Does Prof Ebdon read Thomas Hardy? And if not, does it matter?

The whiff of snobbery that I was detecting in the row over Vince cable’s choice of Prof Les Ebdon as the new director of the Office of Fair Access seems to becoming a stench. Witness this extraordinary article from Charles Moore in the Telegraph.

Apparently the retiring University of Bedfordshire Vice Chancellor, Prof Ebdon, is unsuitable to be the head of this body designed to ensure the as wide a range of people as possible can get access to a university education because he “will never understand poor people like Jude the Obscure”.

Now you may wonder why the deep knowledge of a fictional character in one of the great novels of Thomas Hardy is an essential requirement to head up a body that is about fairness in education. Well according to Mr Moore, Hardy’s hero was awestruck by Oxford. Apparently it is now an essential requirement for today’s modern student that they should emulate Jude and be afraid of their university.

By way of a little dig at Luton, Mr Moore goes on to explain that Prof Ebdon is opposed to this view and believes that universities should be “user-friendly”. So what is needed instead to head up this body is “a leading ex-public school headmaster”.

Believe me, I’m not making this nonsense up! Go read for yourself.

I said before that my judgement was that Prof Ebdon was a good choice for this role, but I did have some reservations in taking that view. Witnessing the Tory right puff themselves up to ridiculous proportions in order to oppose the appointment has shoved those reservations right out the window.

So it is Ebdon for OFFA for me!

Supporting Professor Ebdon in getting some access

I had previously made a passing reference to the “retirement” of Prof Les Ebdon from his post as Vice Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire. If we were wondering what Les would do next it wasn’t long before we found out. Business secretary Vince cable has chosen to appoint him as the new director of the Office for Fair Access, a watchdog designed to ensure that people from all backgrounds are able to benefit from higher education.

There is no question that during his time at the University of Bedfordshire Prof Ebdon has been a highly effective and successful advocate for the expansion of university education and for making it available to people from all walks of life. He has been a fixture on the local political scene for most of the time that I’ve been significantly involved in it and in the latter years he has developed a certain national profile. He always gave me the impression of being a bit of a canny operator. So my judgment, for what it is worth, is that he was a very good choice to fill this post.

So it is disappointing that his appointment has become the subject of a very fierce and public political row.

In voting against his appointment the Tories on the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee have started off a tussle that appears to be going straight to the top of the coalition government. Our Vince is standing by his choice, but there seems to be a significant lobby that wants to prevent our Les from getting the job.

Prof Ebdon has been outspoken and he clearly has an agenda, which is controversial in some quarters, and as chair of the Million+ group of new universities I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t ruffled a few feathers amongst those leading our more established educational institutions. So it seems the man has enemies.

So I smell a slight whiff of conspiracy over this. One that I wouldn’t be surprised is heavily motivated by snobbery. OK, my perspective may be slightly too influenced by the works of Tom Sharpe or certain episodes of Yes Minister, but the Guardian has reported that;

“Private schools and the country’s 20 leading research universities are thought to have lobbied against Ebdon’s appointment.”

I’ve also just seen this article on the Daily Mail’s website which claims;

“were Professor Leslie (‘Les’) Ebdon of the University of Bedfordshire to have his way our finest universities would slide their way irreversibly down the international league tables.”

Read it, note the spurious invention of “ebdonology”, the assumption that the only thing holding back people from getting a university education is ‘poor standards in schools’, and the belief that measures to establish fairness will “create social injustice by depriving really able candidates of the places they clearly deserve at major universities” (ie. the children of middle class Mail readers), and you will see precisely why Professor Ebdon should be supported in his attempt to secure this position.

I very much hope this is a battle that Vince Cable wins.

Two parties, one majority: a view from the Clerk of the House

I was catching up on my podcasts recently and I came across an interview with Robert Rogers, the new Clerk of the House of Commons, on Radio 4′s Westminster Hour.

He has an interesting, possibly unique, perspective being very much a Commons insider, he is one of the chaps in grey wigs who sit in front of the Speaker when the House is in session, but also, by definition, being neutral and outside of the party political arena. In the interview he had insights into how the role of an MP has changed over the past thirty years, the nature of MP’s “summer holidays”, and what changes could be made to improve legislative scrutiny.

However, the part of the interview that gave me most pause for thought was the answer he gave in response to Carolyn Quinn’s question asking “Has a coalition government changed the way the House works?”.

In the run up to the last election the possibility of a balanced parliament had obviously given the Common’s authorities considerable pause for thought. Their experience of minority governments or governments with small majorities in the past suggested there may be problems. The 74 parliament had passed very little legislation for example. But, he claims,the changes haven’t been as big as might be expected. He said;

“…once the coalition had formed what we had was, in terms of the way the House works, really quite a conventional majoritarian government. Clearly of course there are political pressures and tensions which are for others to deal with, but in terms of the operation of the house it really made very little difference.”

I find this statement fascinating and challenging.

Liberal Democrat members and supporters are having a difficult time navigating through this new political landscape of coalition government. The angst and emotions that this creates has been amply on display across the blogosphere over the last few weeks.

So if we accept that the above statement is true, and it comes from a very reliable witness, then it might provide a useful insight to help us find our bearings.

As separate political parties the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will jockey for position, votes, and public understanding on the doorsteps and the airwaves. As coalition partners they will battle within government, up and down the corridors of Whitehall, over policy. Sometimes this will be in public and other times in private. But in Parliament (or at least in the House of Commons, the Lords being somewhat different) it seems that they are together acting as a government majority according to convention.

This truth might help us understand why they end up voting the way they do. Balancing the demands of such a multifaceted role is going to be tricky. So whatever we think of the results , I think we should have some sympathy for Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers as they struggle to get it right.

I described in another post I wrote about goings on in Parliament an example of “a Liberal Democrat government minister behaving like a government minister”. That is to say politicians working within the establishment following establishment norms and values. I ended by asking “Is this inevitable? And if it is, is it such a bad thing?”

But it seems we might have to ask those questions in a much wider context. Do we expect the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party to operate as part of a “conventional majoritarian government”? Coalition seems to have changed how the internal workings of government operate, at least to some extent. But if it hasn’t changed how Parliament works, we need to ask why not?

We also need to decide whether we think it should have done.

My impression is that since the 2010 election Parliament is getting stronger, more robust and challenging, and we’re taking steps closer to the kind of parliamentary democracy that I would like to see. Yet that process has very little to do with the nature of the coalition.

Am I alone in thinking we may have missed an opportunity here?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Bedford sees the other cabinet reshuffle this week

It seems that cabinet reshuffles are the flavour of the week. Bedford’s Liberal Democrat elected Mayor Dave Hodgson has had to sack the Conservative member of his cabinet and reshuffle portfolios.

This follows an extraordinary act of cowardice by the Conservative group in Bedford.

They chose to withdraw their support from this year’s budget that had been negotiated with all political groups by the Mayor. Despite being members of Dave’s all-party cabinet and being fully involved in developing the budget proposals they chose not to vote for them at the budget Council meeting on Wednesday (1 February 2012).

Although, apparently they had only half changed their minds. They did not to have had the courage to actually vote against the budget, they merely abstained.

This looks to me like a purely party political move on the part of the Bedford Tories, putting themselves in opposition to the Mayor’s administration. There doesn’t seem to be any issue of policy or principle at stake here. The Cabinet now consist of Liberal Democrat, Labour and independent councillors.

In a statement on his website Mayor Dave said about the actions of the Conservative group;

“Sadly, they have again turned their backs on working for the good of the Borough, and clearly have separated themselves from running the Council in the interests of local residents and delivering this all-important budget which they approved at every stage until it mattered.”

Six achievements as a Councillor

A few weeks ago I was trying to put together a review of all that I’d written on this blog over the past year. I didn’t get that far with it, and now it is February the moment for it seems to have passed.

However, in doing it I was reminded of the posts that I’d written over the summer where I talked about what I saw as my achievements over the eight years that I served as a councillor on Luton Borough Council. Having failed to be re-elected in last May’s local elections, I found the  process of writing those posts rather cathartic and useful in handling the personal fall out from the local election result.

I realised that I hadn’t provided an index of those posts so I thought, I admit a little self indulgently, that I would do so now:

Ashdown’s Third Law

I recently linked to video of Paddy Ashdown talking at a Liberal Democrat History Group meeting, but you can never have too much Paddy. Here in this video he is on fine form giving a TED talk on “the global power shift”:

It is notable for his explanation of “Ashdown’s Third Law” on the crucial value of the network for organisations. His argument is that in dealing with the consequences of the deep interconnectedness of the global world the most important element of an organisation’s structure is its capacity to network with others.

“In the modern age when everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.”