The demise of northern liberalism?

July 31, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Posted in British Politics | 5 Comments

sheffield

(Image by incurable_hippie)

When Irving Patnick reputedly described Sheffield as the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, he may have been referring as much to his own isolation as he was the radicalism of the 1980s. As the city council defined itself in opposition to the Thatcher governments, so Patnick was defined as a solid blue hold-out in a county drenched in red – the ‘enemy within’, if you like.

For decades his well-heeled Sheffield Hallam constituency – home to farmers, doctors & lawyers, owners of factories & steel works – had loyally returned Conservative MPs, and even as the red flag was hoist above City Hall, Patnick remained a stubborn voice of opposition. If Sheffield really was a breakaway republic, his Hallam constituency would’ve been a fringe rebel enclave – blue to the bitter end.

Of course, demographics, lifestyles and party loyalties have all changed significantly since then; the Conservative vote has collapsed since 1997 and its current Lib Dem incumbent enjoys a generous majority. But whilst the make-up of the constituency might’ve altered since Patnick’s days, there’s still a sense that it’s as estranged from the rest of Sheffield as it was in the 1980s. As Jonathan Raban noted in the New York Review of Books:

Image by Brett Patterson (Flickr)

‘These Lib Dem gains reflected the rise of a younger, modern, middle class of people who traveled widely, valued their membership in the European Union, balanced their fear of statism against their university-bred ideas of social justice and fairness, and were keenly protective of their own personal liberties and civil rights. Sheffield Hallam might have been their capital-the young families in renovated old houses, new Audis, Priuses, and Smart cars on gravel driveways, the restaurants, boutiques, and health food shops along Ecclesall Road. Lozenge-shaped Lib Dem placards proclaimed “Winning Here,” and so they were, but the annoying smugness of that phrase seemed part of the character of the place. Sheffield Hallam knows, rather too well, that it’s where the winners in South Yorkshire live.’

To his credit, Nick Clegg never sought to present himself as just the MP for a few affluent suburbs on the Derbyshire border. In the general election campaign he would talk about ‘my city of Sheffield’ and contrast the life chances of a child born in the impoverished parts of the city with one born in the comfort of his own constituency. He didn’t merely seek to speak for his constituency, but for Sheffield as a whole, and it was an approach which won his party respect, votes and seats.

Just a few months after polling day, Clegg may now be starting to understand how it feels to shuffle in Irving Patnick’s shoes. Whilst a coalition with the Tories might have been received badly enough in a city where they remain an endangered species, the long-running controversy over Sheffield Forgemasters is where the most hurt and mistrust is felt.

It’s a city which is deeply proud of its past and eager – sometimes over-eager – to return to the days when its steel production was of world renown. Knowing that it was one of the few companies in the world capable of producing those reactor components only compounded that pride, and the cancellation of the loan which would’ve made it possible was welcomed as warmly as a boot to the gullet.

But it was once the story assumed national significance that the greatest damage was done. With contradictory accounts emerging from Forgemasters, Clegg and the coalition, plus the news of a Tory secretly lobbying for the loan to be scapped, conspiracy began to take the place of where a straight story should’ve been. Cries of ‘betrayal!’ were soon replaced by whispers of Tory sleaze, and Clegg started to be spoken of as their barrowboy.

To say that Labour exploited Clegg’s discomfort is an understatement. When Jack Straw chose Forgemasters as the focus of his first PMQs, he did so not because it was a matter of national importance or even a particularly current news story. No, Straw chose that topic because it could embarrass the Deputy Prime Minister and his party across the North. It was a rather unsubtle attempt to ‘prove’ one of Labour’s most longstanding critiques: that a liberal party cannot represent the interests of the working class; that Labour remains their only home.

nclegg

(Image from Liberal Democrats)

The daunting challenge for Lib Dems in the years to come is to demonstrate how that impression is wrong. Voting and constitutional reform may both have great democratic importance, but they’re not nearly as high a priority for the party’s voters as they are for its activists. The fear must be that, in the midst of the coalition’s spending cuts & tax hikes, Labour holds aloft both their push for an AV referendum and the Forgemasters fiasco as emblematic of the party’s self-interest & subservience to the Tories. It is not without reason that some members fear that council & Parliamentary seats across the North are now extremely vulnerable.

As an MP, Clegg’s seat is almost certainly safe; it would take an almighty revolt to reverse Sheffield Hallam’s long history of voting against the grain of the city. But what is much less clear is how many of Clegg’s regional colleagues will still have jobs after the next election, and whether the prize of finally being able to sit in government has come at the cost of the demise of northern liberalism. For a politician, there are few worse things than being alone.

Michael Gove’s awful month

July 30, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Education | 3 Comments

The surprising thing about Michael Gove’s short tenure as Education Secretary is how quickly an appointment which began with such hype and bluster has descended into one of hubris and error. The controversies Gove has been embroiled in since May have been entirely unforced errors; it is not beyond a Secretary of State to publish an accurate list of which schools will/will not see their building projects completed, nor is it beyond his ability to give a realistic estimate of how many would take advantage of his invitation to become academies.

The truth, as we now know , is that most schools in England & Wales didn’t await the Academies Bill with the same breathlessness Gove had when he rushed it through Parliament. Whilst it’s still probable that eligible schools will become academies at some point, the implication that over 1,000 would do so before September always seemed rather staggering.

But the relatively small number of actual applications for Academy status is something the DoE could and should have predicted. It can take some schools months just to change something as superficial as a school uniform. With a matter as significant as a long-term change in a school’s structure, funding & accountability mechanisms, those thinking about applying will have needed to be meticulous in their preparation. They would have had to consult not just with governors but with teachers, parents, pupils and, yes, those maligned local authorites they’re meant to be desperate to escape. They most certainly couldn’t have proceeded with the same haste as the Education Secretary might’ve wanted.

Moreover, the rewards for schools to become Academies by September weren’t nearly as great as Gove might’ve imagined. By the time he made his invitations, many schools had already set their budgets for the next academic year: they already knew their resources, class sizes, staffing levels, the subjects they would offer and the targets for their own improvement. In this context, the additional freedoms & resources offered by Academy status would’ve made little difference, so why rush into an arrangement which would have enormous consequences for pupils, parents & teachers?

Gove’s mistakes thus far haven’t been errors of policy, but of process. Of course parents want increased standards across the school system; they want it to be easy to get their kids into a good school close to where they live, and they’re willing to accept reform if it might make that wish a reality. But parents also value some measure of stability, certainty and reliability; they don’t want to be confronted with erroneous, ever-changing lists of scrapped school building programmes and they don’t want to hear wild overestimates about how many schools which will convert into academies.

It normally takes a good few years for the full effect of education reforms to be accurately measured & evaluated. If he carries on at this rate, Michael Gove will have lost the public’s trust before he’s even lost the political argument.

Selected Reading (27/07/10)

July 27, 2010 at 10:46 am | Posted in Misc. | 2 Comments
  • A little old, but The Economist has a great piece on the sorry state of the American prison system.
  • In the New Statesman, Bjorn Lombord explains why ecologists shouldn’t fret about the future of the planet.
  • Larison ponders reconcilliation between libertarians and conservatives.
  • Sara Mayeux on Jim Webb, affirmative action and the ‘myth’ of white privilege.
  • Coutney E. Martin calls on feminists to recognise the truth of women’s capacity for violence.
  • Jacob Weisberg cries ‘shame’ on the entertainers who boycott Israel.
  • Steve Clemons on Pakstan’s Generals’ crush on the Afghan Taliban.

Selected Reading (25/07/10)

July 25, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Hopefully y’all haven’t seen many of these yet:

Finally, I think my reading list is getting stale. Is there anything I should be reading? Anything I should be writing about? All tips/requests are welcome below the fold.

Caring is Creepy: Tribes in Pop and Politics

July 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 1 Comment

(Image by missquitecontrary)

Does my right hon. Friend find it bizarre-as I do-that the yoghurt and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to protect the human rights of people engaged in terrorist acts, but never once do they talk about the human rights of those who are affected by them?
– Labour MP Kevin Hughes

“If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
- Noel Gallagher

It’s the early noughties and we’re in the middle of a Great Rock Recession. After the Britpop days of plenty, indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor. ‘Quiet is the new Loud’ and that sound you don’t hear is the kids yawning themselves to death.

With such scant exciting, homemade music, the New Musical Express – that dogged tribune of indie culture – gazed across the Atlantic and started to embrace the explosion of R&B and hip hop. They wrote reverently about Timbaland & Missy Elliott, made The Neptunes the epitome of cool and even gave Destiny’s Child their front cover for a week.

Sadly, the NME’s experiment in open-minded eclecticism was short-lived; sales dwindled and the paper couldn’t afford to offend its musically conservative readership for any longer. It wasn’t long before the magazine reverted to type; excitedly announcing a ‘New Rock Revolution’ and chasing skinny trustafarians around the sidewalks of New York.

The mistake the NME made was in believing it could break the stubborn insularity of its audience. Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own. In this environment, expecting that a Smiths fan who mocks rap ‘music’ with inverted commas will accept the value of Missy Elliott is about as fanciful as hoping that a blustering David Blunkett would accept a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Over their dead bodies.

In fact, political tribes operate in very similar ways. Each shares its own folk heroes and hate figures, writes in socially-accepted shorthand (NuLieBore! Tory Scum!) and generally accepts that any decision or utterance made by the other tribe is either misguided, deluded or malicious. The tribe is both a social circle and a comfort blanket of shared assumptions.

However, just as identifying with one pop tribe will give you a fairly shallow, one-dimensional music collection, political tribalism can be similarly self-defeating. Many of the defences of New Labour’s punitive populism were made as appeals to working class authenticity. On matters like crime, immigration, welfare, drugs and civil liberties, liberal criticisms were often dismissed as an indulgence of an out-of-touch middle class.

Whether it was Jack Straw slamming the ‘Hampstead liberals’ or Blunkett deriding ‘airy fairy libertarians’, the insinuation was clear; Labour’s liberal critics were unserious, self-serving, moneyed dilettantes with little connection to the ‘Real World’. As I wrote once before, it often felt like the party didn’t even want our votes; we just didn’t belong in the tribe.

None of this was an issue until Labour discovered that its tribe was no longer big enough to win elections. Throughout its thirteen years in government we heard various appeals from within the party to ‘reconnect’ with the middle or working classes, the unions or big business, but precious little about reconnecting with those social liberals who fled over its excessive anti-terror legislation, its treatment of asylum seekers, its abject prison system, its criminalisation of the young or its lie detectors for the jobless.

The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon? Will they applaud Nick Clegg for securing a commitment on the detention of child asylum seekers? Will they revert back to a drugs policy based on evidence rather than fear? Or will the tribal instincts be so strong that they bark at and barrack the Liberal Democrats until any rapprochement is impossible?

But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for? Do we have any credibility in making those demands outside of – and often ignorant of – the local and national structures within the party? Why should our voices have prominence over tens of thousands of long-suffering, dues-paying members? It’s a centuries-old question of whether structure or agency best describes our social behaviour, and it’s not a question which will be resolved in a blogpost.

One theory about why the NME’s short-lived eclecticism failed to lift its circulation is that not enough people believed its change was real. Sure, they saw a more diverse range of artists on the cover, but maybe they suspected it was all artifice; that deep down it would remain the same stubborn tribune of indie fandom that it has always been. Perhaps the tribe’s reputation preceded it.

That’s not something the Labour Party can allow to happen. There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They both fell short of adequate. The task of the next Labour leader is to imagine and articulate a political culture which is better than the one we have lived through, and which their predecessors bequeathed. They need to prove that their tribe (their tent, their church) can be larger, broader, more open, responsive and diverse than anything we’ve seen to date.

This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win. That’s the difference between being the leader of a political movement and merely settling for manager of a political tribe.

(Image via YoungFabians)

Selected Reading (18/07/10): Dick Whittington Edition

July 18, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Posted in Misc. | 7 Comments

I’ll be down in London until Wednesday on my first house hunting reconnaissance mission. It’ll probably end in abject failure, but hopefully I’ll learn something about how to wander around a capital city without getting lost/mugged/kidnapped. In the mean time…

  • Laurie Penny is very cross about the pointless humiliation of Caster Semenya.
  • For those who’ve long suspected that Binyamin Netanyahu has never been interested in peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, now there’s even more damning evidence. Gideon Levy provides commentary.
  • So did you hear that Nestle sent a barge up the Amazon to peddle junk food to Brazil’s poor? Well now they’ve gone and bettered it by fronting a ‘healthy kids’ program in China. You’ve gotta give ‘em points for cojones.
  • Just to balance out the corporation bashing, let’s hear it for Unilever. Not only did the makers of Marmite acquiesce to mocking the BNP in an advert, but they then managed to ruin the party for trying to get its own back. Who needs Searchlight when you’ve got Marmite?!
  • Another update from Mexico’s drug war. Don’t read it if you’re worried about blowing your high.
  • Michael Tomasky on Obama & the Democrats’ spot of bother.

And that’ll be it for now. Catch you in a bit.

Selected Reading (16/07/10): “Geeky Young Men in Suits” edition

July 16, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Posted in Misc. | 4 Comments

It was touch & go whether this was going to get posted tonight. Sure, I had some links lined up, but then I learned that ‘geeky young men in suits‘ aren’t able to engage with society. Which kinda renders this blog obsolete, doesn’t it?

So which wise sage relayed this news? A media-savvy Cambridge graduate who sends her kids to private school. Yup… real Working Class Hero shit.

  • Anyway… speaking of young, geeky men in suits, how about that Zac Goldsmith eh? Haven’t seen a dude flame out that badly on C4 News since… well, Alastair Campbell springs to mind.
  • Some more people within the Labour Party seem to be getting it on prison reform.
  • If you haven’t already seen it yet – and aren’t already sick of the subject – AVPS’s post on the class dimensions of the Raoul Moat case is excellent.
  • Megan McArdle’s run an interesting couple of posts on the lifestyles & attitudes of pickup artists. They’re an odd bunch.
  • Think the Tories’ ‘consultation exercise’ on cuts was bad? It could be worse. In Italy, they’re asking the public to rank ordinary state workers to weed out the ‘under-performers’.
  • The NYT Profiles Teach For America, an education programme which is getting a lot of buzz.

And finally, in honour of Diane Abbott, here’s a ‘geeky young man in a suit':

Hollobone’s ‘burka ban’

July 14, 2010 at 8:22 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 12 Comments

JR-hollobone4 1378941c

Update: photo courtesy of http://www.jr-photos.com/ Also, see the comments section to see me getting a well-deserved upbraiding.

Whilst the success of a measure to ban Islamic veils in France should rightly be looked upon as a troubling victory for bull-headed illiberalism, we shouldn’t allow our disgust with the French parliament to distract us from those in Britain who would do the same thing.

Take Tory backbencher Phllip Hollobone, who took to the BBC the other day to shill for his euphemistically titled ‘Face Coverings Regulation Bill’.

The grounds that Hollobone seeks his ban range from frivolous to feeble to flagrant scaremongering: he claims that Emmeline Pankhurst would not have approved, that deaf people find it harder to lip read, that the burka must be awfully uncomfortable to wear on hot, sunny days and, if that wasn’t enough, that the women wearing them may pose a threat to national security.

You see, it’s not enough to argue that Muslim women must dress to suit the presumed wishes of some long-dead historical figure, nor is it enough to suggest they do their bit for old fashioned civility by flashing smiles at passing strangers. No, for Hollobone’s argument to have any weight at all, he must also argue that we should fear the burka, and the ‘women’ (if indeed they are women!) who wear it as a symbol of the horrors wreaked upon us by mad men.

Let’s face it, without having the terrorism card to waft in our faces, Hollobone’s featherweight arguments wouldn’t have even found their way in front of a TV camera. None of his ill-made justifications are adequate reasons to legislate in this or any other Parliament, and aside from some superficial doff of the hat to the matriarch of women’s suffrage, he doesn’t even bother to engage with the valid concerns that people have about what such a dress symbolises.

What’s more, does anyone really imagine that we can have an honest & revealing debate about the burka, its symbolism and the position of Muslim women in society by banning the religion’s most contentious items of clothing? Does anyone really believe that reactionary legislation designed to force integration will achieve its desired end? I thought it was just the left who did ‘social engineering’?

The sign of a ‘big society’ isn’t in the legislation we pass to try to pull people into line; it’s in the civic discourse between people from vastly different backgrounds who can communicate openly and freely, unimpeded by the senseless threat of legal sanction. We don’t need to like the face veil, we don’t even need to tolerate it, but Parliament certainly has no place banning it.

Will education reform lead to a 21st century tripartite?

July 13, 2010 at 8:10 am | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

In The Guardian, Fiona Millar summarises what seems to be the most commonly-held nightmare scenario among critics of Michael Gove’s education reforms:

Most local areas will have a brand new school, but it will be an academy, outside the local family, with facilities that can outshine its neighbours.

Down the road will be another school, which has opted out because it is “outstanding” so almost certainly has a relatively advantaged intake. This school will enjoy more money, and many freedoms, far from the gaze of central government, which hasn’t got the capacity to enforce compliance in admissions, exclusions, special needs and taking those tricky children from the hard-to-place panel.

Around the corner will be the local free school set up by the yummy mummies and daddies, where pupils will enjoy a limited but high-status curriculum.

And then there will be the crumbling neighbours, who didn’t get BSF, doing their best with the pupils who no one else wants and sharing out the diminished pot of money left at the heart of the local authority.

The scenario Millar depicts is basically a 21st century tripartite system; free schools will be too small and exclusive to be a realistic option for most families, which will leave them with a stark choice. If they’re fortunate, they’ll get their children into ‘outstanding’, well-equipped academies which will be so over-subscribed that they can set tough admissions criteria and easily exclude those whose behaviour is disruptive.

If they aren’t so fortunate, their children will end up in a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive which is duty-bound to accept them regardless of background or ability, but which can’t attract the best teachers & students because their facilities and results pale in comparison. Thus a stratified education system is created (or sustained?) whereby parents with the most financial and cultural capital can achieve the best outcomes for their kids, at the expense of those with the least. Same as it ever was.

It must be said, of course, that Millar is hardly the most dispassionate or objective observer of our education system, and since Gove’s reforms are still in their infancy, it’s only fair to offer a few arguments in mitigation. First, Gove insists that academies will still be enouraged to offer advice and support to help ‘lesser’ schools improve their outcomes, and the Prime Minister pledged that they’ll still be obligated to accept pupils with Special Educational Needs.

In addition, the Tory/Liberal pledge of a ‘pupil premium’ is meant to encourage schools to accept poorer students by paying more per head. The governement would also insist that substandard schools won’t be allowed to waste away, and can either be taken over or closed altogether if deemed to be failing. For the coalition, the market will drive up standards across the system, but the state will ensure that no child is left behind.

As is always the case, the impact of Gove’s reforms can’t be easily measured until a few years down the line, but there are a few observations to make at the outset. First, we should avoid buying into the hype that these reforms are radical. There is nothing particularly radical about giving proven outstanding schools greater freedom or in intervening aggressively with failing schools. Indeed, rather than fixating on those at the top & bottom, a more important test is the effect on schools in the middle band; the ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ schools which achieve decent results but don’t add all that much value to their students’ outcomes.

These are the schools which haven’t been invited to apply for academy status and will remain tethered to a local authority which now feels less of an obligation to improve its own schools. What incentive is there for an LEA to help a ‘good’ school become ‘outstanding’ if they know that it would end up applying for academy status and detaching from the LEA mothership? Not only would that authority lose funds, but it would also create added pressure on other schools in the authority. So why would they bother?

At this stage the biggest fear about the coalition’s reforms is that a policy for improving the outcomes of all schools doesn’t seem particularly evident. Without some clear idea of how to achieve this, or limit the impact of academies ‘creaming off’ the most able students, there is a greater risk that Millar’s nightmare of a socially segregated education system turns into a reality. We could avoid a return to the 1950s.

Did Labour convince us to “keep faith in the system”?

July 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 5 Comments

Most of you will have now seen Sunny’s interview with Ed Miliband, in which he declared himself ‘the candidate of change’ and then somewhat contentiously argued that New Labour wasn’t too harsh in how it handled the benefits system. Responding to heckles from the audience, Sunny suggests Miliband’s critics have missed the point:

Sure, New Labour did use a lot of negative language, but it’s naive to assume people won’t talk about “benefits cheats” just because the Labour government didn’t. The Daily Mail cannot be wished away. And so I’m assuming New Labour simply made the calculation that sounding harsh on benefit cheats in public would convince the public something was being done about them – and keep faith in the system. Because once that faith goes, then the system goes.

In many respects, Sunny is absolutely correct. We shouldn’t have any trouble believing that New Labour’s punitive approach to the long term unemployed – from threatening them with homelessness and forcing them into workfare to giving them breathalisers and lie detectors – was anything less than pure political opportunism, designed to win a few favourable headlines and deflect the charge that they’re soft on ‘scroungers’. Some of us having been saying this for years, and the fact that most of these proposals never made it past the pages of the tabloids is a testament to how ineffably unserious they were.

But if we’re to accept that such tactics were born more out of calculation than conviction (which is hardly the most most stirring defence, is it?), we should then consider whether those tactics worked. So did New Labour’s frequent admonishments of the long-term unemployed succeed in convincing the public to, as Sunny puts it, “keep faith in the system”?

Not so much. Over a period which saw remarkably consistent growth and increased national prosperity, both the British Social Attitudes survey and the Rowntree Foundation found a hardening in the British public’s attitudes to unemployment, poverty & welfare. In 1996, the BSA survey found that 78% of respondants agreed that the government had a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. By 2006, that number had fallen to 55%. At best, Labour failed to arrest an inexorable decline in the public’s faith in the benefits system; at worst, its calculations actively fed on this lack of faith to the point where the public has become far more receptive to the idea of Tory cuts.

This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore those good things Labour has done, nor dredge up its misdeeds at every opportunity; there will be a new leadership team before too long, and they don’t bear responsibility for every mistake made in 13 long years. But when the past approach seemed to win very little respite from the crowd that cries ‘Shameless!‘ at the first sight of a Job Centre – and lost them a huge amount of goodwill in the process – perhaps it’s time for people like Miliband to stop reaching for face-saving justifications.

Instead of trying to score points off the long-term unemployed, these ex-ministers must now talk about how they would assist & empower them. And instead of devising tabloid-pleasing scams, they should explain how they would prevent the millions who’re being left behind from being added to the human scrapheap.

A tale of two castles

July 6, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Sheffield | 50 Comments

castle gate

(Image via zawtowers)

As the next stage in its pursuit of regeneration, Sheffield Council had long planned a demolition job around the maligned, woebegotten Castle Gate. The city’s indoor market would finally meet the wrecking ball, and in its place would be the same soullessly sylish offices, bars and boutiques which have been such a feature of the city’s attempts to remake itself.

What’s made the council’s plans slightly more interesting is the promise to uncover the ruins of the medieval castle near where the market now stands, emphasising an oft-forgotten part of Sheffield’s rich history. Alas, the work of town planning never runs smoothly, and some mischievous bugger has applied for English Heritage to make the market a listed building. The leader of the council is livid:

“The land it stands on holds the key to the regeneration of that part of the city centre and we believe that the remains of Sheffield Castle could become an important tourist attraction in the future.

“English Heritage needs to listen to Sheffielders, who cherish the castle remains and their potential opening up to the public, and not the brutalist and not-fit-for-purpose 1960s market that sits on top of them.”

All of which makes English Heritage the referee in a fight between two castles; one a lost ruin with a history running back to Henry III, and another which has sold fruit & veg since the 1960s.

There’s no doubt that if the decision is made purely on aesthetic or historical grounds, the council would have their demolition day. The abandonment of Sheffield Castle after the Civil War was an act of cultural vandalism; as a home to John ‘The Butcher’ Talbot, a prison to Mary Queen of Scots and a key battleground in the Civil War itself, its historic significance is considerable. In comparison, the market is now a slightly shabby, down-at-heal symbol of a style of post-war architecture which is not well loved.

castle market

(Image via das kine)

But when you consider the decision on social grounds, things get somewhat murkier. When showing friends around the city, more than one has asked whether Castle Square was the ‘rough end’ of town. With its heavy traffic, unwelcoming taverns, budget shops and a glaring mishmash of architectural styles, the surrounding area doesn’t easily support the city’s attempt to sell itself as a haven for young middle class professionals. The market itself also has a reliably working class clientele, and though the premises will be relocated to a new, spruced-up site, there’s still a sense that they’re being moved on to aid a gentrification which threatens to price those on modest means out of the city centre altogether.

All of this should really lead to some discussion about what exactly a city centre is meant to be for. Should a bustling, vibrant marketplace belong in the heart of a city or as a mere appendage, to be kept at arms length from the Gaps and the Starbucks and Stradas which are the tidier, more presentable, more affluent artifice of its population? More generally, are there negative social consequences to the yuppification of places like Sheffield, Leeds & Manchester, or should we just accept that the old ways in which we used to shop and socialise no longer suit the times?

Labour must stop attacking the government from the right

July 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Posted in New Labour | 11 Comments

Were it just an isolated incident, I suppose we could just dismiss Jack Straw’s attack on prison reform as that of a grumpy ex-minister grasping for success stories from his time in government. We could even forgive him one last grumble as he adjusts to opposition and find his ‘prison works’ mantra consigned to the dustbin of social policy.

But then when you look around at how other ex-ministers have attacked coalition policies you’ll see a rather unsightly pattern emerge.

First, here’s Alan Johnson’s view of the coalition approach to crime:

The Home Secretary’s primary duty is to keep the public safe. She can do that or pursue the half-baked libertarian agenda cooked up with the Lib Dems. She can’t do both.

Then there’s immigration. After hearing that Britain won’t insist on an English test for asylum seekers who’re fleeing for their lives, Phil Woolas reacts with disgust and warns of Afghans on the back of lorries:

Former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: ‘This ruling means that a British man who marries, say, a Brazilian girl who can’t speak English will not be able to bring her into this country.

‘But an Afghan who gets here on the back of a lorry and successfully claims asylum can bring his Afghan wife, children and grandparents in – even if they don’t speak English.

Then, if you’re not already angry and afraid, here’s Johnson again to double down on the fear factor:

The coalition Government has been accused of “creeping complacency” in the face of the threat of terrorism, by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

The Labour MP said he is concerned a shake up of police powers and counter terrorism laws could leave the public more vulnerable to extremists.

See the pattern yet? Whether it’s on prison reform, crime, immigration or terrorism, the approach of Labour’s ex-ministers is to attack the government from the right. Now, maybe this can all be excused as tactical point-scoring and an attempt to cause mischief among a discontented Tory back bench. Maybe it’ll shave some of the varnish off the coalition’s credibility and win a few easy headlines with the usual suspects. But, as Sunny rightly points out, all it says to the rest of us is that the Labour Party hasn’t changed at all.

For those of us who might once have been inclined to support the party – even join it – Labour still has an awful lot for which it should atone. We haven’t forgotten the threats to make the unemployed homeless if they don’t get a job, using breathalisers to check they’re not too tanked-up to work or lie detectors to check they’re telling the truth. We haven’t forgotten 42 day detention, ID cards, Yarl’s Wood or the ‘hit squads‘ of supernannies who were meant to sort out our ‘feckless ‘unemployed. We haven’t forgotten how cynical, punitive and populist Labour’s social policy could be, and these desperate attempts to attack the coalition from the right and just for the sake of it suggests that Labour is content to act exactly the same way in opposition.

Of course, this might all change with a new leader. Until the election is concluded, the shadow cabinet is acting less like a credible alternate government and more an attack dog without a head; a new leader could bring about a more empowering, less authoritarian approach to government. What it does show, however, is that Labour’s problems will not be solved just by changing the person who wishes to lead it; it will also require a significant change in the attitudes of some of its senior politicians.

In the wake of the deal between the Tories and Lib Dems, Labour activists began proclaiming that they were now the only left-wing alternative in Parliament. If they want us to believe that, it would help to stop attacking the government from the right.

Prisoner, heal thyself

July 1, 2010 at 9:21 am | Posted in Prison Reform | 4 Comments

As the convergence of Labour and the Tory right on prison reform continues, David Green writes:

Above all, the Coalition does not accept the fundamental liberal precept that we should be seen as free individuals, each responsible for our own actions. Criminals are not patients being treated by the ‘therapeutic state’, they are free people who made the wrong choice. Ironically the Lib-Dems are the main obstacle to a genuinely liberal approach based on personal responsibility, an approach that should be the heart of policy on crime as well as the renewal of civil society implied by the Big-Society agenda. The big danger for the Coalition Government is that adopting Lib-Dem policies will lead to an increase in crime when we already have enough problems to cope with.

First off, quit whingeing about the Liberal Democrats and spinning this as a regrettable consequence of coalition politics. Penal reform is a Conservative policy, written in Conservative pre-election policy documents by Conservative policymakers and espoused by Conservative politicians. If the ‘prison works’ coalition really wishes to shake off the stench of progress, they should go and join UKIP. Or Labour.

Next, it’s a feat of heroic myopia to contend that criminals are just ‘free people who made the wrong choice’, as if they entered the criminal justice system unemcumbered by any disabling influences on their lives.

Around 50% of prisoners ran away from home as a child and 27% were taken into care. 30% truanted from school, 49% of men were excluded and 52% left without any qualifications. 65% of prisoners have the numeracy levels of 11-year olds, 48% have the reading age of 11-year-olds and 67% were unemployed before imprisonment. 32% of prisoners were homeless, over 70% suffer from two or more mental disorders and around 60% had abused drugs in the past year (Bromley Briefings, p20).

The people entering our prison systems did make bad choices; they failed themselves, their families and their communities. Most people in our prisons are deserving of a period of incarceration. But they were also failed themselves. They were failed by their own families, by their communities, by their schools and by their state, and now find themselves caught up in a cycle of offending and incarceration which is difficult to break even with the help & support that’s currently on offer.

To suggest that it’s possible for these people to simply rehabilitate themselves without assistance from the state which locked them up suggests either complete ignorance of the problems in society or a stubborn refusal to see prison as anything more than a warehouse for human waste. In that sense, the ‘prison works’ coalition is one of the more craven and nasty groups in modern mainstream politics.

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