Sunday 21 August 2016

There is nothing at all radical about Corbyn’s Labour

Everybody looks forward to summer. Unless of course you’re political animal in which case you’re in for six weeks of pure tedium as the entire political machine shuts down. It leaves us news junkies with little to cogitate. As far as politics goes there are only two stories. Brexit and the labour leadership contest.

The latter is of diminishing interest. It rather looks like Mr Corbyn is going to see off the challenge comfortably. And it’s easy to see why. Labour’s big beasts are more concerned with their career prospects than mounting an effective challenge. Losing in 2020 is a near certainty for Labour and none of them wants the job when it means a wipeout. Consequently the challenger is nobody with all the charisma of flat-pack furniture.

It seems that Labour has no-one to challenge Mr Corbyn’s appeal. He is well liked because he is a figure people can relate to. It’s not what he is. It’s what he isn’t. British politics in recent decades has been beset by a dismal ratings chasing trend whereby policy announcements are made on the basis of what their focus groups have told them – fighting over the centre ground.

The product of this has been bland managerial policy devoid of any principle or ideology pushed by anodyne people. You can barely tell them apart. There seems to be little point in voting when all of the major parties are chasing the same handful of voters and why bother with a political party chasing power for its own sake?

Labour as a party has largely forgotten who it serves and what it is for. A genuine movement is one that decides what it believes it, defines what it wants to accomplish and then goes out and sells it. Whether the agenda is popular or not should not matter. If you have the courage of your convictions you stand by what you believe and you build your movement over time. If it has something to offer then through persistence it will succeed.

Contrast that with Blairism. The Blairite way it to hold one’s beliefs cheaply – to ditch principle depending on the basis of what the most recent poll says. That may well be a shortcut to power but power without a real agenda is simply administration.

In that regard Labour should be bold and not afraid to lose support. It is better to have a coherent movement where voters know what you’re about than to have a generic umbrella party full of ambitious charlatans climbing the greasy pole. The test of whether it succeeds or not is really down to the ideas on sale. That is ultimately why Corbyn will fail.

Labour is supposed to be the party for the working class – but that is an increasingly nebulous term. It can apply to those on minimum wage with insecure jobs or it can apply to families with a mortgage and two cars. The latter being aspirational working class who have increasingly conservative views on taxation – and though largely socially liberal, not as permissive as the progressive left. The idea that the working class is a huddled mass of hapless serfs in need of rescue is an obsolete one. Labour continues to misdiagnose Britain.

Labour’s article of faith is that zero hours contracts should be abolished. While that may be noble in intent it’s not actually that big a problem and affects comparatively few people. Some even prefer the flexibility it offers. The insistence by Labour that Britain’s working class are necessarily poor and living in Dickensian poverty paints a picture that simply does not exist and is not recognised by ordinary voters. It cost Miliband the 2015 election. The patronising paternalism that comes with Labour’s anti-poverty crusade is also a big turn off.

And then we must look at Mr Corbyn’s bizarre fixation with nationalising the railways. Who owns the railways is neither here nor there. What people want is clean, affordable rail that turns up when it says it will. That’s all they care about. Presently it achieves none of these things.

But rail is beset by two problems. Overcrowding and price. Subsidise the fares and you create more overcrowding. Moreover, if you’re subsidising fares for London rail commuters then chances are that’s not a way to help poor people. You’re more likely subsidising middle class higher earners in London. It’s not a policy that speaks much to Labour heartlands like Sheffield where people take the bus to work – or walk.

What this tells us is that Corbyn has failed to understand Britain’s ills. Rail nationalisation is a solution in search of a problem. Britain needs bigger ideas than throwback socialist ones. The fact is we could spend a trillion on creating new rail infrastructure and not make any real impact on our capacity crunch. Rail is an expensive business. What we need is fresh thinking.

In Britain it’s not actually that difficult to find relatively good wages. The issue is how much of it we get to keep. After we’ve paid income tax and national insurance we’ve already taken a big hit in income. Add to that commuting costs and all the other costs associated with work and even a highly salaried job starts to feel like a mugs game. We need to rethink the very idea of work.

For starters, commuting is an absolutely absurd waste of time. We spend at least two hours in the day travelling – usually at the same time as everyone else – creating congestion along with all the health problems that go with it. Why? And if you’re not spending money on rail fares then it’s parking fees – often to do desk work we can just as easily do from home. This makes no sense. If we can get the workforce working from home then not only can we reduce spending on infrastructure we can end the spiral of wage inflation. This is where we can make tangible gains.

Instead of this, the Labour party under Blair introduced income support benefits and the minimum wage – but all of this is increasingly gobbled up by the cost of living – while at the same time adding to the overall tax burden or debt mountain. This is not sustainable – and the Tory national living wage is the same kind of thinking; inflationary measures which sound good but do nothing to increase our spending power or our ability to save.

What we need is radical ideas to bring down the cost of living and the cost of doing business. Nearly half the country can’t afford to save for a pension. We can live fairly comfortable lives on a day to day basis but it’s increasingly insecure with most of us being only two paycheques away from financial oblivion. The pound in our pockets is the key to electoral success – not who owns the railways.

In that, the government is going to have to do something about how much it takes from our wages. We have done a lot to take the low paid out of general taxation but you can’t have a dynamic economy unless people have money to spend, save and invest. But this is something that is alien to Corbyn. He thinks we are not taxed enough. It’s difficult to see how that message can connect with middle Britain. In that regard, Labour’s centrists have a point.

But then it’s Brexit that really tells us what’s going on. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. That in its own way is a judgement on London. There is a lack of trust that London will do right by them. The rest of England voted to leave – again in defiance of London.

Politically, economically, socially, London is increasingly divergent from the rest of the country. The political narratives are forged in London. Banking, media and government is all based there. It has spawned its own insular culture that lives in a parallel universe to the rest of us. The political debate in London is one alien to the one happening elsewhere. Policies imposed on the regions have little or no relevance to the distinct problems of the north of England. London has too much power.

While we have seen a largely platitudinal effort to devolve powers to the north the new authorities are again imposed by London and in all likelihood will take power away from councils. Labour should have opposed this, but to them it’s just another elected office to fill and Andy Burnham couldn’t wait to give it a bash. The inherent paternalism of Labour will ensure it is yet another rotten borough just like Birmingham.

We need an agenda to restructure power in Britain. One that gives the public direct control over taxation and spending so that they are in control. An agenda whereby people are trusted to manage their own affairs and give themselves a break when the politicians won’t.

We need a movement that seeks to take the power back to give to the people rather than to take it for themselves so that they can pull the levers of power. And that's not Corbyn. There is nothing at all radical about Corbyn’s Labour. They are the same old paternalists who think things would be better if only they were in charge. It never occurs to them that people are perfectly capable of finding their own way. They are every bit as establishment as Mrs Thatcher’s Tories.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Education needs better ideas than grammar schools

There seems to be a debate about grammar schools. I don't think it matters. A childs education is largely contingent on the amount of effort put in by the parents. A school can make a difference but only if the teaching is good. Grammar schools are no guarantee of that. It just so happens that if parents care enough to get their kids into a selective school they will be mixing with other kids whose parents also give a shit. Obviously that will bring about better results.

Personally, I don't like the idea of grammar schools. I think it leads to social warehousing where the comprehensive schools are stripped of their bright pupils, creating sink hole schools full of kids whose parent simply do not care. Meanwhile, grammar schools gain prestige where it is assumed that one is necessarily better educated by way of what school you went to. This is how we get the "Tim Nice-but-dim" types in the civil service and in all of the top jobs. Stratification in education ultimately damages social mobility in my view.

I think what we have to look at is improving all schools. That is somewhat more challenging. A bad system will lead to bad teaching. If teachers are forced to teach to a test, and to satisfy tick box criteria then stats culture takes hold where it doesn't matter if kids are leaning anything just so long as the metrics say they are. It leads to uninspiring teaching and it drives good teachers out of the system completely. And that is usually the product of state run and maintained schools. They become political footballs to me measured and played with, much like the NHS. Ultimately it is for the parents to judge whether the teaching is effective, not the state.

Somehow we have drifted into a situation where parents withdraw from their role as educators of their own children and consider education the job of the school. The school is only half of it and is mainly there for the purpose of socialising children. A good education comes from knowledgeable and active, curious parents.

Ideally schools must engage pupils. Many drop out of the system not because they are incapable but because they are not challenged, under-stimulated and bored. How can schools adapt to the needs of children when they also have to satisfy a state criteria?

My own education informs my view of stats driven teaching. I was never at all interested in space and astronomy. To this day I find it a deeply dull subject. But somewhere there is a report card showing that I have understood the concepts and and passed the "learning objectives". This is because a science teacher under pressure to push up her averages sat down with me for an hour and explained all the concepts in list form and ticked off the boxes as I confirmed my understanding. None of it has stuck with me and that is not teaching.

Nor is squinting at an OHP to copy out notes about oxbow lakes. I failed Geography simply because I regarded it as thoroughly tedious, yet when taken as a whole the field of geography is and should be one of the most fascinating. It dips into the deeply political and the social and the historical and it ought to be exciting. Having some dullwitted junior teacher have us watch dated Open University videos is an abandonment of a vital subject.

To teach anything effectively you have to have a passion for a subject. It's the only way you can bring dry subjects to life. Conveyor belt teachers straight off the production line who have no real experience outside of the education system are neither role models nor especially inspiring people. Children need far more exposure to real experts in the same way that university students are. Half the challenge of teaching anything is getting kids to see the point of it. Learning is addictive if you are learning toward an objective. In that regard kids need to be able to set their own learning agenda and teachers should be making core subjects relevant to their interests.

What we need is to pull education away from managerialism and integrate schools the wider community and the world of work. Presently they are run as sealed off units that barely interact leaving young people completely bewildered and directionless when they leave school, not knowing what is out there and not knowing what is even possible. Hence why so many are so lacking in ambition.

It seems to me that resurrecting grammar schools is yet one more sign that the establishment is completely out of ideas. Everywhere you look politicians are dusting off tired ideas like renationalising the railways or introducing proportional representation. There is no radicalism or originality and no political courage in seeing through new ideas. As it happens I really like the idea of free schools but I think they will need time to establish and will have to fail a few times in order to learn from their mistakes and innovate.

The problem, as ever, is that those working within the system have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Politicians and authorities cannot resist meddling and the idea that education would be out of state control is anathema to them. And so both sides of the debate dust off their tired old canards and we never see any real improvements.

To get the best education system possible we are going to have to free it of state control and we are going to have to slaughter a few sacred cows. We are also going to have to change the culture where parents are held to account for their lack of input. Schools are only as good as the parental involvement and far too many think that just throwing money at the problem will fix it. That doesn't work. All we get is more waste while we end up overpaying bad teachers who should be drummed out of the profession.

Ultimately I think social mobility should be a main concern. There are too many glass ceilings where your potential is governed more by your class than your ability. We are wasting a vast natural resource in letting talented people slip through the net and condemning them to mediocre lives just because they didn't go to the right school.

I think on balance that if we return to grammar schools we'll just promote middle class ghettos which through sharp elbowed parents will get the lions share of the resources which will be yet another middle class subsidy. Ordinary schools will suffer and we will be engineering an underclass that will ultimately lead to a resurgence of inner city slums where crime is rife.

You can try and persuade me to the contrary as I am open minded about this but it strikes me that grammar schools is just an obsolete sticking plaster idea when what we actually need is a bold revolution in education with some completely fresh thinking.