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Twigg and Hardworking Families

‘Liberalism is alive and it’s killing us.’ Maurice Glasman.


Teachers have long been acutely aware that schools are expected to cure the ills of the society in which they operate, whilst simultaneously being at fault for their existence in the first place. Schools, you see, are solely responsible for the development of our children, so when anything goes wrong it must be because schools have not taught x, or because they have taught y, or because they’re institutionally opposed to z, and so forth. There was a time when schools were deemed to exist in order to assist parents in the education of their children. For our political classes at least, that time has long gone  – a consensus has emerged that schools exist to actually parent our children, too.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago when Michael Gove announced his plans to further nationalise parenting, were he to receive anything like a critical analysis from his own benches then ‘small c conservatives’ would have been implacably opposed to plans to turn schools into childcare units, complete with longer days, shorter holidays, summer camps and sleepovers. They would see that Gove had once again overstepped the line between parental responsibility and state assistance, and been suspicious of the pious cries of ensuring kids ‘get a good start’ or helping families ‘juggle family life and work commitments’.  As I argued then, were this proposed a decade ago by a government of the left it would have been greeted with wild speculations as to the sinister intent of the state wishing to insert itself further into family life, inching further toward the nationalisation of parenting.

Well, Stephen Twigg, never one to knowingly oppose the substance of any Govian doctrine, has chosen to follow in his idol’s loafered wake.  For Twigg, schools are not places to educate children, but childcare facilities where children also get educated. This means that schools should be supporting families by ensuring their own organisation doesn’t make life any more difficult for the needs of their customers. So far, so tiresomely predictable – one liberal supporting the analysis of another. But in so doing, Twigg demonstrates the extent to which the current Labour crop have long given up the intellectual fight with that which they claim to oppose.

And so, in the interests of keeping the markets serviced with reliable labour, Twigg thinks the state should take on more parenting, since the demands of parenting are after all inconvenient for the employers of those who were self-absorbed enough to have had children in the first place.  In a world where people have to work longer for diminishing returns, fewer and fewer have the economic freedom to reject the call of the factory floor. Twigg’s response? Use the power of the state to ensure that any lingering impediments to that call are removed or mitigated.  

This is not the Labour tradition as I know it. Labour of old recognised the central importance of the family and looked for ways to facilitate the flourishing of it, not bypass it as an inconvenience to an employer. Indeed, Labour once criticised what it then referred to as ‘the capitalist system’ precisely in the name of defending the family from the demands of the market system. Or as one tweeter neatly put it, Twigg seeks to help ‘hardworking families’ by concentrating on the working rather than the family.
To be fair to Twigg, Labour have form on this – they have long thought helping the family is achieved by paying for parents to spend less time with it. It’s why that huge swathe of people who desperately wish they had the freedom to choose to spend time at home with their kids find little solace in Labour, entirely focused as they are on making external childcare cheaper instead.

And as with all irony, there is an element of delusion in this: Labour genuinely seem to think that in offering such a solution they are putting themselves on the side of working people. Mr Twigg says as much himself: ‘This will give all parents of primary school children the certainty that they can access childcare from 8am-6pm through their school. A clear message to hard working parents: Labour is on your side.’ Unless, of course, those hardworking parents happen to wish they didn’t have to work so bloody hard and miss their children growing up as a consequence. Indeed, the mournful lament of parents wishing they could spend less time with family and more time at work is all one hears at the school gates. Well, drinks all round: their prayers have been answered today.

If ever there was a bogeyman capitalist, a snarling, moustachioed, pocketwatch checking factory owner who resented the existence of anything that might stop workers from being co-opted into ever longer hours on the factory floor, then that man would be sending a thank you note to Mr Twigg right now. One gets the impression that were a contemporary Bob Cratchit to complain about having to work on Christmas Day, Mr Twigg might just think the best way to support him would be to abolish Christmas.

Of course, this will matter little to Twigg – he has convinced himself that this is what will help families, trapped as he is within a liberal paradigm that sees the duties and commitments that real life brings with it as inconveniences to be overcome rather than the things that given any meaning to life whatsoever. No, freedom is the freedom to work, which means freedom from any obstacle to doing so, to becoming a productive economic unit, to helping Britain get ‘back on track’.  And those staff, most likely low paid, who will end up staffing the school during the extended opening hours, seeing less of their own family as a result, are collateral to that – but then, Labour has long become comfortable in using the low paid to service its liberalism.
And so we have it, that on the same day that Ed Miliband announced that his vision of education is the precise opposite of Michael Gove’s, Stephen Twigg issues details of a speech whereby he not only embraces a Govian policy of his own, but accepts wholesale the analysis to which it is a response. A Tory Education Secretary that wishes to further nationalise parenting sharing an analysis and a proposed solution with a Labour shadow Education Secretary that wants to put the demands of market over the demands of loved ones.

And they say they’re all the same, eh?
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Postliberal Paralysis

Reading through David Goodhart’s recent Standpoint article the other day, an old irony lying at the heart of the postliberal impulse presented itself once more – those who represent the views of a great number all too often find themselves presented as extreme and outside the mainstream.

When Goodhart decided to turn his critical eye on the assumptions that lay behind the support of mass immigration, he would have had the instinctive support of many a Labour voter – and yet he acted as a lone wolf, a cry in the wilderness provoking a reaction that would have (and often did) encourage many other a sceptic to keep their head down. 

All of which gives the impression that any challenge to the liberal establishment is itself the action of either a defunct intellect or a defunct soul. And so, years since this (still-)emerging critique of liberalism began to find expression (I’d go back generations, but for the sake of argument…), there yet exists no discernible outlet for its expression beyond the courage of the few who are granted a (usually hostile) audience. Those who take on the mantle of agitating against the zeitgeist mostly find themselves calling out to a loose and anonymous coalition of the aggrieved. And with it another irony: a group of folk who instinctively cherish institutions have proven useless at reclaiming and, more pressingly, generating them.

Which means that for those who find postliberalism articulating something close to their own concerns, there are no discernible structures through which to channel their energy – no mere coincidence, then, that postliberalism often identifies with and shares the assumptions and concerns of precisely that group of people who have long abandoned politics in despair. Zeal of the converted wasted, resilience of the believer squandered.

And so postliberalism loses its relational edge, possessing no formal organ (for it is not a formal movement) for engaging or galvanising those, of many a political hue, who share their analysis. That group who instinctively appeal to the relational as an alternative account of the social and the civic yet have no wider structure to generate and facilitate relations between those of a similar mind. For any individual critical of mainstream liberal presumption, establishing connections with the similarly-minded is a minefield with real consequences for misjudging a situation and expressing a heretical opinion (small example: the amount of people I know, of both genders, who are critical of AWS yet dare not utter it publicly). Perhaps we postliberals, then, need our own version of the Ichthys. Perhaps we should look to create it.

Of course, the very nature of the postliberal outlook means that the criteria for success are somewhat different from the standard political trinkets signifying orthodox power and influence. Whilst one might become frustrated at the manner in which challenges to liberal presumption are still presented as the quirks of the mad or mean, nonetheless valuable work is taking place reconnecting with grassroots, influencing particular kinds of institutions from the ground upwards, forging relationships around a vision of what would make life better. This, understandably, stays below the media radar.

Yet higher structures and organisations are important too, from the perspective of both civic society and political calculation. After all, it is through institutions that one reaffirms an existence within, and commitment to, the civic and those initiatives designed to enhance it, as well as constructing a shelter from which to challenge lazy liberal presumption in a manner less akin to sending Daniel wandering, lonely, into the Lion’s Den. Some are cut out for that, and will reappear unharmed to influence the wider debate, but not all are, and might rediscover their voice, and their interest, in the company of the like-minded.

And so the Long March must commence, both through the institutions and, where they do not exist, through new ones. And since liberalism is at the core of the three mainstream parties, so its intellectual critique draws support from all political traditions and none. But then, that’s the nature of a movement – establishing communities of interest that unite a diverse range of folk in pursuit of a better alternatives to those currently available. All of which those who identify as postliberal instinctively understand.  Meaning that the postliberal paralysis might just be cured by putting into practice its very own insights.