Saturday, 28 May 2011

We must pledge to abolish University fees

We must as a Party pledge ourselves to abolish University fees.

I know we were the Party which introduced them, but we were wrong.

Looking at the thing historically, it all started after the Second World War, when bright working class youngsters in my generation were offered the chance to break out of poverty through education. They went to Grammar Schools (I was even more privileged, going to a Direct Grant School – essentially a private school, but one where the local authority paid the fees of the brightest poor children). Then they had their fees paid PLUS a grant to enable them to go to University.

I can’t pretend to be a ‘working class kid made good’ myself, but I went fee-free, with a grant, to Oxford University. I was desperately poor the entire time, but it changed my life – it was SUCH a privilege – and I am of the considered opinion that we must not – cannot – remove that opportunity from the upcoming generation under ANY circumstances, any longer.

The opportunity to as-good-an-education-as-one’s-brain-needs is a human right.

What happened to that process that took boys like Harold Wilson from Grammar School to Number 10?

Part of the problem, of course, was the idea of social equality. A scheme which allowed bright working class children to become ‘upwardly’ mobile ‘out of’ their class rather meant that there were many more people ‘left behind’. What about them! Shouldn’t we as a society be seeking to raise standards for ALL less-advantaged people, not just the clever ones?

And so we got Comprehensive Schools, and EMA, and Labour’s scheme to get 50% of ALL people to university. The principle was ‘opportunity for all’, and you can’t deny that it is a laudable aim.

The only problem was, barely had we implemented the principle but we decided that we couldn’t afford it!

So what did we do? Admit we had overstretched ourselves and move back somewhat towards the previous system? No! Nothing as sensible as that!

Instead, we came up with the idea of making everybody pay towards their education – an idea which the Tories have taken up with JOY!

Why? Because we did not just retreat from ‘opportunity for all’ to the selective opportunity which my generation faced. As soon as we started requiring everybody to pay, we returned to a system based on wealth. We – Labour – stopped young people from poor families (who struggle to save £5 a week to a Credit Union) daring to go to University. And as the fees have risen, so the threshold of ‘dare-not-risk-it’ has risen.

Let’s face it, at £9000 a year for three to six years, University threatens to become again the preserve of the wealthy, and we can look forward to sliding steadily back towards a pre-WWII society.

I can stomach an argument which says that we cannot afford as many undergraduates, so we cut down the number of places. Anybody who has met a flock of academics will agree that they are odd creatures who might not add as much to society as one might hope.

I might be able to stomach – with intense misgivings – a system which favoured some degree courses over others.

I certainly think we need to explore alternative provision – notably apprenticeships – for those for whom academia is perhaps less appropriate.

But if we are cutting back, we need to make sure that what is available, is available to merit, and not to money.

And I want to see the Labour Party – as the SNP have so popularly achieved in Scotland – sticking its neck out and promising to move towards abolishing university fees.

Friday, 27 May 2011

A Lost Labour Leadership struggles to Found itself

The thing about Blair-Brown, in those early years of government, was that – whether it was actually true or not and whatever you thought about them – they gave the impression of efficiency, of knowing what they were about.
They had the ‘mark of government’ on them.

After 13 months out of power the question we need to ask about the present Labour leadership is whether we have descended to shambles.

Peter Hain is leading the consultation which is meant to 'Refound' us on our path.

The first thing I received was an email directing me to a multi-questioned and word-heavy online questionnaire. A facebook colleague has delivered his damning verdict on that: ‘far too long winded and far too complicated’! Apparently, I am told, it asks 66 questions, yet it has just four boxes to answer them in. He is correct – it was a questionnaire aimed at intelligentsia, not at the normal member.

Next, I received an invitation to attend a Refounding Labour event. More than 50 of us turned up.

Don’t get me wrong, the people who organised and led the event were lovely, genuine people. The people who were there were dedicated, motivated, and seeking leadership.

It was the consultation tool they were given to work with that was useless.

First, I was given the full Refounding Labour document – a glossy 22-page A4 pamphlet. Wordy. Muddled. Repetitive. Unstructured. Expensive. Our leaders have had 13 months to develop this; if this is the best they can do, then we need to sack the lot of them.

I managed to read to page 12 before the meeting began.

We were organised into five discussion groups. The five topics considered by the groups did not match the four areas in the booklet/online questionnaire.

Judging from the feedback, all the groups – whatever their set topic – said much the same thing. Members feel divorced, disdained, estranged, lacking direction, lacking policies. The party seems to be led by a small group of ‘up-theres’ and their post-grad advisers. Instructions come down from on high which members hadn’t helped to formulate. Policies were made and passed with which they didn’t agree, and had never been asked about. Conference is a managed rally not a policy-making body. There is no accountability; no one ever gets back to you.

There were lots of good ideas shared about what to do about this, but it was all very random, inchoate and undeveloped. What struck me most forcefully was that everything was (necessarily, in the time available) barely-scratch-the-surface superficial.

The meeting lasted an hour. We were assured that our wonderful ideas would be typed up and sent off for the end of the consultation on 24 June.

And then?

I find from the booklet that, out of the consultation, proposals for change will be put to the NEC, for a decision at Conference THIS SEPTEMBER!

I was left wondering how – and by whom – this huge mass of chaotic comment was going to be sorted, analysed and used. So many of the issues raised should have formed the basis for a subsequent conference of their own. They needed to be drilled down into, agonised over, thought about…

This one-hour demi-rant was useless as a vehicle for informing change.

And what about the Branches – the real home of Labour’s rank-and-file?

Nothing has been produced for them – no discussion materials. It might be possible to use the consultation guide for the leaders of the conference I attended, perhaps simplified, but nothing has been passed out to the Branches.

Our branch certainly hasn’t discussed the matter.

When the consultation reaches its end in June, one thing it won’t have done – even tried to do – will have been to find out the feelings and ideas of the mass of loyal, rank-and-file Labour branch members

Instead has this ‘consultation’ merely been a very expensive process, which has given handfuls of self-selected activists, and the emailing computer-literate, the opportunity to have a bit of a belly-ache?

On the basis of which, proposals for change are going to be approved.

Has this been a meaningful consultation, or have the outcomes already been agreed? Is there any way that something meaningful could possibly come from such a superficial, trite exercise?

I wonder which bin our comments are going to be filed in?