Monday, October 26, 2015

Student fees and teachers: why Labour should be more radical

Teaching in some of our most challenging schools is not easy. Despite the rhetoric, in some parts of Britain there is a huge divide between the haves and have-nots. One by-product of the growing inequality that has been all too evident in the past 20 years is the despondency and sense of worthlessness that those at the bottom feel as even modest lifestyles have moved out of reach. The lack of self-worth of individuals and communities, the sense of despair, of alienation and powerlessness also need to be addressed. Without doubt, many of Britain's schools and teachers have been key players in attempting to tackle many of these symptoms.

Schools can, and often do, play a major role in helping to improve the life chances of our young people. It is our schools that are often agents for change in their local community, it is our schools that are increasingly agents for increased social mobility. But there is a problem. Many of our teachers, like others working in the public-sector, are often de-motivated, disaffected, poorly paid and working in wholly unsatisfactory conditions. It is no surprise therefore that both the recruitment and the retention of teachers is a huge and growing problem. This is particularly the case in inner-city areas where a significant number of schools serve communities that are characterised by high levels of unemployment, low earnings and higher than average numbers of single parents.

Teaching in these schools is more difficult than it is in others, but - and this point is crucial - they are the very schools that need the most able, the most competent and the most caring teachers. At present, teachers who "choose" to work in these types of schools are rewarded by enormous stress, league tables that imply "low" performance is the same as "poor" performance and conditions of service that have not changed (that means not improved) for the last 50 years.
It is in this context that the coalition government introduced fees that could well result in many students accruing debts of up to £30,000+ by the time they graduate. What effect will this have on teacher recruitment in five to 10 years time? What hope for the most "challenged" schools in recruiting the well qualified, the motivated and the inspirational?

Therefore, if the next Labour government is to stave off massive shortfalls in teacher recruitment, if it is to continue too seek to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation then it should seriously consider adopting a manifesto commitment that would write off the debts of all new teachers who choose to work in our most "challenged" schools. For example: if a student graduates with a £30,000 debt it could be written off at the rate of £3,000 per year over a 10-year period (so helping to secure retention rates).

If we are to continue to reduce both the reasons for and effects of social exclusion, then the role currently played by our schools and teachers must not be underestimated. If steps are not taken to remove the barriers that prevent good graduates from applying to become teachers, let alone staying for more than a couple of years, then the vicious circle that haunts the urban poor will remain - if not widen. Expand the numbers going on to university by all means and give the HE sector the additional funding it desperately needs, but provide all the incentives possible in order to get our brightest and best working with our most desperate and disadvantaged.

Labour must defend the poor and rediscover its moral compass

What is the Labour Party for? What is a Labour government for? Too often I get the impression that those on the right wing of the party want future Labour Ministers to be technocrats and administrators, competent but uninspiring. On the left they appear to prefer preachers to Generals, rhetoric not the hard slog of governing.

The debate surrounding the abolition of tax credits offers the labour party the chance to rediscover its mission and purpose. The opposition to the taking away tax credits should be led by Labour MPs and Peers on the grounds of morality and fairness. The Tories can seek to defend the unjust distribution of goods and services whereby a relative minority of wealthy groups and ruling classes use their power and influence to perpetuate macro-economic and political structures which exploit the labour and lives of the vast majority of the this country's population.

Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. At home and abroad it is time for Labour to make a preferential option for the poor. It is time to take sides and end the political cross-dressing of the 1990s. As a political party it is time for us to be clear about who we are, who we were and what we want to become.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trident renewal? No thank you

One of the most interesting aspects of the summer Leaders’ debates was the discussion about the need for the renewal of Trident. As someone who served in the armed forces (RAF for 7 years) I personally believe that Labour should think again about its support for the renewal of Trident and that the scrapping of Trident could end up being a vote winner and not a vote loser. In the recent past even some of the military’s ‘top brass’ have expressed their 'deep concern' about the need for a Trident replacement with the former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Gutherie, has argued that a cheaper option to Trident should be considered, particularly as Britain strives for a world without nuclear weapons.

In the eighties and nineties, when the Polaris and its successor the Trident nuclear strategic defence system was brought into operation, its purpose was unambiguous. The missiles were targeted against the principal cities of the USSR, in order to deter an attack through the threat of an overwhelming response. It is probably the case that the balance of MAD (mutually assured destruction) did indeed prevent the cold war between the western and eastern blocs from breaking out into open warfare. However, the world has changed. In June 2006 the House of Commons Defence Select Committee published its report 'The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent'. It pointed out that deterrence against potential aggression might take various forms: economic, diplomatic, or through conventional forces. "The UK will need to examine whether the concept of nuclear deterrence remains useful in the current strategic environment." (para.55). It is interesting to note that in 2006 the Ministry of Defence refused to take part in the proceedings of the Select Committee, and the report stated "We believe that it is essential that, before making any decisions on the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the MOD should explain its understanding of the purpose and continuing relevance of nuclear deterrence." (para.56).

While the claim is that Britain must have its own independent deterrent, the truth is that as long as the UK uses Trident missiles as the delivery vehicle for its warheads, the system is hardly independent. There is a huge difference between being a nuclear power that has independence of acquisition as opposed to independence of operation. In 2015 it is still unclear as to whether Britain has independence of acquisition or whether it possesses operational independence or not.

The truth is renewing Trident will be massively expensive and militarily pointless as it will not deter terrorists or nuclear blackmailers and will make it far harder for Britain to encourage nuclear disarmament around the globe.

What about the politics of all this - would a nuclear disarmament policy be politically damaging to Labour? A poll last year clearly showed – by a margin of 58 to 35 per cent - that the public wants Britain to scrap the Trident nuclear missile system. Such a policy would not necessarily lead to a charge of being soft on defence, since a significant proportion of the saved resource could and should be devoted on enhanced expenditure on conventional forces serving in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

In my view, be it on military, political, economic, legal or ethical grounds, the case for the renewal of Trident lacks credibility. Labour - my party - should think again

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I did not vote for Corbyn but I will certainly campaign for him now he is Leader

Jeremy Corbyn won the election for Labour’s new leader and won it convincingly. He also won via a campaign that focused on issues not personalities on substance and not style.

He was not my choice for leader but I respect the decision of the membership and advise those who feel that they cannot accept the outcome to put up or shut up, to work to help achieve a Labour government or leave.

It took the Conservative party two lost elections before enough people were willing to back meaningful change. If Labour really is serious about getting swiftly back into government then it cannot afford to go through a long, painful and potentially damaging process of internal dissension. The truth is that many Labour members and supporters will have opposing interpretations of why we lost in 2010 and again in 2015 or about the direction we now need to take if we are to regain much of our lost support. Some will want the party to be more passionately principled whilst others will stress the need for sensible pragmatism. There will be calls for the new leader to champion the state whilst at the same time allowing market forces to operate with minimal impunity; to attack the causes of poverty but to also be the party that promotes aspiration. The longer these conflicting priorities are debated and discussed the longer we are likely to spend in opposition. Our core message should be simple and unambiguous: our values have not changed and our mission as a party is a clear today as it was a century ago – we really are stronger as a nation when we come together than we can ever be apart.

To his credit Corbyn recognises that members want to be heard and they want to be listened to. Perhaps even more important though is the need for the party to be more proactive in consulting and engaging local communities. It is only when local parties reach out and get involved in their communities that people will see Labour politics as a way of helping them deal with their problems and realising their hopes for a better future.

A renewed Labour party should be the natural place for people to turn to when they want to change things because a party that gets things done locally – and nationally – is a party that will keep winning elections. A renewed labour party will need to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it will also need to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. The forces of conservatism are not confined to our new coalition government, they exist within our own party and it will be up to those of us who believe passionately in the core values of our movement to take on the cynics and the pessimists within our own ranks, to become the change we want to see – be it in our party or in our country.

Who we are is who we were. Labour's core values can and must inform any future 'rebranding' of the party but we should not be afraid to do things differently. New Labour may well be over but Labour renewed is alive with possibility.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Labour needs to be tactical as well as strategic

If Labour is to have any chance of winning in 2020 then having a credible Leader and a sound, well thought through political strategy will be vitally important but some good old fashioned localised tactics are also essential. In 2010 and 2015 the Tories won a number of seats by applying some effective local tactics. To Labour needs to get back to being more tactically aware and astute.
In order to win or retain marginal seats in 2020:

CLPs must be allowed to select as early as possible to allow candidates to become active, develop local campaign issues, recruit new members and build a supporters' network

PPCs should adopt a policy of 'extreme 'localism' - does your hospital need to charge for parking? What is policing like in particular wards? Are there car parking issues on a particular street? They should be encouraged to focus a campaign on local community issues as much large macro issues.

Adopt a policy of positive campaigning - PPCs should resist the temptation to slag off their opponents and should focus on issues and not personalities

Hard working people like hard working candidates - PPCs should regularly provide local people with evidence of their endeavours and of the impact they have had and are having.

There must be no 'no-go' areas of the constituency in terms of canvassing and campaigning.

Monday, June 08, 2015

How Labour can be bolder

'At our best when at our boldest' - the words of one Tony Blair to Labour's annual conference in 2002. Labour remains - despite the cynics who argue otherwise - a centre-left party, not a centre-right one. Let's not forget that the party's recent centre-left credentials are impressive: the introduction of the minimum wage, the abolition of the assisted places scheme and the hereditary principle in the Lords, huge investment in public services, debt cancellation for the poorest countries, civil partnerships etc, etc. The problem today is that the party has become 'more of a machine than a movement'  to quote Stella Creasy, it has been fixated on being competent but not radical, managerial but not inspirational.
So to help us start thinking about what might a 'bolder' agenda look like I have come up with the following:
  1. Lower the voting age to 16
  2. Add 1% to all NI contributions and call it NHS +1
  3. Introduce PR (AVS) for all parliamentary and council elections
  4. Abolish the House of Lords, create a new, second chamber and move it to Manchester
  5. Create a 'People's Bank' with branches on every High St and in every village and call it…The Post Office!

Friday, June 05, 2015

Why I support lowering the voting age to 16

The voting age in Britain was last reduced nearly 40 years ago. Since then, there have been major changes in society's expectations of young people, and in young people's contribution to their local communities and wider society. Currently, 16 and 17 year-olds can work, pay taxes, join the armed forces and get married. They are often invited to set up school councils and youth councils, urged to take part in consultations, sit on local government and Ministerial boards, volunteer in their local community, keep out of trouble and work hard at school. Many will have caring responsibilities, a lot will have a job, some will be parents, and a minority will be leaving care or custody – but they cannot elect those who govern them.

A few years ago the Electoral Commission carried out a public consultation on the voting age which found that 72% of respondents were in favour lowering the voting age to 16. Interestingly the consultation attracted huge participation including 8,000 young people which suggests that when issues are made relevant to them, young people are more likely to vote and engage in matters of public importance. If the Government is to successfully deliver on its promise of helping to create more sustainable communities then it must ensure that all members of the community are fully engaged in the shaping and delivery of local services. Young people represent an important proportion of that agenda.I strongly believe that as a nation we must take the aspirations and desires of young voters much more seriously. Rather than young people being disinterested in politics (as opposed to voting), the more real danger is that we have become uninterested in them. We bolt on campaigns for young voters rather than build them into what we do. This needs to change, and we now have a once in a generation chance to make that change and listen to what young people are saying. We should dispense with old political assumptions and acknowledge that we are dealing with a different generation.

A first-time voter in a 2015 general election was only just born when Labour came to power in 1997. To them we seem like the establishment. I also believe that the divide between organised politics and young people is a symptom of a wider disenchantment. People who feel alienated have little trust in the institutions of our society. This adds to the wider sense of disaffection and makes it more difficult for our politics to work. Surely young people’s belief in politics could only be helped by them knowing that they had a direct influence in choosing who represents them. In Austria - where they recently lowered the voting age to 16 - in the last local and regional elections the turnout amongst 16 and 17 year olds was close to 75%.

The most effective means of achieving all of this is to lower the voting age to 16 and the sooner we do so the better

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Oscar Romero was truly a man for all seasons

Below is an edited version of a piece I wrote for Tribune last year on political and social heroes.

The strap line to my blog reads as follows: ‘Aspire not to have more but to be more.’ These are the words of one of personal heroes, the late Oscar Romero Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 by the pro-US military junta who then ran El Salvador.

Romero was murdered because he provided moral direction to a grassroots movement for social change and sought to pierce the silence of repression and inform the population at large of ‘the facts’. Why should people on the left of the political spectrum be interested in a relatively obscure Catholic Archbishop who was shot to death in a tiny Central American republic over 30 years ago? Perhaps the words of a rather more famous Latin American may serve to elaborate the significance: Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet famously uttered words to the effect that “We have nothing against ideas. We’re against people spreading them.”

What were the dangerous ideas Romero espoused? He was a passionate advocate for civil and human rights and his advocacy for justice for the poor was bound to bring him into conflict with powerful interests. Romero could variously be described as a ‘prophet of the people’, a mobilizer and a voice speaking against and into a violent void. Romero was an implicit supporter of what became known as liberation theology, a movement which took root throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and focused on helping the poor and oppressed, even if that meant confronting political powers. It was a theology that was later to be severely criticised as a ‘fundamental threat’ to the church by one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became better known as Pope Benedict XVI.

Prior to his appointment as Archbishop Romero was considered to be a quiet, bookish and non-controversial figure and his elevation to the position of Archbishop was welcomed by many business, government and military figures who believed that he would be a ‘safe pair of hands’ who would  ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.’

By his words and actions Romero consistently attempted to unmask and denounce the ‘culture of silence’ imposed upon the oppressed majority of people in El Salvador by an oligarchic minority that was unaccustomed to opposition from such quarters. In doing so he was forced to confront a genocidal military-armed, trained and financed to a great extent by the United States of America.

In August 1978, four Salvadoran bishops issued a statement condemning a peasant’s popular organizations as ‘Marxist.’ Romero distanced himself from their comments and wrote in defence of the peasants .

In a pastoral letter that was read out in all Roman Catholic churches in El Salvador he defended the right of all working people to organise and criticised the fact that this right was consistently violated in El Salvador. In writing this letter Romero was publicly siding with popular, peasant led organizations and – more dangerously – becoming perhaps the most high profile mobiliser to their cause.

Aware of the implications of restricted press ownership Romero used his weekly radio address to condemn the numerous killings, abductions and incidents of torture.

Romero wrote directly to the then US President Jimmy Carter arguing that given the level of human rights abuse by the military, aid to the junta should be suspended.  In a sermon broadcast live on the radio on March 24 1980 he outlined what was in effect a moral justification for mutiny. After providing a theological framework for the statements that were to follow, Oscar Romero related some of the hundreds of cases of genocidal military action occurring during the previous week, citing an Amnesty International press release to confirm his accounts. Towards the end of this sermon he addressed the military directly:

‘I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill”. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered you consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression.’ (Cited in Leiken & Rubin 1987: 377-380)

Later that evening whilst saying mass at a small church attached to a cancer hospital a lone gunman shot Romero dead.

Romero was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 1979. When nominated he was asked about his humanitarian work, he told reporters:

‘When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.’

Romero is a hero of mine because he accepted that to fight against injustice; to commit one's life to the poor is not simply about taking a religious stance but a political and moral one. Romero understood that the true message of hope, the promise that the world can be fairer, more just and less divided often results in giving comfort to the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.