Miliband waits in hope that the Tories’ counterfeit consensus on Europe will unravel

MPs who last year wanted the Labour leader to trump Cameron by calling for a snap poll on Europe say the moment has passed.

Conservatives have given up trying to agree on whether Britain should be a member of the European Union. They have settled instead for a lesser harmony, agreeing that the matter should be settled by a referendum. They cheer through parliament a symbolic bill stipulating that such a vote be held by the end of 2017.

This counterfeit consensus has obvious charm for Tory MPs. It allows them to say with a straight face that the party is united on Europe. The moment of choice is deferred. Since the EU is evolving, none but the most determined quitters feel sure that in four years’ time it will still be the kind of union Britain should leave. What Conservatives can say with certainty is that David Cameron wants a referendum and Ed Miliband doesn’t, which feels like a great advantage to a party with an inflated sense of national grievance against Brussels.

The Tories are so proud of their plebiscite pledge that they keep expecting Miliband to copy it. The Labour leader is under frequent pressure to do just that from those on his own side who find their present stance untenable. Officially, the party prefers the prospect of governing without a referendum, while accepting that any new EU treaty would trigger one automatically. Some of the leader’s closest allies concede that something less slippery must be declared before too long.

The range of options is narrowing. Until recently some on the Labour side entertained the idea of hijacking the Tories’ backbench bill with demands for a vote this side of a general election, thereby sowing discord in the Conservative ranks. That ruse was killed when Adam Afriyie, a Tory MP of guileless ambition, tabled just such an amendment and found his colleagues slow to schism.

That reaction convinced Labour provocateurs that there was less mischief to be made in alliance with rebellious Tories than they had previously thought. MPs who last year wanted Miliband to trump Cameron by calling for a snap poll on Europe say the moment for such a gambit has passed. “That particular bus has left the station,” says one shadow cabinet supporter of a referendum.

The next bus – and the one some in Miliband’s entourage are most interested in boarding – leaves next May when there are elections for the European Parliament. Declaring support for an in/out referendum in the run-up to that poll gives Labour cover to say its agenda has been set by the natural rhythms of a campaign timetable. At any other moment, it would too conspicuously be a panicky reaction to Tory taunts.

The need to be seen doing things “on his own terms, in his own time” (as one aide likes to put it) is of paramount importance to Miliband. The Conservatives want to portray him as out of his depth – a peddler of desperate ruses unsuitable for mature government. So the worst of all outcomes for the Labour leader would be a half-hearted manoeuvre in which the political gain of signing up to a referendum is cancelled out by his inability to make it sound like something he really wants to do.

Set against that risk is the folly of fighting a general election campaign in which Cameron can claim to be the only potential prime minister who trusts the people to choose their European destiny. That line may not stir millions of hearts but it might steer some Ukip dabblers back to the Tory fold.

Nigel Farage is keener than anyone for Miliband to sign up to a referendum so that Cameron’s pledge loses its unique sheen. The Ukip leader thrives on the public feeling that the “established” parties are interchangeable and that the only way to make a difference is by voting for none of them. Where Ukip does well, Labour can snatch seats from the Tories, so there is a perverse incentive for Miliband to satisfy Farage, spoiling the potency of Cameron’s referendum by making it a point of banal Westminster concord.

That calculation is part of a general equation governing Labour’s position on referendum: the likelihood of a pledge grows as long as the party’s opinion poll lead stays narrow. Yet changing the policy opens a whole new set of dilemmas for Miliband. He would have to say when he imagines calling the vote and whether, like Cameron, he proposes renegotiating the terms of British membership first. Neither question has an easy answer.

One modest consolation is that Cameron’s renegotiation plans are going nowhere. The Prime Minister has quietly downgraded his ambition from an Anglocentric “repatriation” of powers to a campaign for vaguer pan-EU “reform”. The kind of exceptional status for the UK that hardline Tory sceptics demand isn’t even on the agenda when Cameron meets fellow Continental leaders.

The small troupe of pro-EU Tories support their leader on what appears to be a secret mission to shrink expectations of a new settlement with Brussels. They also hope the prospect of a referendum will provoke business leaders – including Conservative donors – into making the case for staying in the club. (A recent call by the CBI for constructive European engagement is cited as the start of a fightback against the “Brexit” brigade.) The ultimate goal is to shift the party’s centre of gravity back towards pragmatic acceptance of EU membership, leaving the irreconcilables marginalised. “We are smoking out the ones who are definitely voting ‘out’ at all costs,” says one Conservative Europhile.

Many Tories have drunk Cameron’s rhetoric as if it were a Eurosceptic tonic, seemingly unaware that its purpose is to numb their rebellious urges. The anaesthetic draught cannot work forever; the old pangs of betrayal will return. There may be loftier elements in Labour’s European calculations but at their core is a gamble on whether the effects of Cameron’s dodgy potion to unite the Tories wears off before Miliband is forced to serve up a referendum brew of his own.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at an EU Council meeting on October 25, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.