Editor-At-Large: Let's turn our neets into spads


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The Independent Online

Twenty years ago, only 20 MPs had never worked outside politics. Today that figure has leapt to 90. The kind of people who seek election has changed, too – a new study by the House of Commons found that back in 1979 nearly 100 MPs had done manual work in a previous life.

These days the Commons can muster just 25. Is the rise of the professional politician a good thing? Recent opinion polls indicate not. When more than a million young people are leaving school and further education with little prospect of a decent job, can politicians connect with the people they profess to serve? There's the rub: in austerity Britain, most are very mouthy about how they "understand" our pain, and claim "we're all in this together". Since the expenses scandal, most politicians are regarded as well-paid whingers. Their failure to reform the way political parties are funded, failure to reform the House of Lords, plus the unedifying telly spectacle that is Prime Minister's Questions, reinforces the notion that MPs operate in a way most of us would never get away with – shouting, interrupting, and behaving like uncouth kids.

Most MPs come from professional backgrounds such as finance, law, PR (David Cameron), lobbying (Clegg) and medicine. Few have any experience on the shop floor or in a large office. They increasingly rely on a huge army of special advisers ("spads") – often graduates with no experience outside politics either, even though Whitehall has civil servants to do the job. Ed Miliband was a spad for Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg (a critic of spads when Labour was in power) promised us a slimmed-down government. The number of spads he now employs (paid for by us) has risen from three to 14, many of whom earn well over £75,000 a year, making his personal office cost about £1m a year, while Cameron has 19 special advisers. Many spads deal with marketing the message rather than any original thinking or problem solving.

How can we expect teenagers to want to train as electricians, plumbers and engineers – all skills the country needs – when they see MPs and ministers dishing out huge wages to their cronies? Only the other day, Cameron was waffling on about "a decent wage for a decent day's work". In the world of spads, work is what you make it.

Nick Clegg has announced plans to spend £126m to help 55,000 neets (teenagers not in education, employment, or training) into work. Ex-army personnel will run "motivational" sessions, plus classes in how to write a CV, and lessons in basic English and maths. Charities and private companies will be paid to telephone kids and get them up in the morning, receiving up to £2,200 for each one who gets a job and keeps it for six months. Chris Grayling, the employment minister, said: "We think payment by results is the best way to deliver support for young people." More sticking plaster dreamt up by professional politicians who have no idea of what real work entails. Last summer they spent millions on courses teaching skills to the unemployed. An Ofsted report found that the success rate was just 19 per cent. Another summer, another pipe-dream.

Food porn

The BBC has been criticised for the preponderance of male experts in news, as Katy Guest writes on page 41. But in one area it certainly favours women, and the prettier the better – cooking. After Sophie Dahl's risible food show, the new BBC2 star is Rachel Khoo, a Holly Golightly lookalike (Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's) who lives in France and favours Fifties frocks with Jean Seberg make-up. The Little Paris Kitchen might attract 1.5 million viewers, but I doubt they were focusing on the food. Asked how to make the perfect picnic, Rachel offered the following pearls of wisdom: "Pick a spot with wild grass and trees …. Get there early to get the best spot." And: "Put a sprig of mint in a bottle of water." I love picnics, but I don't need to be told to buy charcuterie and cheese. This isn't cooking, it's middle-class food porn.

Logo lunacy

Interviewed by Evan Davis on the Today programme last Friday, Seb Coe was his usual emollient self. When asked about strict enforcement of the sponsors' brands on the Olympic site, he implied that the press and carping miseries were ramping up the reality. When Evan asked if it would be OK to wear a Pepsi T-shirt to the Games, though, Lord Coe said he thought not, as Coca-Cola was a major sponsor. Later, Locog backtracked and admitted he was wrong, but the impression remains that Olympic sponsors have created a bullyboy culture, by insisting that no other brands sully their rigorously controlled environment, where everything from a glass of wine to a bag of crisps is overpriced and, like the cashpoints, strictly vetted. Doesn't it sound like a Stalinist regime or Chinese repression, rather than a celebration of sporting excellence? Sponsorship police have even decreed that the Middletons' family business, Party Pieces, must change the wording they use on their website to sell festive goodies. "Games", "Two thousand and Twelve" and any logo that incorporates five rings are all out of bounds. So far, a florist's shop in Stoke and a café run by a charity in south London have been warned about their window displays – and one was made of bagels! If a bun contravenes Olympic rules, I want no part of this event.

Chauvinist peaks

Do the blokes who write guidebooks about hiking in Scotland have a macho axe to grind? Is it a way of excluding us weedy southerners? I've just spent five days in Glen Etive, in the Highlands. Over the years I've struggled up quite a few peaks in the area, breaking my ankle on one a while back: I hobbled down 800 feet, waded through a stream, and drove myself to hospital. You can never say I am a burden on public services. This time, I noticed that writers never describe anything as "difficult". I climbed one 2,800ft crag in the rain and dragged myself across the boggy top, only to find there was no path down on the other side, just a slippery descent through giant boulders. The guidebook claimed – I am not joking – that it was "an easy half-day outing". Decoded, the reality was four and a half hours of challenging exercise, after which I needed a hot bath and a large drink, not a packed lunch and another peak. Such masochism.

Gove, Henry Dimbleby and the school dinners...

Michael Gove asked Henry Dimbleby to chair a review into school dinners, much to the annoyance of Jamie Oliver (and me).

Talk about reinventing the wheel. Now we know their families first met on holiday earlier this year.

Gove may regret his choice, though. Henry's catering company, Leon, which serves ethically sound fast food, has just published its accounts for 2011: turnover increased to £1.7m, but there was an overall loss of £704,000. At least everything that Jamie does makes a huge profit.