Look Left – Real issues lost amidst the madness

The violent rage of a small minority overshadowed the quiet anger of the many as protests against the government's education cuts turned toxic this week. Fourteen people were injured and there were 50 arrests following the attack on the Tories' Millbank HQ on Wednesday, after a peaceful demonstration which saw 50,000 students march on Westminster demanding a rethink of plans to treble tuition fees and slash higher education funding. The violence was immediately condemned by the National Union of Students, NUS President Aaron Porter calling it "despicable".

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• The violent rage of a small minority overshadowed the quiet anger of the many as protests against the government’s education cuts turned toxic this week. Fourteen people were injured and there were 50 arrests following the attack on the Tories’ Millbank HQ on Wednesday, after a peaceful demonstration which saw 50,000 students march on Westminster demanding a rethink of plans to treble tuition fees and slash higher education funding. The violence was immediately condemned by the National Union of Students, NUS President Aaron Porter calling it “despicable“.

Media coverage may have been greater than otherwise – but coverage of the issues it was not. Time and space that could have been spent debating policy, on Newsnight, Question Time, BBC News, Sky News and in the papers, devoted not to the demerits or otherwise of the government’s policies, or to putting the Lib Dems under the microscope, but to discussions about policing, rioting, violence and the blame game.

Before the thuggery, however, there was reasoned debate, in the theatre in which the final decision on fees will be made – parliament, with Harriet Harman terrorising Nick Clegg at (deputy) PMQs, asking six of the 12 questions fired at the DPM on higher education, accusing him of “pulling the plug on public funding and putting the cost on students”. Also on Wednesday, the University and College Union revealed the cost of studying for a degree would double by 2012, while a National Union of Teachers survey showed that four-fifths of student teachers found it difficult to make ends meet.

Not that many people would have heard; as the old saying goes, there’s no news like bad news to fill the hours of rolling news…

• The other main talking point this week was welfare reform, with Iain Duncan Smith publishing his long-awaited white paper. IDS’s big announcement centred on the new Universal Credit, which the coalition has been keen to sell as the answer to all the labour market’s problems, confident it will help in the battle to cut unemployment by 300,000, reduce child and working age poverty, reduce working-age welfare expenditure by £18 billion, make everyone in work better off, and result in fewer people at risk of poverty.

The gains, however, may not be as large as people were led to believe, Left Foot Forward’s Nicola Smith calculating “the average gain per week for households in the lowest income decile is around £2.40 per week (or £125 a year), rising to just under £4 a week for those on slightly higher incomes” – nowhere near enough to offset the losses that the cuts of recent weeks have led to.

• David Cameron left behind the rows at home to fly the flag abroad this week, in China and at the G20 in Seoul. Today, the prime minister and fellow world leaders agreed to avoid “competitive devaluation” of currencies and come up with “indicative guidelines” to tackle trade imbalances. President Obama said: “Exchange rates must reflect economic realities. Emerging economies need to allow for currencies that are market-driven. This is something that I raised with President Hu of China and we will closely watch the appreciation of China’s currency.” While the PM called China’s rebalancing of its economy “good news”.

In China itself, Mr Cameron told a group of students to embrace freedom, in a speech that risked upsetting his hosts. He said: “The rise in economic freedom in China has been hugely beneficial to China and to the world. I hope in time this will lead to a greater political opening because I am convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.”

Unfortunately, the speech on political freedom was not broadcast on Chinese TV.

Progressive of the week:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who on Sunday gave an in-depth interview to the BBC in which he spoke out against the coaltion’s cuts to housing benefit, saying: “My worry there is that people’s housing is part of their sense of stability, part of a sense of having a secure future, and I’m also a bit worried about the way in which this could lead to a kind of social zoning: middle class areas get more middle class and other people are pushed out onto the edge. so those are concerns I’d like to see addressed.”

He added: “I feel very anxious about it, to be honest, because I do think that there are a lot of vulnerable people who are now worrying very deeply about what’s ahead of them. Just in the last couple of days I’ve been visiting a homeless centre, in the last week or so I’ve been thinking a bit about how this impacts on rural communities and there’s no doubt at all that we’re in for a very difficult time. And people will accept that, I think, if they feel that belt tightening is going on across the board, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen.”

Regressives of the week:

Abercrombie & Fitch, who banned a worker from wearing a poppy in one of their shops, the Hollister clothes store in Southampton. Last year, they had to a>pay £8,000 to a 22-year-old employee with a prosthetic arm who said she was made to work in the stockroom at a central London store because she did not fit in with the shop’s ‘look policy’.

Evidence of the week:

The revelation this week that the government will only deport 50 prisoners – as opposed to the “thousands” David Cameron said he would deport. On Monday, the Mail reported that “thousands of foreign prisoners are to be sent back to serve their sentences in their own countries”, while the Tory manifesto said: “We will extend early deportation of foreign national prisoners to reduce further the pressure on our prison population.”

However, prisons minister Crispin Blunt told the Commons last week: “In the calendar year 2010 we expect approximately 45 prisoners to have been repatriated from prisons in England and Wales (38 prisoners have transferred to date). In 2011, up to 50 prisoners are expected to be repatriated.” Significantly less than “thousands”.

Ed Jacobs’s Week outside Westminster:

Scotland: MSPs gave a thumbs down to the SNP government’s plans for a minimum price on alcohol, whilst the BBC learnt that finance secretary John Swinney will announce plans to shift some day-to-day spending to projects involving capital investment.

Wales: Speaking to the NHS confederation in Wales, first minister Carwyn Jones warned of “tough decisions ahead” before making clear that: “The NHS is, and always will be a priority for the assembly government.” Meanwhile, as Westminster published its plans for welfare reform, Plaid Cymru finance spokesman, Chris Franks, said: “When you consider that there are four people for every job in Wales, and in some areas that figure is much higher, it becomes clear just how out of touch the Tories are. With damaging public and private sector cuts, supported by Conservative and Lib Dem MPs in Wales, the challenge facing jobseekers is likely to become even more difficult.”

Northern Ireland: Health minister Michael McGimpsey warned the NHS: “When I look forward into the future I see potentially large numbers of redundancies, I see potentially closures as well”. Elsewhere, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie challenged Sinn Fein, telling her party conference: “Dissidents aren’t some new social or political phenomena; they are the direct legacy of Sinn Fein’s failed war. When are they going to admit that what is wrong now was always wrong?”

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