Archive for August, 2016

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.

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You Ain’t No Nice Guy

August 21, 2016

Character matters in politics. The troubled Blair-Brown relationship had a huge impact on the Labour Party and the country. The Dave-Boris Eton rivalry made history in a way neither man expected.

You can play the counterfactual game forever. If Parnell had been more faithful (or at least more discreet) the Ireland Troubles and so many deaths could have been avoided. If Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated for love, Nazis might rule the world. And so on.

Jeremy Corbyn is a nice guy. A real prince. That is, until you ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer, or tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. You can see the change, in tone and demeanour, in his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murphy, and in the Vice documentary (particularly around 23 minutes in when he is questioned about Ken Livingstone’s unfortunate Hitler remarks). A light goes out of his eyes, and there is a sense that the mask has slipped.

Lots of Jeremy Corbyn supporters are nice people. I meet many. It seems that the worse Corbyn does in Westminster, the more people go to his rallies. Political analysts fall over themselves trying to explain Jeremy’s peculiar magnetism. I think Helen Lewis gets it right. People really do want a kinder gentler politics. People are sick of authoritarianism and inequality. There are good, smart, brave, struggling, creative people who are backing him. It’s to them that I’m speaking because I don’t want these people to be lost to politics forever.

Problem is, Jeremy Corbyn is not a nice guy.

I can prove it, and it’s easy to prove, because he’s a public figure, and so much is on record.

Nice guys do not invite Islamist fanatics into Parliament, claim they do this to ‘promote dialogue’ – and then ignore approaches from Israeli socialists.

Nice guys don’t take money from oppressive regimes, nor appear on their propaganda channels.

Nice guys don’t stand by while colleagues are anti-semitically abused, at the launch of an inquiry into anti-Semitic abuse, and particularly then don’t exchange friendly words with the abuser. And a nicer leader would have thought again about offering the inquiry chair a peerage, after the inquiry more or less declared a clean bill of health.

Nice guys don’t take their staff for granted, blank team members who ask hard questions, or leave people to sink or swim. Nice guys don’t appoint, then fire people without knowledge or consent, particularly not if they are being treated for cancer at the time.

Nice guys don’t use the shocking death of a colleague, as rhetorical weapon to inhibit dissent.

Nice guys don’t preside over a culture of threats, bullying and intimidation, and when challenged, simply tell people to ‘ignore it’.

This last point bears expanding.

‘Ignore it’ is good advice if a drunk shouts abuse at you in the street.

If you’re the leader of a political party, that is an increasingly toxic environment, particularly for women and Jewish people, then you shouldn’t ignore it. You should put a stop to it.

For all the talk of entryism, I suspect a lot of the aggro comes from hardcore and longterm CLP members, as much as the ‘£3 supporters’. What is amazing is that people treat this ugly discourse as if it has nothing to do with Jeremy. It’s like the joke Communist, hearing of some new corruption or atrocity, who complains: ‘What a disgrace – if only Comrade Stalin knew about this!’

Check out this piece. The victim blaming, the pettiness, the condescension. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. This is why good, serious people don’t want anything to do with Jeremy or his team.

I have respect and sympathy for women in the Labour Party struggling to change things. Many of them would make fine leaders of the opposition. Right now, they’d have more chance of landing on the moon.

Such problems are not unique to Labour or the left of course. My point is that politics has got appreciably nastier in my lifetime. And I think Jeremy has been one of the people making that happen.

Jeremy will probably win the leadership. He might even win a general election. But he doesn’t deserve to.

Darkness Physical: Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’

August 4, 2016

danvyletaThere’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’

Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.

In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.

It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’

Jumping the Train

August 3, 2016

Sarah has directed me to Anthony Clavane’s piece on Yorkshire and the EU, which is a rather confusing counsel of despair. He offers the standard sociological explanations for the out vote – decline of manufacturing, loss of community, fishing quotas etc – and places odd emphasis on 1960s/1970s cultural referents: Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave plus gritty classic Billy Liar. Clavane quotes poet Ian McMillan: ‘Kes is our creation myth. It’s our Moby-Dick, our Great Expectations. Billy Casper’s story reminds us that we are worth writing about. Here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen.’ I’ve never seen Billy Liar, but Clavane writes about the scene where ‘the Yorkshire anti-hero, played by a very young Tom Courtenay, jumps off the train before it sets off for the Big Smoke. He bottles it, turning down the chance of joining Liz – Julie Christie! – in the swinging capital. Liz slumps into her seat, clearly baffled. As with Kes, I have watched this movie many times and have always ended up screaming at Courtenay to stay on the train.’

Clavane sees in this scene the northman’s ‘penchant for self-sabotage’ and extrapolates this to the 2016 vote: ‘After virtually disappearing as an economic force, as a result of de-industrialisation, Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth policy and a post-crash squeeze on incomes, [Yorkshire] has now voted to remain invisible. This baffles me.’

Let me try and help him out. For a start, Clavane gives the impression that Yorkshire voted leave, end of story, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that: Leeds, Harrogate and York all backed remain, and places that voted out did so by narrow margins. If the vote had become a referendum on the open society, there were millions ready to defend it.

There’s little such positivity in Clavane’s piece. He talks about the Danny Boyle 2012 Olympic movie, he talks about EU regen funding. All well and good. But then he’s back to moaning about the electorate: ‘Sadly, God’s Own County decided to leave the train. To leave itself behind.’ Nothing on the myriad of voting intentions individuals had for leave: they could have fallen for outright campaign lies, could have serious and principled critiques of the EU, or simply be unemployed, filled with rage and confusion, living in a crap town, and unable to believe things could possibly get worse. (It’s interesting that the places that voted leave tend to be those where the problem is not too much capitalism and immigration but not enough: places with no jobs, nothing to do and populations that are ageing and declining.)

Clavane’s piece reeks of condescension – and more than that, it’s the condescension of nostalgia. Things were better back in the day, Clavane says: before ‘the destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining, communities’ which ‘almost put paid to a collectivist culture based on extended family life, warmth and neighbourliness.’ Clavane is smart enough to recognise the myth in this and that too often the reality of the lost kingdom was ‘stiflingly-claustrophobic Victorian neighbourhoods, pockmarked by overcrowding, poverty and bigotry.’ And yet, like the lost children of House Stark, Clavane still clings to the Winterfell dream, long after the castle has been sacked and burned. This is why Clavane only mentions older generation writers in his piece, and doesn’t seem to have asked any of the brilliant and innovative younger writers and publishers for their views.

The only hope is escape: and again, he complains that today’s Northern creatives just don’t have the imagination to find somewhere better. ‘Back in the socially-mobile 60s, [Billy Liar star Tom Courtenay] was in the vanguard of a post-war generation of northern working-class heroes who migrated to London – and were regarded as ambassadors of their communities.’

You can still make it in London: it’s a fantastic city albeit a hard city, and I know people who have gone down there and worked hard and made something of themselves. The impression I get though is that Clavane is good at identifying problems in Northern communities but can’t think of any answers apart from a) ask for money or b) leave town. It reminds me of the Publishing Association regional diversity project, which finds free London rooms for interns outside the capital. Again, love it, great idea, but why can’t we also make everything a little less centralised and support publishing in our own communities?

Put another way, sometimes it’s the right choice to jump the train and lose yourself in the wilderness.