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27 February 2014

Pricking the Ukip bubble, the Baftas’ gender agenda, and the real lesson of the Chinese maths scores

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

By Peter Wilby

Almost nobody seems to have noticed, but the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election has surely pricked the Ukip bubble. Labour increased its vote share to 55.3 per cent from 44.1 per cent in the general election. Ukip got a mere 18 per cent. That has been the pattern throughout this parliament. In eight of the 13 by-elections in England, Labour got more than half the vote. Only in Eastleigh, where the incumbent, the Lib Dem Chris Huhne, resigned in disgrace, did Ukip manage more than 25 per cent. In nine contests, its vote was below 15 per cent. And only in Bradford West did Labour stumble badly, losing to George Galloway.

Ukip had a chance to take over from the Lib Dems as the main vehicle for protest. Yet at a time when mainstream politicians are supposedly more out of touch and despised than ever, it has achieved nothing like the spectacular by-election swings that the Lib Dems (and, before them, the Liberals and the SDP) achieved in their heyday. It has barely 1 per cent of local council seats. It may do well in the European elections because voters don’t care who represents them in Brussels and Strasbourg. But clearly they won’t risk a Ukip “fruitcake” getting anywhere near real power.

The by-elections were not representative; nearly all were in safe Labour seats. Nevertheless, it seems that, if protest votes are going anywhere in this parliament, they are going to Labour, whose vote (discounting Bradford West) has risen by an average of 9 per cent – a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented achievement for a party recently ejected from office.

Can the established parties now stop trimming their policies to counter the Ukip “threat”? Can we see less of Nigel Farage and his acolytes on BBC1’s Question Time panel? Can assorted liberals and leftists stop warning of a Europe-wide fascist revival? Don’t hold your breath.


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Eyes on the prize

I find all awards ceremonies, including those for journalists, irritating because they amount to little more than marketing and PR events. Why they should take up hours of prime-time TV, I have no idea. The Baftas, like the Oscars, I find particularly annoying. Why are there awards for “actresses” rather than just “actors”? Aren’t we supposed to be in the age of gender-neutral terms? The answer, I suppose, is that, if the “actress” awards were abolished, there would be fewer prizes and fewer sponsorship opportunities.


Do the sums

The press is excited by news that in maths tests, the children of factory workers and cleaners in Shanghai outperform the children of professional parents in the UK. Yet those lowly Shanghai children also do better than the children of well-heeled parents in the US, France, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark and even Finland, normally regarded as the European star in league tables of educational performance. The children of German professionals are only just ahead and those of Japanese and Dutch professionals are roughly on a par.

Shanghai is a city of about 23 million people, of whom more than a third have migrated there (mostly from rural areas) since the turn of the century. Most of the city’s school pupils are from migrant families. Probably the only legitimate comparison is with children of Chinese origin in London schools; Chinese pupils are known to have easily the highest exam results of any ethnic group in the UK and, by an even greater margin, the highest rate of progression to post-school education.

Elizabeth Truss, Michael Gove’s ministerial sidekick at the Department for Education, is off to China, babbling about threats to “our productivity and growth”. But is she sure that the answer lies in Shanghai’s schools?

If we need high-achieving young mathematicians, perhaps we should look at our immigration policy and, at least in China’s case, stop issuing work permits only to the skilled. The more unskilled Chinese factory workers and cleaners we have, the better. If you can’t beat them, get them to join us, a rule followed by the English cricket and rugby teams.


Continental shift

In London at the Natural History Museum’s riveting new exhibition “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, I learned several new things. Here is one. I knew that about 2 per cent of Neanderthal genes can be found in modern human beings. I didn’t know that, though such genes are found in people of European and Asian origin, they are not found in Africans, whose ancestors never left that continent.

I am still turning over in my mind how this may affect popular perceptions of ethnic differences and their significance.