What South Park can teach us about Oxford

The furore over black students at Oxford won’t die down until schools listen to the wisdom of Eric C

You want to know why there aren't more black students at Oxford? Watch South Park.

In the South Park episode Eek! A penis!, Eric Cartman – an obese, astonishingly foul-mouthed eight-year-old – heads to an inner-city school and teaches black and Latino students how to succeed like white people – by cheating. Cartman gives the class a pep talk:

The reason that you think you can't get into college is because you haven't been taught how to cheat properly. How do you think white people get ahead? Because they cheat all the time!

And it's true – particularly when it comes to university entry. During the recent furore over black students (or "the black student", if you're David Cameron) at Oxford, the university gave out a very thorough press release that broke down the application success rates for ethnic minorities. It made one thing strikingly clear.

The reason black applicants struggle to gain access to Oxford is that they are applying for the subjects that allow them the smallest chance of success. Take a look at these two figures, taken from the press release:

28.8 per cent of all black applicants for 2009 entry applied for medicine, compared to just 7 per cent of all white applicants.
10.4 per cent of all black applicants for 2009 entry applied for economics and management, compared to just 3.6 per cent of all white applicants.

Medicine and economics + management are the two most competitive subjects at Oxford: 12.6 per cent of applications to study medicine are successful, while a mere 7.6 per cent of management applicants get in. Black applicants struggle to get into Oxford largely because they are applying to study the most competitive subjects.

Meanwhile, the subjects that have extremely high application success rates, such as theology, classics and archaeology and anthropology, are stuffed with the pasty-faced products of Britain's public schools. Forty per cent of theology and classics applications are successful, while just under a third of archaeology and anthropology candidates get a place.

There is a game to be played if students want to avoid becoming another Laura Spence, who applied for the most competitive subject (medicine) at one of the most competitive colleges (Magdalen) and, lo and behold, failed to get a place. Black students should instead follow Nick Clegg's example.

Clegg studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, despite being far from the archetypal archaeology student. Indeed, young Clegg spent his teenage years burning down greenhouses in Germany, working as a ski instructor and – according to that interview with Piers Morgan – frantically fornicating with anything female-shaped.

The typical archaeology student does none of these things. So why did Clegg study A&A as an undergrad and not, say, politics, which he did at postgrad and then chose as a career? Because it was easier to get into Cambridge that way. A&A has half as many applications as politics. He knew it, his private school knew it and so Clegg played the game. While black students claw and fight for a place on the most competitive subjects, the Cleggs of the world stroll into Oxbridge through the back door.

This isn't cheating, it's savvy. Until secondary schools wise up and start giving pupils better advice about their applications to the top universities, highly qualified candidates from unprivileged backgrounds will continue to struggle to gain access to the upper echelons of Britain's higher education system – and the headlines that have hit Oxford over the past few weeks will not go away. Britain's secondary schools need a few more Eric Cartmans.

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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.