A negative number is not an approval rating


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.


4 thoughts on “A negative number is not an approval rating

  1. I read John Worth’s post, and thought ‘thank God’. Notwithstanding the rest of your blog, Puffles, much of which I agree with, the definition of a good candidate is someone who’s willing to campaign and fight the seat to win. John Worth is effectively saying that he’s not standing because he doesn’t want to do any of that. How is that a bad thing for party politics? I sort of have sympathy for people that have a great deal of interest and understanding of an issue who’d like, theoretically, to have more of a say, but it’s possible, as you say, that it does require a certain disposition to be in politics – not to get involved in it, but certainly to stand for office

    John, according to his own blog post, has none of the required characteristics. He didn’t really get involved with his local party. He didn’t like the idea of schmoozing (which basically means talking to people you don’t know very well). He wanted to sit at home and blog and hope the world came to him. That’s a reasonable stance for a blogger, but a disaster for a politician. He wasn’t interested in any of the hard graft you have to do to get selected, let alone elected – I don’t see his decision not to stand (not that he’d have had much of a shout with such a complete lack of track record) as any kind of loss to the party.

    What local – and national – politics needs is people who are engaged and willing to be active. Sometimes that does get messy – because people are passionate. I’d much rather see that than have a local polity where there are never any arguments because nobody cares.

    I do agree that we need to go out and find new activists, people that are engaged and passionate about their communities. But they will likely be just as opinionated and messy as the old activists. And all of them will already be a lot more engaged than John Worth was ever even willing to try.

  2. Carina – thanks for the reply.

    First of all, on my record in Labour. Over the years I have done my fair share of regular work for Labour (delivering leaflets and participating in local activity) – but my everyday paid work (which takes me abroad a lot) has limited that in the last two years. I have done my best to make up for that with web campaigning (I’ve designed and developed more than a dozen Labour politicians’ websites over the years) and by trying to improve the debate in Labour about EU matters on LabourList and elsewhere. You reckon that has no value, but that is not my view. EU politics is frequently criticised as being impossible to communicate – I have tried to address that in a small way, and have had some partial success. I might have been doing the wrong thing, but it is not as if I have not been doing anything. Also I most definitely do not assume that Labour will ‘come to me’ – I know what Labour traditionally requires, I am not in a position to do it, and hence I do not stand. Not that complicated.

    On the point about ‘schmoozing’ – as anyone who has ever met me will testify, discussing anything and everything about EU and Labour politics with almost anyone (strangers or not) never proves to be a problem. It is masking my intentions that is the problem, to have to try to persuade people that I am something that I am not, to self-censor. If you’ve never encountered that in Labour politics then you’re either spineless or very lucky.

    There is also the distinction between selection and election. There will be a board of London Labour that decides the composition of the list. That assists most strongly candidates over whom regional parties can exert the strongest power of patronage. Open things out to party members and it might be different.

    Lastly there is the whole tone of your comment – “not that he’d have had much of a shout with such a complete lack of track record” and the like. Perhaps behaviour towards each other like that is one of the reasons that political parties have been haemorrhaging members for so long?

    But anyway, thanks for the character assassination of someone you’ve never met. It’s always pleasant.

  3. This response goes a very good job of making Jon’s point for him. Of course, the last thing we need for an MEP candidate is someone who’s passionate, experience, engaged, and knowledgeable when it comes to Europe and the issues it raises.No, apparently it’s more crucial to have someone who’s passionate, experienced, engaged and knowledgeable when it comes to internal workings and wranglings of the Labour party.

    “the definition of a good candidate is someone who’s willing to campaign and fight the seat to win”

    So whether or not they’d actually do a good job in office isn’t really a consideration? I’ve long assumed this to be the attitude of our major parties, but it’s unusual to hear a representative actually admit it outright.

    Everything that’s wrong with UK politics in four succinct paragraphs.

  4. It is a consideration, of course – and by the way, I apologise to Jon for jumping down his throat without having had a proper conversation with him. However, if you can’t commit to campaigning, it doesn’t matter how good you would be in office, as you won’t get there. Politics is ultimately a competition, and all prospective candidates have to get past the selection and the vote for basic democratic reasons. It really isn’t about the internal workings and wranglings of the Labour Party but about being able to do the bruising work of campaigning – talking to voters, talking to members who are ultimately the ones who select you. If you can do that and be passionate about Europe then brilliant, perfect. But if you can’t – and I know the reasons why some candidates can’t are perfectly reasonable and it’s desperately unfair – then you’ll lose to people who can, both in the selection and in the vote itself.

    I don’t think the selection process is perfect, but it’s better I think (like democracy) than most of the alternatives. A system that would only look at passion for the subject would not take into account ability to campaign, and would almost certainly not give members a say. Once you have that democracy you have to campaign, which takes skills that not everybody has – or indeed wants to develop.

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