Archive for the ‘General Politics’ Category

Four ways to a living wage

Liz Kendall pledges:

As Labour’s next Prime Minister I would extend the legal remit of the Low Pay Commission to work with employers, unions and civil society to identify practical, non-statutory ways to move wages towards the living wage, sector by sector.

Some of the responses to this pledge or not favourable e.g.

“Non statutory”? Sounds a bit like… “and, as leader, I will ask you very nicely, and if you laugh at me and ignore me, I’ll ask you in another letter, in a slightly more serious tone”….

So what would Liz PM’s methods to get toward a living way without legislation, either through the Low Pay Commission or otherwise, actually be?   I think there are four broad options:

1) Increase union bargaining power by removing the restriction imposed by Tory governments (and not removed by the last Labour government)

Hardly likely as a sole act, of course, as this would be seen as unelectability material and in any event in itself would foster a further division at least in the medium term between unionised and un-unionised sectors.  But we’ll come back to unions and unionisation

2) Use public sector purchasing power to drive up wages, by ensuring (by non-statutory means) that all contracts for public money e.g. building jobs in schools, housing associations etc. stipulate that employees must be on a living wage.  Moves towards this are already taking place, though (in my area) reality has struck home about how manageable it is on all local authority contracts.

There are complexities here.  First, blunt implementation by public bodies would probably lead to sub-contracting so that the non-living wage is further down the supply chain (however artificially) and this would require either greater bureaucracies in contract management to manage, thus creating lower contract award diversity.   Second, non-statutory application of the method would probably require the incentivising of public bodies to get on board.  Third, it doesn’t cover all sectors of the economy, even if it is fed through the supply chain, and the creation of a dual economy remains a risk. Fourth, and most obviously, forcing living wages onto low wage sectors through contract conditions may push some organisations out of business (though it may create some room for social enterprise and co-operatives to fill those gaps).

Even so, as part of a larger strategic package (involving localisation of supply chains through local business development support and purchasing ledger scrutiny to encourage sustainability as well as local economic growth) it might have some legs.

3) There’s the fiscal option: simply put an employee tax cut through PAYE and make the same or similar charge on employer NI. Liz PM could/should also take the opportunity to adjust thresholds which currently create a perverse incentive for employers to keep lower paid employees on hours just below the PAYE threshold.

This has its attractions, though it will be painted simply as another way of raising tax on hard-pressed employers unless it is packaged as a fair deal for all, including part-timers currently held back from full-time work.

4) More creatively, a scheme developed during Liz PM’s life in opposition, rooted in union organising principles and ‘ready to go’ in 2020, where employers receive a PAYE rebate if they can evidence that they have voluntarily encouraged unionisation of their workforce (or perhaps co-ownership in some cases), such that unionised workplaces are in a better position to work towards living wage set-ups without recourse either to statutory means or perceived trade union ultra-militancy (see 1).  This can be sold both a tax cut to employers and a route to a wage-led economy.

This is not us: a reply to Sunny

June 12, 2015 2 comments

Sunny Hundal has come in for praise for his article on the left not understanding or being understandable to the electorate, because it’s been living in an “echo chamber”.

This is us. We have become those people that the public doesn’t understand. We have become more obsessed about being right than succeeding. There’s always someone on Twitter spouting cliches and say they’d rather be principled than worry about winning. This is a false dichotomy and we need to get out of that mindset. We need to change how we talk about issues. We need to talk about issues in radically different ways, in ways the mainstream can relate to.

Well, no.  It isn’t us.  It’s Sunny, and some people like Sunny.  It’s the people who created and live in the echo chamber.  It’s not the rest of the left, which is a lot more than them.

I simply don’t recognise myself in Sunny’s description. I’m leftwing, and proud if it.  I’m also mainstream, as are most of the leftwingers I know.  I understand people, and they understand me. Sometimes we don’t agree, and sometimes we do.

Ultimately, I think the difference between me and Sunny is that I do things, and Sunny comments on things that are being done.

Sure, I like a good comment too, and I was sucked into Sunny’s comment world a little too much a few years ago*, but for the most part I regard the online world as a) a bit of fun; b) a place to test out my developing thoughts about how the left might do good things.  I’m comfortable in my own leftwing skin and – perhaps because of this – I give off a smell of authenticity that helps me win.

But if you’re stuck in a revolving world of commentary and comment feedback, I can imagine it’s very easy to become quite insecure, to make validation and self-validation (checking that you’re being understood) a primary guide to how you behave.  In turn, this leads to voters not knowing what you stand for.   We’ve all heard that accusation on the doorstep.

The commentators I like best are, not coincidentally, those who do things.  I disagree deeply with Anthony Painter on both fiscal policy and how institutions might be created, but he’s a very good commentator because he’s properly rooted in social action outside commentary – as a UTC governor for example.  He understands, and is understood.   But he appears to be one of a very few people within the leftie commentariat able or willing to both think and do**.

Why did Labour lose?  It lost because its candidates, and its local parties, didn’t produce enough.

By “produce”, I don’t mean canvassing and ‘having conversations’ on the doorstep.  That’s not production. That’s marketing.

Nor do I mean a kind of cheap situationalism, in which the electorate is supposed to recover from the false consciousness imposed by the spectacle of capitalism/conservatism (that’s what Sunny has previously suggested as a vote-winning strategy).

By (leftwing) producer politics, I mean taking actions which push at the boundaries of current norms, in favour of and in concert with people who don’t have the power to get what they want on their own.  At local level, that might be about organising lower speed limits.  At less local level, it might be about working with public service staff to help them make their services more “relational” and therefore more effective.

By and large, the Labour candidates who won marginals (or increased votes in less winnable) understood that a political campaign is about doing things, not just telling people you understand where they’re coming from.  Those who stuck too narrowly to the political marketing manual lost.

So yes, Sunny is right when he says that good politics is about winning.   But he’s wrong to suggest that the left don’t get this.  A lot of us do.  He’s just been mixing with the wrong online crowd.



* Sunny used to take articles from here and re-post at his old blog Liberal Conspiracy.   I was wrong to allow that, as it drew me into a comment for comment’s sake world, and didn’t do Sunny any favours either.

** To be fair to Sunny, I know he’s branching out e.g. into trusteeship of an innovative youth action charity in London.  Fair play to him.


Categories: General Politics

On “ever closer union”

One of David Cameron’s key areas of renegotiation on the EU is, in his own words:

And dealing properly with the concept of “ever closer union”, enshrined in the treaty, to which every EU country now has to sign up. It may appeal to some countries. But it is not right for Britain, and we must ensure we are no longer subject to it.

If this is going to come up a lot, it may be handy to remind ourselves what “ever closer union” actually means.  It comes up in article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty:

This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.

So as and when Cameron starts to spell out the dangers of “ever closer union” between EU states, perhaps with the odd reference to cunning plans for a United States of Europe, we need to remember that the Lisbon treaty contains no such concept.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  It’s about union between people, not states, and about this union being based on devolution of decision making power to the most local possible level.   Closer union is not about centralizing.  It’s about localism.

The ‘principle of subsidiarity‘, by which article 1 is meant to be enacted, is all about a presumption to decision-making at national and sub-national level, and a requirement to show that decision-making at a European level is needed.  Since Lisbon, national parliaments get a say directly on that, as do Cameron’s MEPs.   Perhaps they should just do their job.



Categories: General Politics

White working class educational underachievement: a reply to Wes Streeting

I find this post on white working class educational underachievement, by new MP West Streeting, infuriating.   Having read it through twice, my overriding thought is: “you’re better than this, Wes.”

Here’s  Wes’s central point:

The failure of state education in so many white working class areas is utterly unacceptable. Not to talk about it or to have any answers for how we overcome it, equally so.

There are two errors here.  First, there is the suggestion that no-one, until Liz Kendall came along, has been talking about comparative underachievement by white working class children. This is just wrong.  I’m a Chair of Governors at a maintained secondary school in a predominantly white working class town.  I talk about ‘closing the gap’ a lot with staff.  We look carefully at pupil premium spend to make sure it’s doing the right stuff.  We discuss how we can best arrange what can seem like dizzying number of intervention and support strategies in the context of our ever evolving (because young people evolve) understanding of where those ‘cohorts within cohorts’ are at with their lives.  We’ve made progress [1].  We want to make more. We keep searching, we keep engaging with ‘pupil voice’.

We don’t “not talk about it” because it’s some kind of taboo to do so.  It’s a figment of Wes’s imagination to  suggest that educational inequality is not being talked about by people involved in education. It is, dare I say, just a tad insulting.

But here’s the rub.   It won’t work.  Or it won’t work completely.  Whatever we do, within the confines of our schools, will be insufficient to close the gap.  The research is very clear that educational inequality is, to a very significant extent, rooted in factors beyond the school gates.  Here’s Stewart & Cooper (2013), for example:

Our review indicates clearly that money makes a difference to children’s outcomes. Poorer children have worse cognitive, social behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, and not just because poverty is correlated with other household and parental characteristics….

Our calculations suggest that closing the gap between FSM households and the average income for non-FSM households would not eliminate the achievement gap, but might be expected to reduce it by more than half.

It’s not all money, of course.  If it was, white students on FSMs wouldn’t, overall, be doing worse exam-wise than students of other ethnicity.   When I look at the students in my town, both in and outside of school, I see how much truth there is in Garth Stahl’s superb study of how white working class boys can make a conscious shift towards underachievement because of the threat to what Giddens would call their ontological security if they overachieve.

The empirical evidence Stahl provides suggests that young people from ‘traditional’ white working class families are victims of Richard Sennett’s ‘culture of the new capitalism’ (pdf )[2], to a greater extent than those who, purely in economic terms, may sometimes appear more vulnerable.

What all this research shows is that schools are only part of the solution.  Classroom education is, as Chris Cook has suggested (and backed with lots of data), the ‘last mile’ stuff.   Acknowledging this is absolutely not an excuse  – it is context.  But it’s a context which Wes, in his rush to claim an “unacceptable” “failure of state education” seems unwilling or unable to countenance, at least until he’s read this blogpost.

This second error is, of itself an unacceptable failure on Wes’s part.  It is unacceptable because effectively indulging in false claims about schools being solely responsible for educational underachievement of white working class kids actually obstacles to doing the right things at a wider societal level – with educators as key partners.   These things include stuff like links with employers of the type that foster aspiration to cool jobs in technology – and there’s some really good stuff going on there, like the marvelously overstretched but willing-as-hell Class Careers.  But they also need to include wider community ‘decision-making’, perhaps rooted in Amartya Sen’s social choice theory, where whole groups of families and others come together and commit to both solidarity and aspiration around educational achievement, and start to build real working relationships with schools in a way which can help students, and their friends, access the cultural capital  they need in today’s difficult-to-navigate network society.

All of this can and will happen (and my schools is going to be part of it) but it will be hampered by people like, Wes, unless they themselves “get with the programme”.

Let’s finish with Wes.

He’s a good guy, with lots of talent.  He won his election when lots lost, so he must get stuff.  If he reads this, I hope he’ll take me calling him an unacceptable failure in good heart, and in the knockabout but productive spirit it’s intended.   But my main worry for Wes is that he’s already being dragged into what I call ‘managerial MP mindset (MMM).

MMM is where MPs, especially those more recently into the trade, come to believe that their main very important job is to demand answers, and find things unacceptable on behalf of their constituents.  Advanced MMM includes not being remotely interested in what people do to make things happen, but just want answers on their desk by 5pm.  It is the very essence of black box managerialism.    Simon Danzcuk, for example, is an expert MMMer – lots of demands for answers around Child Sexual Exploitation in greater Manchester – no obvious interest in fellow (and non-MMM) MP Ann Coffey’s superb research and recommendations [3] about what we might actually resource the tackling and prevention of it [4]

Wes is better than MMM.  He has the energy, know-how and ‘feel’ for what it’s like to be a working class kid of today to actually help develop and resource the wider actions we need to reduce educational inequality, rather than just bleat about schools failing their kids.   It’s his, and lots of his new colleagues’, choice.



[1] 15th most improved school in the North West in 2013, FSM gap narrowed considerably.

[2] Sennett says:

A class difference appears between those laborers – mostly immigrants in the informal or “gray” sector of the economy – who find themselves in a fluid or fragmented economy and those traditional working class people, one protected by pyramidal unions or employers, who have less room for maneuver; in the middle, people fear being displaced, sideline or underused.  The institutional model of the future does not furnish them with a life narrative at work, or the promise of much securiy in the public realm. In the network society, their informal networks are thin (p.132)

[3] Commissioned by Police & Crime Commissioner and non-MMM ex-MP tony Lloyd


[4] We wait to see which way Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, proto-MMM though with real doing-stuff experience behind her, will go.  The early signs, judging by this patronizing guff, were not good:

Now that I am “one of them”, I can report back that Parliament is actually full of normal people who care passionately about representing their constituents and making changes that will have a positive impact on peoples’ lives.  What we need to address is why people don’t believe that’s true, and why people don’t think their voice is heard.



Coasting schools and the new authoritarianism

June 5, 2015 2 comments

There’s something deeply disturbing about section 1 of the new Education & Adoption Bill, according to which the Secretary of State will get to turn a maintained school into an academy if she considers it to be “coasting”.

What’s disturbing is not that this is really just a quick way to turn schools into academies, even though there’s no evidence that this is a good way to improve schools. That just evidence-free policy of the type we’ve come to expect.

It’s not that there is no inkling as to what “coasting” might actually mean and how it might be measured.  That’s now just standard centralisation and of decision-making as developed under Gove (though with the twist that it will be the new Regional Schools Commissioner expected to do the centre’s dirty work).

It’s not even that there is really just no evidence that piling more and more inspectorial pressure on school can squeeze out anything further in the way of improvement.

What’s really disturbing is the subtle shift, from a focus not doing well enough to a focus on schools not giving a sufficient external display of effort.

This, it seems to me, may reflect a move beyond the managerialism of New Labour and its continuation into early New Conservatism, in which outcomes mattered and how you achieved them didn’t, towards a more authoritarian style, in which outcomes matter less than the level of grovelling to those higher up the food chain.

With Ofsted – in the vanguard of this new authoritarianism within education – it’s been there for a while;  I remember, the last time I was subjected to Ofsted, being asked to provide an example of where governors had overturned an executive decision, as though a display of hierarchical power was a good thing in itself, and conversely governance by consensus and dialogue must be weak in some way.

Now that display of compliance is being written into law, though, perhaps we should really start to worry about the state of our democracy.




Harris, Habermas & Hirst on the way forward for the social democratic left

John Harris’ piece on the scale of the crisis facing social democratic parties like Labour is not bad at all.  It’s the first journalistic piece post-election that I have seen which moves beyond whiny plaints about the need for Labour to reconnect, and at least hints what we might actually start to do:

Campaigning for child benefit, for example, began in 1917, thanks to Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP from Liverpool. A semi-independent offshoot of the board of education began lobbying for the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1926.Meanwhile, John Maynard Keynes was blazing a trail away from austerity, and there was a cacophony about a whole range of other subjects, from nutrition to new towns.

I can just about imagine some latter day version of all this – it might encompass everything from Mumsnet through Britain’s churches, what remains of progressive academia, and out into single-issue campaigns that can these days acquire momentum at speed. It would also push the centre-left’s lamentably economistic agenda into places in which it is too uncomfortable: loneliness, family breakdown, an obvious crisis in masculinity, the return of hunger to our towns and cities, and more. The trouble is, I cannot imagine most of the Labour elite having either the wit or humility to get involved.

Well yes, the whiny tone returns in the last sentence, but the idea that we might be the agents of our own change – and that the Labour party is not the only vehicle for progress – is a step forward.

It reminds me, in fact, of the concluding chapter of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (pdf) which, though now more than 50 years old, remains probably the greatest analysis of emerging crisis of social democracy.  Habermas’ key focus in the chapter is on the degradation of the public sphere from its high point in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and what this has done to the electoral process:

Ideally the [the nineteenth century] vote was only the concluding act of a continuous controversy carried out publicly between argument and counterargument (p.212)…….

As a rule [come the twentieth century], precisely those who are most decisively predisposed to avoid a public opinion formed by discussion are the ones most likely to be influenced in their views – but this time by the staged or manipulatively manufactured public sphere of the election campaign (p.214)

That’s UKIP, that is, benefiting from the collapse of public debate, and the rise of political messaging.

But like John, Juergen sees the solution in the recreation of a modern public sphere, operating beyond the boundaries of those institutions, like Labour, currently trapped by the need to kowtow to a public opinion manufactured for the electoral cycle, in a closed loop.  The way forward says Habermas is that:

Under the condition of the large, democratic social welfare state, the communicative interconnectedness of  a public can be brought about only in this way: through a critical publicity brought to life within intraorganisational public spheres, the completely short-circuited circulation of quasi-public opinion must be linked to the informal domain of the hitherto nonpublic opinions (p.249-250).

I’d go further than John, and argue that a ‘Habermasian’ public sphere comprising a better educated public creating their own areas of argument, can be most effectively recreated in 21st century modernity by the deliberate, indeed provocative, formation of associational institutions which challenge assumptions about the state’s right to impose itself “via an essentially plebiscitarian legitimation for….legislative actions against independent associations in civil society” (Paul Hirst, The Pluralist Theory of the State p.19).  Such institutions, the genesis and function of which I outline here, are preferable to Mumsnet et. al in that they combine public discourse with active challenge to the status quo.

John doesn’t get as far as he might, and he does fall back into the post-election “someone else’s fault” default whine. Nevertheless, it’s good to see at least one member of the leftie commentariat getting beyond the blandness of who we need as next Labour leader.

How to win elections: mark II

The most obvious way (though arguably not the best way) to win power in a liberal democracy is to win elections. Nationally, Labour have not been doing very well at that of late. So as I appear to be quite good at it, I thought I’d offer a few tips.

The bare facts in support of my credibility:

1) On Thursday I won a council seat from a Conservative in a leafy farming area of Lancashire and became the first ever Labour councillor for the ward, again.  I say again because I won it for the first time in 2007, before standing down in 2011 for family and work reasons, at which point the Tories regained the seat by 40 votes from a last-minute Labour candidate that no-one knew and was not local (I won’t cover the personal details that made this late candidature occur).

2) On Thursday, I won the seat on an election expense in the order of £15, this being five reams of A4 paper from ASDA and an ink cartridge.  I kept cost down by printing on ‘fast normal’ setting.  I canvassed no houses and did not go out on my ward on election day, as I has no canvass data.  I leafleted around 90% of the houses, though work meant I didn’t get to quite a few of them until the day before the election.

Now, I’m a scruffy, paunchy middle-aged bloke with quite bad teeth.   Earlier half-hearted attempts to climb up the political hierarchy by becoming, in turn, an MEP and a PCC, failed dismally at longlisting stage because, although my CV is ok, I’m fairly inarticulate and just don’t ‘present’ well.

So that’s not what won the seat.

What won the seat, people have told me in the last couple of days, is something close to what Nora demands:

The people of this country don’t demand politicians who agree with every last part off their world view. The vast majority of people don’t demand ideological purity of the left/right/liberal/conservative/secular/religious/and-so-on variety – what they want is something far more achievable, far more reasonable: respect. Not of the ‘when I see a white van’ variety, but a genuine respect that is borne of familiarity, understanding and yes, even affection, for the way they live their lives.

It’s a bit more than that though.  I won because I help organise stuff that needs doing, but without wearing a shiny “Look at me, I’m Labour and I’m a caring community organiser” badge on.  I don’t think there’s any point in the last 10 years that, when turning up to get stuff done, I’ve mentioned my Labourness.  But in the end, when I shoved my badly printed leaflet through people’s letterbox, enough people thought something like: “Ah yes, Paul.  The one with the bike.  I don’t give a monkey’s about politics, but he’s ok.”

This, it seems to me, is pretty well the opposite of most orchestrated Labour campaigning.  In all such campaigns that I’ve seen, the subject matter is almost an irrelevance.  The real purpose is Voter ID, mixed with a false-looking effort to show how much Labour cares about “hardworking families”.

People aren’t stupid.  They get what you’re after, and if it’s you’re just after their vote, it may well make it less likely that you’ll get it, not more.

So my bit of advice, as a winner?   All politics is local, even at constituency scale.  Just do stuff.  Throw away the Labour stickers.  Stick the Voter ID sheets in the shredder.  Come election time, if people know what you’ve been up to, they’ll vote for you.  If not, they won’t.

Here’s my election leaflet.  It’s 8 pages of text, saying what I’d done and what I’ll try and organise now.  People tell me they actually sat down and read it.



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