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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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.