Archive for August, 2008

The Convention of the Left

August 30, 2008 2 comments

Convention of the LeftSusan reveals something I didn’t know about the Convention of the Left, though I doubt it was a secret: the Socialist Party won’t be attending the Manchester conference. Bearing in mind that the Socialist Party has been at the forefront of efforts to create the basis for a new worker’s party to replace the Labour Party, I was curious as to their justifications. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything about it on either the SPEW website or that of their International, the CWI.

I must confess, I didn’t know much about the Convention of the Left to begin with, but more and more this complete blank in the direction of the Convention by the Socialist Party intrigued me. After all, even the Communist Party of Great Britain (PCC) has decided to attend, despite their Campaign for a Marxist Party. Surely there could be no reason for the people behind the Campaign for a New Workers Party not to attend? So, I have been casting around for information.

Apart from the Socialist Unity blog, the two Convention websites and scattered other resources, there isn’t a huge amount of information circulating. The Convention of the Left is backed by many of the usual figures and organizations, a list of which is on the CotL website. More and more, therefore, I wonder what the point of the whole thing is? Is it to rival the Labour conference? Is it to pull in new faces in northern England? Both are worthwhile goals – but the fanfare about the Convention doesn’t seem to be quite merited.

A few discussions, the submission of a few research papers and the eventual dissolution of the Convention into its constituent components after its conclusion seems to be about all that will be achieved. The more I read, the more it occured to me to ask, don’t we already know what needs to be done and aren’t we merely talking because it distracts us for a while from the hard graft of doing it?

Most people won’t dispute that the remnants of socialism in the UK are fairly pathetic. Each political party has a handful of activists and a members on various bodies amongst the trades unions. Each is concerned with starting campaigns that will allow it to recruit members from amongst students, community activists and yet more trades unionists. Yet for all of this, the absolute decline in socialist consciousness has continued more or less unabated among workers.

In most cities, the basic building blocks of trade unionism no longer exist, rendering the acquisition of elected positions within unions pretty pointless. When there are a great number of workplaces without any unionization and a great number where the unionization is largely passive and doesn’t stretch to activist shop stewards, the muscles of trades unions have atrophied and little can be done except on the ground, recruiting new members. This is the easiest method whereby we can bring in the mass numbers of people whom we will weld or will weld us into a unitary political grouping.

People like Bob Crow and Jeremy Dear who support the Convention come from opposite ends of the union spectrum: one from a union that survives because it is so militant and because it has thoroughly unionized its workplaces, the other from a union that is virtually toothless but represents a profession which is being squeezed ever harder. The other unions, surviving on ageing (and declining) members are evidently too busy with bureaucratic manoeuvres to be interested.

Whilst I support the concept of a democratic, centralist, socialist party as a vehicle for organising any potential revolution (obviously several steps down the line), I’m most inclined to simply trust individual socialists at the moment. Trust them to work in their localities with other socialists, regardless of party labels and with a sense of independence from party lines. Party lines haven’t done so well over the last few years, whatever the various propagandists of each party may say.

RESPECT was little short of a disaster, so secretive that most of the members only found out about its dissolution with the rest of the country, via the Socialist Worker or the blogosphere. The Campaign for a New Workers Party doesn’t seem to have moved much forward in its three years of existence. Similarly the various other groups don’t seem to be progressing much either. Campaigning goes on as usual – for activists on the verge of deportation or for dismissed unionists and so forth, but only very unusually does the level of activism achieve the critical mass necessary to bring in wider layers of workers.

It is to the achievement of that critical mass which we should be turning our attention. For example, there are many GAP stores throughout the country – and the vast majority have no trade union representing any of the workers. Having activists building up a basic level of trade union activism not as an end in itself but as the means to educating workers in socialism seems to me much more important than the building of each sect to the point where it feels competent to launch a campaign for a mass party.

None of this detracts from the socialist theory that the most advanced layer of the working class will form a political party and this will organize class struggle on a national scale. Yet this party has to be built out of living, breathing people who are themselves involved in political and economic struggle with capitalism. The Convention of the Left could be a good opportunity to send people away with the message that they should begin looking around them for allies to help in the recruitment of these people, and be ready to disregard their party political leadership.

That’s a lesson which the members Socialist Party could probably do with, if their silence on the subject of a Convention of the Left is deliberately orchestrated. I am glad, however, that the Convention is taking place in Manchester. Another lesson the Left could do with is, less protests in London, more working in the localities. Without wishing to be accused to propagating a ‘stage-based’ theory of revolution, one has to walk before we can all learn to run. Running in step is another lesson still, but if we can actually begin to organize local issues having to bus in protesters, we’ll be well on our way to learning it.

Categories: General Politics

Continuing the faith school debate

August 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Faith schoolsSince I haven’t been able to blog for three weeks, I feel like I’m making up for lost time at the moment, scouring B4L and various other Labour sites to see what everyone is talking about. I happened upon the following article by one of TB’s former advisers and lo! and behold that this adviser is comparing those of us who’d like to get rid of faith schools to the East German government during its phase as a Stalinist state. How characteristic that in the face of people not quite willing to be overawed by the ex-Dear Leader’s professions of faith, his lackeys should almost but not quite call us all Stalinists.

A coalition of secularists, involving some religious leaders according to the BBC, is trying to get the faith criteria which faith schools impose dropped for both potential students and staff. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a laudable goal. Particularly considering that quite a proportion of faith schools are funded by the LEA (voluntary controlled schools) or at least partly funded (voluntary aided schools), I see no reason why the children within a given area should be disbarred from attending. After all, their parents are paying the very taxes which keep the school running. Moreover, the staff should not be selected on the basis of religion – it’s effectively legalized discrimination.

Conor points out that this is part of a campaign which seeks to ‘emasculate’ faith schools step by step. If only it were! Nevertheless I do not concede the point that faith schools are somehow better than other schools by virtue of being religious. The italicized text is important; many faith schools are among the best schools in the country. Looking down the top 100 schools (listed by Contextual Value Added), many of them are religious. Leaving aside the problems that in these league tables the ‘confidence’ measure of the data isn’t taken into account, this still does not prove that these schools are better because they can select staff and pupils according to religion.

If that were the extent of the argument – that faith schools provide better education by virtue of being religious, then I would disagree but at least it would be a rational argument. Actually from arguing that poorer kids do better via faith schools, Conor departs into the most vaporous of multiculturalist contentions. Apparently, “Irish Catholics were able to make their mark in Britain thanks to Catholic schools; other religions deserve the same chance.” Which sounds great right up to the point where you realize it’s bollocks.

Even if it is true that Irish Catholics achieved their break in the UK thanks to faith schools, we should remember that a uniform system of state education is comparatively recent. If one thinks of state education as being consolidated between the Balfour Education Act of 1902 and the Butler Education Act of 1944, of course religious minorities will have benefitted for a large part of that period from schools wherein they wouldn’t be subjected to a bias against minorities. As attitudes to minorities changed and the state education sector was broadened, reliance upon faith schooling decreased – until the Baker Education Act of 1987.

To say, in the modern era, that any minority needs the right to exclude others from its own schools if they are not part of that minority is an amazing contention. Conor is also either misinformed or deliberately vague: the 25% quota of other faiths that can be admitted to faith schools is a promise on the part of the Church of England, applying to any new C-of-E schools. It is not law and it does not apply to any other faith schools. The proposal to make that 25% compulsory was defeated in parliament in 2002, when it was proposed by Frank Dobson.

When I finally resume my career as a teacher, ethos will be an important part of any school. What I find belittling to those of us fighting the corner of comprehensive education for all is that our position is taken as meaning we don’t care about the culture of the school and want ‘sameness.’ This is precisely what Conor says. The truth is that I refuse to believe that anything achievable by a religious school isn’t achievable by every other school in the country and for all children of all faiths and none. I have never seen any evidence to the contrary and by Conor none is offered.

Votes at sixteen: why does it matter?

August 29, 2008 2 comments

Whenever I was sixteen, I was absorbed by the cut and thrust of politics and enamoured of a rather romantic idea that all politics truly needed was the right person to change the world. Needless to say a corollary of that idea included the right person being me. Many years later, the cynic in me has won through and, though I was once an ardent advocate of votes for 16 year olds-plus, now I don’t really see the point in it.

The whole matter has been receiving attention, first from a Private Members’ Bill which was denounced by various Tories as a ‘gimmick’ and then from a circular passed around by Young Labour. Stephanie Peacock (by all accounts a wannabe) and Liv Bailey (who has a brain and for whom you should vote at any given opportunity) are pleased that the National Policy Forum has endorsed the idea of votes at sixteen plus.

Stephanie and Liv are respectively the youth representative for the NEC and the Vice Chair of Young Labour and are hoping to get the idea approved by Conference and, presumably, integrated into the next manifesto. The whole thing smells to me of a populist bid on the part of Labour leadership and this sense is reinforced by the language of the email circular from Young Labour.

“…Lowering the voting age to 16 will give young people more of a voice and a stake in their communities… Labour is taking this bold step to empower young people, but the battle isn’t won yet.”

Even if that is the case, it shouldn’t impact our assessment of the issue in itself: it doesn’t matter if Gordon Brown supports it and then leaves it to a Private Members’ Bill, which the government allows to be talked out of existence. If it’s worth pursuing we should pursue it – but I’m still at a loss to why we should make a song and dance about it. Will this change anything, apart from adding to the categories of ‘stakeholder’ to which the government must attempt to seem accountable?

After years of being involved with the European Youth Parliament, Youth Councils in the town where I grew up and various other political endeavours for ‘der yoof’ I am firmly convinced that these things are set up largely as a boon to different levels of government. At every level, they can be pointed to as though they mean the government is engaged with young people and they also provide excellent photo-opportunities. Many of the council-employed staff who often devote hours to helping run them don’t want things to be like that – but they are.

They cannot be anything else, largely because they incorporate the ‘individualist’ view of politics which is endemic to the adherents of the mainstream political parties. It’s no different in Northern Ireland, where the major parties go by different names and policies. The only real difference is that in England there are some councils such as Medway which go all out to provide facilities and then fill them by practically ordering every school to send young people along, so that the whole effort seems less lacklustre than elsewhere.

If one confronts politics as though it is the equivalent of sitting in a room, alone, and choosing between the pre-set alternatives then no amount of effort is ever going to engage the 18-24 age grouping, never mind if we add the 16+ groups. Young people are no different from the rest of the population – they have opinions and ideas – but there is no avenue whereby change can be effected. An enduring feature of trade unions at the moment is their startling lack of young members in many areas – and as vehicles for change, Labour isn’t doing any better at attracting young people.

People who have had life long attachments to the Labour Party are currently dropping away at an alarming rate. Anecdotal evidence has put the Party at membership levels on par or lower than those in 1918, when individual membership was first counted. A document from the Welsh Labour Party reveals the increasing detachment of the New Labour elite from the complete disintegration of the Party at branch level. As older members pass on, there are no young people to pick up the slack. How will allowing people to vote at 16 change this much wider malaise?

The answer is of course that it won’t. Young people don’t feel disfranchised because they don’t have the vote – ask any 18 year old. They feel disfranchised because they don’t see how things can change. The irony is that the very Labour leadership which professes to want people to engage with politics has spent the better part of the past twenty-something years trying to make sure that even within the Party, the popular voice is drowned out. It is for that reason I don’t feel like helping out with this campaign.

As a brief addendum, it seems that the Irish government is going to continue having referendums on European integration until it gets the answer it wants. One can bet that if this was the situation in the UK, our own government would do exactly the same thing. When ones vote evidently counts for so much, the whole idea of voting at all can seem wholly ridiculous. The only thing left to wonder at is why sixteen year olds want the vote at all! I suppose the truth is that most don’t care.

No excuses, no nannying?

August 27, 2008 2 comments

ObesityHow wonderful it is to see the Conservatives acknowledging that obesity might be a problem in our modern society. Having recently checked my Body Mass Index, suitably adjusted for a non-smoker, I find that I am something like 0.4 of a point overweight, so I was particularly interested to see what Andrew Lansley might propose to help get our nation of lard-arses on the move again.

Once more it turns out that the Conservative Party is all about big talk but limp wristed action; so with pornography, now also with the health of the nation. The grand plan is to ask the food industry if they would be good chaps and reduce the size of the portions they dish out, presumably meaning in ready-meals, frozen meals and desserts. I imagine that the food industry will have no problem with that as they’ll keep the sticker price the same, padding their profit margins.

Along with a few government initiatives to make it seem cool to eat healthy and signing up to the EU mandates about having nutritional information on the front of the pack (which most supermarkets’ own brands largely comply with anyway), Lansley’s speech was remarkable mostly for its demonstration that the Conservatives actually don’t have a coherent health policy. Apparently things like halting the fire-sale of school sports pitches aren’t viable alternatives.

Lansley commented, “… we must be positive – positive about the fun and benefits to be had from healthy living, trying to get rid of people’s excuses for being obese by tackling the issue in a positive way.” So the Conservative policy seems to be a case of talking away the causes of obesity instead of actually tackling them, believing that most people are obese largely by choice. So not anything to do with time constraints, declining skills in fresh cooking, increasing costs of fresh produce and other more mundane considerations.

Here’s a thought. Why shouldn’t half an hour of every week-day involve paid cardio-vascular exertions? The incoming Tory government could plan leisure facilities on a scale not seen in decades (which reminds me, might not a cause of obesity be a result of the rise in price of surviving leisure facilities and the declining level of these overall?). For each town and city, per several thousand people we could provide gyms and we could compel companies to write into their staff contracts paid time every week-day for a work-out session.

Boom, the whole nation is suddenly on the road to cardio-vascular health and obesity rates are drastically decreased. Obviously exceptions could be built into the plan – such as those with heart problems, the unemployed, the disabled and so forth. Even if this is unworkable in the specifics, the idea is sound – it just seems that these days an ever decreasing number of people is interested in imaginative solutions to the problems which are confronting the entire Western world and are therefore unlikely to be solely due to  bad personal eating and exercise habits.

“Tainting the Al-Qaida brand”

August 27, 2008 1 comment

John ReidChatting with a friend about a government which seems intent upon destroying the thin barrier between the arms of the state and the sphere of democratic debate, I remarked that all too often, modern governments seem intent upon using Orwell’s novel, 1984, as a guide-book rather than as a cautionary tale. For anyone aware of Nick Davies’ book “Flat Earth News,” the cautionary tale came another step closer to reality with yesterday’s stories about the activities of Home Office department RICU, set up by Bruiser Reid, and their American counterparts.

The Research, Information and Communications Unit is apparently embroiled in a plot to “taint the Al-Qaida brand” by targeting the BBC and media-oriented web forums using “volunteers” to disseminate carefully chosen themes, in the hope that they will be picked up by the media. This is part of a two-stage plan, the other half of which involved trying to reach “decision makers and other stakeholders” by having anyone likely to be interviewed briefed via crib-sheets that target the same themes: Al-Qaida on the wane, Al-Qaida having no answers etc.

Few people will argue that Al-Qaida can contribute anything of worth to a genuine debate surrounding the future of our country, but that doesn’t make the fact that the government is trying to covertly interfere with that debate any less worrying. There exist vast problems in how the media chooses what stories to cover: more so now than ever before, editorial judgment at some of the most responsible newspapers and broadcasting organisations seem irreparably impaired, to the benefit of government and private capital.

One need only consider Roger Alton and the pro-war pronouncements of the Observer, despite evidence that their journalists had in their possession that much of the anti-war claims were in fact totally correct. This is interference high above the level of that which Rupert Murdoch frequently resorts to, such as when preventing his own newspapers from running the same scurrilous stories about his Chinese wife as all the other tabloids ran when first those stories broke. It is much more dangerous too.

We may not have reached the level of the Cold War just yet – but for those seeking another cautionary tale, I recommend Frances Stonor Saunders’ book “Who Paid the Piper?” Saunders documents the war waged by the Western governments and their cultural elites against the spread of communist ideas, often via innocuous-sounding or even left-wing think-tanks and cultural groups, much funded by the CIA. The current level of ‘information management’ is not so all-pervasive but is much more adapted to the current institutional configurations of the press – and thereby may carry its own dangers.

For those who think that it’s safe because it’s directed at Al-Qaida, I can only suggest that they look into the history of what seems to be RICU’s closest predecessor in terms of job description: Edward Heath’s Information Research Department and its involvement with the campaign to join the common market. Or, closer still to home, the campaigns of the British security services against those groups surrounding the 1984 NUM strike. Just because the information management is directed against groups both left and right can’t abide is no excuse.

Most worrying of all is that this sort of thing is happening under the auspices of a Labour government. Heath’s IRD was shut down by David Owen, under Wilson’s term of government. Where now is the Labour bulwark against the expansion of the propagandist powers of the state? Actively co-operating by the looks of things, for all of Gordon Brown’s remarks on fighting the culture of secrecy – and then openly considering the reduction in scope of freedom of information laws. Should a resurgent labour movement spring up, rest assured powers of information management are unlikely to go unused.

It’s easy, at this point, to come off with a quote from Jefferson about how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but in truth it would be trite because our vigilance has failed. It will not be restored merely because we can get together under the banner of a few NGOs and protest in parliament square (though one wonders for how much longer even that luxury will be afforded to us). If our freedom is circumscribed by the power of the state to regulate, by default, editorial decisions which affect what information we get in the first place, we really have no freedom at all.

This is precisely the scenario we’re now facing, where senior commanders in the military, senior civil servants and senior politicos can go to conferences where they all learn how to control the media coverage of whatever event or policy they’ve been charged with managing. Telling among the “line” to be taken on Al-Qaida is the various ways the state is trying to discredit the personalities whipping up support, and place on pedestals those religious figures who oppose Al-Qaida. How far is it from this to simply making up scurrilous stories about foreign political opponents? We tread a very dangerous path indeed.

Categories: Labour Party News, Law

Weeks pass, nothing changes

August 27, 2008 Leave a comment

GeorgiaSo in case nobody noticed, I’ve been away. Around the time I disappeared, South Ossetia brought us one step closer to World War 3. At this time I would like to assure my readers that I had nothing to do with this. Any emails I sent to Presidents Medvedev and Saakashvili describing them as imperialist aggressor / American lackey (apply as appropriate), each email being signed as though it came from the other President, are purely coincidental.

Nice to see that the usual pro-war crew haven’t failed to disappoint, joining in the almost hysterical reaction to Russian aggression that the British media has taken. At least we haven’t quite fallen to FOX news’ level of counting the number of times we can fit the phrase “Russian bear” into one punditry broadcast. On the other hand, plenty of them, particularly the Labourites, have failed to notice the yawning chasm between the principled rhetoric of David Miliband and the reality that we’ve been selling Russia and Georgia the weapons they’re using to kill each other.

Likewise, I see that back home in Northern Ireland, the fine fellows we call our leaders are using the silly season to best effect. In yesterday’s Guardian, DUP minister Jeffrey Donaldson was criticizing Sinn Fein’s threat that power sharing might be nearing the end of the road, should devolution for policing and justice not continue apace.

Donaldson said, “Such language as has been used [by Sinn Fein], begins to cast doubt upon Sinn Fein’s commitment to progress at Stormont.” The words “pot,” “kettle” and “black” aren’t anywhere near my mind. Frankly I think that Donaldson is an outstanding MP and not a hypocritical bigot who in the past has helped to bring down power-sharing arrangements simply on the basis that the DUP occasionally need to have a huff with their Republican partners, to keep the grassroots happy.

In other news, I learned today of the death of a venerable old member of Canterbury CLP, Phil Bond, former headteacher and the first Labour member I spoke to when moving to Canterbury. He was an integral part of the CLP, readying the newsletter and making sure it was passed out, and his loss will, I think, put one more nail in the coffin of the Labour organisation down here. I also learned of the death of author Robert Jordan, which leaves me profoundly put out, because I had been waiting for his next book.

Finally, my internet problems are still far from solved, but I shall be more rigorous in trying to publish articles.

Categories: Miscellaneous

God or evolution?

August 8, 2008 Leave a comment

DawkinsJustin Thacker, a doctor of theology, has been arguing over at Comment is Free why Richard Dawkins is an example of the argumentative overreach of many strident atheists. Since I count myself among those strident atheists, I thought I would pick up on a few points which Thacker made – though I agree with his broader point that ‘evolution’ is not firmly established as the basis for all existent matter. Thacker’s basic thesis is that evolution and god are not mutually exclusive.

Naturally I disagree, for a variety of reasons which Thacker does not even address. First and foremost, there is the fact that the idea of evolution and the idea of god have been arrived at by terribly different methods. Christian theology has never adequately addressed the social origins of ‘god’ and the identifiable phases into which religion settles as the society in question itself develops from primitive to modern. It can’t – god is an ahistorical concept.

If ‘god’ is adapted according to different material circumstances, then surely what is at the root of ‘god’ are those very material circumstances? Scientific enquiries are what led to the theory of evolution – and there are plenty of scientific theories for the origins of god. The route which Thacker takes does not compare like with like; the god which set evolution into motion is still a god of the gaps – even if that gap can never be filled.

For all that Thacker dislikes Dawkins’ polemical style, Thacker himself is hardly making a clean argument, citing Dawkins numerous times for merely picking on fifteen year olds in his new television series. My retort to that is simple: arguing with theologists who have spent years enmeshed in the strange world of religion is hardly a profitable activity. Many of their preconceptions are bogus and they operate on a different plane of argument.

The sort of people whom atheists should aim at are the young precisely because of the pressures to which many of them are subjected as regards religion.

If the practices and beliefs of religion were taken to task by someone who had not had his opinions ameliorated through prolonged exposure to religion, I imagine the result would be exceptionally harsh. Theologians are the most ameliorated of the lot, wholeheartedly giving themselves to queer notions about how bread and wine actually physically become the blood and body of Jesus b. Joseph of Nazareth.

Even when one gets outside of the mystic practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the view that there is a part of the body entirely independent of the physical is not concomitant with any branch of the sciences. The view that one is raised up to heaven or sent to hell on the basis of texts which admit of wildly different interpretations is also something of a leap. Why debate theologians who have devoted their lives to preserving through obscurantism this archaic behaviour?

The inevitable refrain to which Thacker resorts is that many religious men have been scientists – but I’d be surprised if he could demonstrate the practical relevance of their religious beliefs to the conduct of their scientific research. People are welcome to their personal beliefs and religious scientists wouldn’t be the only people in the world to hold inconsistent beliefs. Simply look at the variety of people holding public office in the Western world.

In the same vein, Thacker is welcome to his evangelical views – so long as he recognizes that within science and religion, the internal currencies are vastly different. One is based on evidence, the other is based on persuasion and rhetoric based around creative licence taken with the central documents of the religion in question. For that reason, god and evolution are incompatible. Evolution hasn’t abolished god in the popular conscious but there are few god botherers who can’t be silenced by scientific argument and so long as that is the case in this country, we can benignly tolerate their arcane practices.

Categories: Religion

Pluralism and the BBC

August 8, 2008 1 comment

BBCOne of the cornerstones of a pluralist view of the media is that the media produces only that which is acceptable to the viewing or reading public. If they didn’t do that, then their output would be unlikely to acquire advertising revenues or achieve high numbers of paper sales. The vast quantities of factors which this theory, which gives a democratic gloss to the actions of the market, does not take into account are staggering.

To give a short list, it misses out considerations of brand-loyalty; of the effects on consumer choice of a limited selection rather than the theorized infinite; of the fact that only a certain section of society can afford to build and run media interests; of methods whereby editors choose which stories are approved and which aren’t – only one of which is an attempt to guess what will be popular among the consumers of the media output.

Obviously this sort of thing is only the beginning of a critique of the pluralist view of the media – but I lead with it because I learned today that 74 percent of the hours of television commissioned for the BBC under its WOCC agreement are outsourced to private companies. This represents an additional 18 percent of total BBC broadcast time, on top of the 25 percent outsourced under the 2003 Communications Act. Private Eye ran an article on this, documenting how this has led to over five hundred job losses in the corporation’s BBC Vision production arm.

Advocates of a market-based approach to broadcasting would argue that these job losses have made the BBC more efficient. WOCCIf it has to pay less for the same standard of viewing material (assuming constancy in editorial decisions and that cutting costs by outsourcing doesn’t mean affecting quality), then the BBC is saving the taxpayer money by going through this rigmarole. The pressure on the corporation to save money is always tied to the Damoclean sword of sharing out the licence fee with other broadcasters, or cutting it off altogether.

In many respects this is analogous to the pressure of shareholders on the private broadcasting corporations – and it must affect editorial decisions. Shows must appeal to the lowest common denominator or else viewing figures will drop. Viewing figures are thought to reflect the opinions of the masses, not just in a here-and-now just-for-this-show type of way but such that almost every channel will endlessly recycle a successful format coined by another channel. With some of those formats, even eight years on, the new series and their copycats are still going.

The dispute over how much to pay Jonathan Ross, the defections of Trinny and Susannah, the celebrity island / X-factor / insert carbon copy here remakes: all of these are intrinsically tied to assumptions made about viewing figures. Allowing viewing figures to rule in such a way dilutes the quality of television, in my view. The Sun always finds a column in which to complain about Only Fools and Horses repeats on the BBC, but it doesn’t take so much of an interest when ITV or Sky rehash a BBC format. It should.

With regard to the BBC, is it all just about getting the highest viewing figures for the lowest possible cost? BBC supporters would say no, and would point to the guidelines which allot a guaranteed amount of hours to each particular genre, ensuring that although the prime time slots may be filled with Strictly Come Dancing vying with X-Factor, there will still be nature, science, history and political shows. Even in those arenas, as any Radio 3 and 4 listener will attest, things aren’t always as well-done as they should be.

This leads me back to my concern with allotting a potential 50 percent of all BBC airtime to private producers. When the in-house production teams of the BBC, some of them extremely specialised but elite in their field such as the natural world bunch, are being cut back, how are we to expect that the BBC will not dilute its quality? The problem lies not with the private production companies but with the editorial decisions of the BBC – and they are subject to exactly the same conservatism as their private rivals.

Conservatism in decisions on what to broadcast is a product, as far as I can see, of fear of failure combined with an over-willingness to trust whatever has already been successful. The over-hyped, over-directed period dramas with their various sex scenes, starring actors that have made their names in other ‘sexy’ dramas such as Spooks are a case in point. It is something that needs to be fought, and outsourcing the BBC is not the way to combat institutional conservatism – it will reinforce it because now in-house production teams will be concerned with the same values as their private counterparts.

Whether or not that is a good thing is an individual, political choice. My answer is that it clearly isn’t, but I also have a problem in the fact that it’s a debate that gets zero attention in the mainstream. The BBC produces some world-class content: Zane Lowe on Radio 1 for those interested in new music, late night programming on Radio 3 for world music, radio-plays on Radio 4. Yet this is an innovative method almost unfamiliar to the BBC televisual arms, despite the glorious past in which they far outdistance their competition.

If we are to subscribe to the doctrines of pluralism in the media, then we should let the market take its course and get rid of the licence fee. If, on the other hand, we want a democratically responsive media that will not simply choose what it thinks people want but also tries to breach their comfort zones with original and incisive commentary and programming, we need to get away from the idea that people can choose to watch or not watch what they like – because that choice isn’t a free choice conducted in a vacuum.

Instead we need to begin discussing, as a democratic people, what broadcast values we would like to see the BBC deploy. This debate can easily be framed in wide terms relevant to all people in society, and if we don’t conduct it soon and on a scale much greater than merely the odd Private Eye article and Friends of Radio 3 campaign, then we’re likely to be drowned out by the interests and their media tools which wouldn’t mind seeing the BBC dismembered and in its place more Big Brothers, Pop Idols and escapades by ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith.

In a world of media where Ofcom have just relaxed the impositions on private broadcasters in respect to how much actual television they have to show in between the adverts, this has never been a more pressing concern.

Education, responsible pornography and Conservative distortion

August 4, 2008 1 comment

GoveA dialectical conception of the history of ideas suggests that the seeds of every new departure is contained within existing orthodoxy, against which new ideas will react. The truth of this is rarely more clearly demonstrated than recently with the Cameronian Conservative use of concepts and language common to Labour in order to justify policies which are not something many Labourites would accept.

Michael Gove, shadow secretary for Children, Schools and Families, gave a speech this morning to the IPPR covering a range of subjects: education for the poor, the effects of pornography and the need to back up ‘the family’ using the tax system if necessary. He introduced it by quoting Bill Clinton and a bantu word that neatly expressed Aristotle’s idea that man is a social animal. On the surface, one might think that things had come a long way since Thatcher’s attack on the concept of ‘society’.

Subtly emergent throughout the speech is the new fashionable sociological analysis: the concept of ‘social capital’. So is the all-pervading insistence that Labour is simply centralism run amok. Several challenges need to be made: the first and most obvious one is that centralism versus subsidiarity isn’t the right debate. What we’re doing with the power accrued is the issue – but we can’t talk about that because in large part Labour and the Conservatives agree about things like privatization.

While Gove might glory in Conservative opposition to the closure of GPs surgeries and the creation of polyclinics due to ‘narrow cost efficiency’, without regard to the ‘enriching personal intimacy’, I very much doubt this will be a guiding Tory principle if elected to office. It certainly didn’t bother the Tories with regard to hospitals, the miners or the other communities which the Conservative governments of 1979-1997 blew through like a blow-torch through butter.

Gove’s remarks on the ‘branch office’ relationship between local and central government bely a very problematic relationship with the truth and history: that this was an agenda pursued by the Conservatives first and foremost.

One of the most worrying parts of this collection of questionable assertions is that the Conservatives are using it to attack the centralisation of education, as though delivering a centrally-agreed national curriculum is what’s wrong with the education system. Of course it bears mentioning that the national curriculum was a Conservative idea, implemented by a Conservative government. Behind all this, we will find, should the Conservatives get elected, will be a continuation of fracturing LEAs and haemorrhaging schools to private institutions via Academy status.

The Orwellian language used to obscure such an agenda is the most worrying thing of all, and all obscured with the catch-all jingoism surrounding the idea of ‘choice’ in modern political parlance.

How exactly the Tories are going to support relationships is left curiously inexact. What is remarkably clear is the continuing Conservative infatuation with ‘the family’ – keeping adults together for the sake of their children. The stable family as the best way to generate opportunity. It’s a preposterous breakdown of logic, as though were every family stable, there would miraculously be enough high-paying jobs for everyone.

More stunning still are the double standards when it comes to men and women’s magazines:

Titles such as Nuts and Zoo paint a picture of women as permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available. The images they use and project reinforce a very narrow conception of beauty and a shallow approach towards women. They celebrate thrill-seeking and instant gratification without ever allowing any thought of responsibility towards others, or commitment, to intrude.

The contrast with the work done by women’s magazines, and their publishers, to address their readers in a mature and responsible fashion, is striking.

The last time I read Cosmo the whole point of the magazine was to offer the material as a solution to virtually everything. Shoes, handbags, clothes. It was an attempt to portray as ineffective any man who did not conform to a certain standard in bed or as a partner. Far from being mature, it was an even more insidious and pretentious counterpart to the nude women and lewd jokes in men’s magazines. Whatever the case, ‘asking [the publishers] what they think they’re doing’ is unlikely to achieve results.

A concern on my part is that if all Labour and the Conservatives are competing over is the old teleological, liberal notion of Progress, with a capital ‘P’, then the Conservatives offer just as good a brand of liberalism. Gove closed his speech with the sentiment that a Conservative government would ‘achieve progressive social goals, in all their nobility’. While that makes me want to scream in rage that the world doesn’t explode when Conservatives prostitute language to their own uses, it highlights that Labour, without socialism, can have the liberal carpet pulled from under them at any time.

Categories: Terrible Tories

Religion, religious symbols and schools

August 2, 2008 2 comments

Sunny Hundal has written a thoughtful article over at Comment is Free on the case of the young girl who was internally excluded because she wore a Sikh kara to school and wouldn’t take it off. Though Sunny starts off claiming that because he associates the judicial ruling permitting the girl her jewellery with fairness he won’t make many friends, I was actually persuaded during my reading of his article.

Upon first hearing about the case, I snorted and was mildly irritated that a school couldn’t carry through a ban on jewellery simply because of a religion. However, Sunny’s article made me reconsider my opinions for a variety of reasons – and not all of them were the one’s I think he aims at in his discussion. Firstly, my take on fairness has little to do with the ‘liberal, pluralistic society’ which Sunny wants to live in.

Actually, if we’re going to take about fairness we should recognize that school jewellery bans are often arbitrary – permitting watches but not bangles, permitting one stud in each ear for girls, but not for boys and no second piercings for girls. The list of things I’ve seen schools arbitrarily ban just because they think they should is endless. In the case of the Sikh girl, other girls were allowed to wear watches, so why not a kara?

Such a view neatly sidesteps the religious connotations of the piece of jewellery in question, but then the school didn’t ban it because it was religious, it banned it because it was jewellery. The second question of fairness, which Sunny highlights, is about the appropriateness of the response by the school to the persistent wearing of the kara. Not only was the girl held in internal exclusion for 9 weeks but also:

The school canteen was barred to her and so were its corridors whenever they were being used by other pupils. She was not allowed to join her friends in the playground and had to be accompanied by a teacher when she went to the toilet.

Having been on the wrong side of school-based arbitrary authority I very much sympathize with the Sikh girl. For what reason can a school oppress a young girl so heavy-handedly? It’s not like she’s smoking, dealing drugs, having sex in empty classrooms or any number of the more serious offences which any teacher could list. This girl was excluded and kept as though a prisoner because she refused to take off a piece of jewellery.

I find that goddamn heroic.

Rather than turning this into a question about religious artifacts, we should instead question why jewellery is forbidden in some classrooms but not others, in some schools but not others, or only some pieces of jewellery but not others. In many cases the rules are straightforward but teachers don’t apply them – I know I don’t. There are other ways to establish one’s presence in a classroom than by sniping about jewellery.

This is one of the central issues that seems to get lost in the rush to judgment about whether kids should be allowed to wear religious symbols to school.

On that particular issue, I’m torn. I would say that I don’t see any obvious difference between the Islamic burqa and a crucifix or skull-cap. People might say that the burqa or its variations represent the oppression of women, but then many religions are basically the canonization of ridiculously outmoded and reactionary ideologies. If one is going to be banned for secular reasons, then ban them all.

In considering this, there are the practical considerations of reaching out to religious communities, many of which are based upon ethnically-identifiable sections of the working class. However rather than opportunistically trying to grasp at religious issues in the hope of persuading them to join a progressive alliance, I’ve always been more in favour of recruiting the more advanced layers of each religion on the basis of a plain socialistic platform.

Within that platform, there is no room for religion. If someone wants to believe in god, that is their concern – but in matters political, either rationality comes first or one is not a socialist.

This leaves us with the issue of the indoctrination of children, brought up at an early age to believe whatever their parents spoon feed them. This government has confounded any attempt to deal with this problem by its support for and expansion of faith-schooling in the UK. If banning religious imagery in schools is part of a concerted effort to get rid of faith schools, then I support it – but outside of a calculated, openly presented programme of political change, it seems unnecessarily petty.

In fact, going beyond petty, it can seem to victimize the religious minorities in this country because a higher proportion of those who consider themselves part of a minority religion are actually religious. This is compared with the seventy-some percent of the country that is Christian, versus the 7 percent who go to church regularly. That’s something that we have to guard against because a precipitous decline in race relations plays into the hands of the far right.

An additional consideration is that, for as long as ‘worship’ is still demanded by those parts of various Education Acts currently in force, and this usually translates as Christian or at least monotheistic worship, it seems somewhat hypocritical to be in favour of a clampdown on religious imagery. Overall, a consistent policy is what we should be aiming for – and it obviously can’t hide behind the excuse that this is all about jewellery. As I’ve indicated, that in itself is often inconsistent and arbitrary.

Categories: Race and Colour, Religion

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