Leaving, US-style: students in Newcastle at their end of GCSE prom, 2011. Photo: Getty
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Loaded language, school prom debt and the riches of average earnings

Peter Wilby remarks on how so much of our public discourse concerns “inappropriate language”. Plus why are parents bankrupting themselves for American-style proms?

On 20 May, the Guardian’s front page brought readers the latest on the “sexist” emails sent by Richard Scudamore, chief executive of football’s Premier League from his work computer . On page three, it reported a court case in which a 33-year-old man was charged with retweeting messages that threatened the MP Stella Creasy with rape. A page-four story updated us on Nigel Farage’s possibly racist comments about Romanians. Page five was dedicated to John Inverdale recalling last year’s storm over his disparaging remarks on Radio 5 Live about the looks of a female tennis player. Page seven brought news of an internal battle in the Police Federation after the Plebgate affair over what the former Tory minister Andrew Mitchell said in 2012 to police officers at the Downing Street gates. By then, we were nearly at the foreign pages, where a million Bosnians were coping with floods, Thais with martial law, and Indians with a new leader who allegedly connived in mass slaughter in 2002.

I do not wish to minimise the offence caused by Scudamore, Farage, Inverdale or, allegedly, Mitchell, still less the distress caused by the Twitter troll. Nor do I wish to single out the Guardian; other papers covered these stories, if not always quite as prominently. (I am sure the relatively modest coverage of Scudamore’s emails in the Times and Sun has nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch’s close business relationship with the Premier League.) But isn’t it striking that so much of our public discourse concerns what is described as “inappropriate” language? And I haven’t even mentioned the Guardian’s page-two story: the conviction of Abu Hamza on several charges, including “advocating” violent jihad.

Comprehensive costs

Commentators frequently note the rising cost of sending a child to a fee-charging school. We hear less of the rising costs at state schools. Comprehensives routinely organise holiday excursions to, say, Zambia, or ski slopes in America. Now schools are preparing for the annual “prom” after GCSE exams. For parents of girls in particular this involves far more than buying a ticket. Stretch limos, photographs, hair, make-up and, above all, dresses, some imported from America, can bump the cost up to nearly £1,000. True, there is no compulsion to take part but, as every parent knows, it’s not as simple as that. I wonder how many families get into debt rather than risk their children feeling left out at schools that always bang on about being “inclusive”.

No doubt Michael Gove thinks this kind of thing is admirably aspirational. But in my view state schools should not be acting as vehicles for conspicuous consumption.

Egalité, briefly

I have reached page 336 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which represents 58.2 per cent of the total distance to be travelled. One reward of such books, arduous though they are, is that you come across illuminating material that goes unmentioned in reviews. For example, the conventional view of “les événements” of 1968 – the student uprising in Paris – is that they had significant social and cultural effects but zero influence on economic injustice. Not so, according to Piketty. President de Gaulle, desperate to buy off unrest that spread to the working class, agreed an immediate 20 per cent rise in the minimum wage. It had increased only 25 per cent in the previous 18 years, but more than doubled in value over the next 15.

The result, Piketty writes, was “a very substantial compression” of inequality. So the students, who romantically saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, did the working classes some good, if only temporarily. The steady improvement in wages and the fall in inequality were smartly reversed in 1982-83 by – wouldn’t you know it? – a Socialist government.

Aspire to average

Perhaps Ed Miliband’s proposals to link the minimum wage to hourly earnings will lead to another “very substantial compression”. But it depends what he’s talking about, which isn’t clear. Most reports refer to “average earnings” and “median earnings” as though they were synonymous. They are not. An average wage is calculated by adding all wages and dividing by the number of earners, a median by listing all wage-earners by order of rank and finding the one bang in the middle, where half earn more and half less. The former can be 25 per cent higher than the latter, because it is inflated by bankers, chief executives and Daily Mail editors.

Almost certainly, Miliband intends a link with median earnings. But perhaps we pedants should shut up. The best hope of reversing the trend to more inequality may be for Labour to link the minimum wage, by stealth, to average earnings.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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