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A Letter to (those leaving) Labour

So, Corbyn wins. And lots of people are unhappy about it. We know this, because lots of people are tweeting and blogging about How Very Unhappy they are about it. Some have even taken the time to curate their tweets into mini-testimonies, kindly enunciating the precise reasons for their discontent, laced with gloomy predictions for the future. They love Labour, you see – let there be no doubt – and they can’t bear to see what is happening to it. It is surely better, then, to abandon it altogether.

And so, they leave. Noisily. With all the fanfare that can be mustered.

But the question is: why now? What makes the party so unbearable, at this precise moment, that you cannot stay? Oh I know you feel marginalised and disillusioned – so do I – but that’s normal in politics right? I mean, it’s not as if this hasn’t been going on in the Labour Party for the last couple of decades. Indeed, some of you actively cheered it. The price of ‘modernisation’, apparently.

Or maybe we could come at this from another direction: why did you not resign when the party was decimating its working-class support? Why did you not feel so strongly when traditional Labour communities were feeling so systematically ignored? Indeed, so systematically despised? Why did you value your membership over your conscience then?

What you’re feeling now, you have put others through. And many of them left, often into the arms of UKIP, abandoning the political inheritance of their forefathers in the process. The result? To further embolden those who had brought about that very alienation, to give them a free pass, thereby turning Labour into a puritanically liberal party, no longer able to reach out to that core base, nor even deem it desirable to do so.

And the results – socially, politically – have been disastrous.

Do you expect your departure to be any different? Do you expect it will bring forth a bout of reflection, of regret, of penance from those who wave you goodbye? Do you expect that reason will pierce through the groupthink and sense will suddenly dawn amongst the newly victorious? Not a bit of it. It didn’t then, and it won’t now.

And only one party benefits from that.

In other words, walking away really doesn’t help. I’m not saying I don’t understand it – we give our limited time freely, after all – but the oh-so-very-public departures have more than just a whiff of showboating about them. To the outside, it looks like a group of people who hollowed out our party are flouncing off now that their own dominance is under attack. Unfair? Well, prove otherwise. With actions, not words.

We can all beat our chests and mournfully declare the party is going the wrong way, that we’ll never win an election, that the future holds nothing but defeat and despair. Which may well be true. But that likelihood takes on the character of certainty once we all walk away from it. Besides, you helped create this mess; you have a responsibility to stick around and fix it.

Or leave. But save me the pious speeches as you slip out of the exit door.

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Should Catholics want more Catholic schools?

This article appeared on the Catholic Herald website in September 2016. Read it here.

For all we are told about Theresa May’s cautious nature, her recent approach to education certainly has the air of the renegade about it. Forthcoming Tory plans for our schools have a little bit for everyone to be either angry or enamoured by, with the possible return of grammar schools making the early running in the Look At How Very Outraged I Am education debate.

Still, buried away in the same legislative package is a proposal to lift the grossly unfair cap on admissions for faith-based free schools, a policy that had led to the Catholic education sector simply declining to take up the offer to develop the free-school model. Cue outrage, as all the old anti-Catholic prejudices – particularly acute within education – reared their foam-mouthed, swivel-eyed heads.

And yet, for all one might wish to advocate Catholic education, and the ethos and spirit which underpins it, one might yet sound a note of caution before embracing the idea that this should present the opportunity, let alone the desire, for a huge expansion in the Catholic school sector. The ideological case might be there – the pragmatic case, less so.

In a Catholic school, the Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher, and the Head of RE must be practising Catholics. This is a bare minimum – a skeletal requirement. In a school of 1,500 pupils and hundreds of staff and governors, three individuals on the teaching staff is not really very many. In addition, the Chair of Governors ought to be a practising Catholic, and the governing body must be composed of 51%+ foundation governors, all practising Catholics, appointed by the Bishop.

Which brings us to the meaning of ‘practising Catholic.’ This is defined (broadly) as being in union with the Church, both privately and publicly, on matters of faith and morals, and possessing a willingness to live by and profess the same – not a relative judgement, but an objective one. That is not to say applicants have to be perfect – how could it? – so the point is more about resolve than perfect attainment. And since one can never judge the depths of a soul, the only evidence used to ascertain whether or not someone is a practising Catholic is through the assessment of the ‘substantive life choices’ of the candidate.

But this can, and does, cause problems. Finding sufficient applicants with the skills and experience to become leaders is difficult enough; finding sufficient applicants who also meet the faith-based qualifying criteria all the more so. Indeed, in many places it is a challenge that cannot always be met. For those schools in desperate need of candidates to fill posts, this presents an obvious and understandable dilemma.

The result? A grey area, enabling a certain flexibility if one asks only certain questions and studiously avoids others. In other words, a certain amount of ‘playing the game’ emerges, and since eligibility is most easily demonstrated through external observance, through a collection of ‘substantive life choices’ that evidence a practising faith, so the Mass becomes the best place to display those qualificatory benchmarks. So that a sudden zeal, perhaps even conversion, presents itself immediately prior to an application, whilst a puzzling hiatus follows it. Our Lord, in the Blessed Sacrament, becomes a bauble on a CV.

This is why the free schools issue presents something of a headache. I am in favour of free schools and think Catholic ones present a wonderful opportunity for reform. But as an opportunity for expansion, they could prove an act of collective self-harm.

In short, we are already over-capacity. We already have real difficulty in training and attracting the individuals required to lead the schools we have. A whole host of new Catholic free schools would only dilute that pool still further, and further encourage institutions to exist in that grey area in its recruitment of candidates for leadership posts. Indeed, a rapidly decreasing pool of applicants might even encourage diocesan education services, and the Bishops’ Conference which directs them, to suggest the very same. So that our schools, already under such pressure to bend the knee to the secular, would be further incentivised to do so.

The impact would be to further erode the capacity to insist on that very thing which underpins our best and most authentic schools. Or, put another way: in our desperation to maintain and expand presence, we would have to dilute who we are and what we believe in order to do so, and thus become less than the very thing we were hoping to expand.

Catholic schools, on the whole, do an excellent job, precisely because of the Catholic educational philosophy and ethos which underpins them. It would be wrong to think that this could just be uprooted and planted elsewhere, with the effect assuredly replicated. Labelling a school as ‘Catholic’ means little: it is the spirit that enlivens that is everything. As Bishop Stock put it in his paper outlining the fundamentals of Catholic education, a Catholic school, to be authentically Catholic, must have ‘Christ at the Centre.’

We need to ask ourselves whether an expansion of the Catholic education sector would help or hinder that ambition.

 

Feminists and working-class boys

If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the professionals you will come across in your formative years are women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the authority figures you come across in your formative years will be women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that your experience of women/girls during your formative years is that they are generally the high achieving and successful ones.

Unlike you. And your mates.

If you are a working class boy, there is also every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are proving less than successful in life. If you are a working class boy, there is every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are underemployed and undereducated.  If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that the places you are most likely to come across successful males – secondary school, celebrity culture and the professional services – seem so remote, sometimes even antagonistic, to your own everyday experiences as to be almost alien.

We paint in broad brush strokes, of course, but there is justification, if only to tease out the central point. The idea that women are systematically disadvantaged in society might well be true. For this reason, we might well deem it morally justified to address this, through our politics, through our legal system, through our education system, through our cultural norms and practices.

But by the frames of reference available to working class boys, this can so often seem only to contradict lived reality. And if we then sit them down and tell them that they are part of the privileged, the winners in society, such that their interests must at times be circumvented to help girls and women be more successful, to achieve, to succeed in life – what do we expect the reaction to be? To feel engaged in eradicating injustice, or to feel even more alienated? To feel empowered, or further disenfranchised? To feel magnanimous, or further slighted?

Working class boys have it pretty tough, though there is little political capital in making the improvement of their condition a priority. And if one has already accepted that gender must trump class, then there is little moral reason to do so either.

In the meantime, we have a generation and more of working-class boys becoming a sink subsection of society, developing into the kind of men that only confirms the worst suspicions of those who would so readily write them off. We must not deny moral agency here: oftentimes this is of their own making, engaged in a downward spiral, formed within a cultural landscape marked by precisely that transience and insecurity that shapes a view of life and living that schooling and learning is failing to counter. And which only further feeds into that feeling of alienation, that perpetually unsuccessful attempt at the art of living well.

The result? Disengaged, angry young men. Lots of them. It is no surprise that this is beginning to shape our politics.

The condition of working-class girls is an essential part of this story, though it is legitimate to question how effectively feminism has captured this reality. I am from a northern working-class family in which the women are hard, authoritative, confident – though their concerns seem a world away from the attentions of academics and professionals, that which characterises the principal cultural and political expressions of feminism. My point is not that we must therefore choose between the two, but allow as valid a space where other narratives might appear.

And one of those narratives might be the impact social changes – economic and cultural – have had on working-class boys and men. We might think these changes worthwhile, worthy, fully justified, but we must also take account of the experiences of those on the sharp-end of such progress. Maybe a working-class feminism would better capture an understanding of the needs of working-class boys too. Maybe it wouldn’t. I really don’t know.

But what is clear is that working-class boys are struggling. Economically, socially, culturally, they are fast becoming a dalit class. We cannot claim to be a society that seeks justice if we stand blindly by and allow it to happen. And if feminism is really the best vehicle we have for providing an account of the way gender interacts and impacts on one’s place in society, then maybe there are grounds for hope. Because this seems to be precisely what working-class boys need right now. Maybe, then, working-class boys need feminists too. I suppose the question is: would feminists be willing to address that need?

A Letter to (liberal) Labour

So you feel disenfranchised? Alienated? Like your party has been stolen from you? That you have no voice? That you are not welcome? Not valued? Feel that nobody is willing to listen, let alone talk about your concerns? That your political home has been taken over by those hostile to you? That your contribution to the history and indeed DNA of the party has been re-written? Ignored? Mocked? Despised? That without your help, and your support, the party would never have had the success it has? And yet your party now scorn people like you? Call you appalling names? Render your views outside the mainstream?

Sh*t, isn’t it?

But you did that too. Whilst you were in charge, you did the very same. And here’s the thing: given half the chance, you still would. Indeed, you still do. You’ve learned nothing. If the response to the referendum has shown us anything, it showed us that. You might wail now, but you are simply on the end of the same treatment you dished out to others for so long. You remain as convinced of your own superiority as are those that now displace you; if you hadn’t been, they would never have had chance to replace you. And every time you seek to grab the party back, to regain the levers of power, you do it whilst re-asserting the same. For those you disenfranchised, you are no better option. The worm has turned – you need those whom you made feel so unwelcome for so long; but they no longer need you. So many of them have somewhere else to go now. And the guilt and blame for that lies at your door as much as anyone.

The new politics isn’t left and right. The new politics, and a lot of the old politics, is defined by this:

 

 

But here’s the thing – if your politics is solely about clubbing together with those in the right-hand column against those in the left, then you’ve already lost. And this is what you’ve done. This is how you’ve defined yourself, measured yourself. Any appeals to common ground that cannot bridge this divide is no appeal to common ground at all. You wouldn’t even be willing to unpick the threads, to see what’s going on. Your only explanation is moral degeneracy or intellectual retardation or both. Bigots or blaggards, all of them. You smugly proclaim, eyebrows raised, that the Hard Left would sooner die in a ditch that compromise on their ideals. But so would you. Every bit as much. Indeed, this is exactly what you have done. Exactly what you are doing.

And yet, for all that, you are right. The country needs a Labour government. An actual Labour government. Which means we need you. Those who put themselves on the left need to come together. Which means you need those you despise. To find common ground, as the cliché goes. Though to be honest, for all you proclaim it, I’m not convinced you really believe those words. Or could deliver on it. Or would deliver it, even if you could.

And so we have a mess. Labour is dead. Long live Labour.

 

 

Losing the Working Class

Re-posted from the Catholic Herald blog. The original can be read here

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Labour is the party of the working class. We weren’t supposed to end up despised by them. We weren’t supposed to end up despising them.

But here we are. After decades spent embracing the creeds and infrastructure of liberalism, we are at a juncture which threatens our very existence. Labour’s doctrines have delivered a fractured civic space – we can no longer build coalitions, for where we once saw comrades we now convince ourselves there are only villains.

It is the startling descent into misanthropy and insult which hurts most.That moment when Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a “bigot” was but a scratching of the surface. The demographic most enthusiastic about voting Leave have been dismissed as racist or xenophobic for years, but it is only in the last few days, following the referendum, that I have seen the very legitimacy of their suffrage questioned – the prosperous, well-educated liberal left, summoning Victorian-era paternalism to question the wisdom of giving votes to the ill-educated.

Of course, this chasm between party and people is of surprise only to those cloistered away amongst the like-minded. Much has been made of the demographic divide between the two competing mindsets prior to the referendum. But turning this into one-dimensional face-off between the haves and the have-nots presumes an irresolvable conflict. That’s too pessimistic: there is a way out of our current malaise.

But we first need to understand what has gone wrong. It can be summed up in a word: liberalism.

This has been the central insight of the movement that coalesced around the name Blue Labour. Building upon foundations laid by Phillip Blond and his Red Tory analysis, its central claim was clear: to use the succinct words of Maurice Glasman, ‘Liberalism is alive – and it’s killing us.’

Blue Labour provided an account of the impact of liberalism upon our relationships, from the economic to the social to the romantic to the filial.  Liberty defined over and against the duties and obligations we owe one another, we contended, served only to loose the ties that bind our futures together. In a barren, empty landscape, free of obstructions, cold winds blow unfettered – and it has been the poorest who have felt the chill most keenly.

In a world in which our futures compete and do not cohere, we have found it difficult to forge a politics for all, since we have convinced ourselves that not all have a place in our politics. Labour embraced the new liberalism more keenly than any, first socially, and then in the realm of economics, in so doing surrendering its conservative defence of the family and society against the excesses of market and power.

Offering to patch up the victims with state largesse has proven insufficient. People want livelihood, stability and dignity, whilst all we offer is low-grade subsistence delivered with a slight sneer at a class of people quietly deemed unfit for this newly globalised world. It is quite an irony: in proclaiming “diversity”, we have become homogenous, no longer able to even understand the language of our comrades, let alone speak it.

Until it boils over. And then everybody has a theory about what has gone wrong and why. Most of these analyses consist in reinforcing much of that which has brought us to the precipice. Those who presided over the years in which Labour became so very distant from its core communities are now the ones seeking to lay all the blame at the door of its current leader. By trying to make this about Jeremy Corbyn, Labour are leading themselves away from a truth they must confront: this is about Labour.

And so the gap lengthens, and the people have turned from exasperation to active hostility. And we, as a party, have made ourselves unable to respond. Whatever happens next will be historic in the future of Labour. If, after whatever happens next, we still have a party called Labour. Either way, one thing is certain. There is a new politics. One wonders if a new party might be needed to meet it.

#IVotedLeave

What follows was originally intended for publication on the TES website. Following concerns about the phrasing of a particular paragraph, specifically the comments of Ann Mroz at the TES Awards evening last night, this did not happen. Whilst taking on board those concerns, I have decided to publish here the final draft suggestion as it stood, in addition to the original comments to which a modification was offered. Whilst I accept that there is ambiguity, I also maintain that my paraphrase is broadly justified. I will also post the video of Ann’s speech below – please do watch and form your own judgement. If, in time and with further reflection, I come to the view that I have indeed misinterpreted or misrepresented comments, I will happily amend accordingly.

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Great Yarmouth, 71.5%. Middlesbrough, 65.5%. Blackpool, 67.5%. Blaenau Gwent, 62%. Thurrrock, 72.3%. The North East, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, the East Midlands, the West Midlands, the South West, the South East, the East, even Wales.

This is not some rump. This is a majority, spread across an entire country.

The reaction of some amongst the teaching profession has been disappointing. Racism, xenophobia, Leave voters as thick, or deluded, or misled – nothing has been off the table. For some, there evidently exists the belief that only they can see through media spin and cast their vote rationally, an act beyond the abilities of the poor dupes voting Leave. One need not dwell too long on the dangers inherent in such thinking: the demonization and viewpoint delegitimisation of a whole swathe of people is probably not a value that, in our more sober moments, we would seek to pass on to our students.

For some, it is worse still. Alongside the various proclamations that teachers must now work to (re-)educate our students to eradicate such impulses from our schools, I am also told that [edited out once the video became available] the opening of the TES Awards included suggestions from the editor of this publication that teachers must address the kind of thinking that underpinned the arguments of Leave it was the responsibility of teachers to counter the kind of thinking that could move someone to vote Leave. The motivating factors, it appears, could only have been malign. Like a real-time exemplification of Haidt’s Righteous Mind thesis, that there might exist a worldview, indeed a value system, that might hold legitimacy beyond the majority mindset of the teaching tribe, is clearly anathema to some.culture-war1

On one level this might not be surprising – EU support correlates strongly with educational background, with a strong majority of graduates in favour of Remain, and teaching is of course a graduate profession – though the ferociousness of the reaction is nonetheless an issue of concern. Look at those figures for Great Yarmouth again – are we, as a profession, comfortable in being so far distant from those we serve? Might there be dangers in it?

Of course this brings uncomfortable questions. Does this political chasm between the teaching profession and those we serve point toward a bigger phenomenon? Does the (I would argue) liberal uniformity of the teaching profession sit well with the socially conservative values and worldview of large chunks of those we serve? Might we need to consider if this latent orthodoxy has shaped a school culture and values system that is not only alien to some, but might even alienate? Might we see some potential new perspectives for that stubborn underachievement of the ‘white working class’?

One might also urge caution for more pragmatic reasons: there is every chance a majority of parents in our school communities voted to Leave the European Union. It would be unwise to so publicly dismiss and disparage such a large group, whilst refusing legitimacy to alternative viewpoints might just reinforce that sense of dislocation. As the dust settles, more sensible minds will urge that we come together and seek to find a way of healing the social and cultural wounds that this referendum has laid bare.

Politically, this is already happening, even if it has not yet taken hold – speaking for my own party, the work of Jon Cruddas in seeking to understand the different political tribes, and what motivates and enlivens them, will no doubt prove invaluable, whilst Blue Labour has long narrated this disastrous socio-cultural disconnect and what it means for both Party and country. As the excellent John Harris recently wrote in the Guardian, ’what is now happening elsewhere in the UK underlines a tangle of other stuff – to do with culture, belonging and community – that is going to require a completely different level of response.’

ClqVA1IWEAEz32Y.jpgPerhaps we in teaching might also need to undertake a little of that self-reflection. Explaining the current milieu away by appeal to the superiority of the educated over the vices of the masses is unlikely to prove fruitful. Before we rush to judgement, we must see that those who tread different paths to the ones we walk nonetheless have legitimate concerns and arguments too.  And indeed some of those arguments – for democracy, perhaps, or sovereignty, or subsidiarity – hold intellectual legitimacy and appeal across the social and political spectrum.

Again: this is not some rump. This is a majority, spread across an entire country. We have a duty to engage with it.

 

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*I should also add there has been one small modification – the changing from Moral to Righetous, when referring to Haidt.

Did we create the ‘cry-bullies’?

A toxic new phenomenon is hitting our universities and is causing concern amongst the commentariat. It is the increasingly muscular determination of student culture to shut down viewpoints with which it disagrees, which usually breaks along lines defined by an evolving identity politics. With the no-platforming of individuals long-associated (in the minds of a certain generation) with free-speech and the challenging of social injustice, the situation has taken on a new urgency, with more and more sharpening their nibs and drafting the same conclusion: the kids are out of control.

And since these students arrive at university following 13 years in the state education system, one is forced to consider the question: have we helped create this phenomenon?

In our schools, the importance of ‘safe spaces’ is something that has long been recognised. Perhaps not in the way that term has come to be applied in our universities today, but certainly in the recognition that the learning process requires a certain protection which allows us, and our students, to address challenging issues honestly and openly. In short, one is less likely to get kids to engage with a discussion if there is a fear of mockery and shame associated with it.freespeech-SamGraham-flickr-370x242

And in a way, this is unsurprising – we rightly promote tolerance, respect, and equality, all of which directs the outer limits of both how and what we communicate. Kids need to have a comfortable environment to grow, develop, to be – it is our duty to provide that.

But if the outcome is what we have now, then we must surely ask: are we getting it wrong?

Now, to change tack a little, a question: how often, during their whole thirteen years year at school, do students receive a consistent socially conservative message? How often in thirteen years do students have a sustained critical engagement with socially conservative viewpoints? Indeed how often, during their entire schooling, do students ever receive socially conservative viewpoints presented in sensitive and sympathetic tones?

Answer: very rarely. And when they do, it is too often framed in the language of rejection. The socially conservative viewpoint has been ‘othered’ – something to be acknowledged, for sure, but usually to deny. Such that the fundamental legitimacy of these beliefs are rejected, the property of ‘others’, people not like us, with our education and our civility and our morally superior ways. In other words, mirrored in our schools is something of what Jon Cruddas has diagnosed as Labour’s alienation of ‘the Settlers’, ‘who are socially conservative and are concerned with home, family and national security. They value safety, a sense of belonging, their own cultural identity and the continuity of their way of life. They want to avoid risk. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them.’

The problem is this creates a cultural vacuum between schools and home, since it means students are only ever likely to come across socially-conservative viewpoints at home, and most likely to hear them challenged at school. Whilst one might think this natural, indeed defensible, it also inculcates a subtle prejudice against social-conservatism as being anti-intellectual, the articulation of ignorance, something ill-associated with the scholarly. It not only forces a choice upon a student, but also reinforces a sense of intellectual superiority in having made it in a particular direction. To be liberal is to be more intelligent. Haidt’s dilemma plays out in our schools every day.

Which is ironic, since there is little doubt that the cry-bully phenomenon is a deeply anti-intellectual movement, with the collapse into the personal really representing the disregard of the academic. But this also interweaves with wider educational presumptions and forces us to ask another difficult question: does our child-centred approach elevate the self-referential as beyond critique? Does it mean our students are less likely to be challenged, to be told they are wrong, their views lacking validity, having been elevated well above their role and status (student interview panels, anyone?)?

One might be inclined to say yes, but there is an obvious caveat here: those students with socially conservative views, which (as a rule of thumb) quite often means the poorest and the religious, will very much be challenged when they are perceived to be wrong. In other words, safe spaces tend to exist in one direction, defined by a hierarchy which takes particular form according to wider social mores, and that overarching injunction to provide a safe space, which usually means for the expression of the transgressive against presumed historical norms and prejudices. This elevates the perceived transgressive to the progressive, for which we are morally obliged to provide platform and a ‘safe space’ for expression.

downloadOf course none of this explains the cry-bullies phenomenon, which is as much about methodology (no platforming and denying freedom of speech) as opinion (why students are embracing this way of thinking.)

But I wonder if, putting the two together, a potential perspective emerges: a new liberal ethic which demonises impediment to personal gratification and agency, combined with a moral demand for safe spaces which castigate the closing down or challenging of this new liberalism (again, this tends not the case for socially conservative viewpoints – except for the issue of abortion, perhaps, which has proven more resilient), which produces a sense of both entitlement and superiority that renders alternative narratives simply beyond the pale. Such that we send students off to university with all the mission of a moralist but none of the skills the apologist. Their views appear self-evident, having been incubated in an environment in which schools are more inclined to protect them from scrutiny. Or, in the words of one American student, in a recent iteration of this phenomenon: ‘it is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here.

 

 

And so we observe the new phenomenon, of ‘cry-bullies’ in university shutting down any and all expression they dislike. Feelings of community override intellectual dispute, precisely because for those who hold to it, the alternative lacks intellectual merit and is solely an expression of malice or prejudice designed to hurt feelings.

In other words, exactly the kind of thing over which schools would (rightly, I think) intervene.

But it seems to have become something else. And now we’re hearing about it. Not because it is terribly new – it has been an issue for years depending on your moral and/or political compass – but because it is turning upon itself and putting into the firing line precisely those who, historically, were at the forefront of challenging the prejudices of a previous generation with their own cries of ‘bigot!’.  In other words, the hunters have become the hunted. And yet now, perhaps, both must stand together, to combat a more pernicious anti-intellectualism that risks the dignity of something bigger than both: the point of having any education at all.