A poster against Michael Gove is displayed on the railings outside Oldknow Academy, Birmingham. Photo: Getty
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The “Trojan horse” schools, fake letters in the Mail and Robert Harris’s hatred of Blair

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Michael Gove has made a shambles of English schooling. That’s the main lesson we should learn from the publication of the Ofsted report on the claims of a hardline Muslim takeover in Birmingham schools. Four of the five schools now being placed in special measures for allegedly not doing enough to protect children from extremist ideas are academies, three of them linked to the same academy trust. Two were approved as academies by Gove’s Department for Education in August 2012, one later that year and one in October 2013.

The buck for this extraordinary state of affairs stops with Gove. It is typical of the political reporters and commentators – who have led the media coverage of the “Trojan horse” allegations – that they almost completely ignore the policy failure and turn the issue into a power struggle between Gove and Theresa May, the Home Secretary. Gove has recklessly allowed schools to set themselves up as academies and free schools, outside local authority control and free to depart from the National Curriculum. There are now some 3,000 academies and free schools with hundreds more to come. It is madness to suppose they can all be supervised adequately from Whitehall.

Ofsted, which described two of the “inadequate” schools as “outstanding” shortly after their conversion to academy status, has the brass neck to blame Birmingham City Council for failing to keep pupils safe from “the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism” and for ignoring complaints from head teachers about the conduct of governors. But the point of schools becoming academies is that they can tell the council to get stuffed. Local authorities at their best had professional teams of officers who were sufficiently in touch with schools to pick up quickly any signs that things were going awry. Those teams have been weakened by the steady loss of funding and powers since Gove’s appointment, so that they can barely discharge their duties even in schools the council still runs. Gove has created anarchy and, in Birmingham, we see the results.

 

Keeping the faith

There’s another largely unreported issue behind the Birmingham affair. Politicians have never worked out what to do about the demand, from some Muslims, for their own state-funded faith schools. Leading figures in all parties usually look kindly on Christian and Jewish faith schools, even though they often share some of the weaknesses – ambivalent attitudes to sex education and a
tendency to be socially and ethnically exclusive, for example – attributed to the Birmingham schools allegedly under Islamic influence. But faith schools are greatly favoured by the middle classes and that is enough for most politicians. Muslim schools are another matter because, in many people’s minds, Islam means burqas, amputations, forced marriages, terrorism, and so on.

What seems to have happened in Birmingham is that some schools, attended almost wholly by Muslim children, behaved as though they were faith schools when they did not have that status. The authorities judge, perhaps rightly, that strict Islamic faith schools would not be compatible with a multicultural society. Why are they not equally concerned about strict Catholic schools, ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools and the growing number of schools that have strong evangelical influences?

 

Back to the future?

You will note such words as “allegedly” and “seems” scattered freely around this column. Lest we forget, the “Trojan horse plot” that prompted the Birmingham furore was detailed in a letter widely thought to be a fake. If that is true, it recalls the Zinoviev letter, which helped lose the 1924 general election for the first Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald.

It purported to be from Grigory Zinoviev, an official of the Communist International, and it outlined to British communist leaders plans for revolution in Britain. Then, as now, the fake letter – published by the Daily Mail – played to popular fears of alien subversion. Then the enemy was Moscow-backed communists; now it’s Saudi-backed Islamists. Otherwise, no change.

 

From May to December

An old friend of this column, the well-known thriller writer Robert Harris, crops up again in a recent interview with Total Politics magazine. Once a fervent admirer of Tony Blair, Harris now sees him as a narcissist with a messiah complex, living “this strange life with the billionaire super-rich”. There are no such harsh words for his other old mate Peter Mandelson who, by comparison, “is the soul of plain living [and] frugality”.

When Harris talks of Mandelson, I am reminded of Martin Amis’s description of his own relationship with the late Chris­topher Hitchens – “a love whose month is ever May”. 

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 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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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.