Tom Richmond: Lib Dems can learn a lesson and leave a legacy

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TWO words sum up the capitulation of the Liberal Democrats in this month’s elections – tuition fees.

Yet another two words reflect, equally, the party’s positive influence on the coalition – pupil premium.

Its commitment to creating a more aspirational society, and understanding that a poor education is one of the root causes of poverty, should – if implemented properly – be a force for good. However, as Nick Clegg’s party struggle to find its niche in government because its Ministers are trying to make their mark in every Whitehall ministry, perhaps education is one area where the Lib Dems should look to come to the fore.

If Clegg can create a narrative that links the importance of early years education, the raising of standards through primary and secondary schools, the reinvigoration of youth training and a creditable funding policy for universities, he will have silenced some of his critics.

Providing the best possible opportunity for the young of Britain is a noble objective – and it is even more urgent after the CBI revealed widespread complaints from employers about the basic skills of school and college leavers – even their use of English.

A study by the business organisation also showed worries about numeracy skills, with many employers having to invest in remedial training of youngsters they hire.

The study of over 550 employers showed that almost half were not satisfied with the basic use of English by school and college leavers, while more than a third (35 per cent) were concerned with the basic numeracy skills in this age group.

This is not just a regrettable reflection on the coalition’s first year in office as youth unemployment soars, with the Government now contemplating moves to require teenagers to remain in school until they pass their English and maths GCSE exams. This is the legacy of decades of “dumbing down” within the education establishment from universities down to primary schools.

If Clegg, and his Ministers, can take ownership of this issue – rather than being fixated with priorities that do not resonate with voters – his party’s many problems may just ease, and the Lib Dems may have a political legacy that offers them some credibility and pride.

AS well as a lesson in economics, the primary reason why Labour flattered to deceive in the local elections, leader Ed Miliband needs a lesson in geography – or a new soundbite writer.

He proclaimed: “We have won back councils like Gravesham in the South. Like Sheffield in the North. Like Lincoln in the East Midlands and North Warwickshire in the West Midlands.

“North, South, East and West, Labour is making gains and coming back.”

Yet, since when has the West Midlands been in the West? To me, the West is the counties that straddle the M5 past Bristol and into Somerset, Devon and Cornwall – areas where Labour did not make an impact. Miliband may have won 800 seats – but a more realistic comparison is offered by the 1999 results when the same wards were contested. Then the Tories, under a youthful William Hague, made 1,300 gains – and it made not a jot of difference at the next election.

That is why the Labour hierarchy should be worried.

IS a Labour Party, bereft of policy credibility, now advocating motorway tolls? Rotherham MP Denis MacShane is certainly doing so after the M1 was closed over Easter following a fire.

He says: “Is part of the problem that the M1 is used as a suburban rat-run around the big conurbations? Might we not consider introducing a motorway vignette, so that people who use the motorways pay a little extra, we help reduce the deficit and we discourage the urban-dwellers around the M1 from using it as an ordinary road?”

THERE is, however, some better news on the transport front. Philip Hammond, the Cabinet minister, has confirmed that the new high-speed rail network will be built in a manner so there are direct links between Yorkshire and Europe’s great cities. It is also being suggested by East Yorkshire MP Greg Knight that Ministers instruct local councils “to stop installing speed humps and to use the Tarmac they save to fill in the potholes”.

It’s an idea that Norman Baker, the Lib Dem Transport Minister, seemed reluctant to embrace – even though his party needs every possible assistance.

A TEST of whether a politician is genuinely interested in the sporting good of the nation has been provided by Brian Moore, the former England rugby union player who grew up in Halifax.

He has been pondering this conundrum. A sports club that receives a government grant has to pay VAT on the sum involved. Either the organisation has to forgo other improvements, like kit, or accept a 20 per cent grant reduction.

He questions whether it is worth the hassle on the part of the clubs concerned – or whether the Treasury should withdraw the VAT element in return for a 20 per cent cut in grants at the outset.

How would people like Ed Miliband – pictured playing cricket over the Bank Holiday with youngsters – solve the Moore test?

TALKING of sport, I’m not sure it was a clever move, on the part of Ed Balls, to provide a Twitter commentary as his beloved Norwich City celebrated promotion: “Party atmosphere here at Carrow Road – we are Premier League.”

For, while he was celebrating, his Morley and Outwood constituents were despairing at Leeds United missing out on the play-offs. Ouch.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk