29 January 2010

UP TO A POINT, COMRADE

Paul Anderson, review of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating by Frank Furedi
(Continuum, £14.99), Tribune, 29 January 2010


Frank Furedi is the leading light of that strange, strange group around the website spiked online and the Institute of Ideas that used to be the Revolutionary Communist Party way back in the 1980s and turned into LM magazine in the 1990s. Starting off as (fairly) orthodox Trotskyists, with a penchant for the Provisional IRA and anti-fascist street-fighting, they have transmogrified into a bunch of media-savvy contrarians whose place on the political spectrum is hard to define.

They’re still very much of the Leninist left in their visceral anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism – and at least to my knowledge they have never disavowed the crazily pro-Serb position they took in the 1990s that led them, notoriously, to claiming that entirely genuine pictures of Bosnian Muslims in a Serb prison camp that had appeared on TV and in newspapers throughout the world were faked. But on GM foods and climate change they’ve taken a line aggressively at odds with the left-environmentalist consensus – and they’ve been pretty-much libertarian on issues of censorship and free speech and on migration. On parenting and education, there’s a strong current of traditionalism in their ideas.

It’s a weird mix that few would swallow wholesale, but at least they’re not afraid to go against the grain – and for the most part they argue their case with some sophistication and verve. Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, is their most prolific writer and thinker and also the most stimulating, particularly on education. As well as writing weekly on spiked online and turning out a hefty book every year or so, he’s a regular in the pages of Times Higher Education, where he has been a trenchant critic of – among other things – the philistine managerialism now dominant in British universities and the dangers inherent in treating students as customers.

His new book, Wasted, had been widely trailed, and my expectation was that it would develop some of the themes he has pursued in THE and elsewhere. It does, up to a point, but it’s essentially about schools, not universities.

Furedi, ever the contrarian, argues that school education is failing because the whole political and educational establishment has lost sight of the primary function of education, which is to transfer humankind’s knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. Instead of valuing education for its own sake, all the emphasis in contemporary schools is on equipping students for life after they leave school, whether as workers, consumers or citizens.

“Old-fashioned” and “useless” “subjects” are replaced in the curriculum by “relevant” and “useful” “themes”. The authority of the teacher is relentlessly reduced as his or her role becomes that of “child-centred” therapist and agent of socialisation rather than imparter of knowledge. Children’s respect for teachers is undermined, discipline breaks down, parents start panicking about the standard of schools, there’s more and more pressure to teach to the test … and so government comes up with fresh initiatives that unintentionally further dilute the intellectual rigour of schooling.

There is a lot of sense here, and anyone who teaches “traditional” subjects at A-level or lectures at a university will recognise the phenomenon of students who are exemplary in their work-related personal skills (punctual, polite, neat CV), conscientious in their environmentalism and tolerance of diversity, sensible in their eating, drinking and non-smoking – but also utterly uninterested in intellectual debate and incapable of seeing the point of simply knowing more. Furedi makes his case well, though the book lacks empirical back-up and is too long. Inside this volume is a thinner extended essay waiting to get out.

22 January 2010

IT’S TOO LATE FOR LABOUR TO GO FOR ELECTORAL REFORM

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 January 2010

Reforming the voting system is an anorak thing most of the time – but every now and again it breaks out of the closet, as it has in the past few months.

A year ago, electoral reform was barely on the agenda. Labour had won three elections in a row promising a referendum on the way we vote for MPs, and in government it had introduced different versions of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly. Roy Jenkins had laboured mightily during Labour’s first term to produce a report recommending a more proportional system for electing the Commons, published in 1998. But the promised referendum on the Commons voting system had not happened – and since becoming prime minister Gordon Brown had given no indication of interest in it.

Then, however, came the MPs’ expenses scandal – and suddenly electoral reform once again lurched into view. There were letters in the papers and petitions demanding change. At last autumn’s Labour conference Brown promised a referendum on the voting system to allow voters to choose between the first-past-the-post status quo and the alternative vote (in which you have single member constituencies and mark your ballot paper “1, 2, 3, 4” in order of preference instead of “X”). And last month, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said the government would legislate before the general election for such a referendum. Cue more letters in the papers and, of course, a backlash against the referendum among Labour MPs – apparently led by Ed Balls, the schools secretary – culminating in a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday that seems to have come to no conclusion whatsoever.

I’ve been an anorak on electoral reform for getting on for 25 years, but I’m afraid I’ve found it a bit difficult to get worked up about it this time round.

On one hand, what’s most likely to be on offer (if anything) is deeply unattractive. A multi-choice referendum with the options of the status quo, the alternative vote and a proportional electoral system would be fine. But a choice between first-past-the-post and AV is not. AV is not a system of proportional representation – and it’s not a step towards PR. Indeed, in many respects it’s worse than first-past-the-post when it comes to reflecting the spread of opinion in the electorate: voting “1, 2, 3, 4” and redistributing preferences means that the least unpopular candidate wins in every constituency. Big deal!

On the other hand, it’s a bit late for Labour to be changing the voting system. Yes, it’s a matter of democratic principle, and yes, I’ve signed the petitions, but legislating for potential change now, with a general election imminent and Labour 10 points behind in the opinion polls, smacks of desperate opportunism.

What ought to have happened is easy enough to spell out. Labour should have agreed in 1994 or 1995 to propose a sweeping new constitutional settlement for the UK in its first term, with proportional representation for Westminster elections integrated with a democratic second chamber based on regional and national devolution – so that, when implemented, we’d have had something like the federal republic of Germany as our political system. Of course, that’s just a bit too neat: there are plenty of things in the German basic law that wouldn’t have worked for Britain, not least because we’ve got three stroppy Bavarias to contend with, hazy boundaries to regional identities in England and a monarchy (at least in stage one) ... but you get my drift.

The idea of a “big package” constitutional revolution was first given traction by Stuart Weir, Anthony Barnett and others who set up Charter 88 in the wake of the 1987 general election. They were dismissed at first by the Labour leadership – Neil Kinnock famously described them as a bunch of “whiners, whingers and wankers” – but Kinnock and others gradually came round. By 1993, a Labour Party commission headed by Raymond Plant had recommended an end to first-past-the-post Westminster elections – and with a democratic Lords and devolution to Scotland and Wales solid Labour policy under John Smith (and John Prescott winning the argument on regional government for England in Labour circles), it looked as if a Labour government just might do the business.

Instead, Smith died, and Tony Blair decided that constitutional questions were a diversion. The focus groups didn’t see them as a priority. Labour rowed back from electoral reform and promised referendums galore on devolution. Lords reform was watered down.

What was left by 1997 was worth having, particularly devolution to Scotland and Wales. But the government lost all momentum on the constitution by 2001– both on Lords reform, which was appallingly fudged and then put out for endless consultation, and on electoral reform, on which nothing happened after Jenkins produced his report. English regionalism breathed its last as a cause (at least for now) after a farcical referendum in the north-east voted no to a regional assembly in 2004.

It is a sorry story of opportunities missed – and it would be great if the government could make amends, just a little, in the next couple of months. But something tells me that this is going to be one for the Labour manifesto after next.

16 January 2010

LEFT LUGGAGE

Paul Anderson, review of The Left at War by Michael Bérubé (New York University Press, £19.99), Tribune, 15 January 2010

“Whither the left?” books are an acquired taste, but once you’ve got it you can’t help yourself. My bookshelves are groaning with volumes, mostly deservedly long-forgotten, outlining how the left has got it wrong and what it must do next, the oldest of which go back to the French revolutionary era when the idea of a left-right divide in politics first took hold.

Whatever, the past year has not been a great one for the genre – at least in the Anglophone world. In the UK, the great debate, if that’s what it was, on the left’s response to 9/11 and the British government’s decision to join the US in invading Afghanistan and Iraq has become repetitive and boring. And it’s too early for polemical retrospectives on the New Labour years. (Who knows? They might not yet be over.) In the US, nearly all eyes are on Barack Obama, and it’s too soon to know what to think unless you made up your mind before he was elected.

Michael Bérubé, an academic who teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State University and is that rare thing in the US, a self-confessed social democrat, hasn’t much to say about Obama except that he hopes for the best. But he does have a take on Afghanistan and Iraq (and on Bosnia and Kosova) that goes beyond trotting out the old arguments for and against.

His line is that different parts of the left had (and have) radically different philosophies when it comes to the US and its allies using military force against rogue regimes that oppress their people and harbour or promote terrorists. There’s a “Manichean left” that says all intervention is evil imperialism (Noam Chomsky, John Pilger et al); a “liberal hawk” left – or maybe ex-left – that in the end backs any intervention against such regimes (Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen et al); and a “democratic left” that bases its judgments on evidence and international law, sometimes backing intervention and sometimes not.

Like me, Bérubé supported intervention in the Balkans and in Afghanistan but not in Iraq, and he sees himself as a spokesman for the “democratic left”. But although I’m coming from pretty much the same starting point, I’m not entirely convinced. A lot of what Bérubé says is on the money. His chapter on the “Manichean left” is a competent demolition of Chomsky and of the Leninist and anarchist anti-imperialist hard left, though it is far from comprehensive. He is incisive on the worst excesses of the “liberal hawks”. And his idea that knee-jerk counter-culturalism is an endemic problem on the left is spot-on.

But … well, he doesn’t get any of it quite right and then goes off on a tangent. He over-eggs the case against the war to topple Saddam (without, however, deploying one of the most important anti-intervention arguments, that, if Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction, it would have been irresponsibly risky taking on Saddam). Then he under-eggs the case for getting rid of Saddam, which was – yes, really – a lot stronger than he claims. And, after that, he brushes aside the argument, made by the anti-war signatories of the Euston Manifesto – remember that! – who said that once the invasion had happened it was stupid to continue wittering about whether it should have taken place in the first place. This isn’t an unprincipled position. In politics you always start from where you are.

The second half of the book is a let-down, all about how marvellous Stuart Hall, the guru of British cultural studies and of Marxism Today from the late 1970s until the 1990s, was and is, and how the left would be OK if only it re-read Hall’s work on Thatcherism and applied it to the present. I am a great admirer of Hall, and I think Bérubé is right to say (a) that there’s no point in fighting the last decade’s battles yet again and (b) that old-style hard leftism is the worst kind of dead-end.

But he could have put it better, and I have a horrible feeling that, in the UK at least, what he warns against is what’s going to be happening on the left for at least five years.

7 January 2010

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT - 1,348

On two things, and they are important ones, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt are right. Labour would stand a better chance in the next election if Gordon Brown were not leader. And now – or rather some point in the next month – is realistically the last point at which he can be replaced.

But what a ridiculous way to go about trying to replace him. Because of the Labour leadership’s desire in the early 1990s to make it impossible for an incumbent Labour prime minister to be challenged by disaffected Labour MPs, when the rules for leadership elections were last changed only one means of challenging a leader in government was laid down: a vote in favour of an election by party conference. Even in opposition, the only other way for a leadership election to be triggered is for 20 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party – an extraordinarily high threshold given the leader’s powers of patronage – to nominate a particular candidate.

Of course, if a substantial number of Labour MPs voted no confidence in Brown he would be put in an impossible position and would be forced to resign, thereby creating a vacancy, under which other rules apply. (Essentially, an interim leader would be appointed by the National Executive Committee or the NEC would agree a timetable for a quick leadership contest as it did in 2007.) But six months or less before a general election, it was and is never going to happen, let alone on a secret ballot.

Like it or loath it, the only way that Gordon will go is if he decides to go of his own accord – and there has never been any sign that he has given it any thought. It might once have been possible to dream of persuading him to change his mind by gentle persuasion, but it certainly isn’t now. All Hoon and Hewitt have managed is to diminish Labour’s already vanishingly small electoral chances.
  • I missed this from the BBC's Paul Mason, which seems to me to sum up the politics of the moment quite well, though it is schematic.