John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for September, 2013

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A conservatism is spreading that the Tories can’t fathom | John Harris

Monday, September 30th, 2013

The party’s neoliberal leaders are out of touch with exactly the kind of values that look likely to define our future

A month or so ago, when the public’s opposition to any intervention in Syria was revealed, the stock explanation of their views was pretty simple – boiling down to Iraq, the unhinged premiership of Tony Blair, and people’s instinctive understanding of what is now known as ”overstretch”.

But something else was in the air: a very British kind of scepticism, coupled with an instinctive belief that other nations’ wars are usually best left alone, and a general sense of people turning inward in pursuit of a quiet life. A conservative position, in other words, at which a certain kind of metropolitan commentator huffed and puffed, while others such as Paddy Ashdown pompously despaired of their own country, which is never the best look.

They should get used to it, because this is where a large swath of public opinion has arrived. Conservatism with a small “c” has always been ingrained in our politics, spanning both left and right – but it is starting to feel like its values may yet define the future. The shift is bound up not just with the wreckage of “liberal interventionism”, but something even more deep-rooted which, outside London, runs rampant: post-crash, a palpable sense of people having had a bellyful of globalisation, open markets, and much more besides.

When expressed, such sentiments are often reduced to gripes about immigration and the EU. But precious few in the media and political class seem to even want to understand what’s going on. Easier, obviously, to think of the world beyond the M25 as stuffed with bitter Little Englanders newly in love with Nigel Farage, raising union flags in their garden and listening to Vera Lynn, rather than a country that seems to be in a quiet state of ferment.

What has happened, in fact, is blindingly obvious. In the days when politicians of all parties were crowing on about the demise of left-right politics and a new dichotomy between “open” and “closed” views of the world, few noticed that the “open” credo was not doing millions of people many favours. For too many, the free movement of labour meant stagnating or declining wages and the doctor’s waiting room suddenly being full to bursting. Open international markets became equated with outsourced jobs. The “open” view that states should regularly intervene abroad was manifested in the tragic grind of Afghanistan and the disaster in Iraq. Within all this was something remarkable: New Labour reinventing the left’s internationalism as military belligerence and blank support for the demands of global capital, which are obviously rather different things.

Ergo the rise of Ukip, and public sentiment that blurs into antipathy towards supposed welfare scroungers, the non-debate about the niqab, and so on. This profoundly conservative turn in the country has been brewing for at least a decade. Some recognition of what was afoot was there in the “faith, family and flag” politics explored in the early days of “Blue Labour”. There’s a whiff of it in Ed Miliband’s attempts to mould a new kind of left populism, shorn of the new conservatism’s tendency to nastiness, but conscious of the fact that a politics built on Blair’s famous rejoicing that “new, new, everything is new” no longer works. Modern Labour politics, in fact, is streaked with something very different. The squeezed middle is surely a modern synonym for the petit bourgeoisie, the wellspring of conservatism down the ages; last week’s revival of the British jobs for British workers trope in Labour’s policy on apprentices spoke volumes.

But where is the Conservative party? It meets in Manchester this week, where it has no city councillors, knowing that across post-industrial Britain, it is underperforming. Its leading figures seem aware of where non-metropolitan public opinion is going, and can convincingly talk conservative on penal policy and some aspects of so-called welfare, as well as hyperventilating about immigration. Indeed, we can expect the inevitable noises off about such themes this week, as evidenced by word from Cameron over the weekend about a new immigration bill due this year that will supposedly hack through migrants’ “something for nothing” rights to any public service you care to think of.

But too many modern Tories’ conservatism is dissonant, for some key reasons. First – and here, picture George Osborne, who is not actually a small-c conservative at all – most of them are brimming with neoliberal zeal, and for all their thin approximations of patriotism, have a tin ear for issues that go from politics and economics into questions of national identity, culture and people’s feelings for where they live (which is why they think nothing of selling off the Royal Mail and are in love with the quasi-Stalinist white elephant that is HS2). Second, on foreign policy, Cameron is a Blairite, who underestimates how much we now mistrust callow politicians stomping around the world stage.

Third, the only conservative songs he and his allies can sing are the nasty ones. Funny, isn’t it, how with the “big society” having long breathed its last, they have so little to say about such quintessential conservative themes as family and locality? Certainly, if they think the moronic wheeze of a married couple’s tax break is meant to highlight some overlooked understanding of the fabric of people’s lives, they are surely mistaken – it looks cheap, in every respect.

Aside from Eric Pickles and the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the upper reaches of the Conservative party no longer contain anyone who understands non-metropolitan, working-class conservatism as a matter of instinct. Indeed, there is an abundance of people like Osborne who probably feel very awkward about it. Thatcher, Tebbit et al sold the population neoliberalism because they combined it with an innate understanding of ordinary people’s values and prejudices, and a brilliant sense of how to sweeten the pill, as demonstrated by the sale of council houses – the kind of masterstroke modern Conservatives must fantasise about. Without such elements, the mask drops, and you end up with the spectacle of posh people brazenly defending the interests of other posh people, as seen in Osborne’s millionaire’s tax cut: again, never the best look.

On the fringes of this week’s bunfight will be a new Conservative pressure group called Renewal, founded by David Skelton, a policy wonk and native of Consett in County Durham, and backed by Pickles. Its supporters’ pet policies include the raising of the minimum wage, localising the benefits system, and re-acquainting the Tories with industrial activism. They acknowledge the untamed economic winds that have laid waste to a lot of the UK, and the Tories’ mislaid talent for finding working-class leaders. They also understand that in a great deal of non-Tory Britain, to quote one sympathetic MP, life is bound up with “strong family and community bonds and a deep sense of history and place”.

They have yet to decisively find their voice, maybe for fear of offending the people at the top, perhaps because they are a very interesting work in progress – though, as far as I can tell, they are among the few Tories who even begin to understand the reason for the great gap between British conservatism and Conservatism. But is anyone listening?

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Labour conference: why would anyone join the Labour party? – video

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

John Harris and John Domokos: Ed Miliband is full of talk about Labour attracting new members in their thousands. The big idea, brought to the UK from a one-time mentor of Barack Obama, is ‘community activism’. But how does it play on the streets of the south coast?

John Domokos
John Harris

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Lib Dem conference: bin the bedroom tax! – video

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

John Harris follows the debate at the conference, talks to affected Glaswegians and challenges minister Steve Webb on what some Lib Dem activists call an ‘evil’ policy

John Harris
John Domokos

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Why is Ofsted lashing out against primary schools? | John Harris

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Swingeing reports by the inspection body are forcing primaries into academy status and tarnishing its independent reputation

Until May this year, King’s Stanley primary school in Gloucestershire proudly displayed its Ofsted “outstanding” rating. It had come in 2009, one year after the school’s founding, when inspectors raved about a school that was “truly a hub of the community”, where pupils arrived each morning “with huge smiles on their faces” and parents left “with a smile too, rightly confident that their children will receive the best possible education”. The headteacher, said Ofsted’s report, was “truly inspiring”, and when it came to her team of teachers, no stone was left unturned “in the quest for excellence in all that they do”.

Four years on, the same head is still there. Classes are full, and the school is oversubscribed. Parents claim it may even have surpassed the standards it reached in the recent past, citing Sats results that improved 10% since last year and insisting that the staff do a “fantastic” job. But no matter: having issued a swingeing report that reads like an account of a completely different school, Ofsted has now deemed King’s Stanley “inadequate” and placed it in special measures. That now means only one thing: separation from the local authority and conversion into an academy. The Department for Education has appointed one of its “brokers” to find the school a sponsor, and a local action group is fighting against a plan that scores of local people think is senseless.

As parents and teachers see it, what has happened has a simple plotline. To get a reasonable sense of the pros and cons of academy status, schools must register an interest in conversion. King’s Stanley did that, and decided to not follow it up. Around three weeks after the matter was formally closed, the inspectors showed up – and before the Oftsed report was published, sparking 60 complaints and official appeals from both parents and the school itself, a letter from the DfE arrived serving notice that a broker was on her way. The whole process, says one campaigner, “seems to be engineered to force our school into becoming an academy”. It certainly does.

Back when New Labour was in its pomp and pushing the first incarnation of the academies programme, there were rumours about inspections being cooked up for political purposes. I first heard them when I was covering an attempt to turn a secondary school near Doncaster into an academy, despite loud local opposition. In that case, the school was flipped from being “good and improving” and receiving a government special achievement award into special measures in just over two years, triggering a drive to hand it to the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, the charity created by Peter Vardy, a fundamentalist Christian car dealer from Durham. Thanks to local parents, the plan failed. In the decade that has since passed, similar suspicions have bubbled up from time to time: now, as evidenced by other stories from schools in places such as Cambridge, Croydon, Grimsby and Dollis Hill, London, concern is rising.

Inspections are contracted out to three private companies: Serco, the Tribal Group and CfBT, all firms with a vested interest in the onward march of private companies into state education. On occasion, more direct conflicts of interest have been uncovered: late last year, for example, the BBC found that at least four advisers working on the DfE’s push for academies were also Ofsted inspectors. In general, though, the apparent harmony between government policy and Ofsted’s work may be traceable to a much simpler matter of mindset: its head, Michael Wilshaw, is the former head of the Mossbourne academy in Hackney, and prone to sound as if he has imbibed a huge draught of whatever the education secretary, Michael Gove, is drinking. Small wonder that one teachers’ union says its members now see Ofsted as “an arm of government”.

There may be reasons why primary schools are now finding themselves downgraded and pushed into the clutches of outside sponsors: 49% of secondary schools are academies, but only 7% of primaries are. If the former are going to be viable, connecting them to primary schools is the obvious way to go, which explains some of the stories that have recently flared up. Critics of what the government is up to cite Roke primary in Croydon, repeatedly deemed “outstanding” but suddenly charged with being “inadequate” in 2012. It has since been given to the Harris Federation, founded by the carpet magnate Phil Harris, which is now in control of 27 primary and secondary schools. Among them is the former Downhills school in Tottenham, turned into an academy despite huge local opposition – some of which was focused on Ofsted inspections that saw the same inspector change her verdict of “improving” to “failing”, thus sealing its fate.

Ofsted claims to be independent of any political agenda and tends to cite the tightening of its inspections framework, which has already led to 111 schools losing their “outstanding” status. But its detractors say that does not explain sudden crashes into special measures, and bemoan how little they can find out about how and why Ofsted’s verdicts are reached.

When it comes to the observations and opinions that feed into finished reports, individual teachers can make freedom of information requests relating to their own work, and headteachers can do the same for a whole school – but what comes back is often heavily redacted. Outsiders have no such rights, so compiling sets of documents to compare and cross-reference is pretty much impossible. Ofsted and the DfE hold all the cards, and with the government having served notice that it wants to create 400 primary academies, it’s pretty obvious why suddenly swingeing inspections have become such a big issue.

The apparent irony is glaring: under the auspices of a policy supposedly designed to free schools from the dead hand of government, the state’s clunking fist seems to be falling all over the place with impunity, opening the way for a policy decided at the centre. The argument about academies and free schools is one thing, but this runs much deeper: even if they support what the government is doing to schools, people could be forgiven for expecting consistency, transparency and a model of government whereby ministers might understand that supposedly independent bodies have to be seen to be so, and that even the appearance of collusion can be toxic. Fat chance, it seems: the last lot thought they were above all that, and so do their successors.

John Harris © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Trade unions and Labour: the real story – video

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

John Harris: At the TUC conference in Bournemouth, John Harris investigates the maelstrom around Ed Miliband’s big speech and the unions’ links to the Labour party

John Harris
John Domokos

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