Shamik Das looks back at the week’s politics, including our progressive, regressive and evidence of the week.
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• This week, Tory politicians have been falling over themselves to try and cash in on British sporting success – yet the party’s as unwilling as ever to actually invest in sport.
From Boris Johnson’s escorting of the Olympic torch to George Osborne’s grinning at the Champions League Final, Tory politicians have sought to portray themselves as men of the people and friends of sport.
Not least among them has been sports minister Hugh Robertson, never a man to eschew a good photo opportunity, usurping embattled culture, media and sport secretary Jeremy Hunt to pop up at the Olympic torch ceremonials and again last night in Munich.
On the ground, however, as with their slashing of the school sports budget, the Conservative Party’s antipathy to grassroots, to local, to youth sport, to sport for the many, persists.
As Left Foot Forward reported on Friday:
In Essex, but a stone’s throw from the east London home of the 2012 Games, Tory-run Basildon council this week gave the green light to bulldoze Pitsea swimming pool so Morrisons can build a supermarket. And if there’s one thing the area needs, it’s more big supermarkets.
Presently, there is a Tesco Extra mega store, a Sainsbury’s and an Asda, with another Asda, two more Tescos and a Sainsbury’s nearby. Large parts of the local market will also be built over to make way for the Morrisons.
On the sports front, there will be no new swimming pool. Residents wishing to swim will have to take a 30-minute bus ride and then a ten-minute walk to Basildon Sporting Village – which is anyway often closed at short notice to host commercial events. Green areas are also being built over, meaning less and less space for youngsters to kick a ball about or do any kind of exercise.
More than 3,000 people signed a petition opposing the closure of the swimming pool, all to no avail.
Unlike the pupils of Eton, who have 12 squash courts, 20 tennis courts, an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, four cricket fields, a nine-hole golf course, and rowing on the lake that will host the 2012 Olympics to entertain them, for the boys and girls of Essex, indeed for millions across the land, such pursuits, in Olympic year, move ever further beyond their reach.
A report this week revealed more than 200,000 11-year-olds leave primary school every year unable to swim; one in three are unable to reach the government’s target of swimming 25 metres by the time they go to secondary school. Thirty nine per cent of those unable to swim have never had any swimming lessons.
With the cuts to school sport, with the closing down of local swimming pools, those shocking statistics are unlikely to be reversed – not quite the Olympic and sporting legacy the government would like to bequeath.
1. Left-wing snobbery does state schools no favours Will Straw
2. Now the Tories come for the blind people’s benefits Shamik Das
• George Osborne’s economic credibility suffered twin attacks from Robert Chote and Ed Balls this week, as the government’s post-budget lethargy continued.
Balls said the chancellor’s “economic mission” as set out two years ago – “deal with our debts, set our country on a brighter economic course and show that we are all in this together” – had “failed”. He’s right, of course, but there’s no great surprise at his remarks.
Consider, then, the more newsworthy comments of Robert Chote, the chair of the OBR, who told the Guardian on Friday there was “no evidence” Osborne’s 50p tax cut, the flagship measure in the now widely-derided budget, will promote growth.
Contradicting Osborne’s claim the measure would improve Britain’s competitiveness, Chote said:
“We didn’t feel that there was a strong enough evidence base to say our long-term or medium-term view of the economy is now more optimistic than it was beforehand as a result of that measure.”
Also this week on Left Foot Forward on Osborne, read Tony Dolphin on how his austerity is strangling Britain; and Chris Keats on how the chancellor, as with the 50p cut, is the chancellor of the super rich with his continuing opposition to the Robin Hood Tax, a tiny tax on the richest of the rich that will improve the lives of millions.
On Europe, read about Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson’s growth plan for Europe; William Bain MP on the European right’s mad dash for austerity; and Tony Burke on why austerity is to blame for the failure of austerity – not workers’ rights.
And on the economy more generally, read Duncan Weldon on how the headline unemployment figures camouflage the underlying picture of weakness; Ed Cox on the ineffectiveness of the Regional Growth Fund compared to the scheme it replaced; and Cormac Hollingsworth on how Virgin screwed the taxpayer on Northern Rock.
• The government continued its ‘spin war’ against disabled people this week, as opposition to their welfare reforms grew.
First, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, in an interview with the Telegraph on Monday, repeated his misleading claim the disability benefit bill had increased 30 per cent over recent years – yet, as Left Foot Forward showed in great detail last year (step-by-step in terms even IDS could understand), the true increase, further corrected for demographic change, is 16%.
In failing to correct the data so as to factor in the ‘maturing’ of DLA claims – the built-in growth in DLA receipt amongst people over retirement age – the 30% figure significantly exaggerates the increase in the benefit bill over the past eight years.
Next, Wednesday’s Independent revealed Lib Dem opposition to Tory plans to attack the benefits of blind people, after it emerged many blind or partially-sighted people who currently receive disability living allowance (DLA) of up to £120 a week could lose out when it is replaced by a new personal independence payment (PIP) from next April.
Liberal Democrat backbencher Mike Hancock MP told the Indy the plans are worse than anything that happened “in the worst days of the Thatcher government” and that he didn’t get into politics “to punish people who cannot help themselves”.
Also on Wednesday, MSPs expressed “grave concerns” over the likely impact on Scotland’s most vulnerable people as a result of the coalition’s welfare reforms, with Scotland’s welfare budget being slashed by the Tory-led Westminster government by £2.5 billion. See our report for more.
And on Thursday it emerged Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s guru for ‘thinking the insane’, was pressing for a further £25 billion cut in the welfare bill, described by Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott as “wacky even by Hilton’s standards”, with even The Sun, the ultimate ‘scrounger’ bashers, calling it “daft”.
As IPPR’s Richard Darlington pointed out on Left Foot Forward this week:
“Even if you entirely scrapped all out of work benefits – jobseeker’s allowance, plus income support and ESA – you’d come up £4bn short. You’d have to almost halve the state pension – not really a vote winner. Or you could entirely scrap Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit or Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.”
And to think, Hilton was the future once.
Progressives of the week:
The Fair Pay on Campus campaign, which this week highlighted the disparity in pay between university Vice Chancellors and the poorest paid workers in higher education – a pay ratio, according to Will Hutton’s recent fair pay report (pdf) of around 15 per cent, far higher than in the rest of the public sector.
For more on the campaign read our article here.
Regressive of the week:
Tory backbencher Philip Davies MP – the man who last year said disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage – who this week told a Save The Children panel discussion that international aid “changes nothing”, despite all the evidence presented at said meeting.
As Left Foot Forward noted:
“Audience members were left baffled by the Shipley MP’s comments, after information given to panellists and everyone else in the room outlined evidence supporting the difference aid does indeed make.”
For more, including the evidence Davies was shown and refuses to believe, read our report here.
Evidence of the week:
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) report, “The State of Social Work 2012: What social workers think about the state of their profession in 2012” (pdf), which shows “social work in crisis”, acts as “a stark warning” and describes how 77% of social workers have seen cuts to back office or preventative services leading to “an admin overload”.
For more read our article on the findings here.
The Week Outside Westminster by Ed Jacobs:
It was a goodbye (for now) from Peter Hain has he stepped down as shadow Welsh secretary to spend more time with the Seven Barrage.
Speaking to the Western Mail, he explained:
“The main reason for doing this is that I feel the best contribution I can make for Wales in the next few years is to get the Severn Barrage project through. This will require a private Bill, but I hope the government will back it…
“This huge project will have the biggest, most positive effect on Wales of anything in the next few years, short of government macro-economic policy. There will be tens of thousands of jobs created in the construction industry and potentially tens of thousands more in other sectors.”
Meanwhile, it was a “hello” from the Labour MP for Pontypridd as Owen Smith took Hain’s old job in the shadow cabinet.
Pledging to ensure the economy is his number one priority, Smith said of his appointment:
“It’s a true privilege to be appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and I will not let Wales down. I am proud and passionate about the great history of our country, but firmly believe that our best days lie ahead.
“I know that Carwyn Jones believes that too, and that he and his Welsh Labour government are working every day to deliver a brighter future for families in Wales.”
Elsewhere, Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews attacked Cameron, Osborne and Clegg’s “born to rule assumptions”, declaring “English exceptionalism” posed a major threat to the union. For more read our report on Andrews’s comments – in which he also hit out at Iain Duncan Smith’s “cruel, callous” welfare reforms – here.
As Northern Ireland marked Community Relations Week, there was a sober reminder of the sectarian tensions that remain.
For more, read our articles on how Northern Ireland’s painful divisions continue to rear their head, here, and read Kevin Meagher’s report on how Derry’s summary justice shows Northern Ireland’s peace process is still a “work in progress”, here.
DUP health minister Edwin Poots, meanwhile had a blunt message for health service workers in Derry – commute hundreds of miles to new offices or lose your job; more in the Derry Journal and Belfast Telegraph.
Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the government will be setting its minimum price per unit of alcohol at 50p – 5p higher than figures previously mooted.
“Cheap alcohol comes at a price and now is the time to tackle the toll that Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is taking on our society. Too many Scots are drinking themselves to death. The problem affects people of all walks of life.
“It’s no coincidence that as affordability has increased, alcohol-related hospital admissions have quadrupled, and it is shocking that half of our prisoners now say they were drunk when they committed the offence. It’s time for this to stop.”
Responding, the Herald said of the announcement:
“In setting 50p as the minimum price per unit of alcohol, the Scottish government has instituted a radical policy to tackle the problem drinking which is taking an increasing toll on the health of individuals and the wellbeing of communities.”
Finally this week, defence secretary Philip Hammond was reported to have backed down from previous proposals that would have seen the names of Scotland’s historic regiments abolished, just hours after shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy launched a campaign to save them, supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.
There’s more on this story in the Daily Record.
The World Outside Westminster by Katie Stanton:
After an inconclusive day at the polls in Greece last week, a tense Europe has been waiting for news of what the country will do next.
President Karolos Papoulias hoped talks between the leading Greek political parties would end in coalition, but Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left party Syriza, refused to cooperate with pro-austerity parties. (Hasn’t he seen how gloriously well the Conservatives and Lib Dems are working together in coalition in the UK? Who wouldn’t want that?!).
A breakdown of talks has led to an expected repeat election next month, while the polls predict Tsipras will win a majority. If Syriza do win the election, their anti-austerity values will directly contradict the terms of the Greek bailout treaty and Greece may be forced to pull out of the euro.
Spain, far from being overshadowed by Greece’s troubles, has had its investors retreat amid fears it may follow Greece into crisis.
In US, following the announcement of his support for gay marriage, President Obama has now proclaimed his support for the pro-choicers. Speaking at a graduation ceremony for an all-girl college in New York, Obama told attendees that they should “fight for their right” to contraception and abortions.
A poll by CBS/New York Times on Monday (May 14th) showed Mitt Romney leading Obama 46% to 43%. However, a Fox News poll on Wednesday (May 16th) showed Obama leading by 46% with Romney tailing at 39%.
Also this week, Republican candidate Ron Paul ‘informally’ dropped out of the presidential campaign. The 76-year-old has not officially retracted himself from the race but says he will, “no longer spend resources campaigning in primaries in states that have not yet voted”. Mitt Romney has effectively already won the Republican nomination, but must wait until he reaches 1,144 delegates to secure the spot.
Over in Quebec, emergency legislation has been introduced to try and put an end to university tuition fee protests that have been going on for three months. The legislation will allow officials to close some universities and impose harsh fines on pickets blocking students from attending classes.
As mentioned on Left Foot Forward, a government peace negotiator in Kabul who once worked as a Taliban minster was shot dead while sitting in traffic this week. The murder of Arsala Rahmani has been a blow for those hoping for peace talks to succeed in the coming weeks.
The G8 and NATO summits are taking place in Chicago this weekend. It will be the first time David Cameron meets Francois Hollande since he became President of France last week. It is sure to get plenty of media attention due to the PM’s previous snub.
Finally, Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, has announced that she wants to repeal Malawi’s laws against homosexual acts in a country where gay people are frequently prosecuted. Laws will have to be changed under a parliamentary vote of course but her intention alone gives hope to the ongoing struggle for worldwide gay rights.