More on the crisis of politics – is it about the schools?
Twitter was jumping up and down this weekend about how Ed Miliband had higher approval ratings than David Cameron. If you’re a Labour supporter, so far, so good. Then we look at the numbers. Ed Miliband was on -19, David Cameron was on -28. The question asked was whether people thought Ed Miliband was turning out to be a good Labour leader, and whether Cameron was turning out to be a good Prime Minister. Subtract the number/percentage points of those saying “Yes” from those saying “No” and the figure that you are left with is the approval rating.
The thing is, having a ‘minus’ approval rating doesn’t indicate approval (in my book). It indicates the opposite – disapproval. Both seem to be drowning on the sinking ship of mainstream party politics, only one seems trapped on a lower deck of the political Titanic than the other.
“When good people give up on party politics”
Some of you may have read Jon Worth’s post on giving up the ghost for standing as an MEP candidate for Labour. Message to Labour: When someone like Jon gives up the ghost like that, you’ve got problems. Jon’s not the only one in this situation. I’ve bumped into other people – not just from Labour – who have given up the fight for standing as a candidate for their parties.
Local party politics and local government politics is a very messy business. It’s one of the reasons why I try to keep it at arms length. Some of the textual manure that flies across my screen puts me off it completely. The way politics is often reported depresses me. The problem is that when good people give up on politics, not-so-good people get away with not-so-good stuff. I’m over-generalising big time but I hope you get my point. Politics DOES matter – as Professor Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University states. (Similar can be said for Peter Riddell in his book In defence of politicians in spite of themselves).
Is there something about the structure of political parties that puts people off from both joining and standing? Does only a certain type of person have the personality, disposition and aptitude to stand?
On open primaries
This was something the Tories tried out in the run up to 2010 to try and broaden both the background of their 2010 intake (following the MPs’ expenses scandal) and to deal with criticism that both the party and politics in general reflected far too narrow a section of society. Dr Sarah Wollaston was one of the people to be selected through through this process, going on to win her seat at that election.
One of the things David Cameron did on the back of the MPs’ expenses scandal was to ‘cleanse’ his back benches of grandees and ‘deadweight’ MPs who perhaps had seen better days but being incumbents in safe seats were unshiftable. Knights of the shires to ministers from the last millennium for example.
This left the door open for a number of meaningful open primaries to take place as far as the Conservatives were concerned – i.e. whoever came through stood a good chance of being elected in a ‘safe seat.’ In the swing seat of Cambridge, Nick Hillman – an adviser to David Willets (now Universities’ Minister) was selected for the Conservatives, managing to squeeze Labour out of second place in the 2010 general election. I refer to Cambridge as a swing seat because during my lifetime it has been held by MPs from each of the main political parties – the historian Robert Rhodes James (Con), Anne Campbell (Lab) and both David Howarth and Julian Huppert for the Lib Dems.
Not everyone likes open primaries though. With some party activists there is some resentment that someone who has not put in the ground work over the years can be parachuted into a place they feel hasn’t been earned. Without the long years in the party, there may also be less of a feeling of affiliation and loyalty to the party – which makes vote whipping in Parliament that much harder.
It’s not as if open primaries were ever going to be the magic wand though.
It goes far further. It’s interesting to note that a number of institutions have been getting a kicking of late – not just the civil service. Public schools – or rather their disproportionate influence – has been coming under fire from those that are a product of them. George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Michael Gove have all drawn attention to this. (It happened too while I was in Wales this week when the Labour Welsh Assembly Minister went after Cameron and Osborne). Dominic Sandbrook drew attention in early 2011 to the Cabinet’s depressing record on this.
The figures on education are even more revealing. Of our 119 Government ministers, 66 per cent went to public schools, compared with only 7 per cent of the population as a whole. And what is more, a staggering 10 per cent went to just one school, Eton.
He goes on further to say that it’s not just the Tories – but Parliament as a whole. Yet the institutions of Parliament seem to reinforce the social immobility around Westminster politics – especially when you look at the system of political internships – many of which are advertised at W4MP. Have a look at all of the ‘expenses only’ ones then ask yourself how many people can afford to self-fund their way through one of those. Then ask yourself how many people from outside of London can even get there. Then ask yourself how many people outside of the field of politics (and even those within the field) even know of the existence of this website.
It’s not just Westminster but Whitehall too. While there are paid internships for would-be Fast Streamers in ‘under-represented groups’ (for which competition is fierce), opportunities are few and far-between for everyone else. Given the very small numbers of people that both hear about and get on such well-meaning but limited programmes, the likelihood that they will solve the problems around lack of social mobility is minimal. The problem is systemic. It needs something far greater than a few initiatives coupled with a handful of soundbites.
Is the proof in the pudding how private schools and their representative bodies react?
Possibly. Bearing in mind that they have a commercial interest in the outcome of all of this, they are unlikely to be happy with anything that puts them at a systemic disadvantage. Politically it’s a difficult balance for the Conservatives in particular given some of the institutional links between some of the top schools and their political party. It’s also very difficult to see what short-medium term political benefit the Conservatives would gain from upsetting one of their core constituencies. Let’s say that the Coalition did decide to take significant action – for example going further than Labour went regarding charitable status (Charity Commission guidance being subsequently overturned). Would anyone credit the Coalition for turning things around? Would wider society be able to feel the tangible benefits in the short to medium term? A core constituency of Conservative voters would be far more likely to feel the tangible costs, that’s for sure.
Yet this is the rock and the hard place that senior politicians of all parties find themselves in. Like Edward VIII they agree that ‘something must be done’ but it feels like they don’t know what. That or anything that they do suggest feels like tinkering with the system rather than overhauling it. The other problem many of them have is they stand accused (by a very vocal and influential constituency) of kicking sand in the faces of a system that they did very well out of, while at the same time running the risk of not getting the credit from those that they are wanting to help.
What of those who want to nationalise all of the public schools?
I’ve met a fair number of people who have called for this – in particular from teachers. (Laurie Penny is another). It’s not something I’ve looked at in huge detail myself so can’t say I have an opinion either way. The things to consider though are:
The irresolvable tension between what a family may want and what is better for society. How many of you reading this have had private tuition of one sort or another to…say…compensate for a lack of progress in a subject? I did – for A-level maths. (It didn’t do me much good at the time!) My lack of progress could have been down to a combination of things. Lack of application on the subject, immaturity on my side, lack of talent, poor teaching, poor facilities, health…a whole host of things.
Extrapolate this scenario nationwide – whether private tuition or private schooling, and you have people either getting into positions or places that in the longer term is beyond them, or people who would otherwise shine in such positions or places being blocked off by insurmountable barriers. (Note research comparing the degree results of those educated at comprehensive schools vs their privately educated counterparts). On the former, you may have heard the phrases “Educated beyond his ability” or “Promoted beyond their level of competence”. From a wider society and economy point of view, politicians are saying they want to remove barriers that are blocking genuine talent. Yet at the same time they run the risk of some (more affluent) parents that things won’t be as easy for them.
The system of private schooling is one that is woven ever so deeply into the political establishment and beyond. Nationalising private schools wholesale is unlikely to happen because so many big interests have vested interests in them – whether it was the schools that they went to or the ones their children and grand children go to. It’s like with abolishing hereditary peers – politicians are nervous about it because the hereditary principle underpins the monarchy too. Should too loudly about how anachronistic the hereditary principle is with peers and people will start making connections with the monarchy too. One of the reasons why House of Lords reform has taken so long.
If you wanted to go down the route of nationalising private schools, it would take a huge amount of political will – something Ian Jack compares to the abolition of the monasteries. You could say it would take something not far off a revolution to undertake such a nationalisation. But by the time things got that bad, those in the front line would be taking on institutions far greater than private schools, the nationalisation of which would merely be a sideshow.