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In this week’s New Statesman

Michael Gove on the <i>NS</i> education debate, Andy Burnham on why he’s prepared to rebel over HS2, and Germaine Greer on poetry.

14 FEBRUARY 2014 ISSUE

Michael Gove throws down the gauntlet to Tristram Hunt in the private schools debate.

Andy Burnham: why I’m prepared to rebel on HS2.

The new Storm Age: Edward Platt on climate change and the winter floods.

PLUS

Sophie McBain meets Tom Bower, big-game hunter of biographers.

Rafael Behr: the general election will be won on pavement politics and constituency dogfights.

Sex and the stanza: Germaine Greer on the art of erotic verse.

Ed Smith on Kevin Pietersen, the man who fell to Earth.

“These days, even Spock has a love interest”: Andrew Harrison on the brave new world of sci-fi romance

John Pilger: war and the ownership of public memory.

“The centre cannot hold”: Jason Cowley on Scottish independence.

 

 

THE NS DEBATE: PRIVATE SCHOOLS CANNOT REMAIN ISLANDS OF PRIVILEGE, ARGUES MICHAEL GOVE

This week, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, joins the NS debate on the dominance of the privately educated in Britain’s public life and the correlation between poverty and educational failure. In a bold but concise commentary, he declares that our “segregated” education system is “perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back”:

While the education [private] schools provide is rationed overwhelmingly to the rich, our nation remains poorer. From the England cricket team to the comment pages of the Guardian, the Baftas to the BBC, the privately educated – and wealthy – dominate. Access to the best universities and the most powerful seats around boardroom tables, influence in our media and office in our politics are allocated disproportionately to the privately educated children of already wealthy parents . . .

When a few public schools can scoop up more places at our top universities than the entire population of boys and girls eligible for free school meals, we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgivable scale.

Gove argues, however, that “the Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling”. The answer, he says,

. . . is not to abolish, punish or undermine excellent educational institutions, but to spread their benefits without diluting their character. There is nothing any progressive should object to in a programme designed to democratise access to the best.

I want our state schools to be able to compete on equal terms with private schools, so that a visitor to either would find them indistinguishable.

Of course, this ambition is a threat to some in the private sector. There are, unfortunately, some heads in the fee-paying sector who still hope to preserve their schools as islands of privilege and try to curry favour with educators in the state sector by sneering at the academies programme as an exercise in creating exam factories, and by criticising attempts to inject more rigour into state education as the rule of Gradgrind.

As the NS’s leading article this week notes, the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has chosen to remain silent in the debate over education’s Berlin Wall, preferring to concentrate on a policy of introducing “behaviour experts” into schools.

 

THE POLITICS INTERVIEW: ANDY BURNHAM TELLS GEORGE EATON HE IS PREPARED TO REBEL ON HS2

George Eaton, editor of The Staggers, meets Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary and MP for Leigh, to discuss the National Health Service, “whole-person care” – and HS2. Burnham is particularly exercised about the latter, Eaton finds:

It is when I ask for his views on an area outside his policy brief, the High Speed 2 rail link (HS2), that Burnham becomes most animated. “It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hard-headed way,” he says, complaining of an “absolutely massive depot” on what is “currently green space”.

. . . Burnham goes further in his criticism than any other shadow cabinet minister has done. “I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new rail track in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.”

The shadow health secretary tells Eaton he is prepared to rebel on the issue:

Remarkably, Burnham refuses to rule out breaking collective responsibility and voting against HS2 if changes are not made. “If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: ‘Everyone’s constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally, does it?’ ”

Back on his policy brief, Burnham is also troubled by how the proposed EU-US free trade agreement might affect the NHS:

“It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, so that we can exempt it from competition law,” he tells me. “The market is not the answer to 21st-century health care. The demands of 21st-century care require integration. Markets deliver fragmentation.”

 

COVER STORY: EDWARD PLATT ON THE NEW STORM AGE

For this week’s cover story, Edward Platt looks beyond the political name-calling that has followed the winter floods to ask what long-term trends are behind the record-breaking weather that has left the Somerset Levels under water.

The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather . . .

The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.

 

THE NS INTERVIEW: TOM BOWER

This week the NS’s Sophie McBain meets Tom Bower, the big-game hunter of biographers, whose unwilling subjects have included the tycoons Richard Branson, Conrad Black, Richard Desmond and Robert Maxwell – all of whom sued him for libel. McBain asks Bower “what drives his dogged pursuit of powerful, dangerous men despite the threats and lawsuits”. Bower answers simply: “I am fascinated by power, and the people who exercise power. . . What do they have, these people?”

On several occasions Bower’s work has put him in danger:

There was a “Mossad man who once tried . . . but he failed”, he recalls cheerfully. He says his emails are constantly being hacked, although he’s not sure by whom. Then I remind him of the time he was beaten up on camera by a sheep farmer he had exposed on Panorama for exporting live sheep – an investigation that earned him an RSPCA silver medal. He laughs heartily at the memory; it’s the happiest I have seen him.

McBain finds Bower disillusioned with the BBC and the British media:

He is scathing about the BBC today: its “obsession with process”, its shoddy camerawork and the likes of Newsnight – “the most dreadful programme, because it all the time has these films of people screaming at you”. He believes presenters such as Jeremy Paxman “ruin” their documentary series by spending too much time in front of the camera: “That’s why people are bored with television.”

Bower’s general view of journalism is no more favourable. The newspapers have lost their confidence since the hacking scandal, he says, and the UK’s strict libel laws need further reform. “The only reason we have any journalism at all in Britain is . . . Rupert Murdoch; he’s the only person who invests in journalism in Britain,” he says. The Mail originally agreed to serialise Bower’s Branson book but pulled out despite paying for it, so the Times bought it instead, he adds by way of evidence.

Bower reveals to McBain that his next project is a biography of Tony Blair: “. . . he’s influenced all of our lives . . . With Thatcher, you knew much more; nothing has come out about her which remains an enigma any more. You got what you saw. With Blair, it’s not like that.”

 

RAFAEL BEHR: THE POLITICS COLUMN

In the Politics Column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, meets constituents on the streets of Wythenshawe ahead of a by-election that Labour is poised to win. Pavement politics and local campaigning will play a vital role in next year’s general election, Behr predicts:

Since 2011, Arnie Graf, a 70-year-old US expert in “community organising”, has been training local Labour parties in pavement politics. Miliband is evangelical about Graf’s work. He imagines it standing alongside his party reforms as proof of a commitment to open, inclusive politics. Not everyone in the party is convinced. Few question the intent. The worry is that, when time is tight and resources are scarce, “organising” people of unknown allegiance is no substitute for knocking on the doors of voters who will reliably turn out for Labour.

With each passing month the prospect of a breakthrough recedes, making the race tighter and Labour’s prospects ever more dependent on Nick Clegg’s failure to woo back his old supporters and Nigel Farage’s ability to poach Tories. It won’t be one general election so much as a bunch of specific elections, each with its own complex four-party dynamic. “It’s going to come down to scrappy, inelegant dogfighting in every constituency,” predicts one Labour campaign official. “It won’t be poetic.”

 

Plus

Laurie Penny on the female asylum-seekers of Yarl’s Wood.

Lucy Ash talks to the Ukrainian journalist Tetiana Chornovol, who risks her life to expose corruption.

Dan Hancox remembers the cultural theorist Stuart Hall.

Giulia Cambieri on why the government needs to do more to support small businesses.

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares the latest Westminster gossip.

The food columnist Felicity Cloake tires of diet and anti-booze bores.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.