Elizabeth Warren takes credit for Occupy Wall Street's ideology

Democratic Senate hopeful criticised by the right after saying she created "intellectual foundation"

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor running for the Senate in Massachusetts, has raised eyebrows by aligning herself with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Asked her opinion of the protests in an interview with the Daily Beast, she said:

I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do. I support what they do.

This is a fair claim. As an academic, Warren has for several years been one of the most articulate voices challenging the excesses of Wall Street. Since entering the race for the Senate -- seeking to take Ted Kennedy's old seat back from the Republicans -- she has become the hero of the left and been demonised by the right.

Despite attempts by the right to paint her as a lunatic leftie, she is by no means a simple ideologue, and was a registered Republican until she was in her 40s (she is now 62). Elsewhere in the interview, she says:

I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore. I was a Republican at a time when I felt like there was a problem that the markets were under a lot more strain. It worried me whether or not the government played too activist a role.

Predictably, Republicans are up in arms about Warren's comments on Occupy Wall Street, and are keen to use it to discredit her. The National Republican Senatorial Committee criticised "Warren's decision to not only embrace, but take credit for this movement" in light of arrests if protesters in Boston.

Over at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent analyses the battle lines being drawn:

[Republicans] are wagering that the cultural instincts of the working class whites and independents who will decide this race ensure that the excesses of the protesters will make them less inclined to listen to her populist economic message, which is also directed at those voters.

...

Warren, by contrast, is making the opposite bet. By unabashedly embracing the protests, she is placing a wager on the true mood of the country right now. She's gambling that these voters will look past the theatrics of these protests; that they will see that she and the protesters are the ones who actually have their economic interests at heart; and that they will ultimately side with Warren's and Occupy Wall Street's general critique of the current system and explanation for what's gone wrong in this country.

It remains to be seen which side will be triumphant, although recent polling suggests that voters have not been alienated by the protests. Either way, Warren's presence will ensure that Massachusetts remains the most polarising Senate race in 2012.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.