Will the phone hacking scandal do to the tabloid press what the expenses furore did to parliament? Probably not, but it should

A guest post by PencilCase

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the departure of Andy Coulson as Director of Communications at Number 10 last Friday represents just the tip of a very large and grubby iceberg. As a number of features in Sunday’s Observer make clear, the scale of the alleged phone hacking that went on at the News of the World is huge, perhaps involving thousands of celebrities and public figures. Stories are also emerging of other newspapers facing legal action over hacking allegations, threatening to make this an industry-wide issue.

While it’s important to state that many of these allegations are still just that, allegations, a picture is emerging of an ethically wayward and hubristic world in which corrupt practices – some teetering on the edge of unlawfulness, others well over the edge – had become endemic. If this world sounds familiar, that’s because we glimpsed a very similar one not so long ago, called Parliament. The MPs expenses scandal caused national outrage on an unprecedented scale and took a sledge-hammer to the public’s already brittle faith in politicians and political institutions. The phone hacking allegations uncover the behaviour of a similarly arrogant metropolitan elite, disconnected from the standards and values of the ordinary people they claim to serve.

Yet while the expenses scandal provoked torrents of vitriol from the British public, the majority now seem relatively unmoved by hacking-gate. It’s hard to know for sure why this is the case. Perhaps people just expect this kind of behaviour from the media? Perhaps they do, but one of the main reasons MP’s expenses caused so much ire was because it seemed to confirm for many people what they had suspected of politicians all along, which makes expectation alone an unlikely reason for the relative calm over the present scandal. I think one of the most convincing reasons why people seem less concerned about journalists hacking into answer machines, is that it’s harder to see how the scandal affects them, particularly in respect of power. The lines of power and privilege are relatively clear in national politics – we elect the MPs in good faith to positions of power and pay them with our taxes. Any wrongdoing on the part of MPs, particularly involving public money, is a clear offence against trust and democracy. By contrast, the power held by journalists and the media over the individual is less clear. For starters, the phone hacking stories seem mainly to involve celebrities – figures distant to and disconnected from the lives of most people. Secondly, we like to think of ourselves as free and autonomous consumers of media. If we don’t like something we see or read, or don’t like the behaviour of those who produce it, we don’t have to wait until the next election to register our displeasure – we can simply switch channels, or stop buying a particular paper. Journalists, unlike politicians, aren’t seen as wielding real power and influence over our lives.

But the truth is, journalists and the media hold and exercise enormous power and influence within our society, not just in terms of the access media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks have to those in political power, but in terms of the values and opinions they propagate. This issue is particularly important for the left, who virulently oppose the bigoted, fear-mongering nature of these opinions. Moreover, with an understanding of the socially and culturally constructed nature of the self, the left understands just how deeply ingrained such attitudes can become. We should be unashamed in using the phone hacking scandal to inflict a body blow on the right-wing tabloid press that does so much to perpetuate sexism, racism and the interminable cult of celebrity that poison our culture.

Communication breakdown: the damage to the lost generation

Guest post by Mike Indian

There are good days to bury bad news; but someone should establish a rota for the shovel. Three scandals breaking over four days. Not what we need to inspire confidence in our politics at a time when it is desperately needed.

Look no further than the behemoth spin doctors hoped would conceal these lesser indiscretions, the second appearance of Tony Blair at the Iraq Inquiry. Nothing can better attest to blight of mistrust left on a generation than a remark an older colleague made to me last week. He worked with the previous Labour governments and repeatedly reminded them of their failings. Even so, he was caught off guard by the venom displayed towards the ex-PM. In turn, I was surprised he wasn’t aware of the strength of that feeling, among young people in particular. Was this difference generational?

Hearing the calls of objections from mothers of dead soldiers, I’d almost say no. They were the people outside the gates of Downing Street the day Blair left office, to hammer home the price he’d paid with their children’s blood. Yet, I feel repeatedly detect a certain scepticism among my own generation. School age at the time of invasion in 2003, the legacy of a lie rings still stings. Several of them now mobilise protests and attempt citizen’s arrests for war crimes. The legacy of the Thatcher years was an apathetic generation. Did New Labour contribute to a cynical generation?

Young people have little reason to trust politicians. A series of scandals, u-turns and unpopular policies have eroded the optimism of new politics. Just ask the martyr to it all, Nick Clegg. The generational dialogue broke down completely during an episode of Young Persons’ Question Time. An audience of the youthful electorate sat stony faced, whilst politicians peddled recycled briefs on tuition fees for an hour. Only comedian Ed Byrne was able to pin point the problem. You are being lectured by a generation who went to university for free, and now wants you to pay, he said. Got it in one Ed.

Increasingly, the political elite look out of touch, out of sync and untrustworthy. The greater the perceived distance between representative and voter, the greater the anger becomes. Yet, any opposition aimed at exhibition and a headline does not attract the essential factor for success, sympathy. Protestors may have the centre of attention for ten minutes when they gate crashed a lecture by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt at UCL, but after a brush off they were left standing bewildered in the corner.

NUS President Aaron Porter has come under heavy fire for moving to a compromise position on the issue of student finance. Why shouldn’t the grounds of protest shift now that cap has been raised? The NUS has reaffirmed its opposition, but it is not in student interests simply to obstinately reiterate this. By rejecting the spectre of spectacle and positioning itself as a conduit between politicians and the disaffected, the NUS will be able to barter the best possible deal for students. The will is there, all the NUS has to do is get behind it.

As the prospects of this ‘lost generation’ grow dimmer in 2011, the fires of resentment burn ever stronger. But before we see red, remember to take a deep breath. Occasionally, our politicians make a valid point. How have many taken Tony Blair’s repeated warnings on Iran to heart? The Lib Dems stand at the head of a shaky ‘Yes’ campaign on the AV referendum. Failure to get behind them will put this vital reform to bed for a generation. Past sins must not obscure sound advice for the future. We risk missing vital opportunities and early warnings by doing so.

The only victims of the communication breakdown will be the lost generation.

Mike Indian is editor-in-chief of The Groucho Tendency. This post was originally published here.

Nearly there Andrew Neil, but we need to nationalise education not restore grammar schools

It is probably safe to say that most people who visit this website are not huge fans of Andrew Neil. Through his documentary on class and politics however, broadcast last night by the BBC, Neil surely went some way to redeeming himself in the eyes of the left. He might just be a working-class hero after all, an ‘oh dear’ whose time has finally come. Alas, he dropped the ball at the very end, by concluding that the solution to inequality in the distribution of power in British society is a return to grammar school education.

The stats on the dominance of the privately-educated in politics are startling. Half the Cabinet went to fee-paying schools, as did a third of MPs, compared to 7% of the population. This may be partly a function of Labour’s defeat and a higher number of Tory MPs. But the privately-educated are over-represented by 400% in the Shadow Cabinet, and Neil claimed that only 6 of Labour’s 60 new MPs are from a working-class background. And this is just politics; obviously the situation is far more pronounced at the commanding heights of the economy.

My belief is that our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to the working-class. The ubiquity of the highly offensive word ‘chav’ demonstrates this – especially given its use on twitter by a Labour parliamentary candidate. It is political correctness gone bye-bye. More generally, I am increasingly hearing otherwise well-meaning, middle-class, do-gooders in my workplace saying increasingly snobby things. Times are harder so they are closing ranks.

Neill’s solution is appalling. He thinks it is perfectly acceptable for public and private school pupils to be given huge advantages in their career, no matter how intelligent they are. But only the cream of the working-class is to be allowed similar advantages. He says we can achieve this with greater flexibility and sophistication than the days of the dreaded 11-plus. It is okay, so the argument goes, if some people get a very good education, as long as everyone gets a quite good education. This is what Neil doesn’t get: it is not about the absolute standards in different educational sectors, it is the relative standards between the sectors. Only a certain number of people can become politicians, lawyers, captains of industry, etc. – they will be the ones who went to the best schools, no matter how good the rest are.

We need a far more radical solution. Sunder Katwala has called for higher taxes on private education, which would be a start – but not an end. What we actually need is the effective nationalisation of education. I am not talking about a ban on private education (it is a free country, after all), just a full withdrawal of taxpayer support. We could, for instance

a) Prevent publicly-funded exam boards from accrediting non-state schools

b) Place much tougher conditions on individuals undertaking teacher training, at our expense, regarding where they can work

c) Withdraw public money from universities that admit students with qualifications not obtained from state schools

There would of course be caveats to all of these rules for exceptional circumstances. It is also likely that many rich people would find a way around the restrictions, by underhand means or by blatantly setting up private enclaves outside the mainstream education system, such as private universities. But it is also likely that the value of a truly comprehensive system – which as lefties we believe in as an article of faith – will come to be recognised eventually, and within a generation or so normative and cultural change will produce near-full compliance.

No segment of society has the right to pass on their good fortune to segments of future generations. All parents do of course have the right, and duty, to give their children every advantage they possibly can. But society has the collective right and duty not to fund and support any system that demonstrably breeds inequality, prejudice and social disharmony.

It’s a fact: Gove’s curriculum review is purely political

This week we heard that Michael Gove is launching a curriculum review, in order to create a return to more “traditional” teaching. Quite apart from the dubious aim of the review, the enormous irony of launching a review of something and simultaneously declaring its result is obvious; as Chris Keates, the General Secretary of the NASUWT union, said, the review is “pointless” as ministers have “already determined that children should have a 1950s-style curriculum”.

This only underlines what everyone already knows: no Government act is independent from the political context in which it is carried out. Despite having no political figures leading it, the review panel has been told by Government what its findings should be; it will now proceed to confirm those findings. Those leading the review are all involved in education and include some pretty big names – who have, ironically, reached their pre-eminent position by advocating and implementing progressive and non-traditional teaching, in an attempt to interest all children in school, not just those who would enjoy learning whatever style of teaching is used. However, the academics and practitioners on the review panel will have no opportunity to voice what they actually think about the way the curriculum should be reformed: they can never come to any conclusions other than those they have already been ordered to come to.

There is, of course, not much that’s new here; only, perhaps, the phenomenon of this political skewing of apparently “objective” reviews being reported openly and as a matter of course in the press. Governments have always used academically credible and politically impartial review panels as a mask for fulfilling their own agenda. The Rose Review, a so-called “Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum”, was Labour through and through. Led by Sir Jim Rose, who had long been a favourite of the Labour education policy people, it advocated in 2009 a massive overhaul of the the primary curriculum. It was clearly an enormous undertaking, consulting widely and emerging with some genuinely radical and well-thought-through ideas.

Of course, as soon as the Coalition took power around a year later, any steps towards implementing the Review’s findings were dropped immediately, and the Review was never heard from again, hidden in the archive of the Department for Education website. This is the kind of wastage that Government should deal with, over and above the ubiquitous “efficiency savings”: despite being an “Independent Review”, the Tories could not – even if they had wanted to – have used any of its ideas, for fear of assimilating what was effectively Labour policy.

On a personal level too, I find the ideas behind Gove’s new review somewhat chilling. He has explicitly said he wants more “facts” in the national curriculum, as if “facts” were somehow of value in and of themselves. Teaching over the past twenty years has shifted away from this idea of education as equivalent to the accumulation of facts, towards a view that it is concepts, skills and analytical processes that a child really learns at school. It is easy to see why: is it important to know the fact that George shoots Lenny at the end of Of Mice and Men? No, of course not. But it is important to understand the thousands of reasons why he feels he has to do it, his feelings afterwards, and how Steinbeck’s skilful writing allows the reader to understand the significance of this ending to this book.
It is Gove’s understanding of education as simply this process of empirical building up that offends me, and it provides a consistent conceptual thread throughout his policy. He has also denounced the idea that GCSE English Literature requires the study of only one novel – as if making pupils study ten novels in the same timespan would somehow make them better-educated than studying one in great depth; nevermind that fact that this is a minimum; and that as well as novels each pupil will also study a good body of poetry, and several short stories, plays and non-fiction texts.

I find myself agreeing again with Chris Keates when she colourfully says that teachers “want another curriculum review like a hole in the head”. This review is clearly nothing to do with what is good for teachers, and especially nothing to do with what is good for pupils: it is an overtly political act, and nothing more.

This post was originally published here.

Ed Miliband must try harder on financial services

In his keynote address at the Fabian Society’s Next Left conference, Ed Miliband set out the broad outline of his alternative economic vision. At its heart was an indictment of the lack of regulation on financial services, and the UK economy’s over-reliance on the financial sector. In this regard he differs from his predecessor as Labour leader Gordon Brown, as well as the coalition government. But simply asserting an alternative approach does not necessarily bring it any closer to reality – crucial questions about Miliband’s understanding of the financial system remain.

Financial services were at the epicentre of the economic downturn, and the fiscal crisis which followed, but have also been a major source of prosperity for the UK economy in recent years. The sector also provides many products and services people could not and would not want to do without. Should individuals refrain from saving and investing in financial products? Without an answer to questions like this, it will be difficult for people to imagine how Miliband’s alternative vision would make a difference in their real lives.

A good example of this dilemma is personal debt. Miliband’s speech referred to the tragedy of personal debt for many people. This is a problem which afflicts young people in particular: according to the recent ONS report Wealth in Great Britain, 1 in 4 households where the referent person is aged 25-34 has less than minus £2800 in net financial wealth. The FSA baseline survey shows that the same number of those aged 20-29 have borrowing (excluding mortgages) which is greater than 300% of their monthly income.

We know where the coalition government, and seemingly the Bank of England, stands on this issue, although they have not said so explicitly. For Cameron and Osborne, people should be spending, not saving, as part of a private sector-led recovery. They have been relatively quiet on personal debt – even though the way that debt exposed millions of people to the financial meltdown became a key reason why the electorate lost faith in Labour’s economic stewardship. It seems that the Conservatives are not going to tackle personal debt to any significant degree, because ultimately, in an age of public austerity, they have few alternatives to consumer spending as a source of economic growth – the delay in publishing the growth white paper tells us this. Private profligacy therefore remains vital, and it stands to reason that spending will be funded at least to some extent by personal debt.

Herein lies the real challenge for Ed Miliband’s leadership. Grand statements about the City and bankers’ bonuses don’t help people to make decisions about their actual economic circumstances. Should we be spending, and going into debt to do so; or should we be saving, and going without? Invariably, both approaches involve engaging, intimately, with financial services. For any alternative to be taken seriously, Ed Miliband needs urgently to put flesh on the bones of his vision.

A version of this article originally appeared on the ILC-UK blog

Incomplete resolution: the problems of excluding women from peace processes

10 years ago, Resolution 1325 was signed at the UN, recognising the devastating affects of conflict on women and making women’s involvement in peace-building processes from their earliest stage an absolute imperative. Despite this, not enough has been done to involve women in the politics of post-conflict resolution. The involvement of women is essential to building stable societies; it has been shown in countless studies that women are more likely than men to spend development money on their communities and research demonstrates links between gender inequality and increased levels of violence within a state; where there is acute gender discrimination and abuses of human (and especially women’s) rights, countries have been shown to be more likely to be unstable. Women provide vital insights into community security, can be vital in creating an effective dialogue and responsive politics, supporting national recovery.

In Liberia, for example, women were a powerful force for positive change. Despite being excluded from formal peace talks following the civil war, a group of women were instrumental in bringing peace to Liberia. They took action, refusing to accept what appeared to be failing talks. They created an extensive and effective campaign for disarmament and demobilization, targeting ex-combatants, particularly, and volunteering to contribute to the peace process in whichever way they could. They also formed their own cooperatives, started in refugee camps, to begin to rebuild agricultural infrastructure and create food for their communities and families in a post-conflict era of extreme poverty. The UN later gave them funding in order to expand. Women’s involvement was pivotal in ending the conflict. Liberia has now elected the first African female head of state, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has been praised for maintaining peace and rebuilding the nation.

In other countries where women have had less involvement, peace processes have been shown to be less effective. In Angola, for example, the post-conflict negotiations failed to address prominent issues such as rape and human trafficking and overlooked women’s health and education. The agreement also forgave the parties for atrocities committed against women during the conflict, which arguable creates a nation where violence against women is condoned. Failure to understand women’s experience has also been devastating in Sudan, where women were not considered in the creation of refugee camps which meant that they were forced to leave the camps to collect water. In this unsafe environment there were numerous reports of sexual violence and harassment. Peace building that fails to recognise the different experiences of women and men threatens to erode women’s rights and put them at increased risk of violence, abuse, poverty and loss. Women are also more affected by destruction of infrastructure, as they are often primary carers in the family. The experience of widowhood is also vastly affecting. Women’s inclusion in peace building means that their experiences and the particular forms of violence they face during conflict can be addressed. Failing to address women’s security during and after conflict has been shown to undermine longer-term national security. Women’s participation is vital to reducing violence and inequality and building stable societies.

Our government has signed up to this treaty and recently revised its National Action Plan but has yet to act assertively in practical terms. Additionally, Lynne Featherstone has been appointed as the new Champion for tackling International Violence Against Women. It is imperative that women affected by conflict are primary in her plan and that, in this era of cuts, she is given adequate resources and authority. Beyond this, there must be effective and lasting changes in peace building processes and international politics; a peace that considers only half the population will be incomplete. No women, no peace.

Con-Dem fiscal policy at the mercy of the bond vigilantes

A guest post by The Obscurer

We are all familiar with the narrative between the Con-Dem coalition government and Labour on the depth and rate of speed in cutting the deficit and the consequences that this will have on the economy as a whole. Today’s VAT rise has brought the so-called ‘debate’ back into the public spotlight.

The Con-Dem belief is that unless public spending is cut drastically, the bond vigilantes will raise the cost of borrowing for the government and for home owners (as mortgage rates are affected by long-term interest rates) and the Bank of England will have to raise its base rate.  The effect of this would then induce a slowdown in growth if not provoke a double-dip recession.  For some in the Con-Dem coalition this presents an ideal opportunity as they are ideologically committed to the small state and look forward to a private sector led recovery.

Labour does not oppose the logic of the Con-Dem narrative per se, but instead emphasises the danger that cutting public spending, so far and so quick, may have in sending the economy into a double-dip recession (although Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson got a bit muddled over his party’s policy on the Today programme this morning).  Furthermore, they argue that the national debt may not be that high historically (depending on what and how it is measured) and that the bond vigilantes may not know what is in their own interests. After all, if a drastic cut in public spending does tip the economy into a double-dip recession, then the government will get less tax receipts and will have to borrow even more.  As such, making the temptation to go to the printing press (thus devaluing gilts) that much greater.

So here we have it.  In order to reassure the bond market that Britain will not inflate its debts away, a savage attack on the size and role of the state is demanded.  Yet, for fear that this may cause the economy back into recession, the bond market demands another round of quantitative easing. 

To put it simply: cuts to prevent the printing of money; the printing of money to prevent recession.

As absurd as the paradox appears to be at first sight, it may benefit the Con-Dems.  It must be remembered that the Bank of England has consistently been on the high side of its inflation target for the last year.  But with the government fulfilling the demands of the vigilantes, the yield on government gilts has remained low

The government may then be able to borrow cheaply, and not pay some of it back due to inflation, and reduce the size of the state at the same time.  This presupposes one big ‘if’: the logic only holds of nothing bad happens to the world economy during the course of the next parliament. That’s a very big if indeed.