Our Parochial Press

We have already tweeted a few times and posted briefly about the shameful manner in which the British press has ignored the events in Kyrgyzstan, but there is a wider issue about the nature of our press in the UK, and perhaps what it says about the British public.

With the honourable exception of the Guardian, who have been running significant amounts of coverage and comment on their website, even the broadsheet newspapers have been relatively muted in their coverage of the terrible events in Kyrgyzstan. The events should be news worthy enough because of the terrible violence and the numbers killed, but given the rather precarious broader situation in the Central Asian Republics, we should certainly be paying more attention than is currently the case.

Take a quick look at the Daily Mail website, and count how many times you see articles about celebrities in bikinis before you reach the article about events in Osh. We promise there is an article, it is just an awful long way down – and there are a lot more about the far more pressing issues of who has the best bikini body.

Neville Chamberlain once dismissed the possibility of going to war for people from a far off land of whom we know nothing. Sadly, the British press seem to have little interest in reporting on events which fall outside either the Western world or those other parts of the globe which are deemed relevant.

We have little doubt that many would struggle to find any of the Central Asian Republics on a map, but equally there is much of the world which seems to be something of an enigma to much of the population – and this is at least in part due to the fact that the press is very selective with regard to what it pays attention to. One of our guest contributors has a particular bug-bear about the fact that when the Boscastle floods occurred (garnering huge amounts of press attention) there were simultaneous floods in Africa’s rift valley, which left thousands homeless but warranted merely a brief clip on the television news.

There is a magnificent scene in the West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President asks a new staffer why an American life mattered more to him [the President] than an African one. The staffer replied that he didn’t know why, but it did. This seems to be true of our press, and perhaps our public. Anyone who has watched a report on a tragedy overseas is familiar with the line from reporters that there are x number of people dead – two of whom are British – as though the British lives are more valuable, or their deaths more tragic than those of other nationalities.

We are sure that a sociologist could seek to explain this by saying that we feel more kinship with those people who are most like us, and an anthropologist could explain how this developed. To us, however, it is repugnant. We should feel a shared humanity with people wherever they are from – and our heart should be just as heavy for those suffering in Kyrgyzstan as much for those anywhere else.

We know that there is no magic wand that will make caring liberals out of everyone, nor much that we can do to suddenly make the general public want to engage with events around the world and make them care about making things better. A quick look at the comments section of newspapers when aid is discussed show plenty of ‘concerned from Surrey’ who are arguing that we should be helping people at home before we help those overseas.

We would like to think though that those attitudes can change, and we can see the benefit and moral imperative of helping those less fortunate than us, wherever they may be. It would be a lot easier to start this process if our press woke up and started paying world events some attention.

The LabourLive Team

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Kyrgyzstan

Why is there not more press attention about events in Kyrgyzstan? A strategically significant country in central Asia is seeing ethnic cleansing in action, a potential civil war which may lead to the country splitting in half and the possibility of a war with its neighbour.

Yet another sign of the British press picking and choosing where to focus its attention in the world. Just because it is hard to spell and because most members of the public could not find it on a map, does not mean that the terrible events there do not warrant our attention. We hope that the national newspapers wake up to what is happening and give it the attention that it deserves.

Equally, it would be nice to hear a bit more from our leadership candidates, especially the Shadow Foreign Secretary, about what is going on.

The LabourLive Team

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Where does the Labour Party go from here?

The title of this piece comes from a Guardian article currently on their website. Nine thinkers on the left offer their views as to the direction that the Party should take as we seek our new leader and adjust to our time in opposition. Obviously not nearly famous enough to be invited to contribute to such an esteemed publication, we thought that we would add our own thoughts here, and also deal with some of the themes that have come up in the comments section (and we have already posted some comments which hint at where we are going here).

Obviously this is a question which strikes to the core of why we set this site up, and what we try to look at in post of the articles that we post up here but, given as well that we have now been operating for a month or so, it seems fair enough to try to summarise our thinking so far, and the Guardian article and the comments have acted as a good prompt for us.

Many of those who have commented on the article have suggested that the thinkers highlighted were not ‘left wing’ as the John Harris suggests, and that what Labour needs to do to win the next election is run further to the left. However, the parties to the left of Labour hardly pull in millions of votes in the election. Yes, they might get more under PR, but we don’t think we’ll be seeing an SWP government any time soon.

If politics is the art of the possible, then surely you have to start with an appreciation of where the political middle ground is. If you veer too far from that, then you are not going to get the votes to form a government – and it’s all very well-being a highly principled minority party (and we very much admire the Greens in some ways) but you are not going to help people if you are not in a position to influence policy.

Sadly, this means that ideology and idealism must always be tempered by thoughts of political reality. This might make us seem less than ideologically pure, and the word ‘pragmatist’ seems to have become a term of attack, but the Labour Party will always be able to do more to help those who need help by being a pragmatic party in power than they will be able to by being an ideologically pure opposition.

Where Labour under Blair failed, was that we did not take advantage of the time when we had a huge majority to be a little more radical, make the argument in favour of changes, implement them, and show that they could be effective – Sunder Katwala is right on the money here when he highlights the success with the minimum wage and the failure of other policies. One commenter on the Guardian article suggests that Labour will need a ‘narrative’ to be able to explain to the electorate why our policies make a coherent whole, and why they are the right thing for the country to do. They were exactly right. It is also one of the reasons that Cameron’s Conservatives were unable to win an outright majority – they have not been able to piece together a narrative which has convinced the country of their aims and objectives for their time in government. Now, this may be because they do not know themselves what they stand for, but that is another story…

The challenge for the new Labour leadership will be to make the arguments that bring the political centre to the left. What Blair did manage to do is drag the political centre to a place where the NHS is sacrosanct, investment in schools is considered essential and the minimum wage is untouchable. We now need to make the same arguments about the levels of taxation, the size of the state and equality. If we do not explain to the country why these things matter, and how our policies will make things better for the majority of them, then we will not be elected.

Without winning this argument, throwing out policies which seem to many who do not read the Guardian or the Independent, to be very left-wing, will result in electoral oblivion. Many commenters have suggested that the views held by those writing in the article are not left-wing (and we would probably agree, to an extent) but the fact that the Guardian can describe these thinkers as left-wing with a straight face should raise the question as to how they are perceived by those who read the Telegraph and the Mail. Without winning the arguments first – and this can, almost certainly, only be done incrementally, the policies simply will not be popular with the electorate.

In his book ‘The Political Brain’ (which should be essential reading for all aspiring Labour politicians) Drew Western marvels at how the lower middle classes in America consistently vote Republican, despite the fact that it is patently against their own economic self-interest. He suggests that this is because the Republicans have been more effective at framing the narrative of American politics. They have shaped the argument to mean that being a Democrat is to be soft on crime, un-patriotic and in favour of high taxes. They have successfully made the argument that tax breaks for millionaires are good because they encourage aspiration and entrepreneurship. Look at what has happened in the UK – in much the same way that the Conservatives managed to twist the argument to say that their tax cut for millionaires by changing the inheritance tax threshold is good for ‘middle Britain’ whilst the Daily Mail argues that capital gains tax on second homes will hurt ‘middle Britain’ as well.

Middle Britain does not own a second home. They are most probably a married couple earning around GBP50,000 a year between them. Without treasury costings in front of us, we don’t have the numbers to back them up, but we are sure that Labour’s policy of taxing those who earn over GBP150,000 a year more and supporting the child tax credits and child benefit are of more help to those people than cutting inheritance tax and keeping CGT low.

Labour’s problem has been in making this the narrative. This is not helped by a mostly right-wing press, but Labour have not helped themselves in putting this message across. We must always be clear that we stand for helping the very poorest in society, but we should also be clear that we want to support middle Britain – and we need to redefine that term.

Again, Drew Westen suggests that a weakness of the Democrats has been to call bills and acts in the US by the names picked by the Republicans (think ‘No Child Left Behind’ and the “Clean Skies Act’ – which both actually did the opposite of their names). He compares this to the Chief Executive of Pepsi constantly referring to Coca Cola as ‘the real thing’. The words we use in the debate are crucial to shaping the narrative. Just as Westen advocates that Democrats in the US need to reclaim the word ‘liberal’ we need to reclaim the phrase ‘middle Britain’ and use it to shape our own narrative.

We need to point out that we are on the side of those who work hard and want to do well. We need to make the argument that the NHS is an essential service, that a national care service would help so many people and that most people use state schools and public transport. We need to make the argument that higher taxes on the few will help the many, and make for a better and fairer society. We need to make it clear that we will not punish success, but rather we want all people to be the best they can be.

This process will not take place over night. It will need to be slow and steady and we can incrementally move the political centre to the left. There is, at the moment, no point in throwing out policies if we do not take the body politic with us. We must earn the political capital first, and weave a story around our policies. That is what Blair did so successfully on some measures, and it is what Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton and Bush Jnr. all did, in their own ways.

On the opposite side, the Labour party must acknowledge that the bulk of the country are more liberal on civil liberties than we have given credit to them for. Labour must admit our mistakes in this area and reaffirm the importance of defending civil liberties. This is one occasion where the political centre is in the right place and we are wrong – this time we must go to the mountain, rather than trying to move it.

Having said all that, we feel that we have set out the basis upon which our policies can be built. They must be grounded in equality and opportunity. They must be moderate and politically realistic, and be the pages upon which we can start to write our narrative. We are not going to offer policy detail here – we have many more articles to write on that. But they must all be linked to a wider narrative arc, which shows a cohesive and sensible ideology, to use an unfashionable word, which also reflects a political pragmatism (another unfashionable one) to not try to do too much too quickly.

Labour must always be a progressive government, but we must make sure that the country understands why we are progressive and why it is the right thing.

The LabourLive Team

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Afghanistan

A recurring theme in the flurry of articles about the Prime Minister’s visit to Afghanistan has been the question as to what British troops are doing there. In reality, there are two separate questions – one far simpler than the other. The first question is why they went into Afghanistan in the first place – which readers will be well aware was in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who was being sheltered by the Taleban, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The second and more complicated question is what they are still doing there, and in turn, what the end game is for the Allied operation? Now, sadly LabourLive are not privy to high level Foreign Office and State Department thinking, so we can’t really answer that question. What we can answer, though is what we think our troops should be doing.

The war in Afghanistan had, until recently, been less controversial than the war in Iraq, because there is not oil in Afghanistan to promote conspiracy theories that the war was mandated by Exxon Mobil, and also because it was a NATO supported invasion following the attacks on September 11. However, as the conflict has dragged on – it will enter its 10th year later this year – and the casualties have mounted, more questions have been asked as to why we are fighting in Afghanistan, and what we are fighting for.

A topic of study of World War One revolves around discussions of the ‘war aims’ of the respective combatants. This study at least has, as its starting point, the written war aims which were produced by each of the main combatant nations. We do not, really, have such a document for the Allies in Afghanistan.

There can no longer be an argument that we are attempting to find or kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan – that has ceased to be one of our war aims – but there is not yet much clarity as to what has replaced this goal. The present government in the UK have been sending out mixed messages – Liam Fox has rather unhelpfully said that we are not in Afghanistan to nation build in a ’13th century’ country, and steps certainly seem to be in process to get troops out as soon as possible.

We understand why people want to get the troops home – but we would strongly argue that there is an important job to be done in Afghanistan, and that it is right for the NATO forces to be there.

There are arguments to be made that we need to ‘take the battle’ to the terrorists, and that there are national security implications for the West in Afghanistan. We are not familiar enough with the day-to-day workings of al-Qaeda to tell you if this is true. It might be, but equally the war may encourage more recruits to their cause. But we think that the troops in Afghanistan are there to, eventually, benefit the people of Afghanistan – and that there are strong arguments in favour of this approach. Not least because the best way to quell extremism in the Islamic world is to attack its root cause – poverty and disenfranchisement.

Many on the left in the UK have written many words in newspapers and blogs saying how economic deprivation and a feeling of isolation from the democratic process has encouraged people to vote for the BNP and other extremist parties. We would apply this, by analogy, to the Islamic world as well.

Where there is desperate poverty and hopelessness, it is far easier for people to be convinced to follow the path of extremism. Where hardline Islamist elements seem to provide education (the Pakistani madrassas) and social services (like Hamas in Palestine) their politics can become very appealing to those who see no other way out.

Just as those BNP voters cast around for someone to blame for their own poverty and look at immigrants, those in the Islamic world who see themselves with no future find it easy to blame the ‘West’, or the ‘Great Satan’ or ‘imperialism’. It is the poverty and desperation which provides the fuel to the fire of hatred which burns so brightly in so many.

It is not a coincidence that it was in Afghanistan, and is now in Somalia that extremism flourishes. In areas where there is such poverty, violence and anguish, easy recruits can be found.

For this reason, if no other, we should be looking to construct a stable, functioning, democratic Afghan state which can take its place in the international system and develop towards prosperity. Enfranchising and enriching the population of that country is a key step towards removing it as a source of extremism. If that process can be accelerated or aided by the presence of western troops and money, then that is only to be encouraged. We would add, of course, that should we reach a point where that process can be encouraged more rapidly by the removal of western troops, then they should indeed be removed.

It is easy to forget, and difficult to imagine, what life must have been like in Afghanistan when the Taleban were in control. Women not allowed to drive, go to school or go outside unaccompanied by a family member. ‘Adulterers’ stoned to death. Music and dancing banned. If this happened anywhere closer to home, liberal opinion would have been outraged and it would not have been tolerated. For some reason, however, because this was taking place in a Muslim country on the other side of the world it was deemed to be acceptable, and to say that it was not was racist or culturally unsympathetic.

Nick Cohen, in his magnificently rampaging book ‘What’s Left?’ takes huge issue with this approach, and we find it hard to disagree with him. We are not cultural relativists here at LabourLive. We believe in social democracy and liberalism at home and social democracy and liberalism abroad. We make no apologies for believing that all people were created free and equal, and no apologies for hoping that one day everyone in the world will have the same freedoms that we take for granted in the UK. Democracy and capitalism are by no means perfect, but they are the least bad system so far. We will never waver from arguing that it is right that the equal rights that we seek for women and minorities, the drive for opportunity for all, and the search for economic prosperity that we strive for at home should also be our targets abroad.

What is wrong in the UK is wrong in Afghanistan, and what is right here is right there too. We can never understand how or why ‘liberals’ in the UK can be so distraught about the fact that women do not get equal pay for equal work, but can be happy to write off women not being allowed to drive or go to school in other countries as ‘part of their culture’.

People will argue that there are other countries that are just as bad (Iran, North Korea and the rest) and that we (the US, Britain, the West) do not have the resources to play policeman and social worker to the world. This may be true, but we would strongly argue that this does not mean that we should not try. If it is within our power to make life better for people, we should try our utmost to do it. Surely that it what it means to be on the left? To those who say that charity begins at home, we would respond that there is no poverty in the UK which can compare to the desperation in places such as Somalia and the Sudan.

In 1999, Tony Blair set out what has come to be known as, variously, the ‘Chicago Doctrine’, the ‘Blair Doctrine’ or the ‘doctrine of international community’. We would recommend reading the whole speech that he gave to the Economic Club of Chicago. Whether you agree with it or not (and we do, as will become apparent) it is a magnificent piece of oratory. Blair at his very best.

The speech sets out eloquently how globalisation has rendered isolationism redundant, and argues that national borders do not carry the same weight that they used to. Most importantly, Blair advocated that there was such a thing as a just war, and argued that there can be a moral imperative to intervene. Sometimes it is worse to do nothing than to get involved. Yes, it may mean putting the lives of your own soldiers on the line, and yes, things may get worse before they get better, but sometimes things are so terrible (and Blair was, at this stage, specifically referring to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo) that we have no choice but to get involved in order to prevent untold suffering and misery.

Blair quotes John Kennedy, who said that ‘Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved, who is free?’. We have a moral duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves. If that means military intervention to protect the vulnerable, then so be it. We should never take military action likely, and we all know that it needs to be planned better than has been the case in the past, but sometimes we must step in to stop greater evils.

The Chicago Doctrine shows us what our ‘war aims’ should be in Afghanistan and Iraq. It shows us what our aims should be around the world. We want the same rights, the same freedoms and the same opportunities for all people, wherever they are in the world. We respect people’s faiths and hopes and dreams, but we also hold that there are certain truths and rights which are inalienable. We should not leave Afghanistan until it is ready as a country to join the international community in respecting and enshrining these rights, whilst being true to its own heritage. To leave before then would be a betrayal both of the Afghan people and of the memory of those who have fought to make it free.

We should add, that there was an emphasis on encouraging free trade, financial reform and a global approach on global warming emphasised by Blair in the same speech. He was, as was so often the case, ahead of his time on this. We would wish that he had pushed harder for some of these reforms, rather than just eloquently speaking about them, mind you.

Some people argue that we should not interfere in other states, and that the violation of national sovereignty is wrong. If a truly democratic state does things we disagree with, then we can accept that, as the social contract between ruler and ruled should, most of the time, be respected. But even then, and certainly in the case of authoritarian regimes which repress their people without a mandate, we will always argue that human rights are more important than states’ rights.

Read the speech in Chicago. It is powerful and compelling. We firmly believe that it should be the basis for the foreign policy of the Labour Party as we move forwards.

The LabourLive Team

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Tuition Fees

So, David Willetts has suggested that tuition fees may well have to rise for British Undergraduates. Asides from being an interesting political issue because of the pledges to vote against any increase in fees by many members of the Liberal Democrats (including our Deputy Prime Minister) there is a genuinely difficult policy issue underneath – how do we continue to fund higher education in the UK to a sufficient extent that we continue to have some of the world’s best Universities?

We are starting from the premise that the current funding settlement is insufficient – and we are sure many Union members would agree, given that many people employed by Universities are lowly paid and are currently fearing for their jobs. Students, too, complain about inadequate funding and facilities.

Many Universities argue that the easiest way to meet the funding shortfall is to allow universities to charge more for their tuition. Student bodies, most vociferously led by the NUS, complain that students should not be forced to pay any more (and preferably should have to pay nothing at all) for their undergraduate tuition.

There is no doubt that, in an ideal world, we would aspire to everyone being able to go to university for free. This is not because we believe that everyone needs a degree to do their job, but rather the chance to spend three years at University studying something that interests you, living away from home and meeting people from different walks of life is objectively a ‘good thing’. There aer, of course, also arguments that a more highly educated workforce is of huge benefit to the country, and many arguing against tuition fees cite an American study relating to the GI Bill that every $1 spent on education gave $10 back to the country. A wise investment, it seems.

In response to those points, firstly we point out that we are not living in an ideal world. These are times of economic retrenchment, where there are arguments about cutting essential spending in schools and on the NHS, let along in the university budget. Secondly, given the aim of increasing the number of students going to university, it is difficult to see how there can ever be a system where this is entirely funded by the taxpayer. This also ties in with a belief that there must be a law of diminishing returns with spending on university education – and we doubt that the $1:$10 ratio would hold up once half of the population have been to University.

There are, it seems to us, three methods through which higher education can be funded: from the general pool of taxation, from the private sector and from students themselves.

We would rule out funding for the private sector (perhaps exempting some particular areas of engineering and the like where there are already extremely close links between universities and business) because we would not want to find ourselves in a  situation where academic funding and the direction of research can be bought and sold. The thought of a BAT Centre for Research into Lung Diseases, for example, does not bear thinking about.

This leaves us with two possible methods of funding – the general tax pool or students. We would repeat that we would love for university education to be entirely funded out of the general tax pool and available to anyone, but in the current economic and political climate that is simply an impossibility. This, to us at least, suggests two options to improve the funding situation:

1) Reduce the number of Universities/University places, fund the universities out of the general tax pool and make it free to students, potentially even reviving grants for those who are worst off. This has the benefit of free university education for those who are intellectually suited to it, and would keep standards high with the funding being directed to the ‘best’ departments. This is also the biggest flaw in the plan – the decision as to which departments are ‘best’ is highly subjective, and might see the demise of purely academic departments which add a lot to our knowledge and not a lot to our economy. We would be extremely reluctant to see the demise of academia for academia’s sake. Equally, it would be very sad to see many who wanted to go to university not being able to do so.

2) The second option is for students themselves to shoulder more of the burden of the cost of their courses. This would, of course, mean an increase in tuition fees or some sort of hypothecated taxation. We would resist any attempt to distinguish between pricing at different universities, as we would not want there to be any possibility of there being ‘good’ universities for the rich and ‘bad’ universities for the poor. However, it seems sensible for fees to vary across courses – so long as the variations were tied to cost – it costs a lot more to fund an aeronautical engineering degree than one in English literature.

Given the unpleasantness involved in sending young people out into the world carrying a large amount of debt (and the fact that upfront payment of fees means that those with wealthy parents avoid paying it at all) we would favour a graduate tax. We would suggest that once income is above a certain level (higher than the GBP15,000 which is currently the case) graduates should pay an extra 1p or 2p in the pound on their income, until they have paid a certain level (their ‘fee’) to the government. This pool of money would be used to fund the universities. This would mean that those who got degrees but never utilised their earning power would not be penalised (and would essentially never pay fees) whilst those who profited from their education help to fund it. We would like to see generous exemptions for those who worked for the NHS or state schools, as well. We think that this system would not put poor students off attending university, as they would never have any costs if they did not earn significant sums, and it would also switch the burden from parents (which benefits those who are already wealthy) to the students themselves.

We find it hard to see how it is possible to have a broad, well-funded university sector without students bearing some of the burden at some point. It should be borne in mind that tuition fees in the UK are still a fraction of what you would have to pay to attend the top universities in the USA – and that is despite the philanthropic culture in the US which provides for many of the generous scholarship and bursary schemes. Until we are in a position where we can fund world-class universities for all from a more progressive taxation system, we think that students will have to pay for the privilege of their higher education.

If anyone can see a ‘third way’ then feel free to comment on this article, or write one yourself for us to publish in response.

The LabourLive Team

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Labour Leadership: Nominations Closed

So, after several weeks of jockeying and speculation, we have the final list of contenders for the leadership. Many are disappointed to see John McDonnell fail to make the cut, but it was always likely that – both given the make up of the PLP and the fact that career considerations also play a role in the nomination process – only one candidate from the left of the Party would make it onto the ballot. Mr McDonnell’s Thatcher assassination gaffe certainly did not help his cause, although the desire to have a woman on the ticket (and someone from an ethnic minority) meant that once Diane Abbott through her hat into the ring she was far more likely to be the candidate of the left.

We have consistently argued that a broad field is necessary for the party to have the widest possible debate and to allow voices from across the party to be heard. We are, therefore, pleased to see Ms Abbott on the ballot – even though a quick straw-poll of the team suggests that she is unlikely to be receiving any of our votes. On that note, we are fairly evenly split between the other candidates so far – the two Milibands leading just about, but some support for Burnham and Balls as well.

That said, it is hard to see this as much beyond a two-horse race in terms of who will be the next leader. Beyond a spectacular gaffe or a sensational rally, it seems likely that a Miliband will be leading the party from September. Some have argued that this renders the leadership contest rather false, and suggests that it will in fact be something of a damp squib.

We would strongly disagree with this suggestion, for two main reasons. Firstly, this is the chance for the party to regain some attention in the news agenda over the quiet summer months. Secondly, and more importantly, the process is not just about the choosing of a new leader. It is about a Party deciding on its direction – whatever the ultimate views of the new leader, they will not be able to ignore strong voices from the Party on certain issues which come out during the campaign – on civil liberties, on Trident and on immigration, the campaign will give the grass-roots and chance to make their voices heard and to shape policy.

The engagement of the grassroots is possibly the most important thing that can come out of the leadership campaign, and the approach of the leadership candidates to this issue will be a key factor in our decision of whom to support. Being in opposition can be invigorating on the ground – with activists feeling more like a plucky insurgency than the establishment army. Now is the time to develop the networks in each constituency and ward which will help us to win the next election and to form the next government.

There is much to disapprove of in American politics, but the strength of the political parties at a very local level is something that we should seek to learn from. This is not the same as attempts to ape Obama and the Tea Parties respective ‘netroots’ campaigns as that does not seem like something that will reach vast swathes of the electorate yet (not that we think this is an area that should be abandoned – we run a political blog, after all). We would advocate small teams in constituencies operating on a street by street basis, getting to know the voters and the issues and making sure that this information is fed back into the CLP. It is, of course, important to get an early track on how the mood in a constituency is going, to know where and how votes are likely to swing, and to be able to know exactly where and how to get the vote out on election day. More importantly though, the Party needs to be close to the people who it represents. This needs to start at the top, with a leader who is willing to listen to activists and to the wider public, but it really matters at the bottom, as we take the fight to the Coalition constituency by constituency, ward by ward and street by street.

Let’s get involved in the leadership campaign, get involved in the Party and get a progressive party back in Government as soon as possible.

The LabourLive Team

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History on the Curriculum

There have been a few articles in the papers this week about the rather public job application from Niall Ferguson to Michael Gove. The Harvard Professor wants to be tasked with reinvigorating History as a school subject. LabourLive’s resident historian takes up the story:

“There are significant reforms of the education system planned by the new Coalition government, but one particularly close to my heart is the developing discussion around the place of history in the national curriculum and the role it should play. As one who was inspired by brilliant teachers at school to pursue the subject as an undergraduate, it saddens me to see that it is perceived as ‘boring’ by many schoolchildren – especially when historical drama (the Tudors and Rome, for example) and factual historical programming (e.g. Andy Marr’s History of Modern Britain) seem to be increasingly popular on television. There is an obvious thirst for historical learning, but the lack of uptake in schools suggests that there is something wrong with the way in which the subject is being taught.

Niall Ferguson, a former Professor at Oxford who is now at Harvard, has strong views on what needs to be done to fix the system. Professor Ferguson is often dismissed as a ‘right-wing apologist for Empire’ and is probably not someone who you expect to be reading about on these pages. However, I actually rather enjoy his books – whether I agree with them or not – and people who focus on his recent work on empire forget that he got to Oxford and Harvard on the back of an incredibly well received book on the history of the Rothschilds and an equally stunning piece on the financial and economic history of the First World War. Primarily an economic historian, he is a heavy hitter in his field and should not simply be dismissed because he is seen by some as ‘right wing’ (nor should he be dismissed by other historians, as Simon Schama for being ‘popular’ – writing books that people want to read is not a sin – but that’s another story).

The arguments that are raised about the teaching of history on the curriculum can loosely be split out into two categories. The first issue is the discussion around why history is not more popular on the curriculum, and whether it is taught inappropriately. The second, which feeds into the first, is the argument about what should be on the curriculum itself.

Briefly dealing with the lack of popularity for the subject (away from curriculum issues) there is undoubtedly still a perception that history is boring rote learning – my parents certainly recall essentially having to learn names and dates. I don’t believe that is an issue any more (indeed many would say that there is not enough emphasis on this any more). Somehow, classroom teaching seems to engage students less than history on TV – although it is perhaps debateable how many viewers of Simon Schama’s History of Britain were school children – rather than middle class professionals who were already interested in history (and yes, that was a description of this writer).

I remember being captivated by learning about the Romans and Ancient Greeks at school at 7, by excellent teaching by enthusiastic teachers. I can also remember a lesson at 11 where our teacher took us outside to test catapults that we had been asked to build for homework. Making the subject interesting (and this applies across the board – not just to history) to students at a young age can catch them for life.

As for what they should be being taught, the argument over the curriculum is a difficult one, and it is the area where politics can get involved. Firstly, a confession. I studied German history at GCSE, A-Level and University. I am, therefore, rather unlikely to write an article bemoaning the fact that all British children seem to learn about are the world wars. If that is what interests people (and gets them studying the subject) then teach it. Also, I think that everyone should be made to study the Holocaust – given a) the scale and horror of it and b) the impact that it had on the rest of the 20th century and continues to have today.

Professor Ferguson makes some excellent arguments, however, which I feel a very pertinent, regarding the fact that British students tend not to get an overarching historical narrative. Rather, we learn about small periods in isolation. For example, I am sure that many readers will know at least something about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and then may also have learned about the Industrial Revolution and then the two World Wars. The Stuarts, the Georgians (other than as acted by Nigel Hawthorne and Rowan Atkinson in the Madness of King George and Blackadder, respectively) and Edwardians are often rather forgotten. Equally, the history of the 1920s is often totally squeezed out, not being considered in the aftermath of World War One, but being two early for the advent of Hitler and the origins of World War Two.

The question, I suppose, is does this matter. I rather think it does, especially if you are attempting to prepare students for higher level study. It is, obviously, an impossible task to know everything, but equally an understanding of, say, the French Revolution is needed to understand Napoleon, whilst understanding Hitler is (even more) challenging without a knowledge of Bismarck.

It would be a nice idea if secondary history education could move through a narrative arc – I think this would also have the benefit of making history more enjoyable to students as they could see the causation in action – how the way in which Italy became a state shaped Mussolini’s relations with the Pope and how the collapse of French imperialism, via American wars led to the Khmer Rouge.

The more political question then arises, however, as to which narrative arc this should be. Some, often categorised as on the right of the political spectrum, argue that students should learn ‘British History’. Setting aside the arguments as to what on earth that means (which would take another blog at least this long) it is easy to see the value in that – it is good for people to know the history of their own country and to understand how we got to where we are. Conversely, those, for the sake of argument, ‘on the left’ often argue for a more global view – criticising the current Eurocentric and Anglocentric nature of the curriculum.

Even at a left-leaning university for undergraduate, there was a heavy focus for my course on Europe – although it was impossible to leave without doing some ‘extra-European’ history and it would have been possible to have almost an entire course devoted to it if you wanted. However, beyond the Russian Revolution (which is still really a European event) and a study of America, many students leave school having studied nothing of the history of the extra-European world – especially Africa and Asia. The argument goes that it is harder for the West to confront the legacies of colonialism when people are not taught about it.

As is so often the case, the correct answer probably appears to be in the middle of the two extremes. I would argue that a starting point of a study of British history is eminently sensible. It could, however, be used for jumping off points into world history at useful points – the creation and collapse of Empire, the Cold War outside of Europe, even the arrival and demise of apartheid.

There is no reason why it is not possible for children to be taught both about the development of their own country and about their country’s interaction with the wider world. A sensitive curriculum could give students the chance to see how Britain saw the world and how the world saw Britain. If children could leave school with an understanding of that, then history teaching would have done a fine job. We might even manage to produce the next generation of historians, too.”

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What is equality?

With the dramatic news at home and abroad, combined with our marathon run through the Coalition Document, we haven’t visited domestic policy for a while. We’re trying out a different methodology for this post – a few members of the team have each taken on the idea of equality and been given a maximum of 200 words to explain what it means to them by writing a short piece under the title of ‘Equality is…’. The range of responses is quite broad – which is interesting in and of itself. We’d love to hear from you as well – do you agree or disagree with any of our bloggers? Do you have a different view on what we mean by equality? We’re also keen to hear feedback on the style of the post – whether you prefer the team effort or the individual voices.

Equality is… no more glass ceiling

A look at the inside of the House of Commons or as FTSE100 Board Room shows that we are a long way from being an equal society. Women are criminally under represented at the higher echelons of almost every profession – and this is despite the fact that every August we are told how worrying it is that girls are outperforming boys at school.

We won’t have true equality until we have a system in place which helps to share the burden of child care and change the attitudes of those in power to women in the workplace. It shouldn’t be a nightmare of juggling to be a career woman and a mother. Most importantly, women shouldn’t be judged for choosing to be one, the other or both.

Equality is… equal opportunities

Those on the far left have a dream where everyone earns the same, contributes the same and, basically, is the same. I can’t possibly sign up to that – society has to recognise that people have different gifts, talents and aptitudes and if you suppress this then you destroy so much that is good. Individualism should be celebrated and encouraged, and this means making sure that those with talent are rewarded. This does not mean that I favour the system as it stands.

What we need is an equality of opportunity. Every child should have the chance to reach the heights of their potential. We need all schools to be superb, so that anyone who does have great talents is able to tap into them. No-one should be prevented from succeeding by their family background or lack of wealth. The only way to encourage genuine social mobility is for every child to have equal opportunity to reach their dreams.

Equality is… being colour-blind

It’s a horrifying fact to note that the colour of your skin if you are born in the UK plays a huge factor in determining what your life chances are. A British born Indian is more likely to be successful than a British born Pakistani. British born Africans are far less likely to attend university than British born Chinese. Whether it is down to latent racism, cultural differences or inner city poverty, our society is definitely not colour blind.

Until the day that there are more people from ethnic minorities running offices, rather than cleaning them, we will not be able to say that we live in an equal society.

Equality is… an equal vote

We will not live in an equal society until every vote counts. We currently have a system whereby some citizens are second class – Labour supporters in the Shires and Tory supporters in inner cities are essentially disenfranchised by living in a safe seat. Until we move to a proportional voting system, a truly proportional one not alternative vote (yes, I was the only dissenting voice when that article went up!) then all people in the UK will not have been created equal.

The right to vote is a basic human right. At the moment that right is not given equally to all citizens in the UK. All votes are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Equality is… abolishing the monarchy

We will never live in an equal country until we abolish the monarchy. Any pretence of equality is openly mocked by the fact that our head of state is chosen by an accident of birth. The ridiculous pomp, ceremony and deference afforded to the monarch at the opening of Parliament shows this in all its glory, as our elected representatives defer to an old German lady in a crown.

A British republic, where any natural-born citizen can dream of being the Head of State is essential if we are to be a properly equal country. What we have now is a sham equality. As long as there is a monarch, we will never all be equal.

Equality is… equality of aspiration

The good thing about being in charge of posting this article, is that I have read my colleagues posts before writing mine. I would argue that equality, true equality, will only come from equality of aspiration. Until the young Afro-Carribean boy believes that if he works hard he could be a barrister, or until the young Pakistani girl believes that she can dance for the Royal Ballet, we will not have equality.

To get there, we need to live in a society where those dreams can come true – at the moment that is not the case for the majority. If we do not create a society where people from all walks of life can succeed to the best of their abilities, then they will not believe they can reach it and they will not dream those dreams. We need to create the environment where people believe their dreams, nurture them, and then have the motivation and opportunities to go on to fulfil them.

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Flotilla: The Fall Out

Whilst domestic news coverage is quite understandably focussed on the Cumbrian shootings, the international scene is still dominated by the fall out from the Israeli boarding of the Gaza Flotilla. It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth, and it seems that, whilst this may not be an open war, truth is certainly under heavy fire.

You only need to read the two contrasting pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website (one by Seth Freedman and one by Ahdaf Souief) to see how two polar opposite views have developed of the events on board the Flotilla. On the one hand, supporters of the Israeli point of view say that the organisers of the Flotilla had been provocative and looking for confrontation, and that those on the boat were already armed and attempted to ‘lynch’ the troops who landed on the boats whilst under strict orders not to use force unless absolutely necessary. On the other hand, you have supporters of the Palestinian cause (and yes, which cause you support does, unsurprisingly, colour your view of events) are portraying events as brutal Israeli commandos landing on a ship full of pacifistic peace protesters who were only trying to defend themselves and their mission to get aid to those who are suffering, and were then brutally gunned down.

As is almost always the case, the truth is going to be somewhere between these two extremes. This might not help us write the provocative article that gets hundreds of comments, but it is more likely to be accurate and balanced. And accurate and balanced is what the situation in the Middle East needs, both in the short-term response to the attack on the Flotilla, and in the longer term as the ‘peace’ process moves forwards.

First things first, with apologies for the fact that none of us are experts in international law, our understanding is that blockades are illegal (hence the ‘blockade’ before the Cuban Missile Crisis was called a ‘quarrantine’). This means that Israel should not be preventing aid from reaching Gaza anyway. The Israeli counter argument that weapons could be being smuggled in to Gaza which are used to kill Israeli citizens is understandable, but Northern Irish terrorists attacked the UK and we didn’t stop food from being shipped in to Ulster.

Then the issue arises that the ships were attacked in international waters. A lot of people have been using this to suggest that Israel were in breach of international law (which they might be – but that is hardly a first) and that this makes the attack much worse. On the latter point, we are rather sceptical. The protesters on the ship would still be dead if events had happened 30 miles closer to Israel, so we see this issue (from a practical rather than legal point of view) as something of a red herring.

Israel is not coming out of the situation particularly well so far, but then from our viewing of the video footage, it does seem that armed protesters attacked the soldiers with iron bars and similar once they landed on the ships. Without having been there, it is impossible to really interpret the video footage, as it could be edited or out of context (the protesters could have been defending themselves after an earlier assault, for example) but it is clear that the protesters were not passive in the situation. Rather there were clear attempts to injure or kill the Israeli soldiers.

That said, trained commandos armed with firearms should be able to quell an assault from untrained protesters armed with clubs without killing 10 of them, so it is hard not to see the Israeli response as an overreaction. However, it is also easy to see, from a human point of view, how the pressure of being attacked on a ship at night could lead to a rapid escalation of events. Neither side comes out of this situation covered in glory.

The situation is, undoubtedly, complicated (to state the obvious) and this underlines the need for a formal enquiry. However, we would question whether this will actually solve anything, as whatever conclusion the enquiry reaches, one side will consider it to be vindication and the other a whitewash. The peace process seems as intractable as ever, and the events of the past few days only serve to have made the process harder.

What is needed is a change in approach on all sides. When we discuss the idea here at LabourLive, we always conclude that the side who takes the Gandhi approach would swiftly win, as international opinion would rapidly swing behind them. It is hard to be too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause when missiles are fired over into Israel every day, and hard to feel sympathy for Israel when Gaza is blockaded and people are starving. Ideally both sides would abandon these measures, but whichever side did it first would infinitely strengthen their position in global opinion.

This may be an idealistic approach, but surely what is necessary is for the blockade to be lifted, Palestinian militants to declare a ceasefire, and the Israeli army to cease incursions into Gaza and the West Bank for the duration of any peace talks. Peace talks can only proceed on the basis of a two state solution with a viable Palestinian state, some sort of sovereignty sharing arrangement with regard to Jerusalem and a limited right of return for refugees. International (and by this we almost certainly mean American) troops on the ground will most probably be needed to enforce any settlement.

To us it seems that these are self-evident truths. Agreement can be reached on this basis now, or both sides can go on killing each other for another 50 years before agreement is reached on that basis. Israel cannot remain both Jewish and democratic without reaching an arrangement with the Palestinians, and the Palestinian people cannot keep on as they are now without a home or a stable state. Compromise is essential, and will happen – the only question is how many more people, on both sides, must die before it happens.

We do not, however, have high hopes for this happening soon, given that the two sides cannot even agree on what happened on the Flotilla a few days ago. Sadly, peace in the Middle East still seems very distant.

The LabourLive Team

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Cumbria

Just to be clear, there is no politics in this article. 13 people are dead, including the gunman, and even thinking about making political capital out of tragedy is beyond the pale – a point that should perhaps have been made to our Prime Minister when he tried to point score using the tragedy at Edlington, and to one of his predecessors who tried to do the same with the killing of James Bulger (that was Mr Blair – all parties have been guilty of this).

People all over the country are going to wake up this morning still trying to digest the events of yesterday. One member of the communities affected noted how it was something that we are more accustomed to seeing ‘in America’ than in the UK – indeed there has been nothing like this in the UK since the Dunblane Massacre back in the mid-1990s. We are not accustomed to mass killings in this country nor, to any great extent, to gun violence. For all the talk of out of control crime in the UK we are, in global terms, a relatively peaceable society.

Political rhetoric of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ or pledges to mend ‘Broken Britain’ will not and cannot change what happened. We may never know what motivated Derrick Bird to go on his killing spree, starting with his own brother and ending only when he took his own life.

Questions will be asked from different quarters.  Should there be a change in the law on gun licences? Should the police have reacted quicker? Should Mr Bird have been on social services radar before? So often our press, after the initial anguish, casts around for someone to blame. Something to explain, to help us understand.

Life, however, is rarely that simple. Sometimes, oftentimes, there is no-one to blame, no comfort to be found, just a damaged person who lashed out knowing no other option. The events in Cumbria yesterday are beyond our comprehension, understanding and explanation. All we can do is offer out deepest sympathies to those involved and hope that the communities which have been so devastated by the events.

Many stories are emerging of those who tried to help those who had been shot with no regard to their own safety. These people should be the story. We should look beyond the terrible tragedy to see all the good in our communities. We should resist the urge to seek to blame, however natural it is. We should praise the police, the doctors, the nurses and all the ordinary citizens who did everything they could to help those who were caught up in the events. If we can never understand what brings someone to carry out such heinous acts, we can, at least, marvel at the bravery and humanity of those who tried to help, and hope that the same humanity helps the affected communities to recover.

The people of Cumbria are in our thoughts and prayers today.

The LabourLive Team

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