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In defence of A-levels

June 18, 2009 1 comment

I’m still digesting the new review on Home Schooling, its methodology and recommendations. There will be more on that on Saturday morning, after I finish building it in to some research I’m doing on the policy of Every Child Matters. One of the methods pursued by the review was to assemble a panel of ‘experts’ in order to discuss issues in Home Schooling; one of the issues I’ll look at is whether or not that is an appropriate method of reaching conclusions. I don’t think it is. Equally I don’t think it was an appropriate method for the latest ‘study’ into A-levels by the Reform group.

Phrases such as ‘hollow preparation’, ‘learn and forget culture’, ‘like sat-nav rather than a map’ (on mathematics), and ‘using somebody else’s mind’ (on English) grace the press releases that accompanied the report. With such prejudicial terms, it occurs to me to wonder whether or not the mind of this particular group was already made up before them embarked on their survey of academics and the syllabus, exam paper and mark scheme of Chemistry, Maths, English and History A-levels from 1951 until the present day. My key objection here is that, as will become apparent, the methods of research here are very open to question.

The academics apparently said that the quality of students has dropped since 1990. There is no explanation as to how this is quantified; there is equally no explanation as to how A-levels themselves are responsible in isolation from other factors. An increase in the number of people at university, an increase in the number of jobs requiring degrees, a sociological change in the composition of university attendees and changes in teaching methods could all play a part. The way the exams are set and marked might not be the be all and end all of the ‘change'; there may be some truth in what is being said, but there’s no discussion as to why this is the key difference.

Moving on to the survey of each mark scheme, exam paper and syllabus, a lot of the report reads like baseless assertion (which, we should remember, academics are as capable of making as the rest of us).

For example, on English and History, the report suggests that, ‘Even subjects that retain much of the superficial content…have seen a hollowing out in the extent to which they are understood and explored.’ This interests me, genuinely. I sat my A-level exams in 2003, post-2000 curriculum, under the AS/A2 system. I teach history under the new system. What evidence is to be adduced in support of the idea that the content which history retains is superficial, and that we have hollowed out the extent to which we can promote understanding and exploration of the subject?

Reading over the remarks by Ian Moxon, on pages 14-15 of the report, the answer is not a whole lot. What strikes me as the key line in Moxon’s section of the report reads as follows. “The study of History has thus become the application of a set of techniques specifically inculcated in stages in schools and systematically assessed at intervals by examination. Everything is specified and everything is determined.” This is true, to an extent. It is readily observable through teaching methods in school, where training pupils to write essays is an exercise in box ticking, from Key Stage 3 to A-level.

Level 5 is grouping causal factors, Level 6 is prioritization of factors, Level 7 is different perspectives and so forth. Basic frameworks such as these allow pupils of lesser ability to achieve. It’s not a fake achievement because elements of individual decision are still involved. Selecting the evidence to write a sustained, reasoned argument is big achievement from the point of view of Western society, for which adult literacy seems an increasing problem. Taking America as an example, by 2003, the NAAL reported that the overall percentage of college students reading at a ‘proficient’ level dropped from 40% to 31%.

This is not about the A-level exams. Exams require reading and synthesizing just as much information now as first year at university, speaking from my own experience. It’s about general reading ability, the desire to watch television or use the internet rather than read for pleasure, something supported by NEA figures that show a 17% decline in literary reading in the twenty years up until 2004. If providing a framework to assist in making up this shortfall enables more people to participate, despite the great pressure not to read, then I’m all for it. It is always within the capacity of brighter students to push themselves and be pushed further than the basic framework, which wouldn’t get them a grade A in any case. This is why A level, as with other exams, has a variable mark rather than a simple pass-fail option.

Additionally, as noted in the report, the number of pupils taking A-level has increased massively. Since 1985, the number of pupils taking A-levels has doubled from around 19% to around 40% of school leavers. Though I haven’t researched this to provide a correlation, I suspect that this means more pupils of much wider social backgrounds sitting the exams – and this reinforces the trend discussed above.

None of the contentions outlined by Ian Moxon prove that students, as a result of the introduction of a framework and a more rigorous schematic for marking exams, are any less capable of transitioning to university. And even if it did, it still doesn’t prove that the framework is what is to blame. The attribution of whatever deficiencies lecturers subjectively perceive about their students to the quality of the A-level exams, or how they are taught or marked, is far from fixed. Of course it is a possibility – no one is denying that – but this report treats it as fact and without good reason.

To apply some of my own subjective views, my own essays for my A-levels did demonstrate flair. I was competitive and enjoyed fluid writing, and enjoyed learning. I was so engrossed by Athenian democracy at the time that I learned the subject so well I could write in-jokes for my essays. My results for each paper were in the 90s (out of 100), if I recall correctly. When I moved to university, my first year was no more rigorous than what I had been taught in the same subject at A-level. For A-level, I had three source books (Thucydides’ history, Plutarch’s Lives and a book on the Athenian Empire) and one course book. I used them all at University.

A-level offered me the scope to, and rewarded me for, taking a deeper and more perceptive interest in the subjects under study than many of my peers. Which is why I got an A and they didn’t. That is how the system is supposed to work – and it does work. Every teacher knows who their stronger students are, and who their weaker students are. The Reform group report reads like it would prefer to exclude weaker students entirely; if one can’t answer a question on Napoleon without a quote (see the Appendices), then obviously one is just not trying hard enough! This ignores the invaluable resource which A-level provides in opening pupils to interests which may diverge from employment but prove much more fulfilling.

If the Reform group is simply advocating a more rigorous standard of teaching, to set the scene for pupils to engage in independent work, then I have no problem with that. For history specifically, if the Reform group is advocating a return to regular source-based questions rather than merely relying upon secondary texts, then I’m all for that. Having an opinion, which can substantiated in fact, and being able to make use of original sources are the building blocks of history. I can’t speak for every history department in the country, but I daresay that many history teachers besides myself agree and act accordingly.

So what, really, are Reform barking about? I don’t really know. Their recommendations include abolishing detailed mark schemes, to allow examiners to use their specialist knowledge to greater effect. Apart from risk of de-standardising the A-level exam, the report acknowledges that actually most exam boards do channel their various papers towards subject specialists as the matter stands. Similarly, the Reform group calls for teachers to be allowed to follow online the marking of individual papers in the name of ‘intellectual integrity’…but this demand comes out of nowhere, as I wasn’t aware and the report does not make clear that the intellectual integrity of A-level marking was being challenged.

Reform also demands that a number of Diplomas be abolished, such as in critical thinking. Instead subjects such as this should be taught in the context of other subjects (why exactly? No explanation is offered). Employers should from thenceforth be in charge of offering ‘functional skills’ training. The mechanisms for this, or how reliable and widespread or effective it would be, are left undiscussed. Foisting the responsibility for all of this on to heads of university departments, and allowing more private initiative in setting up exam boards (so long as they are approved by collectives of the department heads) are also proposals which seem thrown in with hardly a regard for realities.

Where in their busy schedule are university heads of department, or even university teachers for that matter, going to find the time to oversee systems of national examinations and perform quality control exercises related to that?

The clincher is that all of this is based on the assumption that it is the A-level exams that are to blame for the (supposedly) declining state of readiness in which our students turn up to university. That case has not been made.

Categories: General Politics

I support the SOAS occupations

June 16, 2009 7 comments

According to different blogs, on Friday 12th June a number of ISS cleaning staff attached to SOAS were summoned to an impromptu meeting by their bosses. At the meeting, immigration officers appeared (Clare reports that they were hiding, awaiting the arrival of all the cleaners) and nine members of staff were detained by immigration officials. ISS is the private company to which cleaning has been outsourced by the School of African and Oriental Studies. It pays its workers in the region of about £6.00 per hour (as this job advert shows).

Since that incident on Friday, events seem to have moved with shocking speed. Rumour abounds that no less than five members of staff have already been deported. Students from SOAS and other London universities have occupied buildings on the SOAS campus in protest at the treatment of staff. All of this is set in the context of a fight for unionisation and better conditions; ISS only recently recognised the right of UNISON to negotiate for terms and conditions, after a campaign that involved both the NUS and UCU.

Today, Tuesday 16th, an injunction was filed, ordering students to vacate the buildings they occupied. Following this, the students involved used the internet (and presumably other means of communication) to invite a rally in support of their occupation. University authorities revoked their threat to send in bailiffs and as of approximately 6.30pm, negotiations have resumed with the students in occupation. How things turn out in the end is still up for grabs, though if you are near London, get down there and help out if you can!

The only reason I am writing about this, since there are any number of excellent blogs from the people involved (even beyond those I’ve linked to), is because I’m quite irritated by the number of lazy reactions I’ve witnessed on Facebook and Twitter to the student occupation. Ranging from “misdirected” to the usual anti-student prejudice, I think quite a few people need a good shake to awaken them from the stuporous indolence in which they languish, amidst their ivory towers. Yes, Brian, this means you.

Consider the situation. This private company has colluded with the state to have some of its own workers arrested. The only crime that these workers committed was to seek whatever work they could to sustain themselves. Against the forces of the state, mere students have no weapon that they can use. By occupying the SOAS buildings, however, they are making clear their opposition to this new tactic by a company to undermine efforts to unionise its workforce. We should be clear that this is what is involved, by the way.

Through fear of the immigration authorities, companies can exploit a near-endless supply of immigrants and the cheap labour they represent. The students are doing the only thing they can: bringing pressure to bear against the university, and in turn against the company, for its devious tactic. A subsequent outcry may very well convince the government to permit the immigrants to stay, as has happened on previous occasions where sufficient agitation has been built up beforehand.

More criminal than occupation, in this situation, is the amount that these cleaners at SOAS are paid – and in this, UNISON, the UCU and the NUS are to be applauded for their efforts. Such pitiful wages call to mind the words of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy: What is freedom? – ye can tell / that which slavery is, too well – for its very name has grown / to an echo of your own. ‘Tis to work and have such pay / as just keeps life from day to day / In your limbs as in a cell / for the tyrants’ use to dwell.

The people at the forefront of the unionisation efforts are now following through on their convictions by basically doing the only thing they can to stop the deportation of colleagues; occupying a SOAS building. I for one am proud to know some of them, and to have supported their endeavours now and in the past. What they’re doing may not be enough, but it displays the correct political orientation. It asks for support from workers first, rather than relying solely upon a legalistic approach, the outcome of which is almost certain to be negative.

In this case, as in the case of occupations over links between universities and arms-dealers, the occupation is a concrete step to put pressure where pressure might do some good; against university bureaucracies. By appealing to workers for support, through solidarity rallies, the students and workers involved are stretching out their hands to others who are victims of exactly the same sort of exploitation. Depending on how negotiations proceed, there may later be a case to extend occupations and call for additional students from other universities to occupy SOAS.

What I think is most heartening however is the strong link evident between students and workers, and the preparedness of both to ask for support from the public at large. It shocks me that some people are prepared to be so crass as to attack these students for it from a position of such material prosperity, bearing in mind that if the occupation is lost, the university may well wish to pursue sanctions against its students, or the private company against the remaining members of its staff. If that should happen, then it is one less group of allies for any of us to ask support from when (not if!) we get into the same sort of fights with our employers, over poor pay and increasingly bad terms and conditions.

Categories: General Politics

Blogbites #3: Disingenuity, Labour style

June 13, 2009 6 comments

Amidst the positioning of various New Labour flunkeys, not to mention Polly Toynbee, there’s been little of clarity and principle said. After all, each of the people involved with attacking Gordon Brown have supported his agenda, and the virtually identical agenda of his predecessor, with gusto. They have no moral authority to critique the leadership of someone they put into office without bothering to consult Labour members, the trades unions, the affiliated socialist societies or pretty much any body outside the Parliamentary Labour Party.

It is fair that the only voices of principle should be those people who did nominate someone else, and who earnestly sought the debate about the future of the Labour Party, John McDonnell all the more so because he actually had the courage to stand in an election against Brown. Contrasted with the behaviour of the New Labourites, with their backstabbing, their playing to the press and their high-profile resignations over anything but principle, McDonnell’s recent announcement that the government needs to change or face “Labour Change” candidacies should get a fair hearing by the grassroots membership.

What I found particularly delightful was the disingenuity of the response by a “Labour spokesman.”

“Policy in the Labour Party is made via Partnership in Power, an inclusive and consultative process unique in British politics.

“Through discussion with the public, ordinary Labour members from each region and nation of Britain, elected members, and representatives from Labour Party’s affiliated organisations come together to agree a policy platform which best matches the aspirations and concerns of the British people.”

Clearly, since the “aspirations and concerns of the British people” just delivered another massive kick in the teeth to that policy platform.

Categories: Dave's Favourites

Our loyalty must be to our class…

June 9, 2009 20 comments

PCS Secretary Mark Serwotka raised in February 2008 the issue of an electoral alternative to New Labour. He said, “Our loyalty must be to our class, not to our party card.” This is a sentiment I echo entirely, and it’s one of the reasons I’m such a supporter of the Labour Representation Committee and John McDonnell in particular.

The LRC, more than any other Labour-orientated group since the demise of the Militant Tendency, has been willing to engage with groups to the Left of Labour. From the AWL to the Communist Party, the attendees at LRC and SYN meetings have been varied. My only regret is that it has not been more of a success, though I don’t intend to analyse why just now.

A new call has just been issued to the same effect as Mark Serwotka’s 2008 appeal by the AWL. The AWL have announced that they would like to see a new Socialist Alliance formation, by which to begin reclaiming the loyalties of the working class and by which to re-organise our activists and class for the fights that will inevitably come after a Tory election victory.

For those who don’t remember, the Socialist Alliance was originally a federally-structured body that tied together pretty much most of the existing groups on the Left – including the SWP and the SP. The Socialist Alliance was dealt a body blow by SP withdrawal following plenty of in-fighting between the SP and the SWP.

Since this call has been issued, and since I agree with it in principle, I thought it might be a useful exercise to look at how we should structure such an organisation, why structure matters and how we might get past the failures of the previous Socialist Alliance. The election of the BNP to European parliamentary seats lends this some urgency.

An inchoate militancy on the part of workers, shown at Lindsey and Visteon among other strikes and struggles, needs to find a Left voice quickly. If it does not, the seemingly populist demands of the fascists will win support instead. Offering a clear, militant alternative which has deep social roots will hopefully stop and reverse that process.

In fact, as some media sensationalism over the BNP has shown, it is probably the only thing that can stop fascism. 

A new Socialist Alliance should be a federal structure. Joining a new Party requires trust and frankly, as an individual who would consider joining such an endeavour, I don’t trust the SWP or the AWL or a couple of the other sects on the Left. Internal democracy is a vital component of any organisation and the concept seems to elude some socialist groups.

A federal structure, with a cap on how many national offices can be held by any one group, would offer some reassurances. A delegate-based conference system, reporting in from localities organised by electoral constituency and apportioned according to the number of members, would further strengthen the representation of even the smallest groups of activists.

I believe this system would also be best at  allowing independent individuals the chance to go to conference and put their arguments. It was on this issue which the Socialist Party broke up last time, after the SWP used the sheer weight of their numbers to pack meetings and vote down a federal structure, preferring instead a one-member-one-vote system.

Judging by the sentiments expressed at the time on behalf of the SWP, the purpose of this manoeuvre wasn’t out of a belief that it was the more democratic system. Instead OMOV was seen as being the key to subordinating the whole Socialist Alliance to the SWP, which has more members than the other group, and excluding some sections from running for office.

Bearing in mind that fragile coalitions of this nature attract people by virtue of not having an entrenched elite to dictate the course of events, such a move would shatter the popular appeal of a Socialist Alliance. And so it did. A short time later, the Socialist Alliance was wound up and the SWP ran off to launch RESPECT, which is also a dying – if not quite dead – duck.

Ultimately, any such coalition should aim to establish a new Party of the Left. I suspect it will be argued by some that we’ve passed the point at which an electoral coalition would come in useful as a springboard to a new party and that we need the new party now. These would no doubt be convenient arguments to proponents of RESPECT or CNWP.

I don’t mean to slander members of those organisations as opportunists; no doubt many of them genuinely feel it is time for a new Party and not one more electoral slate. On the other hand, there are a number of independent activists and Labour members who will have no truck with a Party until the minority parties demonstrate some maturity and democracy.

The only way an electoral coalition could be sanctioned would be if the people running for office weren’t simply paper candidates. They should be involved in their localities, and should be the consensus choice of the different activists and minority parties. They should also be the front of efforts at increasing unionisation, upping terms and conditions and waging other essential local struggles on transport, healthcare and housing.

Where these situations don’t exist, or where there aren’t enough activists to mount a sufficient campaign, supporters of a new Socialist Alliance should be allowed to endorse the local Labour candidate, or opt instead to campaign for an SA or other party candidate in a neighbouring constituency.

By such displays of good faith and good tactics, an organisation may win around local trades unionists and even Constituency Labour Parties. In the aftermath of a total wipeout for Labour at county level in England and severe local council defeats, CLPs must begin looking to ways of co-operating with other groups on the Left in their area.

I don’t for a moment buy into the end-of-Labour nonsense. However, the major advantage of Labour has always been its activist base – the average people prepared to spend nights campaigning, or traipsing to meetings to organise the next campaign. This activist base is declining in all but average age and our inability to escape the media narrative reflects that.

A key demand, therefore, of any new Socialist Alliance vis-a-vis Labour and the Trades Unions must be greater democracy at local level. Allowing scope for CLPs to nominate and campaign for the same candidate as a new Socialist Alliance, or allowing District Trades Councils to allocate money to a new SA will be key parts of building social weight towards a new Left Party.

By this advocacy for a new Left coalition, I utterly reject the notion that voting for minority parties allowed the BNP to get their MEPs elected this the European Parliamentary elections. As Phil at AVPS makes perfectly clear, many of the people who vote for minority parties would not otherwise automatically transfer their allegiance to Labour.

I voted for Labour in the county council elections, because I knew the candidate, but I did not vote for Labour in the European elections. My vote will go to the party I most agree with, or the candidate I most agree with. On both counts, Labour’s European Parliamentary campaign failed dismally. Election disaster has ensued and it’s time to move on.

Where we move on to must now been on the agenda of Left-groups within Labour, especially the LRC and Compass. Such groups must take cognisance of their potential allies, lest they become just as bigoted and sectarian as they believe the far Left to be.

Cheer up, Comrades

June 8, 2009 10 comments

So as expected, Labour completely tanked in the elections. Across Europe, the Left lost a few from its traditional parties (which is not a bad thing) and picked up a few from other parties. So did the Right. From all of this there are some heartening stories.

For example, in Sweden, Christian Engstrom of the Pirate Party got elected. This was probably on the back of attempts to persecute the owners of the site Pirate Bay, which violates every copyright law in the known universe by allowing us to swap pretty much whatever we want, and from laws to introduce better electronic surveillance.

For the cause of individual freedoms in Sweden, that’s an important step.

In Britain, despite a monumental crushing of the Left vote, the Greens managed to retain two seats in the European parliament. This is something to be pleased with; Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas have both been solid MEPs on issues like the Working Time Directive, while Labour has stolidly refused to end the Opt-Out.

Similarly, anyone paying attention to the Conservatives here in the UK will have noticed the mask slip ever so slightly. William Hague roundly lambasted the idea of Proportional Representation for UK elections. This is in keeping with Cameron’s position, but the language that Hague used is telling.

It will allow ‘fringe minorities and extremists’ into parliament. So much for representing the people! Apparently Hague thinks that Parliament should only represent the people so long as the people choose the right representatives. I’m an extremist and I daresay I’ve thought about my views just as much as Hague has considered his.

No amount of spin will take away the dark news about the BNP.

They have got two members elected, but No2EU achieved almost one percent of the vote. For a platform riddled with holes that were frequently poked by others on the Left, and which was launched only weeks before polling day, that’s a solid achievement.

The Left across Europe performed fairly dismally. We can only hope that this is a reaction against the ‘dominant’ strain of Left thought of the last thirty years – the sort of third way nonsense which most social-democrats spout. It should not be hard to believe that the far Left, such as Die Linke (which was predicted 10 percent and scored only 7.5) or the French NPA (which failed to secure representation), have simply been caught on the coat-tails of the ideological bankrupts from the PS, New Labour and the SDP.

I have only one thing of consolation to say. Politics does not proceed in linear fashion. To borrow a quote from Lenin, it proceeds by “Leaps, leaps, leaps!” This should be comforting, because it reminds us that the rhetoric about the death of Labour is overblown, and that the conditions will always exist for a mass, revolutionary alternative.

Labour and Capital are foreveer opposed. We simply need to build on these basic truths.

Categories: General Politics

Blogbites #2: Shallow Cabinet

June 6, 2009 3 comments

So the women in the Cabinet are only ‘window dressing‘, according to Caroline Flint. They are there to make Labour look like it is interested in equal opportunities for women, rather than the Party actually being inclusive. In actual fact, the women aren’t listened to. Thank fuck for that, since I’ve always worried that some of the women of the cabinet would be listened to. The high profile women of the Cabinet – of whom I have met several – have always struck me as irritating, shallow and either very disingenuous or plainly stupid. By which I mean Smith, Blears, Kelly and Flint herself.

It would be unfair and sexist not to point out that these four count for less than half the female contingent of the Cabinet – Harman, Cooper, Beckett, Angela Smith and several more from the House of Lords. I exempt Harman completely from criticism of being irritating – whatever her policies, the few times I have been at the same events or had a quiet word, she’s always come across as quite genuine. Whether as a result of policy she’s a ‘quite genuine’ scumbag is another matter entirely. But what about the famous four?

On Jacqui Smith, not much needs to be said. At an OULC meeting, she dared to launch several attacks on MPs for having the guts to vote their consciences or choose to represent their constituents over the Iraq War, privatisation, Academies and so on. She was subsequently booed off the stage by me, which was amusing since I was in a room full of careerist hacks. That was before she became Home Secretary and became an ardent advocate of every illiberal measure this government has demanded from Parliament.

Kelly is a nutcase, plain and simple. She should never have been allowed into the Labour Party, never mind into Parliament. Again, it would be unfair and sexist not to point out that there were contemporaneous others in the Cabinet who share her ridiculous, reactionary religious convictions – Des Browne and Paul Murphy, for example. And not a few outside of the cabinet, many of whom were men and many of whom mouthed off against the embryology and fertility bill. None to quite the same effect as Ruth Kelly, however, who was Minister for Equality at one point.

As for Hazel Blears, where does one begin? Self-serving, stupid, prolier-than-thou (which, from a Cabinet minister, is a neat trick) and with a tyrannical streak that runs to attacking the character of pretty much anyone who disagrees with her, simply because they disagree with her – as she did with journalist George Monbiot. Hazel Blears is a reviled character – a pit bull who frequently appears on Comment is Free and blows hard on her horn because she has little of intelligence to say. In all of this, of course, it’s important to balance agency with the structural location of these individuals, men or women.

Caroline Flint has been given the soubriquet “Bloody Poor People” by this blog in the past, as a result of her idea that the government should deny people housing unless they sought work as part of their tenancy agreement, returning the country to the Victorian Age in one fell swoop. I can’t really say much more than that. If the ideas of these people aren’t listened to, well I’m not complaining; Brown and his coterie don’t need additional help fucking up the country, they’re doing fine on their own.

I sincerely doubt that these people weren’t being listened to by virtue of being women, so I don’t really see much to get excited about. The nature of democracy within the Labour Party self-selects for gormless morons, judging by the overwhelmingly male contingent we’ve sent to Parliament this time around. From Dracula Mandelson himself to James Purnell, once referred to by observers of his welfare reform package as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the unemployable,” (H/t) the Blairites in the Cabinet are complete tossers.

A few less being listened to, of any gender, is unquestionably a good thing. What isn’t a good thing is the number of sexist blogposts being made as a result of Flint crying “Wolf”, not to mention the shamelessly sexist tone of the media (h/t). That will not help the socialist cause of gender equality.

Categories: Labour Party News

Loyalty in politics

June 2, 2009 17 comments

The impending resignations of Jacqui Smith and Tom Watson from their ministerial positions throws into sharp relief the issue of loyalty, which Sunny Hundal brought up in the previous thread on John McDonnell. Two famed Brownite loyalists are to step down, and it may be that Alistair Darling – one of Brown’s closest cronies – is to join them. Gordon Brown’s government has lasted almost two years and seems on the verge of disintegrating in ignominy, deserted by the Guardian, the chattering classes and not least, the voters. Yet it was the passivity of Labour MPs which put Brown into power, rather than call a leadership election.

Since then, it has been the passivity of Labour MPs which has continued at whiles the farces of extended detention periods, ID cards and well-paid bankers who transferred to the civil payroll following the collapse of their banks. Not to mention multiple failures of parliamentary oversight, the continuance of a ridiculous ministerial code which has not restricted the swinging door between public and private sector and reform of the constitution and expenses systems which are still stuck in neutral. Rather than working together, Labour MPs have been content to allow policy to remain solely the purview of the government, and go through the lobbies as and when required.

There are a few exceptions. The organisation Compass, for example, brings together activists, parliamentarians and thinkers in attempts to discuss potential policy ideas. On the other side of that coin, the man widely considered to be the leader of Compass (even though it has no real ‘leader’) often sounds just as Blairite as the for-real Blairites. Plenty of members of Compass’ ‘parliamentary group’ are loyalists, in the sense that they nominated Brown and repeatedly vote for government policy. The anti-terrorism laws; the ID cards; even such basic things as an elected second chamber of Parliament. In no sense can Compass realistically be seen as an alternative.

For my maintenance of this point of view, I am indicted by Sunny for having a Puritanical streak. If we want to build a coalition, Sunny says, we need to work with others of different political axes. I have no trouble accepting that, but on the other hand, ten more years of the type of politics we’ve seen for the last ten will kill the Labour Party. That is the sort of politics necessarily envisioned by trying to forge alliances within the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is essentially a lame duck stuffed with lobby fodder. Even an alliance with MPs like Cruddas, who are charismatic speakers, is rendered difficult by his tendency to sound Blair-lite.

Alliances from the top will never work. Just how true this is has been highlighted by Dave Osler’s recent article on the CWU. Dave claims that should the CWU leave Labour, it will simply result in the depoliticisation of the union, rather than its reorganisation around some other group to the left of Labour. Which is probably true; the political will of CWU leadership is neither clear nor strong. However, Dave neglects to point out the advantages that could be had from the point of view of local politics if the CWU were to free up its branches to endorse political campaigns of their choice. The RMT and FBU both permit this, or have in the past at any rate.

These are the sort of alliances we should be considering, rather than the stale manoeuvring between MPs of different stripe. Such manoeuvring operates on biased principles, bearing in mind the extent to which the NEC can influence selections, and just how much better funded ‘New Labour’ selection campaigns often are at Constituency level. Local alliances would begin to counterbalance superior New Labour organisation and funding, not to mention might have some beneficial effects on Labour’s profile, by affiliating our image once again with workers’ struggling for their needs, rather than with parliamentary sophistry and plush ministerial cars and allowances.

Sunny goes on to say that of course he would want more Labour MPs to rebel, but the fault is ours (‘we’ being the secular Left) for not organising pressure that Labour MPs would respond to. This is a valid point, except rather hamfistedly made, including reference to how the anti-war movement was largely “SWP and Islamist friends” – a notion which is pure unadulterated bunkum. The mass movement that was built over the war was built by NGOs, other minor political parties and had the full backing of the trades union movement. In Belfast at least, the march had nothing to do with Islamists and was overwhelmingly white – and what I saw of the other regional demoes was the same.

Once we’ve got past the “Harry’s Place” style narrative, it’s true that the divorce between the masses and the Labour Party has reduced the ability of political movements to influence internal Labour Party politics. However, that’s far from being purely the fault of the secular Left. Indeed, the collapse of internal democracy within Labour is as much part of the Thatcherite backlash against socialism as the laws restricting trades union rights or the attempts to break the NUM. New Labour is the unhappy successor to a Labour Party that was forcibly sterilised from the top down, abandoned many of its core constituents and subsequently began to wither at local level, now dying a death in many areas.

The reason that only RESPECT was left to issue a challenge for seats at the 2005 elections is simply that the moral authority of Labour had not by that stage been completely exhausted. This may now change, but I suspect that Sunny would run a mile from any electoral alternative to Labour simply by virtue of the fact that those most interested in establishing one are activists, may be regarded as somewhat puritanical of view (by which I mean ‘left-wing’, rather than the preferred and fashionable ‘centre-left’) and would be utterly crucified by the media and have scorn heaped upon it by various other groupuscules of the Left for whatever reason.

As I’ve outlined above, the effectiveness of any such group could only be enhanced by the ability to link in at local level to trades union interests (beyond merely one union, which is primarily based in London). That’s something that will take years of patient work.

None of this will be changed by alliances between MPs – certainly not with people like Alan Johnson, who are the standard bearers of a marketised NHS and other such preposterous schemes. I have sincere doubts whether the craven loyalty of many MPs can ever be challenged and the centralisation of power within the Labour Party reversed at all, but we need to recognize that for many MPs, changing these things would be anathema. The Brownites and Blairites have enjoyed and continue to enjoy hegemony over Party institutions – and perhaps not even a national economic disaster and completely discrediting expenses scandal will remove their vice-like grip.

Alliances with such people would therefore be worse than useless. It may now be down to years of patient work, and network building, to establish an alternative to Labour; this work needs to grow deep social roots rather than taking the quick route of allying with groups that have marginally better policies than New Labour and the benefits of a media profile. This has less to do with policies, though that must inevitably have a role, and more to do with styles of politics; popular and open versus insular and media-focussed, which is the difference between the Left and the Right in the Labour Party, between the Labour Representation Committee and pretty much any other group in Labour.

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