic attacks.

    I am a quivering, shuddering wreck. Why? Because, like many thousands of other people in the last few days, I have visited sexymp.co.uk, a horrific new website that allows us to vote for politicians based on their bodies, not their lawmaking abilities.

    It's an interesting question, 'why?', isn't it? Voting for MPs based on their sexiness is like picking footballers based on their ability to pontificate on formal logic, or choosing a plumber based on how well-dressed they are. I want my MPs to make law, not love. They are in parliament for their brains, not any other parts of the anatomy. The Commons is not a place for reproduction. Although if it was, at least those green benches are quite soft.

    Wait a minute. Perhaps there is something to this. Part of being a politician is popularity, and sex appeal can surely go a long way towards helping with this. Charm, a suave approach, an

    Read More »from Sexy MPs? I’m recoiling with horror
  • Even the prime minister and his deputy aren't safe from lip-reading journalists. Do politicians need to raise their game?

    It was a tantalising question. What were David Cameron and Nick Clegg talking about, as they sat and waited for Barack Obama in Westminster Hall last Wednesday? The camera repeatedly cut to the pair chit-chatting about this and that. It was thoroughly intriguing.

    Now, thanks to the services of a lipreader enlisted by the Mail on Sunday newspaper, we have something of an idea. Rather than making small talk, they were actually discussing one of the biggest headaches facing the government: the NHS. "Most people want to change it," Cameron pointed out. "Well what you mean is," Clegg replied, "you want to change it!"

    The transcript of their conversation is a little veiled, but it appears they hinted at the future of health secretary Andrew Lansley. For political hacks, this is fascinating stuff. It gives us another insight into the tensions at the heart of the coalition

    Read More »from Political lipreading is just the tip of the iceberg
  • The tensions between Barack Obama's poetry and prose reveal the dilemmas at the heart of the future of the west — and the world.

    It isn't often that former prime ministers, the Cabinet and the entirety of Britain's lawmakers are kept waiting while one man tours the Palace of Westminster. But for most of those present, Barack Obama was worth the wait. His address in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of parliament and the first time it had been graced by an American president's speech, went down a storm.

    He pushed all the right buttons, going far beyond the prediction of one US commentator that he would 'make nice' over the special relationship. Obama cited deep historical roots, ties centuries older than that little spat over "tea and taxes". He quoted Winston Churchill. He directly compared the beaches of Normandy with the Balkans and, latterly, Benghazi.

    Obama's emphasis on the "struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions",

    Read More »from America, Britain and the future of the world
  • Obama in the flesh

    The first thing you notice is how long winded he is. About five minutes into Barack Obama's first answer, I started wondering why he was still talking. You can see why the religious right in the US think he's a Communist. The man could out-talk Chavez or Fidel.

    The trouble with real life, I've always found, is that you can't cut to another scene. This was the first time I'd ever seen the American President in the flesh. I was quite upset by the fact that we couldn't cut away. Actually, due to the restrictive rules in place at the press conference, we couldn't even check our phones, which had to be switched off. We were also barred from standing up, apart from when asking a question. On the roofs of Lancaster House, police snipers scanned the horizon. I'm generally much more prone to following rules when snipers are involved.

    Two media organisations from each country were given a question, the rest of us were just meat in the room, or rather, cotton in the breeze, given that the Foreign

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  • Clegg turns DPMQs into a bloodsport

    DPMQs used to be good fun, but with some added time, topical questions and the presence of Nick Clegg it's now officially a bloodsport.

    This, it should be remembered, is Labour on good behaviour. When Clegg first started conducting these baby PMQs, as one of my colleagues so disparagingly calls it, they simply couldn't contain themselves. It was like the two minute hate in 1984. I remember one female Labour MP screaming from her seat, the veins on the side of her neck popping out, everytime he spoke.

    Nowadays, you can sometimes hear what deputy prime minister says, which has never been a useful tool in sympathising with him. The Labour front bench treat him like some damaged boy they can circle round and beat on. Chris Bryant, Sadiq Khan and Harriet Harman were like jeering schoolkids, drunk on Mars bars and scorn.

    Bryant, who won a judicial review against the Met for the way they handled his phone-hacking case yesterday, started with House of Lords reform. Clegg's reform agenda

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  • We all get the narrative. After a year of demonstrating that the Liberal Democrats can work with the Conservatives in government - an operation which seems to have gone a little too smoothly - the Lib Dems have fallen out over the AV referendum campaign. That battering in this month's elections has underlined the need for a change. And so Nick Clegg has promised one: a more "muscular" kind of liberalism, where the Lib Dems push their weight around more. This is a new 'phase' of the coalition. No more Mr Nice Clegg.

    The most senior members of the party who are not actually involved in the government will have a key role to play. These are the party's middle-ranking MPs, who last year were tasked with presiding over backbench policy committees covering the breadth of government activity. After delays in setting the structures up, the co-chairs spent months trying to work out what their jobs actually were.

    These teething problems have mostly been resolved. Question-marks remain about how

    Read More »from Why Lib Dems won’t be bolshy
  • Once you step back from the cacophony of noise over Ken Clarke's ill-advised comments on rape, several arguments emerge. This is not about whether he doesn't understand raped women. This is about categories of rape, plea bargaining, the deficit and dirty politics.

    The most volatile issue is rape categories. Clarke's terrible mistake was to talk about "serious" rape, the implication being that other rape is not serious. That's a grave error, probably the worst of his career. But the argument that we can have different degrees of rape, as we have different degrees of murder, is not outside the area of acceptable discussion. It does not mean, as Labour's Yvette Cooper is arguing, that Clarke doesn't understand rape.

    Simply in terms of public safety, a husband who rapes his wife is different to a stranger who picks off women at night in dark alleys. Women's rights groups spent so long valiantly fighting for rape inside marriage to be made illegal (a relatively recent development) that they

    Read More »from Hysteria over Clarke’s comments is muddying the truth

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