Tuesday, 26 February 2013

We Need A Party Of Principles, Not Platitudes

The Bedroom Tax is crystallising for me a whole load of issues about what I want the Labour Party to do and say.

I’m slightly fed up with the national Labour Party at the moment.

Supporting the Bedroom Tax
We have lambasted local Lib Dem politicians for declaring their opposition to government cuts (and producing leaflets without the words ‘Lib-Dem’ on them)
 – even though their Party was in government and supporting/making the cuts!

Yet are we any better?

Many constituency MPs are coming out against the Bedroom Tax – my own MP has been fabulous in this respect.

But the national Party will NOT come out against the tax.

I went to a conference last weekend where the unanimous desire of the delegates was that the Labour Party might commit itself to abolish the Bedroom Tax as soon as it gets into power – to make that a fixed plank in its manifesto, and to commit to finding the money somewhere, somehow to do so.

Yet one of the MPs there – patronisingly, to be honest – gave us a little lecture on how we need to be careful what we promise, because we have to carry the electorate with us, and because we won’t accomplish anything if we aren’t in power in 2015.

Thus we have a Party which is no better than the Lib-Dems – ingratiating itself at local level, but dominated by polls and triangulation at national level … even in the teeth of a campaign which clearly has overwhelming public support!

Getting elected
It is a running-scared national Party, which at its heart believes that – unless its policies are essentially wet-Tory – it won’t get elected. A Party which is constantly chasing the majority opinion and saying what it thinks voters want to hear … because it believes it has to ‘find the centre ground’ to get elected.

I wonder what Aneurin Bevan – the architect of the NHS – would have had to say about that. 

Nobody is suggesting that we sink ourselves under an avalanche of unfulfillable pledges.

I don’t know anyone in the Party who wants to come out with a ‘loony left’ manifesto which will turn away voters.

Neither do I know anyone who does not realise that what we are able to do when we get into power will depend on practical, pragmatic things like the state of the economy, business confidence and the like. 

But we DO need a Party which stands for certain Labour principles. 

Principle and platitudes

Our national leaders have not yet worked out the difference between a platitude and a principle. 

A platitude is a statement of right-and-wrong made at the syrupy-sweet level – clich├ęs such as ‘equality’, ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ – which everybody agrees with but which lack practical implementability.

A principle, by contrast, is a driving force to action.

Andy Burnham has declared that we will abolish the Tories’ NHS changes; we disagree with them on principle, and this requires a consequent reaction.

I know why that patronising MP feared to support the Bedroom Tax – she fears that, if we do so, it will give the Tories yet another chance to label us ‘the Party of the scroungers’, and that it will lose us the support of people who don’t agree with welfare benefits.

But I cannot see how we can even pretend we believe in fairness or justice, unless we come out as a Party against the Bedroom Tax.

Principles and pragmatism
And there is a point where principles become practical.

Principles are not hifalutin, head-in-the-clouds nonsenses that lose us support – they are essential to getting us elected.

FIRSTLY, because people know the difference between principles and platitudes. 

They know that phrases like ‘One Nation Labour’ mean nothing.
Constantly peddling concepts such as ‘fairness’ and 'opportunity' will win us sneers, not supporters. 

If we are to win supporters, ultimately we are going to have to tell them what these things mean in practice … and the benefit of doing so will be to define our supporters, but at the same time – by the very act of doing so – this will inevitably be at the cost of defining our opponents. 

SECONDLY, because defining our position more closely will improve the public perception of the Party.
At the moment, the Tories indeed do have us stereotyped as ‘the Party of the scroungers’. But what the Party leadership have to realise is that part of the Tories’ success is due to the lack of clarity of what Labour stands for – because people do not really know what Labour stands for, they fear (and are prepared to believe) the worst.
A more precise definition might actually win support, not lose it. Yes, coming out against the Bedroom Tax may lose us some votes from the right-of-centre. But at the same time – as we get clearer about what we would do and what we would not do – it might secure the votes of a body of people who say ‘Oh – is that all they meant … I feared they were going to do much worse’.
Ultimately, we have to be honest with the electorate. We cannot hope to get elected whilst MPs are openly saying that we must talk Tory, in the hope that we will get elected and be able to do Labour things – THAT is the way to not get elected, because it makes us the liars that the public think we are.

THIRDLY, because Party supporters need more than a nod.
Come 2015, that patronising MP is going to want large numbers of Labour Party members to deliver leaflets, man the phones, knock doors and get out the vote … to get her elected. Why does she think they are going to do so?
My MP is saying and doing wonderful things to oppose the Bedroom Tax. I will work hard to get him elected. But even for me it’s not enough to have an MP who opposes the Bedroom Tax … I want a government which will abolish it
. It is that, and the hope of other Labour-principled laws, that motivates me to campaign for Labour.
The Parliamentary Labour Party seems to have realised that Party activists will not work to give them the opportunity to go down to Westminster and implement a wet-Tory agenda. What they need to appreciate also is that many Labour activists are unhappy to campaign for fair words and fine promises which will actually turn out never to happen.

Common Sense
I am not going to let myself be tarred as a hard-left troublemaker who is going to lose us the next election. 

I understand the practicalities of politics and I am loyal Labour.

But, being practical, somewhere soon, Mr Miliband and his team have to be seen to stand up for LABOUR principles – because they are right.

And the Labour Party can start by declaring that it will abolish the Bedroom Tax as soon as it gets into power.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Ed Miliband is no longer a policy-free zone

I have had some harsh things to say about Labour’s economic policy in the last couple of years. Has anything changed?.

I was at the Labour Local Government Conference last weekend (brilliant btw).  Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn were both good – really good.  The atmosphere was positive, upbeat and full of enthusiasm.  It was not at all the gathering of beleaguered local politicians you might have expected.

Two complaints were expressed – firstly that Labour was ‘a policy-free zone’, and secondly that policies were too often made in the Westminster bubble and announced to a membership which knew nothing of them.

Jon Cruddas and Angela Eagle denied both.  ‘Banish cynicism’ exhorted Angela Eagle.   ‘We’re working on it’, was Jon Cruddas’s response.   I returned home informed and energised.

The Bedford Speech
Then, yesterday, Ed Miliband gave his ‘Rebuilding Britain with a One Nation economy’ speech.   

Polly Toynbee loved it. She thought it was ‘totemic’, and showed Mr Miliband as ‘a man with the makings of a brave and visionary leader’.  Even Dan Hodges declared that it made Labour 'look serious on policies'.

Over at Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy liked it too.  He said that it showed that Ed Miliband had given ‘an unambiguous message that Labour is committed to redistribution’.

By contrast, Tory Harlow MP Robert Halfon called it ‘a PR wheeze’.  The New Statesman declared it plagiarism from Obama.  And the Telegraph leader was even more hostile, denigrating Mr Miliband as: ‘in reality the champion of divisive, old-style “us versus them” politics’.  The hostile response from the Tories suggests that Mr Miliband must have got something right!

You’ve never had it so bad
Reading the speech, the first obvious feature was that it started off criticising the government and their conduct of the country thus far.   In a speech of 3339 words, the first 1374 words laid out point by point the hopeless mess of this incompetent administration.   Three times after that he turned aside from his narrative to have more goes at the Tories.  In all, a massive 44% of his speech was, purely and simply, an extended attack on the Tories.

Too much?  Probably not.  The basis of the speech was the conceit that it was a mirror-image of Harold Macmillan’s ‘You’ve never had it so good’ speech, so a ‘never had it so bad’ start was perhaps imperative. 

Moreover, I think the public is generally probably coming round to the idea that the Tories ARE messing up the country, and that the excuse that everything is ‘Labour’s left mess’ is wearing a bit thin.   In Britain we tend to chuck out the old rather than bring in the new, so a swingeing walloping of the Tories was sound political common sense.

Fine words and fair promises
Having excoriated the Tories, Ed Miliband then turned to Labour’s ‘One Nation’ vision for the future.   I counted 1592 words (48%) of what my mother would have termed ‘fair words and fine promises’; pledges to action, but without any specific policies attached.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some of these promises were wonderful stuff, for instance:
• ‘The starting point is that the recovery will be made by the many not just by a few at the top.’
• ‘The One Nation Labour government led by me will put a fairer tax system at the heart of its new priorities.’
• ‘We need a revolution in vocational education and apprenticeships.’
• ‘A One Nation economy needs to support businesses that create sustainable, middle-income jobs.’
• ‘We need a new One Nation strategy for small business.’

These are all key statements of principle, but they are not policies.  They are the fine principles upon which future policies might be based – things to look forward to – but they are not yet policies.

Real Policies
So, in amongst this general vision for a ‘One Nation’ Britain, Mr Miliband included just 265 words of genuine, defined ‘policy’.

There were 14 policies in the speech, and here they are:
1. A temporary cut in VAT.
2. Cancelling the millionaire’s tax cut.
3. Not cutting tax credits this April.
4. Breaking the stranglehold of the big six energy suppliers.
5. Stopping the train company price rip-offs on the most popular routes.
6. Introducing new rules to stop unfair bank charges.
7. Capping interest on payday loans.
8. Taxing houses worth over £2 million (the ‘mansion tax’).
9. Using the money raised by the mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax.
10. Creating a new technical baccalaureate to complement A-levels.
11. Demanding that Britain’s employers step up and offer real apprenticeships and training right across the country.
12. Legislation to break the banks up if the banking system does not change its culture.
13. Stopping takeovers that are waved through on the votes of speculators and hedge funds.
14. Working with companies and workers to encourage a living wage across our country.

In one fell swoop, this list ends the myth that Labour is a ‘policy-free zone’.   Indeed, Labour’s list of policies is beginning to go beyond policies and is increasingly looking like a programme of reform.   Personally, I especially like the look of 4, 7, 11, 12 and 14.   Labour members will be delighted to campaign for such a programme.

Ironically, Mr Miliband’s speech only included one new idea (using the money raised by the mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax).  All 13 other policies had already been announced in some form or another – most of them around the time of last year’s Party Conference.

But were you aware of them?  What made this speech brilliant was that – as far as I am aware for the first time – Mr Miliband put them all together into one speech.  What started out a ‘never had it so bad’ speech, turned into a ‘could have it good again’ speech.

So there is a lot to be pleased about if you are Labour.

Two Caveats
But did I like ALL the speech?

My only disappointment was the only new policy – the 10p rate of tax.

For me it was a waste of £2.2bn.  My big beef at the moment is housing.   I think that housing it the key to the future.   I think we need to return to council houses – or at least, if you insist, social housing controlled by registered social landlords.  Not only will an ambitious council-house-building programme help to home all those thousands of families in desperate need of a house, it will also remove the premise for the bedroom tax, and will stimulate at the same time the construction industry … which will help get the economy going.

So here was £2.2bn we could have taken from the mansion tax and applied to building council houses … how appropriate would that have been!

But we didn’t. Instead we bowed to the Progress mantra that what Middle Britain wants is tax cuts, so we have to give tax cuts to capture the centre ground.

Which brings me to my associated caveat: is this what the Party wants?

Having been to the Conference last weekend, my guess would be not.  Given two minutes I bet I could have got fairly overwhelming support for my council housing idea.  The tax-cut is pretty paltry anyway – Richard Murphy has shown that £2.2bn will barely fund a 10p tax-band of £1000.

Conclusion – still a way to go
As the Tories continue to fail, the way is opening – in the country as well as in the Party – for genuinely radical and innovative policies.   If I had my way, I would borrow a huge sum from the Bank of England, plough it into council-house-building with cast-iron procurement-associated requirements regarding the use of local workers, local apprentices, local suppliers etc. … and then instruct the Bank of England to write it off as a bad debt which would never be repaid.

Ed Miliband’s Bedford speech was a welcome milestone along the way, but it is not yet the final destination.

Ferguson in the Fog

I suppose I should have been prepared for Niall Ferguson’s defence of the draft History National Curriculum to make my blood boil but, to be fair to me, it took me by surprise.

In the very first caption, under a picture of the Bayeux Tapestry, Guardian readers are told that it depicts the Norman Conquest: ‘which most school pupils are not now taught about under the present national curriculum’. 
At first I wondered whether the caption was perhaps the work of an ill-informed editor but no – Ferguson repeats the allegation in the last paragraph.

The lie
Now I just don’t believe that most schools don't teach the Norman Conquest.  A recent survey we conducted to try to ascertain what History was being taught in secondary schools uncovered 127 different topics … but ‘1066’ was number one in everybody’s list.   I can’t think of a KS3 textbook which does not start with it.  And if you are a History teacher in an English state secondary school and DON’T teach the Norman Conquest, please step forward and let me dissuade you.

So how’s about this for a preliminary response?  I challenge Niall Ferguson to produce the research which proves that ‘most school pupils are not now taught about [the Norman Conquest] under the present national curriculum’ … or to admit he was talking nonsense.

Now, it is true that the current National Curriculum does not REQUIRE the teaching of the Norman Conquest by name.  But that’s because the current National Curriculum does not name ANY specific content except the Holocaust. 

However, please turn it up on the internet and read pages 115-116.  See what the teachers ARE required to teach.

It will show you what this furore is about.  One of the topics the current National Curriculum requires children to be taught about is: ‘the development of political power from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including changes in the relationship between rulers and ruled over time, the changing relationship between the crown and parliament, and the development of democracy’.  It suggests that pupils should study ‘the nature and motives of protest over time and the historical origins and development of the British constitution’.

I leave it to you to decide which is a better grounding for the future – that, or Mr Gove’s list:

Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, including:
- the Heptarchy…
- key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut and Edward the Confessor
The Norman Conquest and Norman rule, including: 
- the Domesday Book 
- feudalism…
Plantagenet rule in the 12th and 13th centuries, including:…
- de Montfort's Parliament 
ad nauseam.
(all of which, by the way, are going to be taught to 8-10-year-olds.)

Academic Venom
Anyway, already in a state of apoplexy, I read on.  As it turns out, 351 of Niall Ferguson's 760 words (or 46% of the article) wasn’t about the National Curriculum at all.  

It was merely Niall Ferguson being catty about Richard Evans and David Priestland, two fellow-academics who had dared to criticise the new draft curriculum. 
Nothing in this section (almost half) of the article contributed to our understanding other than to reveal how bitchy Niall Ferguson can be.

I passed over it; so can you.

Traditional versus modern
Next, Ferguson denounced modern classroom practice.  Modern history teachers, he claims, purvey in their classrooms a ‘schools history project’ pedagogy from the 1970s, ‘and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”)’.

This is a wicked caricature of the SHP, and an absolute calumny against the high-quality teaching that is going on in classroom after classroom throughout the country. 

Ferguson claims to have talked to History teachers!   I advise him to steer clear of them in future for his own safety.

And Ferguson’s authority for his dreadful claims?

‘Read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter's excellent essay [on the subject]’ he tells his 
Guardian readers
And who is this Mr Hunter? 
He is a teacher in his second year of teaching – now there’s an authority, eh?  Do yes please read Mr Hunter’s articles; it is quite clear that Mr Hunter has not yet gained control of his classroom (and when you read his essays you will appreciate why).  So great a History teacher is he that, once, he tells us, one of his pupils thought that the Victorians had TV. 

Please forgive me if I appear unduly nasty to poor Mr Hunter, who is only a starter.  He wouldn’t be the first young teacher to ascribe his incompetencies to the fault of the syllabus, or the system, or whatever.  The outrage here is not Mr Hunter, but Mr Ferguson, who is prepared to rubbish an entire profession on the allegations of a beginner.

Defending the Curriculum – Key Stage 1
‘The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure,’ Ferguson tells us, as if we didn’t know that already!

And he then proceeds to defend it.

At Key Stage 1, Ferguson assures us: ‘children will be introduced to “basic concepts” such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.’

Do you know how old children are in Key Stage 1?  Pupils in Key Stage 1 are aged between 5 and 7.  And that is when we are going to teach them these concepts!   It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.  Does he not know about ‘concrete’ thinking?  Some children enter Key Stage 1 barely able to talk.

For comparison, the current History 
Key Stage 1 National Curriculum requires teachers to teach: ‘common words and phrases relating to the passing of time (for example, before, after, a long time ago, past)’.  That strikes me as more realistic.

A friend of a friend, when his children were very tiny, was able to shout out dates and they – though unable yet to talk – would shout back the correct event.  I am sure that some KS1 teachers will be able to get their young charges to parrot some appropriate responses to the question: ‘what is a democracy?’ 

But understanding the concept?  No.  A waste of time.

We are about to return to the age of the schoolboy howler, and Columbus will once again circumcise the globe with a 40 foot clipper.

Defending the curriculum – mixed messages
Having thus assured us that our 5-year-olds are going leave their classrooms intellectually-equipped to debate Scottish independence with Alex Salmond, Ferguson then turns to the rest of the curriculum.

What is the fuss about, he wonders.  Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano ‘make the cut’ as the politically correct blacks, and children will still be required to understand ‘historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, [and] how evidence is used’.

At this point, I have to admit, he lost me in his chaos of self-contradiction.

IF – as he claimed only 3 paragraphs earlier – History teaching in our schools has been ruined by Schools History concepts such as ‘source analysis’, how come Ferguson is now defending the new draft National Curriculum on the grounds that it includes ‘how evidence is used’ and all those other processes (such as continuity and change, cause and consequence etc.) which were introduced by the SHP?

It is madness.  Are we throwing out modern pedagogy or not?  Because Ferguson is correct – the new draft National Curriculum embraces modern pedagogy lock, stock and barrel (on page 3).

And – as if to cap it all – Ferguson then, absent-mindedly, bemoans that these loony, liberal, modernistic History teachers manage to teach their pupils ‘plenty’ about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement.  So are they successes or failures?

Conclusion: A Chaos of Self-Contradiction
Thus, if I read Ferguson’s article correctly, he is supporting the new National Curriculum – which he explicitly states is flawed – because it is ‘a major improvement’.

He is completely muddled and ill-informed in his opinion but, as far as I can read it, he believes it is ‘a major improvement’:
1. because teachers nowadays don’t teach the Norman Conquest (which they palpably do), and
2. because it wants to get rid of School History pedagogy (which it 
palpably doesn’t).

Finally, in the schoolboy howler of all time, Ferguson reminds readers that the draft curriculum is just ‘a framework for consultation’, ending with a spear-thrust at his academic nemeses, Evans and Pritchard:

‘At least we now know two people Gove need not consult.’
‘Need not consult’?
‘Need not consult’!

Well, so much for the concept of ‘democracy’ which we were supposed to be teaching to 5-year-olds at KEY STAGE ONE!!!!

With friends like Niall Ferguson, Mr Gove does not need enemies.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Give Gove the Heave Ho

We all - teachers and parents - need to protest the proposed Key Stage 3 National Curriculum for History, and get it thrown out.

When I was at school half a century ago(!), we drank Whig history neat. History was anglocentric, triumphalistic, male, presentist … and predicated (as per EH Carr) on the assumption that there was an accepted corpus of historical facts which children needed to know. I spent one whole year with an alcoholic History teacher noting my textbook in three columns: ‘who did it’, ’what he did’ and ‘when he did it’ – and that pretty much summed up History at an elite Direct Grant school in the 1960s!

Even when I started teaching in the 1970s, the textbook was still Reed Brett (1933) – an undiluted celebration of English constitutionalism and imperialism. In ‘lower school’, Unstead’s Great People of Modern Times set the tone, leavened by copying the illustrations in History Alive and gruesome, stereotypical descriptions of ‘everyday life’ in a Norman castle, a Tudor town, an industrial factory etc..

It was dreadful history, badly taught. I dictated a set of notes to my students, they learned them by rote, got good O Level results … and I was hailed a rising star of a teacher!

In academic circles, however, History was changing. At university, revisionists and post-revisionists were plunging into the details and challenging traditional interpretations. There was a growing acceptance that History is a process of research and debate, not a corpus of transmitted knowledge. By the 1990s, post-modernists were challenging the notion that there was any ‘truth’ in History at all; for them, since even the original eyewitness sources were merely unreliable mental constructs, the various theories of historians (as constructs based on constructs) were little better than historical fictions. I am not so sure to what extent post-modernism has taken over the academic world, but most historians today teach ‘resisting reading’ of the sources, and begin their studies with a survey of the historiography, before developing what they hope is a more valid interpretation.

Slowly – too slowly in my opinion – these historical ideas and methods have made their way into how History is taught nowadays. In the 1980s, the Schools History Project – in the teeth of a furious traditionalist backlash – popularised the idea of History as a process, and as an evaluation of the available sources. Still later, the concepts of ‘significance’ and ‘interpretations’ snuck into the National Curriculum. The History that schools offer their pupils today is indeed fragmented and achronological, but it is an attempt at real History – an appropriately simplified version of academic History, a valid basis for future study, and a proper History for modern pupils.

To be blunt, any idiot with access to Wikipedia can garner the ‘facts’ of History. What our students today need to learn is how to analyse, evaluate and interpret those facts.

Mr Gove’s proposed National Curriculum is provoking a level of opposition unseen since the HA proposed its infamous ‘60 topics’ in the 1980s. Teachers are rightly up in arms about the practical chaos it will cause. I would also probably support most of the political and cultural objections which are being raised.

But my main objection to it is that a chronological trudge through the great people of modern times is just lousy History. It is intellectually and academically impoverished. It is as outdated, and as inappropriate, as the crimplene ties and log tables of my schooldays.

Any History teacher will tell you that there are things wrong with the National Curriculum. But Mr Gove’s alternative is akin to bringing back the cane – it is just wrong, and must be rejected.