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I have a confession. It’s not one that makes me proud – these things rarely are – but it was one that made me think. Indeed, it was the thing that made me fundamentally rethink so much about education. Please be generous.
It involved a lad who was not doing as he should. He could have had good grades, but he didn’t. And one early summer afternoon early on in my teaching career, after having tried every strategy I knew, I said a thing which in my naivety I thought might be motivational but which I now realise was just conceited: ‘you crack on then lad, and at this rate you’ll end up stacking shelves, but hey if that’s what you’re happy with you go for it.’
In my head, in the respectable world in which I now existed, this prospect alone would be enough to effect change, to bring about the transformation in attitude and approach I desired, to ensure this kid met his ‘true potential.’ I, the virtuous hero, speaking truths from compassion, to save the working-class kid, to deliver him to ‘better things.’
It didn’t have the desired effect. I lost that battle, truth be told, even whilst thinking I was winning it. And if this were a film, I’d have found out why in some chance coming together later down the line – tragedy, followed by redemption. But I never did find out. After he left I just never saw him again and, if I’m honest, thought little more of it. Until some years later, and parents’ evening, and there was Mum, younger child in tow, straight from work, in her ASDA uniform.
Up until that point, I hadn’t realised that the thing that I thought proved I had high standards was actually the thing that showed my standards were nowhere near high enough. I had mistaken my obnoxiousness for aspiration, perceived my judgmentalism as compassion and care. After all, I told myself, if I didn’t want these things for these kids, who would? Do they not deserve the chance to be successful too? And more to the point, who wouldn’t want these things?
The slow realisation of quite what a morass of assumptions lay buried away in that train of thought hit hard – and caused me to rethink everything.
In the wake of the current social disruption unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, I wonder if we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. Slowly it is dawning that our own assumptions might too be in need of a rethink, a truth brought home forcefully as those we previously undervalued become the very ones we realise we rely upon most.
Up to this point, we in education have been the fundamental part of a culture (and a structure that expresses it) in which one pathway is elevated as the model of success and against which other pathways are compared. To be successful, to get on, means to be academically successful, and schools have been the place to make this happen. A mix of vanity and Pelagianism has been absorbed into an education sector, in which success is perceived as merely a matter of the will. We have convinced ourselves destiny can be chosen through individual efforts alone, and those who do not succeed deserve not to have done so, having obviously chosen not to do so.
Deviation from this story has been dismissed as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, a culture war putdown useful for breezily dismissing the uneven playing field on which our kids are forced to run their race – the winners drunk on phrases like ‘meritocracy’ to add a justificatory glaze to a system in which those best placed to succeed will succeed, though now without the necessity of having to acknowledge their good fortune in having done so. Social mobility – though it comes at a cost – provides some succour for those concerned with social justice, though it can only ever be window dressing to pull attention away from the raw deal we give to a great many more and have managed to rationalize in the name of justice.
And for too long we in education have embraced this too. Just as education has effectively become a grad-only profession, so it has absorbed all the values and justifications of that liberal graduate class of which it is almost exclusively comprised. We have gone along with the idea that our success is measured by grades, that our quality of education can be weighed by how many we get to university, that those who do not go on to graduate are in some sense a missed opportunity. In short, we have bought the lie that we are successful at our jobs when we manage to make as many kids as possible like ‘us’ – in thought and deed – and we value less those who are not.
Sometimes history bites you in the backside. With the coronavirus pandemic we are seeing a new reckoning of value as those who we would historically deem as having not been successful present themselves as vital to us all. Success, for so long, has not been measured by how many people become hauliers, or carers, or delivery drivers, but in how many take their place in that respectable strata of graduate society. The paradox presented by the events of recent weeks education is we have spent years convincing ourselves that we’re most successful when the kids in our care don’t go on to those low paid, low-status jobs that everybody has now realised are actually vital. And so we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place.
I don’t think I have ever met anyone in education who doesn’t want the best for the kids in their care. For the most part we react to, and are a reflection of, external priorities and events – we don’t really create them. And if being ‘successful’ comes with the pre-condition of getting a clutch of good grades, then who wouldn’t want that for all kids? There are lingering biases, sure – but they’re evidence of good will, not malign intent.
Still, if events of the last few days might make us confront anything, perhaps it is this whole set of assumptions and value. Perhaps we will realise that what we have for so long placed as a lesser option, a lowlier life path, is nonetheless vital to us all – and those who stand there serving us all have every bit as much a claim to respect and dignity as anybody else. After all, who would make a dismissive comment about stacking shelves now?
Below is the ‘provocation’ I delivered at the Battle of Ideas debate held last night in Sedbergh. It was a great evening, and conversation took all sorts of twist and turns – a really enjoyable night of thoughtful discussion and robust challenge. A big thanks as ever to Claire Fox for the invite, and I look forward to the November gig at the Barbican – come along!
Is there a North/South divide?
It seems a bit of an obvious question, and our laughably dated transport network certainly testifies to years of neglect. But this is not the whole story, and tonight I’m hoping to make a bit of a different case about what the real divide might be.
To start with, we have for too long let this debate become a strictly provision-based analysis, with policy wonks and statisticians looking at what one area has, comparing it with what another area has, and then lamenting the difference. This is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not sufficient. It can only comprehend the measurable – productivity, education levels, tax take – and from it proclaim that many places, particularly in the North, have been left behind.
But it cannot really answer the question why. After all, this recognition of unequal input and output is ages old, and yet some impersonal force seems to continue to drive on political decision making in the same direction. A provision-based analysis can, it is true, give a concrete manifesto to work toward, but it presents a narrow focus on the symptoms then declares them to be the cause.
And the flip side is just as problematic – with the gap only framed in material terms, so intervention is always conceived likewise, and words like ‘investment’ come bounding into view as the main justification for bothering to do anything it at all.
But as we all know investments are made for a return, and the best investments are those which give the greatest return, and those which give greatest return are most likely to find themselves at the forefront of the political mind. The economic utilitarianism sets the rules, and its winners tend to be the economic utilitarians.
Which is all well and good for urban centres, places of scale and population, but where is Cumbria ever likely to come in that equation? More to the point, where is any mostly rural area likely to come in that equation?
So we start to see how the issue here is less political and more cultural – less a divide between North and South, and more of the large urban vs everywhere else.
This is why so much of the funding destined for ‘the North’ rarely seems to go much further than what we all really know to be the north Midlands – the M62 beltway stretching from Hull in the East to Liverpool in the West.
But Leeds is as close to Luton as it is to Lindsfarne; Manchester closer to the Malvern Hills than to the Solway Firth. When we are told there is huge investment in the North, and then see so much of it rarely seems to get past the M62, one wonders if politicians know just how much more North there is.
In my own sector – that of education – this blind spot is particularly stark: of 171 Strategic School Improvement Fund grants, precisely two went to Cumbria, with a combined award of less than was given to a single school in West Sussex.
The big cities and towns along the M62 corridor didn’t do so bad out of that fund as it goes, and politicians can claim with justification to have been investing in ‘the North’. But clearly there is another place, further away still, that we might call the Neglected North, struggling to find a voice in its bid to be a part of any Northern Powerhouse revolution.
This is why we need to up our ambitions somewhat. Because you see, if complaining against the inevitable logic of urban-centric thought is futile, then meekly submitting to it need not be the answer either.
Perhaps I can put this another way. I like living in Cumbria. I want there to be better buses and more museums and better funding for schools… but I also want this place to be cherished for being this place, and not facing demands to be more like somewhere else. Yes, I want the funding the North needs, but not at the cost of its soul.
Now I get this might seem like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, so let me unpack that a bit, and to do so, perhaps I could offer another example from my own sector.
It has long been a bugbear of mine that Cumbrian schools receive much less funding than schools in Inner London, despite all the natural advantages being in Inner London brings with it (none of which are ever priced into funding priorities and inspection frameworks, an important point to bear in mind). Now, hopefully, we are moving towards an era of greater equity, but even if economic input was identical to that of Inner London, would this eradicate the disadvantage?
Well, no. Because ultimately, even with the exact same amount of funding, there are still challenges – of distance, of recruitment, of school size, of capacity – that will make what we do different. Just as good, for sure, but different.
But what if our versions of excellence cannot be recognised by those who set the rules, too used as they are to seeing from the perspective of somewhere else? What if there is a perspective blindness that means we’re never at the forefront of consideration when the rules are being written?
Take the example of school governors: where is it easier to recruit governors with the vastly enhanced professional skills and experience that is now demanded: in London – with its huge population of graduates and professionals on the doorstep – or in Longtown?
And should Longtown be judged any the worse for that?
Or again: who is mostly likely to fulfill the much more resource-heavy inspection demands of the new inspection framework, the school in rural Cumbria with three teachers, no money and no support staff, or the school in the big city with forty staff, 700 kids and a multi-million pound budget?
And when this happens, and these unwitting biases play out, which areas of the country will find themselves being told their schools are not good enough and their teachers are substandard, by a legion of politicians and journalists who never set foot here but line up to wag their fingers and emote about educational disadvantage, unable to conceive that perhaps the very mechanism that tells them this is so is already unfit for purpose?
This is where that bigger problem comes in view. Bridging any gap requires that we first recognise that the whole edifice is tilted, perhaps not by intent, but certainly by ignorance, a sort of yoke that those outwith the circles and society that governs us are compelled to labour under, whilst being blamed for being burdened in doing so.
So few of those who rule us come from among us, and those who do have had to leave, indeed to escape, to get there. And what is true for rural counties is just as true for coastal regions or post-industrial townscapes. The perspective blindness, and the values disconnect to which it testifies, is egalitarian in its disdain.
So the North/South divide is really just a proxy for a deeper disconnect between a big-city, graduate-dominated, well-connected, liberal-minded Britain, and the power they have to shape and determine the rules by which everyone else must play. This is the gap that needs bridging: not just one of provision (though that too), but of esteem, of value, of being valued, for who we are and where we are, wherever we are.
I sometimes wonder about death. Not in a morbid way, you understand. Just the practical stuff – how it will approach; who will be there; how long it might take. It’s part of being Catholic I think – we pray for a good death, so you naturally end up thinking what this might look like. Pain free, of course; comfortable, yes; surrounded by loved ones, absolutely.
My Grandad died before Christmas. It really affected me; I loved him dearly. I really did. And yet, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be. I was far away, seeing to my own affairs.
Which is fine, right? We’re all busy these days, seeing to our own affairs. It’s natural. One cannot be blamed. No need to feel guilty.
But the niggling feeling wouldn’t go away – what if his vision of the end was like mine? What if he, too, wished to be surrounded by loved ones? Maybe that was precisely what he wanted, and yet I was elsewhere.
When Tony Blair offered his vision of a graduate workforce, he conceived of a society of the highly educated better able to service a shiny new graduate economy. The industrial sector had been decimated, leaving behind unemployment and despondency, and besides (the story went) fewer people wished to enter the old industries anyway.
The answer seemed obvious – send as many as possible to university, have them enter the job markets later as fully-fledged graduates able to undertake the jobs our newly globalised world shall demand.
But there was a problem: the graduate jobs both promised and required did not exist. Or certainly not in sufficient numbers. So to help provide that job market, as well as cater for the newly heightened expectations of a whole generation of young adults, we demanded young people get degrees to do the very things their Mums and Dads did without needing one – nursing, teaching, the civil service, law, industry – indeed jobs they were still successfully doing without having one.
The effect was to make university education necessary not for social mobility, but for mere social equilibrium.
As such, sales pitches placing university as the catalyst to improved health-and-wealth were a self-fulfilling promise, with those proclaiming the benefits the same as those tilting the odds against those who dissented from the cause.
And so, as collateral for a newly gentrified economy, our children were siphoned off into two camps according to which part of the economy they could serve, the graduates to one side and non-graduates to the other, with the latter prevented from entering the job markets of the former. And all for a fallacy: that one must be highly educated before one can become highly trained, and not being highly educated inhibits your ability to become highly trained.
This was simply untrue, and generations of successful non-graduates, historically given access to socially esteemed and well-paid jobs, trained within the workplace to high levels of expertise, attest to it. No, it was only ever graduates that insisted as many people as possible had to be graduates, the confirmation bias of a class policy makers holding up their own pathways as the pre-eminent model of progress.
In treading this path, we instituted a grad-class protectionism that has proven disastrous to the social fabric, engendering a values-chasm between graduate and non-graduate that looms large over our civic space. Every year, swathes of children are tacitly deemed failures by the social mobility narrative that shapes our politics and our schools, whilst the other half are told the true path to success is to leave behind – geographically, socially, morally – those networks of kith and kin in that place we call home. And to both, the unstated truth that those who fail to do so – those who are left behind – are but second-placers in the meritocratic footrace of life.
For a policy that was so self-consciously progressive, do note the irony – with degree education the gateway to the jobs markets, and since for most young people this meant a move away from home, so expansion of the university sector looked more and more like an embodiment of Tebbitian ‘onyerbike’ philosophy. Not because of a stress on the importance of work, but because of the quiet assumption that we should all accept the demand to be uprooted in order to access it.
It has been quite the project over the last few years, looking for ways to explain the social fracture encompassing the UK. Some put it down to austerity, others to ingrained economic inequality sapping morale and opportunity from swathes of the country, whilst others still think lack of education is the key factor – as if the non-graduate population haven’t been ill-treated enough without also being blamed for being angry that the tables have been so consistently been tilted against them
Still, for all one might offer an account of why change has happened, one thing surely cannot be denied: not everyone has benefitted from the changes that have accompanied the modernisation project.
In declaring that half of all youngsters must go to university, we were telling them they must leave – an injunction that hit all the more keenly in those areas long-neglected that could least afford such siphoning off of the young and talented. After all, whilst university was and is framed as a coming of age waypoint, a significant proportion of those who leave never return home, having built new lives and met new loves – and found access to new jobs – in a different place. This is of course fine, but we would do well to recognise it is not without consequence either, assisting decline in some areas rather than, as was promised, mitigating it.
As such, at those key points in life when we most need loving interdependence, when we realise we want loved ones close – often the dawn of new life and the end of it – families have found themselves scattered, unable to lean on one another for support, a geographical fracture all the more egregious amongst tight-knit working-class communities used to keeping extended family close.
This is the ultimate irony of social mobility: the more ‘successful’ your children have been, the more likely you are to be distant from them as old age approaches, and to feel the growing loneliness of that distance.
Of course, some areas have benefited from the huge expansion in graduates, as they were meant to – other areas have suffered, as they were always likely to. A graduate economy is well served by a graduate market, but not all places have graduate economies, or need graduate markets, certainly not whilst the wider investment that would generate these jobs remain absent.
And so, we have the fallout that has come from insisting children need to move away to get on. It has had real-life consequences. It has incentivised the uprooting of a generation of young adults, stretching family bonds over distances that even the conveniences of modern technology cannot entirely overcome. In so doing, it has proven as socially disruptive as any other factor – be that housing, or globalism, or mass immigration – that populists and demagogues insist is at the root of current social unrest.
In other words, whilst university education is a good thing, and many people have benefitted for having received it, it is time to acknowledge that there have nonetheless been macro-level negative impacts too.
Which is where my Grandad comes back into view. You see, to my great regret, I was not able to be there for his final moments. I was a beneficiary of the social mobility dream, I had left, and was now far away. And whilst I cannot honestly say I would trade my position now for what it might have otherwise been, I can say it feels like a high price to have paid to achieve it.
And it inevitably leaves me wondering if my own children, pursuing their own success in future, might be issued the same demand. What choice will they really have but to pay it?
At which point, those final moments of my own suddenly loom far lonelier than I pray for them to be.
Below is a provocation piece delivered at the Battle of Ideas, on the panel ‘Too Dumb to Vote?‘
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? It was all supposed to be very straightforward – a simple, definitive referendum, which would show up a swivel-eyed minority as out of touch, put jingoistic Tories back in their box, and finally close the discussion on EU membership for a generation.
Only, it didn’t work that way, did it? In a fit of bloody-minded pique, the British public decided otherwise; they ignored their alleged betters, held firm in the face of a barrage of threats and insults, and obstinately voted however they damn well pleased, thank you very much. And of course, by a slim margin, they chose to Leave.
The education gap in the vote is undeniable. Or better, the qualification gap, which is not quite the same thing. What is deniable, however, is that this represents any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the voter, or indeed any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the vote.
I have lost count of the amount of times I have read that the Brexit vote was simply the suspension of reason, the triumph of the unreasonable, that there exists no substantive reason to vote Leave, that this was but an emotional spasm of the ‘left-behind’, a xenophobic upsurge characteristic of the ill-educated.
All of which represents nothing more than a juvenile wail against the fact that there exists a group of people, several in number, who have different values, cherish different things, draw their lines in different places.
The Brexit vote wasn’t, in truth, about education – it was about people with a worldview more complex, indeed more nuanced, than the anodyne materialism that underpinned pretty much every Remain argument. It pitted wisdom against intellect, lived reality against spreadsheet theorising – and it was the former that won out.
To declare, in increasingly shrill response, there are no rational reasons to vote Brexit, that those who did so were simply ill-educated, is to do little more than declare oneself an intellectual and emotional desert, so attached to a very particular account of reason as to exclude what else makes us human – identity, community, security, dignity, control.
The Remain side committed two big mistakes. Firstly, they reduced the whole discussion to a material analysis, elevating the quantifiable ‘evidence-based’ lens as the only legitimate forum of discussion, and severely downplayed, where they did not dismiss, the importance of precisely those intangibles that still hold sway over the hearts and minds of many. Or as one person recently claimed, “notions of democracy and sovereignty are not tangible issues, and so cannot be considered rational reasons to vote Leave.”
No wonder these people lost.
But secondly, they also presented their own arguments shrouded in reasoning and argument so arcane as to make themselves look like the ones who had taken leave of their reason. There is no surprise here, – this is common to the highly educated – they are much better able to find ways of providing a rational edifice to uphold their prejudices, and then mock and question the intellect of those who fail to fall into line.
I know of one professor who, with admirable patience, repeatedly explained to me the sovereignty argument was not valid since the EU enhanced our sovereignty by allowing us to pool it for a greater purpose, and that the slogan ‘Take back control,’ really had nothing to do with the EU. Now, this is a valid argument, and boils down to saying that losing some sovereignty can sometimes be a worthwhile trade-off. But it takes a good deal working through to get to that point, a collection of premises running toward a conclusion, and it needs heavily qualified. To declare from the off that there is simply no loss of sovereignty, against both common experience and perception, only reinforces to the masses the feeling that perhaps these terribly well-educated people are not so clever as they appear, or so honest as they proclaim.
The follow-up has proven just as bad – the hysterical reaction toward those who voted Leave, at times personal and too often vindictive, has been a case study the ultimate futility of seeking to get out of a hole by digging deeper. And yet, this is indicative of a certain mindset, a certain class. To broaden this out a bit, there exists today a highly-educated group of individuals, remarkably alike in habit and mind, who stubbornly cling to a worldview that is crumbling around them. As their totems fall, they double down – they abuse and mock their opponents, they insist upon ever more provocative and esoteric creeds, they advocate ever more illiberal and anti-democratic moves to enforce their privileged position in society. And worse, they see in this not only the evidence of their superiority, but the source of their virtue.
The question before us is whether there exists amongst us those whom we might consider to be too dumb to vote. I trust, nay hope, the panel here will conclude this is not the case. I would only add that, were we to decide with the philosopher kings and the paternalists, and task ourselves with deciding who, precisely, deserved categorisation of being too dumb to vote, then I would steer clear of the working clubs and the bingo halls, of the pubs and the pews. No, I’d head instead for the university departments and the news floors, the City bars and the political lobby, where there exists more than enough reason to suspect the wisdom of the inhabitants therein, and wonder whether or not it is they, despite their finger-pointing denunciations, whose intelligence we need to consider more closely.
In the words of Kipling, in his poem the Land, in which he explored precisely the relationship between the rooted and their assorted overlords; ‘Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies, Would I lose his large sound counsel, miss his keen amending eyes.’ If one cannot see the wisdom in those words, if one feels even the temptation to reverse suffrage in the name of disenfranchising the common folk, then I believe we have found the one who really is too dumb to vote.
A little while back I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my experiences of social mobility, teasing out some of the effects that have received rather less attention within a political environment that has held commitment to social mobility as a staple of virtuous and socially concerned politics. That blog post received some attention, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts on BBC Radio Four Thought. You can listen to the episode here.
The script for Four Thought is largely a condensed version of the original blog post, so I shan’t replicate it here, though for those who might be interested, I did add some further thoughts focusing in on how these things apply to our education system. Partly, these are the thinking through of a theme I have explored as part of Blue Labour here, a TES piece on ‘aspiration’ here, a post on the culture clash in our schools here, and a post on Brexit here. I have included the additional comments from the radio script below.
It is a theme I’ll no doubt return to in due course, but in the meantime many thanks all for the kind comments and good will.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You grow accustomed to the objects of derision being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the disdain might sometimes be delivered in the abstract, the barbs are felt personally, especially when aimed at a viewpoint common amongst those who comprised your upbringing. The creation myth of the liberal mind is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – but those who pursue such accounts of virtue don’t always realise, or don’t care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their disdain.
And this has become status seeking behaviour: there is prestige to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. Detractors revel in the eloquence of their disdain, as if articulacy were evidence of truth and justification of their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority, an argument for their presumed existential superiority, too.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and in any echo chamber dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. From which naturally follows the belief that there’s a moral duty to help future generations become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences, as a class of Anywheres, to use David Goodhart’s terms, seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, with the former believing success includes educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing.
And so pupils from a socially or morally conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) upbringing, will at times find themselves at odds with the moral norms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education, or more precisely the absence of it.
For our education system, children formed by such views must simply reject them, since that’s the character of being educated. Virtue, and intellect, demands it – and the educated are much better at making the intellectual case for their virtue.
But this feels unwise. In a contest between home and academic flourishing, some choose home; not because of ignorance, but because of a refusal to shed heritage as participation fee. For too many, education presents itself as not for people like them, at least not whilst they remain people like Them – to be educated too often means not being like your Mum or Dad. Thus, we present our children with a choice they should not have to make, in so doing pushing them away from an inheritance they should not have to abandon.
And so the cycle continues, a tension between home and school, in which the rejection of home is synonymous with being educated. Social mobility, it cannot be denied, has a cultural edge – the ability, even the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from. At the same time, a residential university system has entrenched the idea that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, less so when we stay.
If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation here.
None of which is to say working class kids need not aspire to high culture and education, a calumny which often rears its head in the guise of compassion. No, the precise opposite. It’s to say that our cultural and intellectual treasures are a heritage due to all, and we might better ensure its equal distribution if we focused less on the purity of the receiver, and more on the dignity of the receiving.
Of course, this is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, and neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the best, or worst, of the two. Still, if you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps, leaving you an outsider to each. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that risks holding you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time.
And it’s always the rejection that each side remembers, never the embrace.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.