"Observergate" and academic freedom

It's time for the AHRC to remove all reference to the "Big Society" from its documents.

The "Observergate" saga began with an essay published in the Observer on 27th March that included the claim that political pressure was exerted upon the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to include the "Big Society" in its funding plans. It was claimed that inclusion was even "non-negotiable". This was met with a strong denial by the AHRC. It claimed that no such pressure existed and that its "Connected Communities" research theme - one of its six areas for strategic research funding priority - had been agreed long before the last general election. The denial was very specific: there was no pressure on the AHRC to adopt any particular research theme.

My concern was that this denial did not extend to a fundamental issue reported by the Observer: should the political party campaign slogans be included within research council funding documents? The AHRC nowhere denies the repeated mention of the "Big Society" in its current delivery plan. This plan states that its "Connected Communities" research theme will "enable the AHRC to contribute to the government's initiatives on localism and the 'Big Society'" (sect. 2.4.4). The AHRC delivery plan also states that it aspires to make a "contribution" to "the 'Big Society' agenda" (sects. 3.10, 3.12). The "Big Society" is mentioned five times in total.

If we believe the AHRC and reject allegations of political interference, there remain significant concerns with regard to the decision to include the "Big Society" within the delivery plan and especially as an illustration for where funding for a strategic research funding priority area might be directed. It has been revealing that such a concern went unnoticed both in the original decision to include the "Big Society" in its delivery plans and its response to the Observer.

This situation led me to draft a petition on behalf of fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College, AHRC funding applicants, and others with an interest in AHRC activities in response. The petition is based upon a position of principle, not politics: research councils should not direct funding to strategic areas which overlap with any political party slogans. This is not a petition against the "Big Society" but against political campaign slogans becoming incorporated in funding documents spelling out funding priorities. The petition clearly states that we would all have equally opposed the "Third Way" receiving the same attention after the 1997 election: this is not at all a comment on government policy, but on the inclusion of party slogans in research council delivery plans. We have called upon the AHRC to remove all references to the "Big Society" in its delivery plan with immediate effect.

The petition attracted over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours with more than 3,000 at present and growing. Those who have signed the petition come from across political and disciplinary divides and include fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College, Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society, Fellows of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of Social Sciences, and many other learned societies demonstrating clear and widespread support.

Some may argue the petition's success is based upon a mistake or that it wrongly accepts a contested allegation. However, the petition does not take issue with what the AHRC contests (e.g., the allegation of political interference). Moreover, the petition is not critical of the "Connected Communities" theme nor does it reject the idea of a "Big Society". There need not be any opposition to colleagues seeking to conduct research into the "Big Society" within the "Connected Communities" theme. Academic freedom is to be protected. This is precisely why we should unite to oppose the AHRC's decision to illustrate how funding applicants might successfully contribute to the "Connected Communities" research through research related to the "Big Society". This is a mistake. If this matter were left unchallenged, then the possibility would arise that the use of including political party campaign slogans within research funding delivery plans might become more common. Some may argue that we must speak the language of our politicians to best demonstrate the "impact" and funding importance in this age of austerity. Our response should be that inclusion of political party campaign slogans is a move too far. The ability to communicate our funding priorities need not rely on explicitly linking them with such slogans.

I emphasize that the petition is based upon principle, not politics. No matter our political or disciplinary differences we can unite around the idea that political party campaign slogans have no place in research council funding documents spelling out strategic priorities. The AHRC can address this satisfactorily by immediately removing all references to the "Big Society" in current and future documentations. We should constructively support the AHRC to make the right decision and enact this important change. This might better enable a positive platform from which we may join together in defence of the arts and humanities. Failing to do so would be to choose both a failure of principle and furthering unnecessary division at the worst possible time. If the AHRC is correct to claim mention of the "Big Society" in its delivery plan is trivial, then it should hasten its removal from all research funding documents rather than delay.

Thom Brooks is Reader in Political and Legal Philosophy at Newcastle University. He is a member of the AHRC Peer Review College and author of the petition to end inclusion of the "Big Society" in the AHRC's delivery plans.

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Jeremy Corbyn urged to intervene in Momentum's feud

Pressure is growing on the Labour leader to attend to the troubled organisation's splits. 

Jeremy Corbyn is being urged to intervene to help settle the breach in Momentum, as the troubled organisation’s internal divisions again spilt into the open after a fractious meeting of the organisation’s national committee left Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, contemplating exercising his “nuclear option” and shutting down the group completely.

Proposals to give decision-making power to the whole of Momentum’s membership were narrowly defeated, with the organisation resting on a delegate system. The public argument advanced by Lansman’s allies, who backed the one member, one vote system, was that the e-ballot would give greater control to members as opposed to bogging the organisation down in hidebound procedures.

But privately, insiders admitted the plan was a gambit to see off Lansman’s internal critics, including the Alliance of Workers’ Liberty, a Troskyite grouping, who are small but well-organised, giving them an advantage over the rest of the membership.

In a blog, Laura Murray, the newly-elected women’s representative, said publicly what allies of Lansman have been saying privately for some time: that the plan of the AWL and its allies is to take over Momentum with a view to setting it up as a rival party to Labour.

Lansman’s critics, however, say that he is treating Momentum as his personal fiefdom and is stifling the internal democracy of Momentum. The division, which first flared into life following the row over Jackie Walker’s remarks at Labour party conference, has taken on an additional dimension due to the growing frustration of some at what they see as the leadership’s right turn on immigration, free movement and taxation. Clive Lewis’ remark that free movement “has not worked” and John McDonnell’s support for the 40p rate cut are particular causes for alarm.

However, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity remains largely undimmed, and the Labour leader is coming under pressure to intervene in the row. Lansman has also met with Andrew Murray, who as well as being the father of Laura Murray is Unite general secretary’s Len McCluskey’s chief of staff and a key link into the Labour leader and McCluskey himself.   One trade union official said “I think it’s time for Jeremy and John to intervene to straighten out the situation, so we can get on with the job of holding the government to account”.

Should Corbyn refrain from wading in, Lansman still retains the ability to shut down Momentum, taking its valuable maillist with him, and starting again from scratch. However, the so-called “nuclear option” would mean crippling the left in its internal battles with the Corbynsceptics ahead of crucial clashes about conference delegates and parliamentary selections. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.