Migrants want to learn English: why isn't the government investing to help them do so?

“If you're not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut," said George Osborne during the Spending Review. ESOL teacher Eli Davies explains that migrants are keen to learn English, but unless we have properly funded ESOL provision across the b

There was a predictable slew of tough-talking on benefits in George Osborne’s Spending Review last week. As well as the announcement that JSA claimants will have to wait seven days before they can sign on and there was further tough talk on migrants who don’t speak English. “If you're not prepared to learn English,” Osborne said, “your benefits will be cut."

It has already been pointed out in several places that this is misleading nonsense, grounded in the pernicious myth that immigrants don’t want to learn English. I have worked as an ESOL teacher for nearly ten years and am part of the national Action for ESOL campaign, which campaigns against cuts to the subject. I and my colleagues have encountered no reluctance to learn among the migrant population: every year our courses are oversubscribed and students themselves frequently ask for more provision, as well as bringing along their equally keen friends or relatives to classes.

To some degree migrants are an easy target for the government. In times of austerity they are often the first vulnerable group to have access to services removed and there is no doubt that immigrants have already borne the brunt of much of the government’s cuts. Over the last 15 or so years the drip-drip feed of the ‘immigrant = scrounger’ narrative from the mainstream press - and shamelessly pandered to by politicians - has created a climate in which such cuts go unchallenged or unnoticed. (The latest example of this is Jeremy Hunt’s racist political point-scoring over so-called “health tourism” in the NHS).

Many ESOL learners are speaking out against these cuts. In 2010 the government announced that students on benefits would have to pay up to £1,000 for an ESOL course, and Action for ESOL began a year-long campaign against the move. Our campaign included several big student-led actions, including rallies, demonstrations and college walk-outs and eventually resulted in a government u-turn. We have been campaigning on further planned cuts and in May organised a lobby of parliament and a packed-out parliamentary meeting, at which many students spoke passionately about the importance of ESOL. None of this points to a lack of willingness to learn English - or indeed to speak up - and we are extremely concerned about the government’s dangerous scapegoating. It is the height of hypocrisy to slam immigrants for failing to integrate and learn English on the one hand, then take away their means to do so on the other.

We are already facing year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education and there is a real worry among ESOL professionals about the impact of Osborne’s proposals on our sector. Tying English classes to benefits could well mean more involvement for private sector contractors like A4e and an increase in short "quick fix" courses, taught by unqualified and underpaid teachers. Such providers often impose unhelpful and inappropriate targets that have less to do with long-term progression and more to do with making a profit. Making ESOL classes mandatory is punitive and dangerous; like many of the government’s welfare policies, it strips away the agency of the individuals concerned and underestimates the complex realities of people’s lives.

What we really need is properly funded ESOL provision across the board. Understandably there have been moves by some organisations to work around funding cuts by looking for cheaper options, such as online provision, but it is crucial that any such measure runs in conjunction with longer-term courses taught by trained professionals. ESOL teachers - like all teachers - encounter many complex needs on a daily basis: learners may have basic literacy needs, learning difficulties or issues resulting from trauma in their country, and qualified and well-supported professionals are essential. Language-learning is a complicated business but it is vital that we invest in it. Migrants want to learn English. The government should provide the long term, properly funded means to do it. 

Eli Davies is a London-based teacher and writer

There are already year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education. Photograph: Getty Images
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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.