Squeezed Middle: We all want to equip our kids for the future, but Mandarin at four years old?

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa.

‘‘I’ve just brought the twins here for an hour while my four-year-old has her Mandarin lesson.”

Huh? I stare blankly at Rosa, a mother I have just started chatting to at the soft-play session. She is young, smiley, nicely dressed. She isn’t wearing a twinset or pearls or any other obvious accoutrements of an awful, pushy parent. And yet . . . Mandarin? Four years old?

“Then this afternoon we’re just staying at home.”

“We are, too,” I say, relieved. “God, afternoons, eh? We never do anything. Other than sit around watching Fireman Sam!”

“Really?” Rosa looks alarmed. “We usually do home schooling but this is our day off. I believe kids need to learn to manage boredom.”

This is happening to me more and more often: I’ll start a perfectly normal conversation with a perfectly normal-looking fellow parent and after five minutes things will get all weird. The other day, the mother of one of Larry’s friends from nursery told me she had signed her son up for a private primary school in a distant, leafier suburb. I almost choked. I mean, get a grip! Does she think she is doing him a favour? Quite apart from anything, he’s going to have to wear one of those dorky little hats.

I don’t blame people for feeling edgy, though. In a way, it’s good to know I’m not the only one. We are all trying to equip our children for what lies ahead and we are all fumbling uselessly in the dark. Will they live in a totalitarian cyber-state? Become drone labourers for the Chinese? Experience a hideous environmental apocalypse? We can’t confidently rule anything out.

Rosa yawns and rubs her weary eyes. On the trampoline, one twin is jumping on the other twin’s head. Before having children, she was a doctor. She was trained to figure out what is wrong with people and give them pills to make it better. She is applying the same practical, problem-solving approach to her children’s prospects.

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa. Instead of brooding helplessly about the future, I should focus on finding solutions. No doubt Mandarin would come in handy, and I’m sure there are computer programming courses for toddlers out there . . .

It’s no good. I just can’t do things that way. I’m not organised or determined enough. Instead, I fall back on a fuzzy conviction that if Larry and Moe are generally loved and have fun they will find a way to be happy even in challenging circumstances. If they both have nice friends and, when the time comes, nice girl (or boy) friends, I will consider myself to have done well.

Of course, this lackadaisical attitude is probably partly to blame for my own tumble down the socio-economic ladder.

There are some advantages to the fuzzy approach, though. As she bundles her twins into their double buggy and rushes off to carry on managing her daughter’s boredom, Rosa sighs and says the saddest thing in the world: “If you knew what it was really like before you had kids, you’d never do it, would you?”

Allez Français - Mandarin is the new in thing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.