The Guardian sings from the Crosby songbook

At the SEA Conference last month, Peter Wilby, distinguished former education correspondent and former editor of the New Statesman, discussed why it is that the quality of national political journalism is so low. One of the fundamental causes in his view was ignorance. That is ignorance of the detail of any substantive policy area and a determination to focus on Westminster village games – who’s in, who’s out, who’s up and who’s down.

There was a classic of its kind in yesterday’s Guardian by someone called Christina Patterson – who tweets, I kid you not, under the tag @queenchristina. So no false modesty there. Most of the article is simply a confection of village gossip – so we get the bacon sandwich, knowing the price of a pint of milk, the barrister wife earning maybe £200k (many QC’s wouldn’t get out of bed for that!) and cherry picked opinion poll findings.

No one would claim the polls are great but one thing they do show is that people think Cameron is hopelessly out of touch with their lives – so is any comparison made by Patterson between the two? Of course not. You would have to say that this goes beyond ignorance and is shading into malice straight out of the Crosby playbook. Or maybe journalists are really as totally innumerate as this would suggest?

At the heart of the article though is the now very tired accusation “we don’t know what he stands for”. If Patterson really doesn’t know what Labour’s position is on key issues, she really does need to get out more. Things we – that is she – doesn’t know include:

“will he carry on funding free schools” – absolutely clear, no successful school will be closed but they will be brought under local accountability arrangements. There will be no new free schools and decisions on new schools will be made by local Directors of School Standards.

“a price fix doesn’t amount to a vision for change” – quite right which is why Labour has been clear that this is the preliminary to a complete restructure of the energy market including separating generation from sales.

“if he hasn’t ruled out a referendum on Europe, when might he rule on in?” – there will be a referendum if a future treaty change involves transfers of powers to the EU – otherwise not. The fact that a few mouthy backbenchers panic and want something else doesn’t make the policy in any way unclear.

“many of us think that the government could be doing a lot better on education, youth employment and building industries for the future. But saying you’ll have a one nation approach isn’t the same as showing how you’ll make that nation better”. Where to begin … has she really missed the Adonis report on growth, the local government task force report, the Husbands report on 14 to 19 education and training, commitments on house building and so on and so on.

And that’s not to mention the first steps to controlling the private rented housing sector and the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act. Not everyone will like all these policies. But the accusation that there aren’t any is not one that can stand a moment’s scrutiny.

And then to cap it all, our (her?) obsession with primogeniture is wheeled out. “He wrecked his brother’s dreams … (this) certainly isn’t the usual definition of a “family man”. So older brothers have rights that younger ones don’t have. Are we still dominated in our thinking by the inheritance rules of the landed aristocracy? Is it not possible to imagine that people thought about how the party might move on from the Blairite cul de sac and who might be best placed to do this?

When you actually take an article like this apart, ignorance begins to sound like a generous assessment. My first question when reading any article like this is to ask, who wanted this in the paper.? In this case, was it the Blairite rump still seeking revenge for the defenestration of 2007? Or the Tory media operation? Because this could hardly be bettered as a presentation of their destructive argument … except that “Red Ed, the plaything of the unions” has unaccountably been missed out. I expect Patterson ran out of space!

Surely there must be an opening on the Mail for someone of her talents.

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One Comment on “The Guardian sings from the Crosby songbook”

  1. David Pavett says:

    The Christina Patterson piece was awful. She has form however, as a glance at her previous articles in the Guardian shows. She has pieces defending the monarchy, the necessity of church rituals and one on an alleged growing lack of empathy among young people.

    The jibe that Labour has no policies is absurd. What is not so clear, to me at least, is that the policies that it has, or is developing, have the clarity that John seems to suggest.

    Yes, it is pure ignorance to ask if Labour will carry on funding free schools. Labour is explicitly committed to doing so. However I do not think it is true that there will be no more of them under Labour. It’s proposed “parent-led academies” are just free schools under another name. The “local accountability arrangements” to which they would be subject under Labour’s draft plans (already treated by Tristram Hunt and Ed Miliband as Party policy) would keep them, and other academies, well away from a framework of local democracy. The proposed Directors of School Standards would be appointed by local authorities but they would be statutorily independent from them and could only be appointed from a government-approved list. Therefore describing them as “local” risks being misleading.

    Patterson’s lack of awareness of Labour’s analysis and policies on youth education, youth unemployment and building industries for the future would be staggering were general journalistic standards not as low as they are. But when one has read those document does a convincing picture emerge? Take apprenticeships. Labour talks a lot about this and the Adonis report even says that the number of STEM apprentices would be trebled from the present 31,000 starts each year (by 2020). It does not say how this would be done and it is not encouraging that Labour proposes improving the quantity and quality of apprenticeships by handing over more control to the very industries which have failed to deliver them in sufficient quatities. Apart from that the proposals seem to me to be pretty vague.

    Even the Husbands’ review of the apprenticeship system is pretty vague as to how its recommendation to increase the number of apprentices would be achieved. Moreover, having pointed out that other EU countries have up to proportionately four times as many apprentices as the UK it says that we should “revolutionise” our system by doubling our number. Is this what is meant by that silly phrase “a race to the top”?

    Have I missed something?

    And in terms of the quality of Labour’s educational thinking it is perhaps worth recalling that among the draft documents on the table for the forthcoming National Policy Forum is one proposing that new academies sponsored by the armed forces should be set up in deprived areas – they idea apparently being that a bit of army discipline would give them some moral backbone. It really is an appalling piece. Apart from that “excess” the main draft policy documents all strike me weak and betraying a general commitment to neo-liberal educational policies that I think most people on the left reject. I think that education is the weakest area of Labour’s policy making and that the current Shadow Secretary of State for Education, like his predecessor, has put in what must be counted as some of the weakest front bench contributions to debate.

    So, while I agree that Christina Patterson’s article was particularly poor I am not convinced that the object of her attack, Labour’s Policies, is by contrast, in robust good health.