Monday, 29 November 2010

Student protests: The challenges ahead

The recent student protests have provided positive evidence that political apathy in the young people is not as prevalent as many assumed, though it remains to be seen if this political awareness stretches beyond mere self interest.  If recent British history teaches us anything it is that peaceful protest does not work; Gleneagles, the Stop the War Coalition and previous marches against fees have left little or no legacy.  The poll tax riots were the last protests to get violent; not only were they successful but they proved the straw that broke the camels back for the Conservative cabinet who promptly consigned Margaret Thatcher’s premiership to the history books.  Other recent protests taking direct action such as those at Kingsnorth provide an indication on the most effective form of action.

Although participating in vandalism and or violence during a protest is neither a guarantee that your aims will be met or the best course of action, it does at least garner you much public attention.  The vandalism at the recent student protests in London and around the UK hint at a wider disenchantment; if these protests are leave any lasting impression this wider disillusionment must be harnessed. To do this, three challenges need to be addressed.

The first obstacle is the National Union of Students itself; an organisation dominated by Labour party supporters and members has predictably positioned itself in direct opposition to the coalition, opposition for the sake of opposition and its protests are also woefully late, by more than ten years.  The introduction of fees by the Labour party in 1999 established the principle that those that benefit directly from their education should pay for (at least, some of) it.  The Browne review was commissioned by Labour who were committed to carrying out its recommendations; by doing the same the coalition is following Labours policies through to their logical conclusion.  Though they have ignored some of Browne’s recommendations and the financial crisis has probably accelerated the timetable, it’s still essentially Labour party policy; hence the voice of Labour is conspicuous by its absence in the fees debate.  By placing the blame solely on the coalition the NUS leaves itself open to accusations of partisanship and lacking credibility, protesting because it suits the partisan agenda of its executive rather than the interests of members.  To this end the NUS has already been circumvented by the ‘grass roots’ protesters, forcing its president into a public apology in an attempt to save his own skin and remain relevant.   The ‘demolition coalition’ strategy is also a non-starter; it intends to bring down the Liberal Democrats with a policy that they have yet to introduce into parliament and probably won’t do for two years at least.  The ‘demolition’ message is likely to have little resonance by then.

Secondly, the NUS and fellow protest groups need a credible and coherent message.  When the coalition claims the new system will be more progressive, that’s because it is more progressive than the previous system introduced by Labour.  It’s not as progressive as abolishing fees altogether, but it’s far too late for that.  uts to the Educational Maintenance Allowance are regressive and they are recent; this should form a more significant focus of their message.  Ideally protest should also be directed at the commodification of higher education, the belief that its sole purpose is to generate a greater GDP, but the risk is that it would ring hollow.  Tens of thousands of students embrace the cheap credit and commodities that the globalised, modern capitalist society offers, whether to buy Iphones, Uggs or cheap clothing from Primark.  You can’t argue against the former whilst indulging in the latter, that’s classic double think.  This narrow focus on university fees and false claims that poorer students will be priced out of higher education (they may be put off, but perception is not reality) undermines credibility and leaves them open to accusations of merely protesting against the increased costs for middle class students – mere self interest.

This leads us to the third challenge and an opportunity.  The protests seem to encapsulate anger and frustration at the coalitions cuts programme as a whole, but this is currently only being expressed through immediate student concerns such as EMA and university fees.  The message needs to be explicitly broadened, the trade unions and third sector organisations brought into the fold.  For example, Shelter has highlighted the regressive nature of housing benefit cuts and this ties in to a greater sense of anger that the coalition does not have a mandate to enact sweeping cuts that will leave thousands worse off.  A single unified message from a coalition of unions and charities would be much more persuasive; the Big Society in action, perhaps.  

This is easier said than done, but it looks as though it may be beginning to happen.  If participation becomes more inclusive and a coherent, non-partisan narrative is formed then this nascent movement may begin to resonate with the wider public and actually affect some meaningful change.  Otherwise the protests will be remembered as a rite of passage for the latest generation of students much like the Stop the War was for the previous; I cared, I was there, but nothing really changed.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A brief introduction Part 2 : The return of ideology

The return of the Conservative party to government heralds the return of ideology (for now, the coalition will be considered a mainly Conservative enterprise as there has been only minimal Liberal Democrat influence thus far) to mainstream British politics.  The Big Society will redefine individual responsibility and the role of the state, further cementing neoliberal ideology at the heart of British society.

But return may not be an accurate appraisal of the situation; to label New Labour as lacking in ideology is perhaps a little disingenuous.  To understand where we are now we must first understand the discourse that led us here.  

The story of British Politics today began in the 1970s (in so much as history can really ‘begin’ anywhere).  The election of Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election brought Milton Friedman and the Chicago school’s economic policies into the British mainstream, following their disastrous implementation in Chile.  The election of Ronald Reagan a year later represents the beginning of a Neoliberal paradigm.  

The key elements of this were the primacy of the individual, the rejection of the state as a means of affecting economic or social change and embracing unfettered capitalism that was free of regulation.  Crucially, the adoption of market principles into everyday life and the belief that all things can be commodified, (broken down into a monetary value and traded) would be its most pervasive characteristics.   

The 1980s saw the disintegration and subsequent rebirth of the Labour Party, heralding a significant shift in Labour Party policy to the centre, or as some argue, to centre-right.  New Labour tried to combine the best elements of both Thatcherism and social democracy.  The fate of the NHS provides an excellent example; huge investment - aimed at providing a 21st century health care system to be proud of – shaped by the market principles of consumer choice and built by Private Finance Initiatives .  Started by the Conservatives Private Finance Initiatives involve paying astronomical sums of money to private companies to construct infrastructure projects such as hospitals).  It is this straddling of both Left and Right, the attempt to cherry pick and combine the best of both into a vote winning, centre ground occupying win-win strategy that gives New Labour its post-ideological appearance.  

Despite the best efforts of Anthony Giddens to furnish New Labour with an ideological narrative (the much maligned Third Way) many have come to regard this approach as blatantly Thatcherite.  The reason is simple, though its ends were socially democratic, the means were predominately neoliberal.  The issue here is that this is a contradiction, embracing neoliberal means immediately precludes the social democratic objectives.  Placing a profit motive at the heart of its methodology could only result in a neoliberal product.  

This false dichotomy between objectives and methodology has resulted in two troubling results for the Left in British Politics.  For example, social mobility and wealth inequality have both increased, their negative effects rippling out into public health, education policy and beyond. Secondly and more disconcertingly neoliberal frameworks and methodologies have been embedded throughout the public sphere.  Put simply, the tools are all in place for a government to accelerate the process of neoliberalisation, privatising and commodifying nearly every aspects of public life.  Were this to happen the small gains that New Labour achieved in creating a more fair and equal society would rapidly disappear.

And this is exactly what is beginning to happen.  The Conservatives return to power has heralded a much more relaxed approach to ideology.  Areas where New Labour introduced market principles, the NHS, Higher Education and Academy Schools will soon undergo much more rapid transformations as market principles become entrenched.  

From this perspective New Labour was an ideological project that sits comfortably within the Neoliberal paradigm.  Though it may have made some gains toward its socially democratic agenda, these have been undermined by its furnishing of a more right wing administration with the tools to continue significant marketisation of the public sphere.  In this regard the Conservative led coalition is following New Labour policy through to its logical, Thatcherite conclusion.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Putting the ‘p’ into politics

Politics with a big ‘P’ is the arena of political decision making and its associated organisations and institutions.  Westminster, your local council, the European Union.  These are all big ‘P’.  The party  politics as reported through broadcast and print media is almost always big ‘P’ and is one reason why many claim a lack of interest in anything political.

politics with a little ‘p’ can be roughly defined as relationship in which a power relation exists.  That is, any situation in which one person, organisation or institution exerts influence over another. The relation between husband and wife, teacher and pupil, advertiser and consumer, these are all little ‘p’.  This carries it way beyond concerns of left vs. right, Labour vs. Tory, concerned as it is with ‘big’ concepts and philosophical positions.

The significance is that, although my ramblings and observations will cross into both the realms of the little and big ‘p’, I make the claim that the world cannot be understood via the big ‘P’ alone, the problems of our world reside in the former whilst the solutions originate in the latter.  Ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of this fundamental principle may well explain why those who practice big ‘P’ Politics often fail to tackle the underlying problems that vex them.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A brief introduction, Part 1 : Evidence Based Policy Making

Politicians treating the symptoms of a problem rather than its cause is as old as Politics itself.  Some may hold the belief that the status quo has prevailed since man first emerged from the primordial forest. Perhaps it has.  Yet a light to lead the way out of the darkness did emerge as recently as thirteen years ago and it is from this moment that my analysis proceeds.

New Labour were elected by an overwhelming minority of the British population, some 26% of those over eighteen years of age cast a vote for Tony Blair et al.  Our antiquated electoral system translated this into a large parliamentary majority, granting a real opportunity for real change and reform across all aspects of government, from electoral reform through to reform of public services.  With this came the promise of Evidence Based Policy (EBP), a determination to delivery reforms that really worked, that could be demonstrated through material results.

This represented a significant change in British politics, the dawn of the post-ideological era.  New Labour occupied the centre ground, bridging the gap between the desire from the left for a fair society and the aspirational consumer driven reality borne out through successive Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.  Whether this was actually achieved is for the moment, a moot point.

In this post-ideological era government was to be about the New Managerialism, Tony Blair the CEO of Britain Plc.  He would lead the organisational change going forward, adhere to quality assurance principals in monitoring the outcomes of the policies they embraced.  No more would a government simply pursue a particular course because their ideology demanded it; New Labour would use what worked.  Policy would be based upon hard facts, visible evidence.

This largely positivist approach to politics did not last particularly long.  EBP it turned out, revealed some unpalatable truths.  Prison doesn’t work, privatisation does not necessarily improve public services, prohibition of drugs is counterproductive, there are no weapons of mass destruction.  The punitive populism of Michael Howard was continued as the number of offences mushroomed, the prison population soared.  Voters wanted to see a government ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.  In reality they had little appetite for the causes, but an insatiable hunger to see punishments handed out to criminals.  EBP was quietly abandoned, though not all went quietly.  The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) made it quite clear that there evidence on drug classification was both evidence based and ignored by the very government that appointed it.  

Though there were some positive results, many in the realm of education, proving that EBP has the potential to make some headway with some of the findings influencing policy on the shape of the national curriculum (this has since been shelved by the coalition).  The social mobility unit identified the issues of wealth inequality and lack of opportunity; the former was ignored the latter tackled in the Widening Participation agenda.  Some progress was made, some diseases at the heart of Britain were challenged, if not defeated. 

So where are we today?  The post-ideological era is over, though it can be easily argued that it never existed in the first place (More on this later).  David Cameron’s Conservative Party is, despite initial doubts, pursuing a deeply ideological path.  Its key facet is the redefinition of responsibility, the transfer of risk from the state to the individual.  It begins with students bearing the cost of their education, it logically concludes with individuals bearing the cost of everything else that the state provides (such as healthcare).  Thus far, EBP has had seemingly little influence on the Coalition government.

The result is that we return to an era in which policy and action is directed solely by ideological concerns with scant regard for any form of evidential base.  But it is this basis on evidence that helps to identify the causes of the problems that we face.  This isn’t to say that there is no place for ideology, one set of evidence can suggest a multitude of possible solutions, how does one decide?  Yet the decision to ignore evidence, whether qualitative or quantitive, is self defeating.  The flicker in the dark, the hope that our elected representatives might begin tackle the causes of society’s ills, rather than the symptoms, has been extinguished.