Thursday, March 12, 2009

Layer 135 Political Culture, Radical Shifts, the Last Chance Saloon, and Children’s Services

Polly Toynbee had another excellent column in the Guardian this week, with every sentence worthy of the highlighter pen:

Labour has one last chance to catch the public mood

Anger at fat cats and tax dodgers needs a political narrative to sustain it. Brown must look to Obama and take the lead.

Are we in the midst of a radical shift in political culture? Measuring its significance or durability in the febrile moment is not easy. Is this anti-banker, anti-bonus spasm only a transitory fit that will be gone as soon as house prices start to rise again? Forces pull in both directions: governments try to re-assert their power over markets, while the masters of the universe try to carry on as if nothing much will change.

Now even a Conservative press rages at company functionaries still rewarding themselves undeserved fortunes.

See how the Telegraph and Mail follow the public mood with anti fat-cat invective these days: a year ago such talk was "class war" and "the politics of envy".

Yet how profound and long-lasting will all this be? How long before the masters of the universe assert themselves again, ride out the spasm, find new loopholes and intimidate future governments with warnings against any interference that risks the fragile recovery? After all, no sign of culture change reaches the boardrooms. GlaxoSmithKline just gave its CEO a 17.6% pay rise, bringing his salary to £1m with five times that sum in shares.

The cartel of top earners sitting on each other's boards has been blamed, along with the tiny coterie of auditors and remuneration consultants who pumped up pay and signed it off as the "market rate" they had created. Is there a sign the government dares to blow in fresh air?

It now looks as if closing tax havens will be the G20's key success. Obama campaigned on the Stop Tax Havens Act now in Congress. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel want Switzerland added to the blacklist, along with the 30 to 40 others. Brown has been latest on this issue, with an ignoble record of resisting EU attempts.

Transparency changes things. Labour has a year to lead the public mood; so far it has been dragged along behind it. With no political narrative, this chance to push back the forces of inequality will be lost. What bitter irony if loathing of Labour means the Tories take over despite the first authentic egalitarian public mood in years.


There were well over 200 comments posted on Comment Is Free after this article. Oxzen wrote:

It’s hard to say, sometimes, whose comments are the most annoying to have to plough through in order to get to the good stuff on CIF - ignorant conservatives or rabid leftists. Polly Toynbee has been consistently a thoughtful, intelligent, left-of-centre commentator who deserves the respect and high regard of all social democrats and left-liberals, who after all make up the majority amongst the thinking classes, and indeed the masses who voted for the Labour landslide in 1997.

She's consistently criticised New Labour from a progressive position, and advocated transformational policies that are in line with what most of us want in terms of greater social justice and equality, in terms of tackling poverty, improving schools and early years provision, social services, the health service, and so on.

This latest column was a brilliant summary of how things stand politically in this country, and why Parliament, not just New Labour, must seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact the reforms that we, the people, demand.

If Brown and New Labour can finally bring themselves to do something truly radical they could even find they have substantial support from swing voters, middle of the road conservatives and the pissed-off middle classes. And lets face it, it's only though radical action they stand any chance of winning back support from true socialists and progressives.

And if radical action doesn't improve their popularity? Too bad. After all, what's the Labour party for? It wasn’t created to provide a little trickle-down wealth, to maintain inequality or preserve dog-eat-dog unregulated capitalism.


Someone signed in as jgm2 wrote this wonderful comment:

Re: “However the nazis are just the most familiar example and by no means the only. It always worry me when politicians try to capture the public mood because government should be about leading, not cheer leading.”

Fred Goodwin is just Gordon 'Big Brother' Brown's equivalent of Emmanuel Goldstein. It's a cliche but it's unfortunately true. This government doesn't consider '1984' a warning. It considers it a fucking blueprint.

Rewriting history. Infallible leadership. Perpetual unwinnable wars with constantly shifting alliances. Privileged Party members and insiders all well looked after. Until they step out of line at which point they are immediately ostracised. Control of the 'media narrative'. Constant surveillance. Constant monitoring of our movements/correspondence/phone calls/e-mails. Individuals being singled out by the state for mass hate-fests.

Sod Jules Verne getting lucky predicting the yanks would pioneer space travel. Sod Leonardo Da Vinci and his drawings of 'helicopters'. George Orwell truly was a fucking genius. Every single fucking nightmare scenario he envisaged. Bang on the fucking money.


Children’s Services

I was listening to people talking on the radio this morning about the Sharon Shoesmith case, and the idea that local authority directors of children's services need to be offered training and support so that they can do their jobs properly. Bless. What a wonderful country we live in - we create these mega high powered jobs by insisting on merging education and social services - huge jobs that virtually no-one is able to do effectively, let alone be qualified though professional training or experience to do them - and after a couple of years we say, wouldn't it be a good idea if we give these poor incompetent underqualified sods some proper training and support? That should fix the problem. At least after that none of them will be able to claim that they didn't know what they were supposed to do and didn't really know how to do it, like they do now.

Incidentally, I’m not commenting here on the rights and wrongs of dismissing Shoesmith - I’ve already done that in previous blogs. Simon Jenkins wrote a good column about it this week:

“Shoesmith's biggest mistake was not to be a bank boss.”

What I’m concerned about is the way this government has played about with bureaucratic structures with little or no consultation or preparation for the changes it drove through, and I’m livid about the way it which it maintains its command and control clunking fist policy with its targets and inspections culture that does nothing for children, and reveals little of value about the true effectiveness of local authorities.

Simon Jenkins rightly berates Mr Balls for the central part he’s played in developing and maintaining the targets culture, and for being a ludicrous lifelong professional politician with no knowledge of, or feeling for, the real world outside of Westminster.

"Balls runs one of Whitehall's worst departments: ask any teacher or social worker. When accidents happen - nobody in authority wanted Baby P to die - the charge of negligence cannot rest with local staff. In this top-heavy and hierarchical public sector, it should go to the top. Those who always claim the credit must take the blame."


I hear on the grapevine about the leadership in certain local authorities running around in frenzies, convening whole-day meetings of 50 or more senior children’s services managers, looking at ‘issues’, doing ‘workshops’ in which directors of education get down on the floor (literally) with flip chart pads and marker pens, trying to map out ‘how to move forward’ with the children’s ‘wellbeing agenda’, desperately trying to think what to do about their latest Whitehall-generated set of targets or the fact that they still have so many schools being hammered by Ofsted, blah, blah, blah . . .

I hear about ‘school improvement’ managers trying to reconcile their concern about children’s wellbeing with the fact that they’ve spent several years banging on about raising SATs scores and GCSE scores to the exclusion of all else. These poor dears must in some dim way realise that they’ve been the very agents of the destruction of real education, as far as children are concerned, since these are the people who have turned schools into soulless and joyless results factories, using and abusing children and teachers for their own wellbeing in terms of career progress.

Forcing children to do ‘Big Writing’ instead of anything meaningful, to use more ‘connectives’ in order to create longer and more middle-class-sounding sentences in their writing (extra marks in tests!!), to use more ‘Wow Words’ (flowery and usually inappropriate terminology - extra marks in tests!!), and forcing children to do less of the things they actually enjoy doing and more of the stuff they hate doing in order to jack up the schools’ test results - all of this amounts to the abuse of children, though no-one wants to admit it.

And of course they’ll all continue to deny what’s happened and insist that they did things they thought were right for children - as if getting a low Level 4 compared with a high Level 3 at the age of 11 really means a damn in terms of ‘access to the curriculum’ at secondary school. As if stressing children, boring them and denying them their human rights (for example to a broad, balanced and interesting curriculum) is better for them in the long run than helping children to see that learning can be enjoyable for its own sake, whatever your current level of literacy. Never mind a creative and active style of learning that’s bound to make children more enthusiastic about school than a dull life of drudgery in the education workhouse.


This is a good column in today’s paper, by Seamoose Milne, especially for political anoraks:

The miners' strike of 1984-5, which officially kicked off 25 years ago today, was . . . a social and political tipping point that has had no real parallel anywhere else in the world. And now that the free-market fundamentalism unleashed by Margaret Thatcher in the strike's aftermath is being so comprehensively discredited by the crisis of deregulated capitalism she championed, it should be a good time to reassess the most determined bid to resist it in the first place.

The full costs of the war against the miners - including the strike, closures, redundancies and economic and welfare costs - are well over £30bn at current prices and far exceed those of the more rational energy policy the Tories rejected to crush the core of organised labour.

A generation later, these debates about the strike can seem arcane. But its outcome could not matter more for the country we have inherited. It's not just the wreckage of mining communities, but the entire political and economic direction has been shaped by the fallout from that convulsive dispute. The enfeeblement of unions, the explosion of inequality, social atomisation, the collapse of confidence in a political alternative and Britain's harsh brand of neoliberalism all flow from its aftermath. Success for the miners would, by contrast, have at least seriously weakened Thatcher, reined in the government's worst excesses and halted Labour's headlong rush for the third way.

The strike was a fight for jobs, but it was also a challenge to the market-driven restructuring of economic and social life already under way. It raised the alternative of a different Britain from the greed and individualism of the Thatcher years, rooted in solidarity and collective action. As the neoliberal order that Thatcher helped to build crumbles before us, that is a message that speaks to our times.

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