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 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 | 52 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.

Prison works? No thanks, Jack

June 30, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

As Justice Secretary, it often felt like Jack Straw was motivated more by a desire to protect the public from liberals than from criminals. In his inglorious time in government, Straw’s Labour Party oversaw a record rise in the prison population, dangerous levels of overcrowding and a disastrous early release scheme which completely battered public confidence in the courts. He ignored British and European law on prisoners’ voting rights, fed us policies packed with pure populist junk and blithely suggested that those who complained simply didn’t care enough about the victims of crime.

So it’s entirely fitting that in his well-deserved stint in opposition, Straw has taken to the Daily Mail to warn once more of the middle-class liberal ‘hand-wringers’ who’ll soon fling open the prison gates and try to cure hardened thugs with hugs & therapy.

As Straw tells it, crime only began to fall in the mid-90’s because of the draconian sentencing regime imposed by Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard. Labour continued his ‘good work’ for the next 13 years and have declining crime rates to show for it, at the small cost of a massively expanded prison population. Now, thanks to an ‘alliance’ between Ken Clarke and 57 Lib Dem MPs, all that good work threatens to be reversed, replaced by liberal ‘hand-wringing’ (a phrase he uses four times) and ignorance of the true cost of crime.

He is, of course, being utterly disengenuous. The speech given by the new Justice Secretary was not the result of some Rasputin-style whispering from Liberal Democrats, but a continuation of Tory policy which existed before there was even a prospect of a coalition. It was the Tories’ ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper which suggested they were finally ready to ditch the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard and raise the profile of rehabilitation as a means of reducing crime. The reason Straw invokes some liberal conspiracy is the same reason the Lib Dems have been invoked as boogeymen by numerous shadow ministers in recent weeks – in the hope that they can turn ‘liberal’ into the new ‘tory’.

There’s still much uncertainty in the coalition’s plan for penal reform, and what happens in the criminal justice system is inevitably influenced by the state of the economy and the availability of housing & jobs for newly-released prisoners. Change of policy, even from the rotten one they inherited, might not necessarily mean change for the better. But what sets the coalition apart from Labour, even at this early stage, is the intention of getting the prison population under control. For Straw, leaving government with a prison population of over 84,000 is almost something to be proud of; for Clarke and the coalition, it is a problem which needs to addressed.

But we should, perhaps, save a few meagre words of thanks for Straw as he whinges into obscurity, for he leaves us with clear dividing lines between his departed government and its successor. We can either long for the return of the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard & Straw, which led to massive overcrowding, early prisoner release and an inexorable rise in the prison population, or we can hope that a more pragmatic, rehabilitation-focused regime will replace it and help bring that population under control. I know which side I’m rooting for.

Weights & watersheds

June 30, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 8 Comments

Where does the hand become the wrist?
Where does the neck become the shoulder? The watershed
and then the weight, whatever turns up and tips us over that
razor’s edge
between something and nothing, between
one and the other.

Simon Armitage, Gooseberry Season

If I was forced to describe the past nine months, I’d call it a time of weights & watersheds. On each day of a PGCE course, students spend their time swallowing new and challenging experiences; tests & expectations. Some of these will be positive, others demoralising, but they all swill around the basins of our brains until “something turns up and tips us over that razor’s edge”. The weight becomes a watershed.

Some of these tipping points are fixed & formal; when you’ve gained enough experience to tick every box and meet each standard, the watershed brings the relief of crossing a threshold from Student to Teacher.

But most of the other tipping points you experience are harder to define, like where the hand becomes the wrist, or when the neck becomes shoulder. I’d tried for several months to keep this blog running despite the increasing demands on my time. I saw it as my way of maintaining a sense of perspective; of remembering that a world exists beyond the classroom.

But as the expectations multiplied, and with them the restrictions on my time, it became difficult just to keep up to date with my own reading, let alone committing the time to write. I realised that to write a blog and also train to teach would eventually lead to not being particularly effective at either. Something had to give, and so I shut myself away, neither blogging nor reading, commenting or tweeting. It apparently wasn’t enough to leave the blog on hiatus; its author had to vanish. Completely.

Thankfully, that period of my life is now over; the course has finished and I can now look forward to a new job and a new life in London. The sense of achievement is great and the possibilities for the future are exciting.

All that’s left before I try to turn this place into an active blog once more is to add a cringing apology to the kind folks who’ve passed by & left comments, who’ve had me on their RSS feeds, followed me on Twitter and enquired into my whereabouts & well-being. I was always been genuinely grateful to the folks who read this thing in the past, and hope it will become an interesting visit once again.

Oh, and the next time the weight becomes too much, I will at least try to leave a note.

Selected Reading: The Me Edition

March 2, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Posted in Misc. | 1 Comment

If we were to measure the quality of a blog post by the quality of the responses to it, my last note on Yarl’s Wood would probably count as my most successful blog to date. Sad though I am to be unable to respond in kind, I can at least leave some links so that you get the chance to see them.

  • First, there was a good discussion in the comments thread over at LibCon (where it was cross-posted).
  • Paul Cotterill’s post pulled the amazing feat of merging the humane with the high-brow.
  • Carl at Raincoat Optimism places a priority on getting to the bottom of what’s going on at Yarl’s Wood, and then seeking reform.
  • Harpyymarx laments the use of asylum seekers as a party political tool.

On a last ME note, Heaven is Whenever launches tomorrow. We’re always looking for new writers, so do check it out if you’re interested.

Call for papers

February 28, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 8 Comments

There’s a new song I’ve been obsessing over recently. It’s going to be on the new Hold Steady album, ‘Heaven is Whenever’, and includes a quite brilliant line:

Utopia’s a band – they sang that ‘Love is the Answer’,

And I think they’re probably right.

Whilst it first seems like singer Craig Finn is dismissing the idea of Utopia by referring only to a defunct & obscure band, what he really means is that we can briefly reach that longed-for state of happiness through the music in our lives. As he concludes in the chorus:

“Heaven is whenever we can get together,

Sit down on your floor and listen to your records”.

Its a line which should also have relevance for political bloggers. We are in the midst of an election campaign which would try the patience of a saint. Though blogging is necessarily combative, we would do well to remember that one of its joys is the space it creates to interact with opposing points of view. In the ongoing campaign for our own utopias – our own visions how Britain can be made better – we should not lose sight of this, nor forget that behind the psedonyms & avatars are real people.

So how do we preserve, and even build upon, the fledgling community that this election campaign threatens to coarsen? I have one idea.

heaven co1py

(Both the name and the website can change if anyone has a better idea.)

We create a space where everyone – regardless of party or ideology – can write about the music they enjoy; our favourite albums, overlooked artists, most memorable gigs or cherished social experiences. We write not as esteemed political bloggers with our gripes and demands and agendas, but as music fans.

For this to work, there should be but three rules:

  • You should be a political blogger.
  • You should write about any aspect or genre of music.
  • Your writing should not be party-political.

Here’s the catch: I can’t do this on my own. As you might’ve noticed, work constraints mean that I’m not currently able to keep my own blog ticking over as much as I’d like, so running two is an impossibility. I’ve already had some kind offers of contribution and admin, and I would be happy to receive more. I would also be delighted if those of you who believe in the concept could promote it within your own blogging communities – the experience will only be richer for having a multitude of voices. Naturally, all contributors would have a link back to their own political blogs, and a spot on the blogroll.

If you would like to contribute, or have any ideas/suggestions, do feel free to leave a comment either here or with LeftOutside, or leave an email at bleedingheartblog at gmail dot com.

In closing, I’d say that one of the joys of music for me is the social experiences it can provide. If we could replicate some of those opportunities for interaction in the British blogosphere – even if only for a short period of time – I think we’d all benefit.

Yarl’s Wood – A question for Labour bloggers

February 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Asylum, New Labour | 18 Comments

Yarl's Wood

Because I possess a lousy news antennae, my choice for top story of the day isn’t the tightening in the opinion polls or David Cameron’s promise to ‘double up on change’. Instead, I was startled by yet more troubling allegations about the conditions at Yarl’s Wood. To add to the reported mistreatment of children and the four week hunger strike, the Observer has now obtained testimonies from people inside the facility that guards have been beating women:

Jacqui McKenzie of Birnberg Peirce said: “I have spoken to a client of mine in Yarl’s Wood and she has seen the bruising herself from the incident on 8 February. There is an atmosphere of real tension there.”

The images of the bruising show the injuries allegedly sustained during the incident by Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, who claims she was hit by staff and, since the disturbance, has been moved to London’s Holloway prison.


Meme Jallow, 26, from Gambia, who has been inside Yarl’s Wood for seven months, said: “A girl called Denise was by the windows. One officer took her and hit her by the face.”

Another hunger striker, a 37-year-old from Nigeria who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her asylum case being unfairly reviewed, said: “The security went outside and used shields like they do when there is a war. That is what they used to smash one of the women who was outside.”

Now, I’m not in the mood for hyperventilating this afternoon, and nothing new will be gained by just restating my belief that Yarl’s Wood should close immediately, with an apology offered to all who’ve been mistreated in these publicly-funded, privately-run quasi-prisons.

Instead, I wanted to guage the opinion of Labour members/voters/activists – the grassroots blog-writers and door-knockers who are the best face of an otherwise haggard-looking party.

When I learned the existence of these centres back in my more idealistic youth, it was a discovery which began my gradual estrangement from the Labour Party. I did not want to be a part of any political party which, when in government, incarcerated asylum seekers, particularly when the motivations for doing so seemed deeply craven.

Though I may have moderated in the intervening years, that remains my view. Furthermore, whilst I cannot generalise to the rest of my generation, when your formative political experiences are of a state acting punitively towards society’s most vulnerable, you may be less inclined to regard the state as a potential force for good.

I realise, of course, that there’ll be plenty within the Labour Party who’re equally opposed to Yarl’s Wood and its ilk, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that you can only change a party from the inside. What I’m curious about is whether there is any scope for change. Is this the kind of issue which enrages local activists? Are there enough of them to demand a change of approach by the party leadership? Will we ever hear a Labour leader complaining about the treatment of asylum seekers rather than excusing it?

To find out, I’m going to pull my first ever tagging trick and ask Dr Phil, Don Paskini, Though Cowards Flinch and any of my Labour-voting readers (the ones I haven’t already scared off). Can Labour get any more liberal on this issue, or I expect this squalid status quo to remain, and get over it?

Generation game

February 23, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

The thing I’ve always enjoyed about Laurie Penny’s writing is the endearingly belligerent, seemingly inextinguishable faith she has in people. So many of her posts and her columns start with the belief that people have limitless potential, and that it only goes unrealised when it’s trampled-on either by an uncharitable state or an unrelenting capitalism. I also like that her socialism isn’t situated at the level of the state doing things for or to the people, but of people doing things for each other. Really, if she wasn’t such a fine writer, she’d make a great motivational speaker.

Yet I feel her latest post is a little grand in its claims about the generation to which both she and I belong. Laurie paints us as a generation packed with potential heroes: “orthodox, driven, a little boring, and with a deep desire to save the precarious world that we are about to inherit.” Whilst we may be godless, we’re far from amoral or degenerate, and you can see from our campaigning against climate change or membership of Conservative Future that we possess an “urgent impulse to stabilise society”.

Whilst I do know people with the attitudes, lifestyles & ways of thinking she describes, I think it’s beyond the talents of any writer to hold these aloft as the dominant characteristics of a generation. In times when there is more difference, diversity and tolerance than ever before, I don’t think it’s possible to identify any uniform, unifying qualities, save the most basic & irrefutable facts.

She’ll surely recognise, too, that these potentially heroic young people, these earnest changemakers of the present and the future, do seem to be mostly middle class. Are the qualities present in a Cambridge-educated climate activist shared by a girl who works at a check-out in Boots? Is her description as apt for an apprentice plasterer as it is for a political careerist like Shane Greer? The problem with pieces like this is that the people who have the privilege of writing them are able to generalise their own limited experiences to those of the demographic as a whole, and I think we’re too complicated for that to succeed.

In fact, I suspect something similar happened with the boomer generation and all its reverential hagiographies. For each social or cultural flashpoint during the 60’s or 70’s, remembered fondly by those who were there & spoken of as Great Moments in Modern History, there were surely more people of that generation who didn’t take part than those who did.

Whilst the civil rights and anti-war movements were marching & raging in the US, I’m sure there were still more young mechanics in Boise, Idaho; more young farmers in rural Kentucky; more young waitresses and barmaids in small town Minnesota. There were more people who either couldn’t relate to these popular and counter-cultural movements, or who had to sacrifice their involvement in order to earn a steady wage. The Woodstocks and Selmas and San Franciscos of the past may have been significant, but not so much that they should obscure what I imagine is a much more rich & varied social history than is often sold to us.

I know plenty of people who possess the qualities Laurie describes, and I’m sure they apply for some in our generation. But by trying to find a uniform, unifying theme, by appearing as though she wishes to speak for all of us and be a character witness on our behalf, she creates an image that fewer of us will feel able to relate to. The great thing about today’s young adults is the breadth of our difference, and the fact that this difference is so ordinary that it’s rarely worth commenting on. After reading Laurie’s piece, I’m starting to think we should start asserting it a lot more.

Why Gordon should get nice

February 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | 8 Comments

Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward:

Are you nice to shop assistants?

You see, the shop assistant’s working life is fairy dreary & dispiriting: you’re not paid very much, you’re restricted to repeating the same actions for 8 hours a day, and you frequently come into contact with customers who treat you with as much warmth & kindness as a cash machine. It’s also true that the rare occasions when someone does treat you as a human being are the occasions when your job seems less miserable. So if you can’t be friendly, smile or even say ‘thank you’ during your purchase, I don’t wish to know you.

If the allegations about Gordon Brown’s blustering, bullying & temper tantrums are true, they reflect as badly on the Prime Minister as a person as his Premiership has reflected on him as a politician. It’s one thing to start grabbing and yelling at your Deputy Chief of Staff, but for the victims to also include the more ‘lowly’ duty clerks, typists and telephone operators – the folks who keep Downing Street working – is particularly distasteful.

But quite apart from the instability these stories suggests, or the way it makes Gordon look like he regards his staff merely as incompetent servants, it’s also an lousy approach to governing. First, ponder this from Lerner & Tiedens’ review of the effect of anger on decision-making:

Angry decision makers also typically process information in heuristic ways, not stopping to ponder alternative options before acting. They are eager to make decisions and are unlikely to stop and ponder or carefully analyze. This too derives primarily from the sense of certainty associated with anger, but may also be caused by the optimism they have about the future. Thus, angry decision makers may then, as Aristotle suggested long ago, have a difficult time being angry at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.

In a political context, this makes it more likely that your decisions will be rash and ill thought-through – not something you really want in leaders who are often required to make decisions of great importance.

But perhaps more importantly in these economically threadbare times, we also know that happiness is a great way of boosting workers’ productivity:

In one experiment, subjects were split into two groups, with one being shown a short comedy film and the other not. Subjects shown the film were 10% more productive than those who weren’t. This productivity boost was confined to those who actually enjoyed the film.

What’s more, subjects did not realize that this effect was happening; only 31% felt that watching the clip had improved their skill on the test.

In another experiment, subjects were asked before the test  whether they had suffered a family bereavement or parental divorce in the last two years. Those who said they had were about 10% less productive than those who said they hadn’t.

So if Gordon could find it within himself to be a bit nicer to the people who work for him – maybe by bringing some fancy biscuits to the office, arranging a ‘dress down Friday’ or the occasional curry night, he might well find that Downing Street becomes a better functioning, more well-oiled governing machine.

Make ’em smile, Gordon. It might not do much for your poll ratings, but at least you’ll see less of your staff running to Andrew Rawnsley.

The benefits of piracy

February 21, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Posted in Media, Music, Art, Etcetera | 2 Comments

(Click to enlarge)

It may be one of the more extreme examples, but this chart shows some of the frustrating disincentives against buying a film on DVD. Whatever the arguments about the morality or legality of consuming something you haven’t paid for, if piracy is not only cheaper but considerably more hassle-free than enduring a dozen unskippable anti-piracy adverts and movie trailers, it’s going to be a tempting option for a lot of people.

This isn’t to say that piracy isn’t risk-free; quite apart from the legal issues, the retail market remains the best choice if you want 100% certainty that the DVD, record or book you want to buy is of the quality you would expect. If you absolutely have to watch Avatar, you’re going to want to see it in the highest definition possible. Many music fans would wretch at the thought of listening to a Flaming Lips record at 128kb, or hearing Pet Sounds through tinny laptop speakers.

Despite this, the pirate market can still satisfy fans in ways that the retail market is incapable of doing. Let’s take the example of the prodigous & endearingly inconsistent songsmith Ryan Adams. In 10 years, Adams has released an impressive 11 full-length studio albums, but, as his fans will often remind you, it could’ve been many more. Adams’ label famously rejected a host of superb recordings – made during his songwriting peak – on the grounds that they weren’t commercial enough, thus depriving fans of the chance to hear a hours of great songs.

The great thing about the internet age is that music fans are no longer restricted to what some artistically deaf record company executive thinks you ought to hear. Recordings such as ‘Suicide Handbook’ were soon leaked and are now easily available on filesharing sites. And the label didn’t make a penny out of it. On top of that, his fans have access to loads of good quality live recordings, covers and out-of-print b-sides which otherwise wouldn’t have been easy to access.

But this extends beyond Ryan Adams and beyond music. The pirate market allows us to keep permanent copies of things the creative industries would rather we not have. You can keep an enjoyable episode of Eastenders for posterity, save an enthralling football match or share an interesting article that might otherwise be buried behind a paywall. To be a fan is to be an afficionado, and to be an afficionado means you’re always searching for that which you haven’t seen or read or heard. Thanks to piracy, our compulsion to consume new things is no longer restricted.

So it’s not just the appeal of a free record or film which sustains the piracy market, it’s the innate consumption compulsion of the fans. Unless the affected industries stop restricting what we can see and hear, and find a way of making some money out of it, piracy will retain its creative importance.

Update: From the comments, here’s xkcd:

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