In this week’s New Statesman

The public schools debate, David Runciman on British democracy and a new poem by Rowan Williams.

31 JANUARY 2014 ISSUE

Cover story: Why is the British left absent from the public schools debate?
 
David Runciman: Why British democracy is not in danger.
 
Rafael Behr on Ed Miliband’s bid to steal the Treasury’s power.
 
Echoes of Nagasaki: A new poem by Rowan Williams.
 
PLUS
 
Frances Wilson on the forgotten women behind great male authors.
 
Michael Rosen asks: What makes us human?
 
John Pilger awards his Oscars for celebrity self-promotion.
 
“Sensing Spaces”: Amanda Levete immerses herself in the Royal Academy’s new architecture exhibition.
 
The NS TV critic Rachel Cooke on BBC soundtracks.

 

COVER STORY: WHY IS THE BRITISH LEFT ABSENT FROM THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DEBATE?

In this week’s cover story, the historian David Kynaston and his son George Kynaston, a teacher, ask why the British left has struggled to articulate its opposition to public schools since the 1940s:

Even in Michael Foot’s “suicide note” manifesto of 1983, Labour did not promise anything beyond ending their charitable status; and it is startling to scour Tony Benn’s diaries through the 1970s and 1980s and find so little about the issue.

“Why,” ask the Kynastons, “is the British left as a whole, and not just the Labour Party, so uncomfortable with the matter?” They suggest there are two reasons:

The first is the understandable concern that to concentrate on private schools, with their superior academic achievements (even if gained on a severely sloping pitch), is implicitly to denigrate state schools . . . The second explanation also has an invidious element, not least because many left-of-centre people, especially among the metropolitan intelligentsia, went to private schools and/or have sent their children to private schools – and consequently have felt inhibited talking about them.

Those educated at private schools continue to dominate public life to an alarming degree, the authors note:

PM an Old Etonian? Check. Mayor of London? Check. A of C? Check.

Deputy PM, Chancellor, Chief Whip all privately educated? Check.

Over a third of MPs, over half of doctors and leading chief executives, over two-thirds of judges, barristers and leading journalists? Check. Top sportsmen, top musicians, top actors? Check.

The left today must not view the private school question as “insoluble, nor too dangerous to touch”:

There is a moment to be seized. The loosening up of the state system through academies and free schools has blown away the old plea of the private schools to be left alone in splendid, independent isolation.

THE NS ESSAY: DAVID RUNCIMAN ON THE STATE OF OUR DEMOCRACY

In this week’s NS Essay, the political theorist David Runciman argues that although a series of scandals has rocked British democracy, this does not threaten its foundations. Runciman concedes that public trust in institutions such as banks, parliament and the police has been badly undermined and arose because of “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites”. However, he argues that there are important differences between Britain today and the Britain of 40 years ago, “when a coup was not outside the realms of political possibility”:

Britain today is a very different country from what it was in the 1970s. It is more comfortable and much more tolerant of different personal lifestyles, even as it is less tolerant of extreme political views . . . There is extensive historical evidence that once they pass beyond a certain level of material prosperity democratic societies are very unlikely to experiment with alternative forms of government.

Runciman cautions:

Scandals are not the same as full-blown political crises, although it is often tempting to confuse the two. Crises can sometimes transform politics. Scandals rarely do . . . The present state of British democracy is a reflection of how far removed we are now from those looming fears of imminent collapse. This time the danger is different. We face the risk of getting stuck where we are.

RAFAEL BEHR: THE POLITICS COLUMN

In his column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that Ed Miliband doesn’t want to sack Ed Balls – he just wants to steal the Treasury’s power. The shadow chancellor’s job, he writes,

. . . gives Balls a licence to meddle in every nook of Labour’s agenda. Viewed from the leader’s office, this looks like empire-building. Enough Labour people see Balls as an encumbrance to sustain a constant level of chatter about his prospects of being sacked. It is a theme loved by Tories who like to imagine his relationship with the Labour leader as a B-list sequel to the blockbuster Blair-Brown schism.

But Behr believes Miliband, though capable of removing Balls, will choose to keep him in place for the time being because it is the most politically expedient option:

No one who has closely observed the way Miliband operates doubts his capacity to be ruthless. Shadow cabinet ministers speculate that he would get rid of Balls without hesitation if he believed it was a condition of getting over the threshold of No 10. For the time being, the calculation must be that sacrificing the party’s most experienced political economist would signal panic and allow the Tories to boast that Labour’s capitulation to the Osborne plan was complete. Even shadow ministers who don’t much like
Balls say his contributions are usually the most insightful in shadow cabinet meetings.

MICHAEL ROSEN: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

Michael Rosen is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. The children’s novelist and poet believes it is the historian in all of us that is the essential feature of our humanity:

To live with this paradox of history, being on the one hand “gone” yet at the same time being “with us at all times”, is what it is to be human. History is all that’s not there any more and yet we are nothing without it. Animals don’t do history the way we do it. Even if some of them remember stuff, they can’t talk about it. This gives us the pain of loss and the pleasure of memory.

 

PLUS

George Eaton on why Labour’s commitment to a 50p tax rate is here to stay.

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire on Douglas Carswell’s Batman heroics and Ken Clarke the invisible man.

Burhan Al-Chalabi argues that the Americans must apologise for the war in Iraq.

As the Sochi games open, Michael Prodger reviews an exhibition on Russian art, sport and politics at the Olympics Museum.

Michael Brooks on a mathematical pile-up at the language barrier.

Richard Mabey reviews the latest book by Germaine Greer, tree-hugger.

Georgia Catt meets Ruhan Jia, the woman Beijing is backing to become China’s first global pop sensation.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.