Thursday, 30 October 2014

Profession: None

Jim Murphy has no degree to show for his nine years at university collecting student union sabbatical positions.

He followed them up with a year in some party non-job, leading into a parliamentary seat at the grand old age of 29.

Wikipedia (I know, but even so) lists him as "Profession: None."


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The White Man's Burden

I have never missed Telegraph Blogs more than I do today.

Zambia has acquired a white President.

There would have been delirium below the line.

And above it.

Monkey Business?

Would Gibraltar, the only British Overseas Territory in the European Union, have a say in any referendum on withdrawal?

It would be a guaranteed Yes to staying in.

Indeed, its main complaint, echoed by the British Government, is that Spain is limiting the free movement of its residents as EU citizens.

Now, that would be a debate worth televising.

The Kippers would go bananas.

On The Right Track

By 196 to 38, MPs have voted to allow Andy Sawford's Bill to proceed. Second Reading will be in the New Year.

No, this Bill itself stands little chance of becoming law. And no, merely repealing the ban on public sector bids for rail franchises is not sufficient.

But things are clearly heading in the right direction.

För Sverige I Tiden?

Support for joining NATO is higher than ever before in Sweden.

They would be welcome to take Britain's place in that wretched relic.

Peace Pledge

I must admit that I am not convinced by the white poppy.

The red poppy was initially, and is still properly, anything but a glorification of war.

The white poppy message to "remember all victims of war" is already included, and the red poppy no longer features the name of Haig.

White poppy money goes to the Peace Pledge Union, a campaigning organisation for absolute pacifism (a cause to which I do not subscribe), rather than to a welfare charity of any kind. 

Wear your red poppy with pride. I am wearing mine as I write. Because of what it really means.

Constituent Nations

It is telling that even a Scottish Nationalist, nay even the very Nicola Sturgeon, now describes Northern Ireland as such a thing.

Even to the extent of having to approve any withdrawal from the European Union.

How the world turns.

The Lanchester Review: For Stability and Pluralism in Parliament

Two political parties exist specifically in order to provide the Government of the United Kingdom. They are organised to that end.

Other parties, and we Independents, have a different role.

The failure of the present electoral arrangements to take account of this distinction looks likely to be thrown into sharp relief next May. A Bill needs to be introduced in the first Queen’s Speech of the next Parliament.

It would need to be made clear from the very start that the Parliament Act would be invoked if necessary, and that there would be absolutely no question of a referendum.

The United Kingdom would be divided 300 constituencies, each containing as near as possible to one third of one per cent of the electorate, with the requirement that constituency boundaries straddle the United Kingdom’s internal borders wherever possible.

Each constituency would return three Constituency MPs.

On the first Thursday of a month-long process, it being quite a recent phenomenon that a General Election was held on one day everywhere, each constituency would elect two MPs.

The Labour Party and the Conservative Party would submit their respective internal shortlists of two to run-off ballots of the entire constituency electorate.

On the second Thursday, there would be a contest between the previous week’s Labour loser and the previous week’s Conservative loser.

One may, and people do, join both of those parties in Northern Ireland. They probably ought not to contest Assembly elections there, but that is something else.

On the third Thursday, each of the 99 lieutenancy areas would elect two County MPs, one from between two candidates submitted jointly by the Co-operative and Labour Parties, and one from between two candidates submitted by the Conservative Party.

And on the fourth Thursday, each of the 12 European Parliamentary regions would elect 12 Area MPs, six from lists submitted by other parties and six Independents, with each elector voting for one party list and for one Independent candidate, and with the highest scoring six in each category being elected.

Parties that chose to contest these seats would not be eligible to contest any other election.

This would give a total of 642 MPs.

This system would give a voice to smaller parties and to Independent candidates from all parts of the country.

It would give everyone direct representation within both the governing party and the Official Opposition. It would give the two main parties direct representative responsibility for every community.

Simultaneously, it would guarantee that there would always be either a Labour or a Conservative majority government. Only the extreme unlikelihood of a dead heat would ever deliver a hung Parliament.

The lowering of the voting age to 16 might also be included in this, although with the strict conditions that under-18s (indeed, under-21s, and perhaps even slightly older people) would be ineligible to serve on juries.

Far more urgently, there is the need to reduce the parliamentary term to four years, or, as would be even better, to abolish the fixed term altogether.

May Just Be Right

Rafael Behr writes:

Even the finest political insights congeal into received wisdom over time. Then they rot into banality.

When James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, first pinned a reminder in his office to focus on, among other things, “the economy, stupid,” he could not have known that this morsel would still be reheated and served up on Westminster menus 22 years later.

Carville’s aide-memoire gets an outing whenever politicians are losing an argument about something that isn’t the economy and want to pretend it doesn’t matter. It’s the first commandment: thou shalt have no other issues before me.

It’s what senior Labour people were saying at the start of their conference, when the Tories were broadsiding them with demands for English votes for English laws in parliament.

Let Cameron waste his ammunition on the West Lothian question, Ed Miliband’s aides said. The voters want to hear us talk about the scourge of low pay.

Carville’s dictum also comes out when the Tories face Labour accusations that they can’t be trusted with the NHS.

The riposte is that the health service needs money that can only be generated in a growing economy, for which only Conservatives have a credible plan.

So really, it’s the economy, stupid.

Obviously voters will tend to prefer a party that secures their financial interests. Or, more precisely, they will avoid one if they think it might ruin them.

But that doesn’t help a leader build a winning campaign if no one can agree on which part of the economy it really is, stupid.

For the Tories, budget discipline is paramount.

They have successfully written their version of events into the national economic story, with the first test of a sound government set as its stomach for austerity.

This isn’t quite the same as success in reducing the deficit or national debt, on which measures George Osborne’s record is flimsy.

Government borrowing in September was £1.6bn higher than the previous year. The chancellor gets away with it because so few people think Ed Balls would have done a better job.

Miliband’s hopes instead rest on polling in which voters say they are unimpressed by a recovery that isn’t showing up in their payslips.

The Treasury insists this is a standard feature of the post-recession landscape and that wages will pick up.

Miliband says it is a deep structural flaw in the economy that, if unaddressed, will blight the prospects of British workers for a generation.

“We’ll hammer the Tories on wages,” a Labour strategist told me earlier this year, although so far the attack has had all the impact of an occasional prodding with a foam mallet.

Downing Street takes comfort from opinion polls that put Cameron and Osborne well ahead of Miliband and Balls on who is better trusted to run the economy, but, given the double-digit scale of that advantage, the question really ought to be why the Tories aren’t also miles ahead in party preference.

One explanation, put forward by Tory liberals, is that Cameron has been dragged off course by his party’s rebellious Eurosceptic fringe and sucked into an unwinnable anti-immigration arms race with Ukip, when he needs to get back to the economy.

Conservative strategists say he will do just that when the time is right.

Treasury attack dossiers are being compiled to show that Labour numbers don’t add up. Accommodating business leaders will be lined up to warn of the perils of wealth-crushing “Red Ed” leftism.

The one explanation for polling stagnation you never hear from Tories is that Miliband’s account of a recovery that bypasses the majority may just be right.

The ineffectiveness of Labour’s campaign doesn’t disprove the analysis that underpins it.

There are many reasons for the growth of Ukip support, but surely a big one is resentment at the unfair allocations of reward in the boom years, and pain after the bust.

You don’t have to be a card-carrying Marxist to see that a crisis of confidence in the political establishment may have its roots in economic dysfunction.

Cameron himself came close in 2009, when he went to the World Economic Forum in Davos and warned of “markets without morality”, “wealth without fairness”, “a disconnection between capitalism and people’s lives”.

But that was a different Cameron incarnation.

This was around the time that he was talking about the “big society” as a civic, voluntary alternative to state intervention.

The idea flopped and the phrase is now banished from the Tory lexicon.

It wouldn’t in any case look very appetising suddenly regurgitating five years later, but the insight that lay behind it was sound.

Elections are never won by a kind of crass Carvillism – the view that voter behaviour tracks national economic indicators – and certainly not by Conservatives who must always battle the perception that they accept social decay as a price worth paying to balance the books.

Notably, in 2012 Carville himself revisited the old slogan in a book – It’s the Middle Class, Stupid – arguing that the new electoral battleground was insecurity and income stagnation, which rob mainstream America of attainable dreams of a more prosperous future.

The book was co-authored with Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster, who has also advised Miliband.

Tory majorities from Macmillan to Major have been won when enough voters feel the party offers them ladders to climb, removing obstacles to their advancement into an expanding middle class.

Cameron sometimes talks in those terms. He fiddles around the margins of unequal opportunity – offering soft loans for first-time property-buyers, for example.

But his favours have been more conspicuously bestowed on people for whom the great recession was an minor inconvenience, or no inconvenience at all.

The Tory quandary is all the more severe now that British politics has fragmented into a multiparty melee. Labour’s share of the vote is shrinking, but Cameron is not yet the beneficiary.

He may be cooking up a campaign to crush Miliband, but his isn’t the only restaurant in town and it has been serving up the same economic argument for nearly five years.

If voters are turning up their noses, it could be because they aren’t stupid.

People Need Hope

Ha-Joon Chang in The Guardian is right that “the country is in desperate need of a counter narrative” to the Tory story on the economy.

I believe it should go like this.

First, Labour did not leave behind an economic mess; the bankers did.

Labour was not profligate: the biggest Labour deficit in the pre-crash years was 3.3% of GDP; the Thatcher-Major governments racked up deficits bigger than that in 10 of their 18 years.

So who was the profligate? It’s a no-brainer.

Second, the Tories have claimed that the reason for enforced austerity is to pay down the deficit.

Yet, after six years of falling wages, private investment flat, productivity on the floor, and fast-rising trade deficits, the deficit is £100bn, when Osborne promised in 2010 it would now be next to zero.

To cap it all, the deficit will almost certainly rise this year because income from taxes has sharply fallen as wages are increasingly squeezed.

Austerity is now a busted policy that has turned toxic. It should be dropped.

Third, Osborne’s so-called recovery is bogus because it is too dependent on a housing asset bubble, too dependent on financial services rather than manufacturing, and has no demand to sustain it.

It is already fading as growth slows.

Fourth, the only way now to get the deficit down is by public investment to kickstart sustainable growth via housebuilding, upgrading infrastructure, and greening the economy.

Funding a £30bn package at interest rates of £150m a year would create 1.5m jobs within two/three years.

Or it could be financed without any increase in public borrowing by printing money, or instructing the publicly owned banks to concentrate lending on British industry, or taxing the 0.1% ultra-rich whose wealth has doubled since the crash.

People need hope.

The Tories are continuing with austerity because their real motive is to shrink the state and public services, not to cut the deficit.

The alternative offers investment desperately needed, growth in the real economy, genuine jobs, rising wages – and really will pay down the deficit.

Face Challenge

Andrew Gibson writes:

Over the years, governments have defended plans to replace the ageing Trident weapons system by reference to unspecified future threats.

In the foreword to a 2006 White Paper advocating the principle of Trident replacement, Tony Blair wrote:

“We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.”

Similarly, in an interview with the Daily Mail, David Cameron said:

“How can anyone be confident that the global security environment will not change in the next 10 years? This is not the time to be letting our guard down.”

Despite these appeals to vagueness, the continuation and replacement of Trident is likely to face challenge on at least two fronts.

Firstly, Scotland does not seem to like nuclear weapons. The latest British Social Attitudes report shows at least the balance of opinion in Scotland is opposed to UK nukes.

Plans to replace Trident, which assume its basing at a facility on the estuary of the River Clyde, will continue to be politically contentious in Scotland and may be impossible to accomplish in the event of another independence referendum (in, say, 10 to 20 years).

Secondly, many non-weapon states are impatient with our phallic exhibitionism.

Last week, over 155 states released a statement expressing their ‘deep concern’ about the ‘the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons’.

These states are being encouraged by a group of NGOs, such as the ICRC, ICAN and Article 36, whom believe a treaty (similar to the cluster munitions ban) could be developed to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Such a move would be tricky for the UK: a ban would not require the acquiescence of the nuclear-armed states but would have diplomatic, legal and political effects on them.

Despite its commitment to Trident replacement, Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) appears to acknowledge the possibility and even value of such change in International Humanitarian Law. In its latest (and last pre-election) report, the NPF stated that Labour:

“… recognises the success of past international bans on weapons of mass destruction such as landmines, cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference 2015 will be a key moment for a Labour Government to show leadership in achieving progress on global disarmament and anti-proliferation measures.”

These developments imply Trident or its successor will face challenge.

The future, it seems, is uncertain.

Durée Determinée

The French Prime Minister has revived the idea that the French labour market is overly protective of permanent employees. However, international comparisons show that this is not the case, argues Duval Guillaume, translated by Tom Gill:

The functioning of the labour market is not satisfactory because it is not creating enough jobs, it generates significant inequalities between highly protected employees on permanent contracts and very precarious workers on fixed term  and agency contracts. We need to take action on this.”

So French prime minister Manuel Valls told France’s weekly magazine Nouvel Observateur on 22 October.

That the French economy is not creating enough jobs is unfortunately  not in doubt, but contrary to what our Prime Minister seems to think, this is much more to do with inappropriate macroeconomic policy currently being pursued in France and Europe, combined with major structural problems of the French economy such as education, innovation, and the access to credit by companies than a supposed rigidity of the labour market.

And it is certainly not in any case down to the excessive protection of permanent employees.

Manuel Valls is of course right to emphasize the very significant difficulties for casual workers in the labour market, including ever shorter term contracts routinely offered to them.

However, it is wrong to assume that when they are in employment, employees on fixed-term contracts are less protected than permanent employees.

This is exactly the opposite: fixed term contracts (CDD, Contract Durée Determinée) offer significant protections in France.

The OECD is an institution that brings together the leading rich countries to produce analysis and comparative statistics on major economic and social issues.

It takes a very neo-liberal stance on the labour market and we really cannot imagine a particular fondness for the “French social model”.

It regularly compares the laws of all the rich countries and major emerging economies with respect to labour market rigidity and protection against dismissal and provides a composite index to measure this protection.

Of all the countries it monitors, France is the country where short-term contracts are the most protective of employees.

This is also probably not unconnected with the trend towards shorter fixed term contracts offered by companies.

But Manuel Valls is especially wrong to consider that permanent employees (CDI, Contract Durée Indeterminée) in France are strongly protected against dismissal (whether individual or collective dismissals).

According to the OECD, French permanent employees were certainly much better protected in 2013 than the US and the UK, but they were barely better protected than in Denmark – which is considered the ultimate in labour market flexibility, with their famous flexicurity – and on par with Korea.

And the French permanent workforce is significantly less protected than in the currently fashionable Germany, despite the Schröder reforms, and in the Netherlands which is also often seen as a particularly strong model for the organization of the labour market.*

Protections are also weaker than in China and India, contrary to popular belief.

In addition, these findings date to before the entry into force of the so-called job security law adopted in mid-2013, which further reduces barriers to collective redundancies.

In short, there really is very little to expect from these reforms, at least for those who are not blinded by ideology and the employers propaganda.

* All these countries, by the way, enjoy significantly lower unemployment than France.

Passengers And Taxpayers Deserve So Much Better

Today Andy Sawford is highlighting the fact that, when it comes to the railways, this Government has a problem: East Coast.
In 2009 Labour took East Coast into public ownership when the private operator walked away from the franchise, unable to deliver on its promises.

Since then it has proved to be one of the best train operators in the industry – achieving record passenger satisfaction and punctuality; investing all its profits in better services and stations; and returning more than £800 million to public coffers.

In 2014 it even managed to cut fares in real terms – something that hasn’t been matched by any private franchise.

East Coast has proven that a public operator can work in the best interests of passengers but the Tories’ ideological 1993 Railways Act prevents a public sector operator in all but the most restricted circumstances.

Andy’s Bill seeks to put that right – by allowing a public sector operator to be able to take on lines and challenge the train operators on a level playing field – and has our full support.

I’ve no doubt that the Tories’ dogmatic opposition to the public sector means they’ll oppose this Bill, but what about the Lib Dems?

They supported a public sector operator in opposition but are now helping to push through the privatisation.

Having accidentally published a document on their website this summer which revealed they were planning on supporting a public sector operator, they dropped the policy at their conference.

Will they prove once again that they simply can’t be trusted?

In 2012 the Government’s West Coast franchise competition fiasco cost the taxpayer more than £55 million, led to the loss of hundreds of millions more in lost premium payments and damaged the rail industry.

Passengers and taxpayers deserve so much better.

Britain’s fragmented rail industry is up to 40% less efficient that the best performing European networks and fares have risen on average by 21% since the last election, with some passengers hit with stealth fare rises of up to 162% this autumn.

The Tories and Lib Dems are wedded to the status quo; only Labour has a plan for reforming the railways.

Labour will review the Government’s failed franchising process and put in place a system that is fit for purpose; legislate to allow a public sector operator to be able to take on lines; devolve decisions over the running of regional and local services so that areas can bring together trains, buses, ferries and trams into a single network; tackle the monopoly market for rail rolling stock; create a new ‘guiding mind’ for the railways; and address the cost of living by capping annual fare rises on every route, simplifying fare structures and creating a new legal right to the cheapest ticket.

Andy’s Bill is just the first step to a railway where passengers are put first.

See also here:

The Tories’ ideological decision to reprivatise the East Coast railway line was criticised yesterday — by a right-wing Tory Lord.

Lib Dem transport minister Baroness Kramer had defended the government’s decision to put the publicly owned line back up for sale in a Lords debate yesterday.

But the decision to ban state firm Directly Operated Railways from making a new bid to run the franchise from March came under friendly fire.

Lord Forsyth, who is on the economic right of the Tory party, pointed out it went against the supposed capitalist principle of allowing the best company to win contracts.

“Surely you would recognise that the whole point of competitive tendering is to get the best value and the best deal for the taxpayer and if you are right that a state-owned company wouldn’t be able to compete, why is that a reason to exclude it from the process?” he asked.

Extremely Tough

Ian Lavery writes:

For communities up and down the country the last few years have been extremely tough.

The current Tory – Lib Dem coalition are seemingly intent on finishing off the job Margaret Thatcher started during her disastrous premiership laying waste to communities throughout the UK.
There is absolutely no doubt that ordinary men and women have been targeted by this government.

Along with their friends in the media the coalition have systematically undermined the key principles of the welfare state, demonised those most in need of the safety net and sold off services regardless of the consequences.

The much heralded recovery, based solely on employment figures is nothing but a con in communities like the one I represent.

We can no longer base the prosperity of the nation solely on the numbers of people in work as the rise of the low paid economy now shows.

In my constituency, Child Poverty haunts families and brings shame on us all. Almost a quarter of all Children live in poverty with some areas seeing in excess of 40%.

Most worryingly is that of those living in poverty 60% are in a family with someone who works.

Financial pressures continue to stalk low and middle income families with the cost of living crisis embedded in communities.

This bleak picture is being pounced upon by some to peddle their politics of hate and fear.

The rise of UKIP, a party who claim to keep alive the flame of Thatcherism, can be directly attributed to the disastrous policies her government introduced and that have been continued.

It is no good fighting fear with fear. Not being as bad as the others is not good enough.

As Martin Luther King said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

We need to offer hope to those struggling in the modern world.

From the ashes of the Second World War, with overwhelming public support, the Labour Party working together with ordinary men and women, created the Welfare State.

Combat in the battlefields of Europe was over but a war on the evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness remained.

The eradication of these evils remains a work in progress.

We must once and for all bury the legacy of the recent past started under Margaret Thatcher.

It is time that compassion, human decency and cooperation were put back to the forefront of our political system and that the Welfare State is renewed from the ashes of Thatcherism.

Debates like those that were thrown up in Scotland have shown that there is a huge disconnect between people and politicians.

Arguments like that over the Barnett formula and whether England or Scotland gets more mean absolutely nothing when people do not see the benefits in their own lives.

If people are living in abject poverty, regardless of funding formulas, something is entirely wrong.

Making sure everyone has access to a good job, quality health care, a secure and affordable home, a good education and a secure retirement are goals that would find support amongst the vast majority of the population.

To achieve this is not some pie in the sky pipe dream. We live in the sixth largest economy in the world yet we have people from children to pensioners living in poverty.

The measure of a developed nation should be how the least fortunate are treat and I’m afraid on that history will judge us poorly.

It is time that everyone shared in the economic success of the nation, it is not enough to be thrown the crumbs from a few at the top table and for people to be expected to be grateful.

As a country we need to work together to ensure that no area is ever left behind. Communities like the one I represent have a proud history of standing shoulder to shoulder for the common good.

We owe it to those who went before, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our future generations to make sure this tradition lives on.

The Myth of Britain's Soft Touch

The mayor of Calais has been sounding off like a Daily Mail editorial. On immigration, Britain is a ‘soft touch’ and its benefits system acts like a ‘magnet’ for migrants, Natacha Bouchart told the Home Affairs Committee yesterday.

Ms Bouchart, speaking via an interpreter, said:

“You have a much more favourable regime in Britain than other countries. The second thing is the entitlement to benefits of £36 which are given to asylum seekers or migrants, which is a huge amount for people who have nothing in their lives.”

This echoes the narrative of much of the UK press as well as of UKIP, the Conservative Party and sometimes Labour.

But how true is it? Apart from anecdotes and hearsay, what actual evidence is there to suggest that migrants are flocking to the UK for our supposedly generous benefits system?

It is common currency on the right that Britain has the most generous welfare system – if not in the world, then at least in Europe.

Yet this is a myth, according to the Economic and Social Research Council’s Centre for Population Change (CPC), with a number of other EU countries as generous as Britain in terms of social security per head:
(click to zoom)
This data is also from 2007, before many of the rules about migrants claiming benefits were tightened by the coalition.

The data from 2010 also shows that, in terms of social security spending per inhabitant, France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands all spend more in real terms than the UK on social security:
Social security
(Graph: BBC)
There are really two separate issues here that are very often conflated. One is Asylum seekers and refugees trying to come to the UK and the other is EU citizens exercising their legal right to come and work here.

Last year a European Commission report concluded that there was no evidence of systematic or widespread benefit tourism by EU nationals migrating within the EU, including to the UK.

The statistics bear this out. According to a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)report from 2011, 6.4 per cent of those claiming working aged benefits were non-UK nationals, meaning British nationals were two-and-a-half times more likely to be claiming working age benefits than non-UK nationals.

And anyway, EU migrants can’t simply sign on to claim Jobseekers Allowance as soon as they arrive in the UK – they must wait for three months; and even them they have to pass a tough Habitual Residence Test set before they can make a claim.

And what about the coalition’s welfare reforms that will apparently make a life on benefits impossible for any British citizen? Why would it be any easier for an EU citizen to milk the system?

But this isn’t what the mayor of Calais is actually talking about. It isn’t migrants from Poland and Romania that are camped out in Calais hoping to sneak into the UK – they can already come here legally.

This isn’t about immigration per se; this is about the asylum system.

Many of the people we are talking about in Calais haven’t simply left their country for the sake of a better paying job; they are fleeing war-zones like Syria, tyrannies such as Egypt or hunger that plagues many parts of Africa.

As Ms Bouchart herself put it, most of the estimated 2,500 refugees in Calais are Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi – hardly bastions of freedom.

It would be fairly far-fetched to claim that these people are fleeing their homelands due to Britain’s generous benefits system.

It is of course arguable that one of the reasons migrants opt for the UK of France is due to accommodation rules for asylum seekers who arrive in the UK.

In the UK asylum seekers have access to accommodation while their claim is being assessed; in France it can take four months for an asylum claim to be registered during which time no accommodation is available.

However it is unlikely that putting an end to this would deter asylum seekers from coming to the UK for the reasons I’m about to set out; but such a policy change would result in destitute asylum seekers sleeping rough in and around London.

Not exactly good policy.

There is, though, one important reason that people often want to come to Britain ahead of other countries in Europe.

It isn’t the benefits system, but has more to do with the international prestige this country (still) has overseas.

Before you scoff, this isn’t jingoistic hyperbole – anyone who has travelled extensively will know exactly what I’m talking about.

When I was travelling in South American a few years ago I met plenty of people who wanted to leave their native country and it was usually because they wanted to come to the United States or Britain.

Not to claim benefits, but to work and make money.

Almost all had the rose-tinted view that in Britain and the US if you worked hard enough the opportunities were there and you could prosper.

Naive perhaps, but very different from wanting to ‘milk the system’.

For those fleeing war zones like Syria and Iraq, it’s fairly obvious why they might think of leaving – and it has nothing to do with signing on.

Similarly, for those who aren’t fleeing persecution the long and perilous journey to the UK isn’t one that’s taken lightly, nor with the aim of coming to the UK to carry on being poor.

It is made because the UK is viewed as a land of opportunity.

In other words, people want to come to Britain because it is a good place to live.

That’s a profoundly positive thing.

The biggest irony of all is that it is right-wingers who claim to understand the human desire to ‘get on’ and aspire to something better.

Someone ought to point out that this instinct isn’t confined to affluent Westerners.

The Death of Liberal Education

In our schools, right now, there are many students who spend 60% of their entire time in a classroom studying just three subjects.

Come the end of the year, or perhaps already for some, this will increase, and for those deemed to be falling short there will be up to 18 lessons (perhaps even more) out of 25 spent studying just these same three subjects. 

The same children might also be forced encouraged to attend after school revision sessions, or marched invited to lunch time catch-up sessions, or bribed welcomed to pre-school intervention sessions, all of which will be topped off with a healthy dollop of homework for each of the three subjects.

If that sounds a little unbalanced… well, good, I’m glad, we’re clearly on the same side here. Because it is.

Whilst English and Maths are the top priority, Science is also increasingly given a seat at the High Table of the curricula Elect, particularly since STEM, and our alleged lack of focus on it, became the buzzword of the Prophets of Economic Doom in recent years.

In other words, we force students to spend the majority of their time doing just three subjects, whilst simultaneously puffing our chests out and bragging to the world that we offer our kids a broad, balanced, liberal arts education.

Which, on paper, it might well look like we do, since we still corral kids into an unsustainably large number of exams – but peel back the surface layer and things begin to look a little different.

At school, my least favourite lessons were Science and Maths. Not the teachers, by the way, all of whom I thought were great, but the subjects. Nothing personal really, I just didn’t have all that much interest.

I could do what was asked, I could get grades good enough to keep the hounds at bay, but they just didn’t inspire.

History did, Geography did, English Literature did, RE did, PE did, French did (eventually) – but Science and Maths? Nah. (I know we’re not supposed to say that anymore, but nonetheless it’s true, for me as for many others).

As such, I couldn’t honestly say that I would have had much of a successful time at school, by various measures, if they had forced me to sit through the equivalent of two whole days’ worth of the two things I disliked most, whilst skimping on the subjects I adored.

For sanity, if for nothing else.

If they had then told me that the latter would be sacrificed still further to allow more time on the former – well, I’d have thought it part of a cruel experiment designed to test the stress capacity of an already moody teenager.

It would have ruined school for me. It just would have.

And the pressure of trying to get good grades in the subjects I enjoyed and wished to carry further, whilst having the tables so egregiously stacked against the likelihood of doing so, would have sparked the fires of revolt.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Nor do I see why it should be any different for students today. Which leads to the question: why do we do it?

Only, you already know the answer to that question. As soon as I mentioned the three subjects, the game had been given away.

And so, with a Gallic shrug and a defeated air: we do it because of OFSTED and because of league tables. Or rather, we do it to preserve ourselves and our institutions in the face of OFSTED and league tables. 5 A*s to C, with English and Maths. The End.

Of course, it is easy to look up from the coalface and curse the cowardice and question the courage of those who lead us, to shake our fists and swear that we’d do things differently.

And for those who choose to pursue school leadership, maybe they will, and these experiences will help them discern the costs of sedition.

But the blindingly obvious truth is our leaders are just as human as we are (no, really), trying to make rational choices in a clearly irrational situation, fighting to do the best for their school in the hopeless situation in which they are placed – faced with the external pressures that bear down upon their shoulders each day, we’d probably be liable to make precisely the same decisions.

Everyone imagines themselves a hero until the time comes to be heroic.

Self-preservation might not ever keep the Hollywood script writers in fruitful supply, but one can at least acknowledge the logic that it carves out a space where one can sit quietly, wait out the storm and hope for better times.

In other words, we have to give SLT a break here, and cast our eyes toward the real culprit.

Change is indeed in the offing, of course, and whilst it seems the forthcoming points scheme will help mitigate some of the crazy incentives that have riddled our education system for the last few years, we can also be sure that, like every piece of tinkering that has come before it, it will have unintended consequences that will yoke schools and the teachers doing their best to operate, dignity intact, within them.

Every new idea always seems better than the one it is designed to replace – that we keep on replacing them so frequently tells us something about the quality of the ideas offered as solutions, as much as the ones laid aside as old hat.

And let it not be forgotten that this happened on the watch of precisely he who spoke so emphatically on the value of a liberal education. Oh how they laughed on their way to their twelfth STEM lesson of the week.

And so there must remain a sadness: the kids who have come through this system have just one shot at this. In reality, the latest political wheeze means much more for them than it does for us.

For those sitting in a Maths classroom up to seven times a week, whilst trying to get their Art or History or Geography or RE or Music or Language GCSE on just one hour a week – well, for them, this is it, this is all they have.

That our Enlightened Masters thought they were changing things for the better will cut no mustard with them - they, like those before them, will have been the guinea pigs, and it is their life options that will have suffered for the experiment, they who will have to live with the consequences of that in a way that we never will.

Especially those whose interests and ambitions don’t align neatly with the external incentives and prejudices that, in the name of improving education, have closed those very doors that they might have earnestly desired to walk through.

Steady State

The very phrase "Big Bang" was coined by Fred Hoyle to ridicule the position of, among other people, the Pope.

In the 1940s.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Fox, Partridge

Swamped, Indeed

It is not a caricature. It is not hyperbole. It is not a matter of, "In that case, this would happen."

The actual policy of this Government is that people should be left to drown in the sea, so as to discourage other people from attempting to make the crossing.

The founders of neoliberalism, such figures as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, despised the British Conservative Party.

Not because it was like this. But because it was not like this.

It is like this now.

Sought To Influence

With my emphasis added, here is the motion, co-sponsored by Ed Miliband himself, that the House of Commons has just passed without a vote:

That this House acknowledges the economic legacy of the pit closure programme in coalfield communities across the United Kingdom; notes that the recent release of the relevant 1984 Cabinet papers showed that the Government at the time misled the public about the extent of its pit closure plans and sought to influence police tactics; recognises the regeneration of former coalfield areas over the last fifteen years, the good work of organisations such as the Coalfield Regeneration Trust, and the largest industrial injury settlement in legal history secured by the previous Government for former miners suffering from bronchitis and emphysema; further recognises the ongoing problems highlighted recently by the report produced by Sheffield Hallam University on The State of the Coalfields, which revealed that there are still significant problems for the majority of Britain’s coalfield communities, such as fewer jobs, lower business formation rates, higher unemployment rates, more people with serious health issues, higher numbers in receipt of welfare benefits and a struggling voluntary and community sector; and therefore calls for the continued regeneration and much needed support for coalfield communities as part of a wider programme to boost growth in Britain’s regions.

In other words, the Conservative Party no longer even attempts to deny that the words highlighted are factually correct.

Meanwhile, we face blackouts over the winter. I cannot imagine how that can have happened.

That, or how we are always going to war in, for or on behalf of oil-producing countries.

The Very Same

As the schools watchdog Ofsted launches a consultation on its own inspections, The Guardian has been canvassing views from across the education sector.

Jonathan Simons, head of education at Tory think tank Policy Exchange, reckons it is headteachers — and, by extension, their bosses, the governing body — who should determine the criteria on which their own school should be judged:

Ofsted should be a hygiene inspector, not a food critic. By that I mean it should be headteachers who are the dominant actors: they should be the ones saying this is what we’re doing, these are the outcomes, here’s the data to prove it.
Could this be the Jonathan Simons who founded the Greenwich Free School, which, errr, received a ‘requires improvement’ rating — the second lowest of four — in an inspection report released in April this year?

And could this be the Jonathan Simons who chairs a governing body that a subsequent monitoring inspection visit found was “not taking effective action to tackle the areas relating to teaching that were identified at the [previous] inspection”?

The very same!


All those people who are going to take out their entire pension pots next year are going to end up dependent on state benefits.

Yet their pension contributions were tax-free in the first place precisely because that would not be the case.

That was the deal. This most certainly was not.

Not The European Arrest Warrant

The way to do these things is via extradition treaties. The one-sided one with the United States should be scrapped, too.

Labour should make that, together with a real-terms reduction in the British contribution to the EU Budget, and together with the lethal exemption of the NHS from TTIP, a condition of even so much as abstaining on the European Arrest Warrant, rather than of voting against it unless all three of those conditions were met.

That would smoke out the America Firsters (or Seconders, after Israel) on the benches opposite.

Keeping The Lights On

Nuclear power. And coal. Not necessarily in that order.

Plus, if necessary, anything else that might present itself.

But mostly, nuclear power. And coal. Not necessarily in that order.

The British People Are Right

Manuel Cortes writes:

In May 2015, an incoming Labour government will face many challenges, not least what to do about the vast concentration of wealth that is held in far too few hands.

Over recent decades we have seen Robin Hood working in reverse effect, with vast sums redistributed from ordinary people to shareholders’ pockets.

This has been a direct result of neoliberal economic policies which have produced deregulation, privatisation of public assets, and attacks on workers’ rights and our welfare state.

Labour needs to break away from the devastating economic consensus which has seen the 1% prosper at everyone else’s expense.

Put simply, neoliberalism is totally incompatible with the demand for greater equality and economic justice that lies at the heart of our movement.

Faced with an economy where wealth and power is in the hands of so few, greater equality and economic justice will remain a utopian dream unless public ownership forms part of Labour’s strategy.

Let’s face it, this is not some left-wing crackpot idea.

In the USA, cities like Atlanta, Houston and Indianapolis have taken water into public ownership. In Europe, the great capital cities of Berlin and Paris have done likewise.

This trend now spans our globe as cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America have also taken their water under public control.

In fact, in the most successful economy on our continent, Germany, over 100 energy concessions have been taken into public ownership since 2007.

Opinion polls have repeatedly told us that ordinary British people are sick to their back teeth of being ripped-off by ruthless privateers.

They rightly want to see water, energy and rail taken back into public ownership.

Sadly, our political class is way, way behind the curve as they continue promoting the so-called ‘virtues’ of neoliberalism.

The British people are right.

If public ownership of is good for the Americans, the French and the Germans, surely it must also be good for us.

If the next Labour Government fails to grasp this nettle, greater economic justice will remain a distant unachievable dream.

It really doesn’t have to be like this.

Politics is not really about what happens within the extremely narrow confines of our political elite – it has to be much more than this.

Surely, it is the job of our movement to shape the consensus within society in favour of the kind of world that we need, forcing politicians to act on our wishes.

This is where you and CLASS come in.

This Saturday’s conference is an ideal opportunity to get stuck right in and sharpen our arguments, strategy and tactics – let the battle of ideas commence!