The situation for Labour and the Left

John Dixon writes

1. Rank and file party members, with recently recruited new supporters, voted by a substantial majority for the platform Jeremy Corbyn had spoken up for in some dozens of meetings in the major towns of England. This platform marked a decisive opposition to government policies in almost all sectors.

2. It also represented a rejection of the platform that had led to a severe defeat of Labour candidates in the May elections. Thus in Scotland, once a Labour stronghold, Labour lost overwhelmingly – well over forty seats – with Alexander, organizer of the Labour campaign, going down to a straight-speaking young undergraduate.

3. Unfortunately for the Westminster party, the majority of MPs had been elected on that losing platform, two of the candidates for the leadership had been part of the front bench that backed it, and the remaining one explicitly put forward a more right-wing alternative. Thus, all except those MPs who had supported Corbyn were faced with a dilemma: the rank and file of the party were now rejecting the platform they’d been elected on and supporting a different strategy.

4. Equally, the new leader faced a similar dilemma when he returned to Westminster. He’d been elected on a new platform; most of the others on the old one. His decision was to recruit a shadow front bench from across the full range of MPs, a few from his own campaign team, and the majority from the other candidates teams. Evidently this decision accepted an unresolved tension. But the key question remains: will those who have accepted positions on the front bench treat the decision of the rank and file of their party with respect?

5. There’s probably no clear answer: we shall see. But meanwhile, what are the rights and duties of those members who voted for the new leader and his campaign team’s platform? I’m hoping that some of the answers that follow will get support from a large group of fellow members, and sympathisers.

6. Given the dilemma facing many MPs, it seems sensible to call for the party as a whole to unite on an anti-austerity platform, that is, to campaign in parliament and beyond to protect our country from two things: the savage cuts to social welfare budgets in every form (including the wages and working conditions of workers in those sectors), and equally the insidious ideological effort to expose public services (from the NHS on) to a market driven by global finance corporations.

7. This would be treated as an interim position, to promote a hard-hitting campaign by the PLP in Westminster, and beyond that through joint branch, union, and supporters actions in as many regions as possible.

8. Meanwhile, it seems sensible to call for informed discussion, from the branches up, and including area conferences, to take stock of the arguments for policies that involve radical change – and which have already attracted support from some tens of thousands of new members.

9. ‘Informed discussion’: make no mistake, every effort will be made – is being made already, relentlessly, every day – to undercut any such a possibility, with all the forces of the media oligarchs and the government deployed. Only the most well-designed, well-judged and strenuous efforts will ensure that mind-forged manacles aren’t clamped on it. Fortunately there are models close at hand: where else in the UK has a campaign recently had to face every trick of the media to blacken and oppose it? – answer, in Scotland. And the Scots, fortunately for us, are still showing how campaigning groups of very many kinds, and by no means all simply SNP, have formed. Details of that later (**).

10. But first, back to the LP national exec. They can make a start. As a young member in the 1950s, I can still remember the monthly booklet of facts and hard-hitting statistics put out by the Labour Research Department, as background for us members. The new social media make this more than a possibility – it’s a must.

11. ‘Discussion’ not ‘debate’: that effete institution, the House of Commons shows why the days of ‘debate’ are finished. But the Select Committees, at their best, show how power can be challenged to answer penetrating questions. Then comes a new opportunity, given by the Web: the chance for the rank and file to answer back – to learn to take part in a two-way exchange. This is the major breakthrough that’s needed.

12. Informed discussion takes time and has its own ground rules. Maybe these should be obvious to a party that aims to be democratic, cooperative, egalitarian, non-sexist, internationalist…? It’s about turn-taking, listening, treating others with respect, seeking to develop and strengthen what others are suggesting… (In our U3A branches we sometimes collectively make such principles explicit from the start: it takes very little time.)

(**) For a start, try the independent think tanks, Common Weal or The Reid Foundation, and for articles, Better Caledonia, Wings over Scotland, or National Collective. [Thanks to A & S Slimon for help here].
So over to you, my readers.

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9 Comments on “The situation for Labour and the Left”

  1. Paul Martin says:

    Dear John Dixon
    Jeremy Corbyn has indeed won a handsome victory and deserves our congratulations and support, but I don’t agree that this somehow invalidates the mandates of other Labour MPs, including those whose constituencies – by an equally convincing margin – supported other candidates in the selection process. Some of them also won their Parliamentary seats in May with substantially increased majorities, even without Jeremy’s charisma.

    Until next May, we have no test of how well Labour’s new message will chime with the electorate as a whole. Let us hope that is a resounding success or we are all in trouble.

    You suggest that we have lessons to learn from Scotland, and I agree, but one of them might well be that the nationalist card is a handy one to play when a xenophobic mood comes upon voters. I don’t think that’s a valid option for Labour.

    You appear to believe that the Tartan Tories faced “every trick of the media to blacken and oppose” them, despite the widely-reported “bromance” between Alex Salmond and Rupert Murdoch. (www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/apr/25/alex-salmond-rupert-murdoch-ties). I think the laddy doth protest too much.

    One of the uncomfortable facts of the General Election is the rise of the Right outside the metropolitan areas. Take Keighley in West Yorkshire where the Tory incumbent increased his majority, despite a strong showing by Labour. The striking element is the collapse of the Liberal/Green vote and the rise of UKIP.

    General Election results: Keighley
    Party 2010 2015 Change

    Conservative 20,003 41.9% 21,766 44.3% 1,763
    Labour 17,063 35.8% 18,713 38.1% 1,650
    Liberal/Green 7,059 14.8% 2,982 6.1% -4,077
    UKIP/BNP/NF 3,567 7.5% 5,662 11.5% 2,095
    Total 47,692 100.0% 49,123 100.0% 1,431

    Labour’s new leadership needs to address this, rather than comfort itself that a simple swing to the Left will ensure victory in 2020. Clearly, Labour activists in such areas have more to do than convince themselves they have somehow, with no apparent effort, joined a new all-conquering army.

    Paul Martin

  2. Terry Loane says:

    But what, John and Paul, are the implications of these seismic shifts in the Labour party for its approach to education?

    I am an enthusiast for what Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership has brought to politics, but I have to say I was deeply disappointed by the speech that the new Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, gave at the Labour Party conference yesterday (http://press.labour.org.uk/post/130199952449/speech-by-lucy-powell-to-labour-party-annual). Here is my analysis what she did, and did not, say.

    The first third of the speech was about structures, accountability and governance, (local authority versus academies/free schools). After this she said:

    “But we now need to move the debate on from structures and onto the things that matter most in our education system.”

    I pricked up my ears at this point, only to discover that the first “thing that matters most” to Lucy Powell is: “Driving up standards”. Oh no! Last year I wrote a critique in this blog of David Blunkett’s obsession with “driving up standards” (https://educevery.wordpress.com/?s=driving+up+standards) in which I said:

    “‘driving up standards’ is just a rather grand-sounding way of saying ‘getting more and more kids to get higher and higher marks in more and more tests’… ‘driving up standards’… takes the attention of educators away from a much more important and problematic issue: what should children actually be learning in school?”

    Yet there was nothing at all in Lucy Powell’s speech about what and how young people should be learning in the 21st century. Surely, though, the most pressing educational issue in our rapidly changing world is the curriculum. The only time she came even remotely close to this was a vague (dare I say platitudinous?) reference to: “equipping young people with the skills and attributes to succeed in the modern economy”.

    Exam factories damage young people’s health and wellbeing, regardless of whether they are academies, free schools or run by a local-authority. And “a relentless focus on standards” (to quote from the final section of the speech) is equally damaging.

    Let’s start talking about what and how young people should learn – like Lani Guinier does in her book ‘the Tyranny of the Meritocracy’.

  3. David Pavett says:

    I share Terry’s concerns. Like him I am keen to see the change of direction that Jeremy Corbyn and those who support him would like to bring about. I doubted the ability of the Labour Party to extricate itself from the ideological rut it had got itself into (in common with centre-left parties in other countries). Now it has a chance to change that, or rather, we have a chance to change that. That task is, however, by no means a done deal and the election of Corbyn is merely an opener to the possibility of renewal. Without consequential changes, above all on policy matters, throughout the Party he will be sunk. Politicians had got used to Labour’s ideoligical rut and who even felt very comfortable in it are still in place throughout the Party and form a clear majority of MPs. They don’t want Corbyn, they don’t like his views and will do their best to sink him as the opportunity arises. Labour is now in a highly unstable situation which is going to have to be resolved.

    This instability is already sowing itself clearly over issues such a Trident and education. There were always good grounds for believing that Labour policy did not reflect the views of the membership. Now it is certain that this is the case. Also the gulf between the majority of the PLP and the majority of members is now starkly obvious. Something has to give. But the tension will take time to resolve.

    We have a Party leader who is completely sympathetic to the aims of the SEA and a shadow secretary of state who is not. The best way to support and strengthen Jeremy Corbyn’s difficult position in the PLP is to to get proper representation for the SEA in Party educational policy formation. We should then use that, and other opportunities, to initiate the widest possible debate on such issues as the proper role of local government in the organisation and management of education. If we can do that then I am confident that the result would be to strengthen Corbyn’s position and to weaken that of those around him who are clearly pulling in a different direction.

  4. Representation (for the SEA) as above is indeed something to press for. Its also vital that there is a wider push for democratic representation by the various campaigns for state education, those which represent parents, teacher unions, and professional organisations whose aim is to promote and defend good, evidence based education practise in the interests of the child and his/her social and intellectual development and well being. This has to come from a much wider consituency outside the Labour Party, in order to support Corbyn, who is already under such disgraceful attack. We have seen the state education system being dismembered, and made available for private profit plucking by academy chains, education policy dictated from central government in the previous administrations, whether Tory or Labour

    As Tim Brighouse pointed out during the disgraceful alleged Trojan Horse cons[piracy, the Secretary of State for Ed now has an enormous list of direct powers which allows his/her to impose decisions willy nilly and are not even subject to parliament. I’m not au fait with subjects other than history, but the way Gove behaved was an utter disgrace, as we know, and Tristram Hunt did not challenge him, and had nothing useful to say in the ‘jhistory’ wars. In fact Hunt even wrote a gobsmackingly ignorant and startlingly similar piece to the Tory Telegraph chap, Charles somebody… which said that black history was only of a interest to some people with african heritage. No government minister should ever write a jhistory ( or any other) curriculum, and the reason the Gove version of a history curriculum, was defeated was because it was so apallingly bad that it united practically everyone in the History teaching community, from Primary teachers to august professors in royal institutions, against it. And the consultation debates which was still statutory it seems, was promoted and managed by some dedicated professionals and a brilliant civil servant, who did not state their opinions, but ensured not only reflection, sound critiques, but very wide participation, vigorously encouraged. But the changes to the exam system are dreadful, discriminatory and back to the 50’s…. Labour, hitherto, did not present any coherent opposition to all these things, so how is that to come about? (Hunt merely wanted local commissioners appointed from a central government list!)

    Labour has to have a policy that changes that legislation, removes the overweening central powers of SofS to dictate ( which Hunt was looking forward to exercising) and which institutes a system of local accountability and local planning, and a proper structure for curriculum and pedagogy plannning, participation and debate which politicians may contribute to, but not interfere in. All these things need to be far more democratic than they ever were in the past. I support local authority control of state education, but it needs to be far more democratic and responsive to local needs and views, than it ever was. Labour Councils too had a culture of managerialism, but in the past one of the reasons so much progress took place in education was because they did employ teams of dedicated professionals who supported, not policed schools, and they developed innovation, reflection, and supported good practis, not l east good practise for equality. I consider myself to have been very lucky to be part of that in my professional career, and that culture still remains in many professional and other organisations, but what many contribute is on a voluntary basis, and informs the practise of so countless individuals. But we need an education system that supports that. Iindividual teachers face all kinds of difficulties, pressures, dictats and restriction that we did not, in the 80’s and 90’s.

    • David Pavett says:

      Agreed that the call for the return of schools to a local authority framework has to be accompanied by proposals for greater democracy in that framework. Some were very good but others were not and did not welcome wide participation in the running of education. To get Labour committed to such changes we need to start making proposals very soon and the SEA must be given representation on the Education and Children Commission – or whatever replaces it and a proper discussion needs to be organised on the National Policy Forum (or whatever replaces it). This never happened under the so-called Policy Review led by John Cruddas. The papers produced were one-sided and tendentious.

      Now we need a proper discussion with all the main arguments clearly laid out. We need is to debate the issues instead of being stopped by people intoning “The public will never vote for that”. Get the arguments sorted out before moving on decide what might or might not be immediately acceptable. I am really hoping that we might now have some serious educational discussion in the LP thereby breaking with the dull discourse of the last 20 years.

      • terryloane says:

        I am (of course) strongly against ‘academic’ selection at 11, strongly against school management by central diktat, and strongly in favour of schools being properly accountable and responsive to local communities through local democracy. But if we care about children’s “social and intellectual development and wellbeing” (to use your words, Ilona), then surely we must go much, much further than just seeking to replace grammar schools , academies and free schools with local authority comprehensives. For me, focusing on issues of school governance and management represents what you call “the dull discourse of the last 20 years”, David.

        Sugata Mitra has said that we currently have an education system that does a good job – in training people to play an allotted role in maintaining a worldwide empire in a pre-networked world. In other words it is a system fit for the 19th and 20th centuries, not the 21st. And there is a great danger that this dysfunction would remain in place even if every child in the country were to attend a well-staffed, local authority run, comprehensive school.

        Surely we need to start thinking imaginatively about how and what young people should be encouraged to learn in the networked world of the 21st century. Let me suggest three principles that could replace the decaying remnants of the national curriculum and be at the heart of 21st century learning and teaching: CCD – creativity, collaboration and democracy. I believe that this ought to be the focus for the “serious education discussion” that you call for, David.

  5. David Pavett says:

    @Terry Loane
    I agree that the return of schools to a local government framework is merely a framework for a solution to providing the shools that we need and not the solution itself. For that, as you say, we need to talk about what goes on inside school and how it is organised. I dream of such a discussion but so far have found the experience of school activism totally frustrating in that respect. The general assumption seems to be that if local authorities could organise school provision and if teachers were left to get on with the job then everything would be okay. I don’t believe that for a minute.

    It is fair enough that educational campaigners refute anti-comprehensive propaganda and that they highlight its considerable achievements. But we need to find a way of also recognising the severe limits to those achievements. For example it is an achievement that around 50% of pupils get a C grade in maths. But we need to reflect what that actually means. It means that there is a lot more teaching to the test and that the end result is that the great majority leave school (even those with ‘good’ GCSE grades) with little understanding of anything other than very basic arithmetic. 10 years of maths education should be able to achieve something better than that. One can follow similar reasoning through for most other subjects. I have never heard this discussed in activist circles.

    I agree about the importance of creativity but find most discussion about it in educational circles deeply frustrating. Most educationalists using the word have no critical understanding at all of what it means. I wrote something on this a while back. So yes, we need a broader discussion and we have a very long way to go.

    • terryloane says:

      You finish, David, by saying that “we have a very long way to go”. But of course that is exactly what German political experts said in 1997 about the possibility of German re-unification. Yet two years later the Berlin Wall had collapsed because the actions of ordinary people confounded the experts (rather like the result of the recent Labour Party leadership election, one could say:-). In the same way I believe that ordinary people will very soon just say ‘no more’ to the dangerous and health-damaging nonsense that is happening in our exam factory schools, summed up, David, in your phrase “a regime of targets, league tables and an inspection system serving political objectives”. Three years ago, in the wake of the furore about GCSE English grades, Lisa Jardine said on Radio 4’s ‘Any Question’ that exams at 16-plus are simply unnecessary – and she received a round of applause (which you can still hear at 43:30 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mqr5q). There is a growing awareness among the populace that exam factories have had their day.

      Thanks for the link to your earlier post (https://educevery.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/education-creativity-and-cramming/). I think you are right to point out that it is all too easy to use the word creativity without examining its meaning. Ken Robinson has defined creativity as “having original ideas that have value” and this fits nicely with your definition: “acting and thinking in a way such that solutions are found to problems for which no set of rules and preconceptions can provide a complete answer”. I think this can apply across all areas of learning so, like you, David, I would reject the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘non-creative’ curriculum subject. But I do think that the more obviously creative subjects, e.g. music, art, drama and dance, can perhaps lead the way in moving education away from “educating people out of their creative capacities” to quote Ken Robinson again. He goes on to say “All children are creative artists… We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it – or rather we get educated out of it.”

      Anyway, for anyone interested in thinking further about what I call the CCD (creativity, collaboration and democracy) approach to learning, here is a short reading/listening list:

      # Ken Robinson TED talk: ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ (from which the quotations above have been taken)

      # Lani Guinier ‘The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America’

      # Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson ‘From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The Democratic Route’

      • David Pavett says:

        Terry, we are in broad agreement. I would like to respond, however, to the idea that that music, art, drama and dance are “more obviously creative subjects”. I don’t think that there is anything obvious about this at all beyond the “obviousness” that arises from something being said over and over again without it ever being questioned.

        For example, a great deal of music education is highly uncreative. When I asked a music instrument teacher once why all the exercises he used might as well have been written in the 18th century he replied that the rhythms of modern music (i.e. the music that the pupils actually hear on a daily basis) were “too difficult”. I remember hearing Aaron Copeland protesting many years ago at the conservativism of much of the musical world by saying “there has to be something wrong with limiting oneself to the 18th an 19th centuries”. Music education can be extremely conservative and uncreative. Of course it need not be and often is not but then the same is true of maths, science and technology (to consider just them).

        So I want to protest strongly at the idea that there are “more obviously creative subjects”. I think that what lurks behind that is a lack of understanding of the creative nature of maths, science and technology and beyond that of the nature of creativity itself. “Creativity” is a much abused word in education and elsewhere. Let’s remember that the biggest component of Britains so-called “creative industries” is advertising. I remember hearing Salman Rushdie, who once worked in advertising, saying that his only creative idea in that business was to come up with the words “ïrresistabubble” and “adorabubble” for Aero chocolate!

        Music, like maths, can be, and often is, taught in an uncreative way but there really is no reason that I can think of to suggest that either when well taught is more obviously creative than the other. I would like to suggest that the idea of some subjects being preferentially creative has the status of no more than a predudice and that the sooner it is dropped from educational discourse the better.