28 June 2011


The government’s white paper on higher education, unveiled today by David Willetts, contains few surprises. It more-or-less follows the Browne report’s recommendations last year for a university system in which the customer rules supreme. “Student satisfaction” will determine which courses survive and which do not – which in turn will determine which universities survive and which do not. It’s difficult to think of a more depressingly philistine approach to higher education.

I’ve been teaching at universities for the past 20 years, and some of the Willetts/Browne approach makes sense. How students rate their courses matters. They should not be fobbed off with poor teaching or inadequate resources. They have a right to expect regular tutorials, well equipped libraries and decent student halls. Universities should publish details of contact hours students can expect on a course, and they should do their best to present honest statistics about their graduates’ careers and salaries. There should be robust systems available to allow students to express their views of their courses.

But making student satisfaction the be-all and end-all is a recipe for disaster. Education is not a commodity, and pleasing the customer is only part of what it is about. What makes students most happy? A lovely first-class degree! The Willetts/Browne scheme effectively formalises incentives for grade inflation that can only compromise standards. If universities privilege “the student experience” above all else, they give unaccountable power to the whingeing second-rater who thinks she or he deserves a top grade despite having done substandard work - all on the basis of simplistic tick-box questionnaires , completed in minutes, on which lecturers have no comeback – and set up lecturers to encourage non-whingeing students’ positive responses.

And little of it is of any value. I’ve been handing out tick-box feedback forms as a course director for 10 years, and it has been an almost complete waste of time. There have been a handful of occasions when it has flagged up problems with modules of which my course team was already aware – because, hey, we talk to our students and to each other! – but the report of the external examiner and regular course meetings with student reps have always been infinitely more useful in pointing out where we’ve gone wrong (when we have, which isn’t that often).

The root of the problem is that university managers and professional politicians are utterly clueless about what universities actually do. They don’t know the first thing about most of the subjects taught, and they are too lazy – or too busy counting beans - to turn up to lectures to see whether they’re any good. Tick-box feedback has become a means of camouflaging impotence, ignorance and a grotesque breakdown of trust between the people who run higher education institutions and those who actually do the worthwhile work in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms.

There are lecturers who are indolent and incomprehensible, true, but the major problem with higher education right now is that far too much is being spent on bureaucratic back-watchers and careerist hacks and too little on teaching. “Quality assurance” and "the student experience" are nothing but convenient cover for the managers' and ministers' incompetence and stupidity – but they're now the only game in town.

22 June 2011


My thoughts on Labour's policy review.

Stay Keynseian on economic policy
Keep going Ed-Balls-style. Never abandon John Maynard Keynes. We stand for jobs and growth. If we need to tax, we tax the rich  – and if they leave the country, good riddance to parasitic traitorous scum. People first.

Go federal on Europe
Tell it as it is: we need an EU fiscal policy to sort out the Greek mess. Britain should be an enthusiastic supporter of an EU finance ministry and of an EU-wide Keynesian public works programme concentrated on transport and telecommunications infrastructure. Whether we join the euro is another matter, but it shouldn't be ruled out. In the long run, we should be part of a federal Europe. Meanwhile, we need more power for the European Parliament. Its current incumbents are hopeless, but it's the only way to keep the EU bureaucracy under control. People's Europe.

Embrace citizen's income
Abolish pensions and every other benefit – along with income tax allowances – and introduce a flat citizen’s income.Means-testing dies. Everyone gets a basic income every week, then pays tax on everything they earn on top of it – end of story. There would have to be some means-tested supplements for the disabled, and dealing with children and immigrants is an issue … but these are minor details. Everyone deserves a living.

Democratise the state
An elected second chamber is the bare minimum. Add PR for the Commons, elected regional assmblies and a federal consttituion for the UK on the German model and we're moving. Restore local authorities' right to set taxation as they choose. Power to the people.

Axe military spending
Abandon nuclear arms and hi-tech fighter aircraft. They are a monumental waste of money. Spend the cash saved on education and encouraging small businesses. Make peace, not war.

Take it easy on health
Play it by ear. What we’ve got is pretty good and we need to defend it. NHS: keep it free.

Set education free
Abandon the national curriculum and give curriculum control back to local education authorities. Insist they all teach history. Elect local education authorities directly. Set up a libertarian free school in every city. Sack the “quality assurance” bureaucracies in further and higher education and employ more lecturers. Replace student loans with a retrospective graduate tax levied on everyone who has a degree – even those who were at university in the 1950s. Let's learn.

Kick ass on housing
Build council homes and reintroduce rent controls. Set up a private landlord register and nationalise the biggest landlords, then hand over control to democratic housing co-ops. Give mortgage-holders the right to convert their loan into a council tenancy. A home for every household.

Go in hard on transport
Renationalise the railways and introduce serious tax measures to curb the private motor car. Then legislate to make all local bus companies user-controlled co-ops. Move on.

Play it soft on law and order
Keep it under control: there’s no solution. String 'em up, it's the only language they understand.

OK, that’s it. But of course I've been here before.

20 June 2011


The Economist (on the Greece crisis) sums up what's wrong with the EU right now:
Sharing budgetary resources, either through direct transfers or through the issue of “E-bonds” underwritten by the euro area’s taxpayers, is anathema in Germany, where the notion of a “transfer union” in which the better-off subsidise the worse-off is political poison, not least because of the vast transfers from western to eastern Germany since reunification. Northern taxpayers would also recoil from the idea of a future “ministry of finance of the union” which Mr Trichet recently floated.
Actually, what we need is precisely a "transfer union", an EU-wide fiscal policy settlement that does for the struggling economies of the EU periphery just what German unification did for the former German Democratic Republic.  I understand the German right's antipathy to anything of the sort. What I can't fathom is why pro-EU social democratic politicians haven't made the case, at least in principle, even if they're running scared of the populist anti-EU right in electoral contests. And Germany still has obligations to the rest of Europe: remember, ah hem, the Nazis.

9 June 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 June 2011

When the Tories and Liberal Democrats stitched up their coalition a little more than a year ago, my immediate reaction was that it wouldn’t last. OK, the Tories and the Orange Book Lib Dems shared an ideological commitment to the free market and a smaller state – but too much divided the parties for the coalition to hold in the long run: constitutional reform, Europe, civil liberties, defence…” I’ll give it two years at most,” I confidently told a group of friends the day David Cameron and Nick Clegg staged their press conference in the Number Ten rose garden.

I started having second thoughts within a couple of weeks, and by Xmas I’d reached the conclusion that the coalition might just survive the full term. I wavered a bit in the final stages of the alternative vote referendum campaign, when Lib Dem anger at the nastiness of No To AV’s attacks on Clegg nearly boiled over. But in the past month I’ve become ever more convinced that the coalition will last until 2015.

The reason is simple: the Liberal Democrats have nowhere else to go. They were thrashed in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local elections last month, and they are bumping along with 10 per cent support in the opinion polls. In a general election, they would, in the absence of an electoral pact, be reduced to a handful of MPs, and they know it. It’s possible to imagine them leaving the coalition without precipitating an immediate general election. Cameron might in certain circumstances decide to soldier on as prime minister of a minority government. But it’s much more plausible that he’d respond to a Lib Dem walk-out by going to the country. And that is something the Lib Dems will not want for as long as their support is in the doldrums.

So my money is now on the coalition surviving until 2015. Which is when it could start to get really interesting. Let’s assume that in early 2015 the opinion polls are roughly as they are today – a daft assumption in many respects, I accept, but bear with me – with Labour on 41, the Tories on 38 and the Lib Dems on 10. Even with the government’s planned reduction of the size of the House of Commons, that would translate into a small overall Labour majority. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, would be reduced to a rump. How would Cameron respond?

Well, he might just shrug his shoulders and prepare for the election in the expectation that the Tories would overhaul the slim Labour lead during the election campaign and emerge with a Commons majority. That would cause him least grief with his own party – and it would probably work. But it would not be his only option. He could offer the Lib Dems an electoral pact.

Now, there are all sorts of electoral pacts. They can be formal or informal, national or local. There hasn’t been one in Britain, at least for Commons elections, for a very long time (except in Northern Ireland), but they used to be commonplace.

In the early years of the 20th century, Labour and the Liberals agreed not to stand candidates against one another in selected seats – an informal deal that allowed Labour to emerge as a serious electoral force. In 1918, the parties of David Lloyd George’s coalition put together a formal national electoral pact. In the 1920s, the Tories and the Liberals gave each other’s candidates free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out; and in 1931 and 1935, the parties supporting the National government did not stand against one another anywhere. Between 1939 and 1945 there was the wartime agreement among all the main parties not to oppose incumbent parties in by-elections, the so-called electoral truce; and from 1945 until 1959 the Tories and Liberals reverted to their 1920s practice of allowing one another free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out. There’s a strong case for arguing that this saved the Liberals from extinction in 1951: of the six Liberal MPs returned that year, only one, Jo Grimond in Orkney and Shetland, faced a Conservative opponent.

By 1959, Grimond had replaced the ineffectual Clement Davies as Liberal leader and the Tory-Liberal non-aggression pact had dwindled to a couple of seats. It was finally consigned to history by the Orpington by-election of 1962, in which the Liberal Eric Lubbock famously won what had been one of the Tories’ safest seats.

At least, that’s the way it seemed to just about everyone for nearly half a century. But just about everyone could be wrong. Unless there is a radical change in the opinion polls, Cameron has little to lose by offering the Lib Dems a selective non-aggression pact, and the Lib Dems have everything to gain. The Tories agree not to run against Lib Dem ministers and any sitting Lib Dem MP whose main challenger is Labour; and in return the Lib Dems withdraw from selected Labour-Tory marginals. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems do much better under such an arrangement than they would have without it, and the election results either in an outright Tory victory, in which case Cameron can decide whether or not to continue with the coalition, or a majority for the coalition parties, in which case it’s business as usual.

OK, it’s just speculation – but such a scenario is anything but implausible, and it should be setting Labour’s alarm bells ringing. That no one seems to have even thought about it speaks volumes of the cluelessness that is all-pervasive in the party’s upper echelons.

8 June 2011


It seems that the latest Liam Byrne Labour focus groups show that voters who defected from Labour in 2010 are worried about crime and immigration.

I am too. There’s not enough crime around here to create a panic – the odd murder aside – and most of what there is isn’t done by immigrants. Ipswich urgently needs an immigrant crime wave if it is to live up to the expectations of former Labour voters in focus groups.

OK, I know it’s not quite like that. Working-class Brits feel that they are being ripped-off by east Europeans and others coming over here and taking their jobs and homes, as they see it. In fact, Polish window-cleaners and Lithuanian au pairs are just doing work we can’t be arsed to do ourselves, but never mind. Their impact on the housing market is negligible in most of the country. The crime bit of the equation is even more unimportant, because crime is at a very low level historically and the immigrants that are most numerous – the east Europeans – don’t do anything worse than nick the odd turnip when they’re down on their luck. There are a few Somalis doing gangster business with drugs, but it’s hardly a nationwide phenomenon.

In any case:
1. There is no way to stop east Europeans coming over here and working: we’ve signed up for it as part of our membership of the European Union.

2. There is no change to criminal law that would make a blind bit of difference to the scale or pattern of immigration.
So if voters are freaked out about immigration and crime, maybe the best thing is to tell them to calm down?

6 June 2011


Chartist, May-June 2011

'You call yourself a libertarian socialist,' said my girlfriend the other day. 'But what does it actually mean in practice?'

All right, I'd left some washing-up undone – quite a lot, actually – but I was stumped. 'Er,' I replied hesitantly. 'So I'll do the washing-up when I feel like it?' She laughed, but I was embarassed. Thirty years ago, I'd have had a comprehensive answer on the tip of my tongue.

Back in the early 1980s, I believed that the working class could and should seize power for itself in a revolution, that it didn't need a revolutionary party to guide it, and that a self-managed socialist society based on democratically controlled workers' councils was a realistic and desirable objective. It might not happen immediately, but it certainly could in the next 10 or 15 years. Over-optimistic? Not at all. Remember Paris 1968! The washing-up can wait! I wasn't exactly an anarchist and wasn't exactly a council communist, but no one outside Britain's tiny revolutionary libertarian left milieu – 'milieu' was a word we liked – could have told the difference.

I was a member of a small national group, Solidarity, that had been the British affiliate of the French revolutionary socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1960s, and I was a big fan of the founders of S ou B, Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. There was space on my book shelves for plenty of others, however: the Situationists, the Italian workerists, the Frankfurt School , Gyorgy Lukacs, Anton Pannekoek, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, Henri Lefebvre. Then as now, I liked reading.

You could say that my politics were a highbrow version of the TV sit-coms Citizen Smith and The Young Ones – and many of my closest friends made just that point. There was an embarrassingly massive gap between my theory and my practice. I read a lot about revolutions and working-class self-organisation, but my everyday life in the early 1980s, though bohemian in many respects, was far from revolutionary. I did demos and squats and no end of meetings, and was involved in a couple of minor industrial disputes. But nothing came close to Paris 1968. The sex and drugs and rock'n'roll were great, but the revolution existed only in my imagination.

Slowly and unsurely, I adjusted to reality. The landslide Tory victory in the 1983 general election made it clear that the post-war social-democratic welfare state settlement was rather more fragile than I had assumed. A year later, I got a job working for European Nuclear Disarmament, the part of the 1980s movement against nuclear weapons that was least enamoured of the Soviet Union , and found myself mixing more and more with people on the soft left of the Labour Party, with whom I had surprisingly few disagreements. The debacles of the 1984-85 miners' strike and the 1986-87 Wapping dispute finally disabused me of the notion that the class struggle at the point of production was the key to socialist advance. I succumbed to Kinnockite reformism. In 1986, I was hired as reviews editor of Tribune, and soon after that joined the Labour Party. I suppose I've been a Labour reformist libertarian socialist ever since.

But what, as the girl asked, does it actually mean in practice?

Let's start with the negatives. Libertarian socialism entails taking a stand against any strand of authoritarianism anywhere in the world. Leninist mountebanks, New Labour spin-doctors, foreign dictators, Islamist bigots, Christian fundamentalists, CIA assassins, Tory racists, BNP fascists – all are enemies that must be relentlessly tracked down, exposed and never appeased or excused. Every state needs to be monitored constantly on freedom of expression, freedom of organisation and prison conditions – and any state must be denounced loudly whenever it censors its critics, imprisons its writers and trade unionists or tortures its prisoners in dingy cells. Much the same applies to capital: the line is no-holds-barred antagonism to exploitation everywhere in the world.

That, though, is the easy bit. The positives are more difficult. Yes, libertarian socialists can support all the usual liberal good causes, from proportional representation to libel reform, and they can rail against the capitalist system. But there's more to what we stand for than that.

Or there should be. Unfortunately, there's not a lot going on right now in austerity Britain that gets the libertarian socialist juices flowing. The whole political class is enthusing about self-organisation and civil society, but – UK Uncut and student protesters notwithstanding – the popular mood is more sullen and apathetic than at any time in living memory. When you're broke and worried about your job and about keeping up the rent or the payments on your house, you retreat from engagement with politics. David Cameron's 'big society' is nothing more than fraudulent ideological cover for cutting public spending to pay for the bankers' gambling debts. Working people are facing a quite extraordinary squeeze because the big players of finance capital cocked up.

This is where libertarian socialism gets problematic. In an ideal world, I'd like to see co-ops running the local buses and democratic housing associations controlling most rented living spaces – but in the absence of a revolution, which isn't on the agenda, the only context in which it could happen would be a big, generous, redistributive social-democratic state that taxed the rich and used the proceeds to forge a more equal and democratic society. I want that state, I want it now, and I want it more than I want my windows cleaned by a profit-sharing workers' collective.

So although I'm all in favour of do-it-yourself socialist initiatives, I can do without them for now. Like it or not, the priority today is the battle to prevent the destruction of state services by the coalition government, and it's backs-against-the-wall. Maybe that makes me a very unlibertarian orthodox left social democrat – but that's the way it is. Now for that washing-up...

Cross-posted from Chartist.

1 June 2011


I'm spending this evening uploading lots of my old stuff on to Gauche from 20 years ago and more. Apologies if you get alerts via Facebook and Twitter that are less than topical, but I can't work out how to turn off the feed!


Two key moments: 1 Rachel Sylvester in the Times suggesting that the coalition will probably keep going forever. 2 The report showing that young Brits are renting, not buying.