Category: Uncategorized

How To Make A Perfect Storm Out Of A Shower!

I don’t want to speak out of line and I know that teachers are doing a magnificent job to hold things together but the truth is that schools are descending into chaos within weeks of a much trumpeted return which was underpinned by some of the most absurd gobbledygook ever written by civil servants at the DFE – and there’s some strong competition for that prize.

The worst impact has been to disempower head teachers who find themselves implementing guidelines which make no sense. If ever something needed locally devised solutions and workarounds it is Covid-19!

Anyway, let’s look at the recipe for chaos devised by HM government. It started with the political rhetoric about children needing to be in school and that’s okay – although the self-righteous bleating of some tame DFE acolytes about the sacredness of pedagogy hasn’t helped anyone!

After the words, schools were then subjected to daft provisions about keeping groups of children apart which might have sounded quite worthy but overlooked the fact that the teachers circulate from class to class and everyone goes home on the same buses. Then, there was dafter advice about wearing masks which has been self-contradictory throughout the summer. It’s good sense to wear masks because wearing one limits the opportunity to pass the virus to other people. However, the situation in different classes and the activity being undertaken can both quite sensibly influence whether or not masking up makes sense. Somehow, this decision has been taken away from teachers.

Just as an aside, how clever it is of some schools to decide that masks should be of uniform quality and appearance and limited in colours. Hurray, the pupils will still look appropriately dressed but unfortunately isn’t it just possible that some masks might get mixed up so that they add to the risk of infection rather than limiting it. Does anyone ever think about things like this? When the lockdown started, people wore masks because they were doing their bit to prevent the spread of the virus and they felt good about it. It’s quite an achievement to have turned them, in only three months, into an arena for argument and a way to make political or eccentric statements. In schools, this pitches them into the area of low-level disruption and there’s enough opportunity for that already.

It gets worse and things fall apart when no one has thought through what happens when a child or a teacher falls ill and you have to isolate them and their contacts and then you don’t have enough tests to determine if anyone can come back to school. How do you decide how far the isolation should go especially when a lack of testing means it’s going to be two weeks? Then, when you get to the stage where seven or eight teachers are unwell – and let’s not even think about overcrowded staff rooms in schools – you probably have to close the school but for how long – who knows?

This is bad but there are other factors. I wonder if anyone knows how many children are picked up from school my grandparents or looked after post school by their grandparents? There are families where generations live in close proximity and people who have protected themselves including all the other vulnerable adults as well as the elderly are now being forced to take a risk. There again, imagine growing up having the vague feeling that you killed granny! It’s not a nice thought.

There are good reasons for children to be back in school but the risks have to be minimised not in some daft cosmetic, fudged, off-the-cuff way but structurally. Imagine what could have happened if three months ago if the government, instead of fumbling along trying to do everything itself, had set up an expert committee drawn from head teachers, teachers, unions, local authorities to work out an emergency plan for opening schools from September. Could they have come up with something better?

Well it wouldn’t take anybody with an inkling of understanding about social distancing to realise that stage one would involve having fewer pupils in the school. A model where every child gets three days of school a week reduces the risk of cross infection and means that anticipating teacher absence can be part of a managed response. Lower numbers means quieter corridors and canteens, spacing on buses, smaller classes if required and so on.

Once our expert group is at this stage, let’s hope that it could work out how to deliver an online education properly. There are people who know how to do this and the expertise has not disappeared. Suppose every teacher got a crash course in blended learning and that was backed up with courses that exist in full, and in detail, online and off-line so that each week of learning was not just ‘signposted’ but available for pupils to access in school or at home. If you think about it, all kinds of education courses are structured in this way so you don’t have the teacher popping up on a Zoom screen and describing today’s lesson as if it is a rabbit coming out of a hat and then worrying because half the class ‘missed the introduction’.  Parents who have complained all year about being in the dark and confused about their children’s learning should be able to see it as well. It isn’t rocket science to separate the delivery and exposition in subjects from the activities which lead to the acquisition of learning. It’s been done and it works in many contexts.

Of course, OFSTED is to blame for some of this and the idea that inspectors should be thinking about visiting schools this term is so absurd as to be laughable in a situation where risk is being minimised. Our expert group could have dispensed with them long ago.

The next bit in a strategic plan is how to manage outbreaks and infections. In most schools, there are teachers on duty when children arrive. In the best schools, they interact, talk to them, welcome them and get the day off to a good start. With digital thermometers they can screen everyone who comes in and keep an eye on the use of hand sanitiser. It’s a good chance to stress the basic messages without turning them into disciplinary practices. Remember that there are fewer pupils than normal.

Our expert group would probably have realised a long time ago that it needed test packs or, better still, a visiting test team coming to the school each day. That wouldn’t be difficult for a local authority to organise in conjunction with the NHS and it might even be achievable with the bunch of cowboys, and everyone in education will know exactly who I mean, who run Track and Trace. On a particular day, if there are no referrals one group could be swabbed randomly to check there was nothing lurking beneath the surface.

Working like that, schools will be doing what they’ve always done really well and that is keeping children safer than they sometimes are in the outside world instead of apparently exposing them to additional risk. It can reassure anxious parents and keep the phone lines quieter.

Our experts might also look to the future. It beggars belief that people are just starting to think about what to do if the virus cocks up the examination system again in 2021. Postponing exams and praying is not a strategic solution so what can help? Maybe without mentioning the word coursework it will be possible to introduce periodic, evidenced, standardised teacher assessment with perhaps a termly assessment over a two-year course. When you have got over spluttering about how this can never be done, teachers cannot be trusted blah blah blah it would be helpful to remember that it is the dominant form of assessment used in a number of countries which achieve much better results from national testing and better pupil outcomes than we do. There are still people alive who remember how this used to work very effectively and the examination boards have reams of development tucked away in their files. By all means, cling onto the possibility of a terminal test but make other arrangements which are practicable, deliverable and fair. And, do it in a timely way!

All of this isn’t a panacea for a nasty virus and a pandemic but perhaps it does suggest that there are other ways forward than the current chaos. The final thing to say is that, at the sharp end, everyone has to put their trust in school leaders and school leadership teams and give them the space to think their way through the issues on a day-to-day basis rather than sending them volumes of confused and often contradictory interventions from government. Things may be bad but they really could be better for everyone!

Is there an algorithm to explain U-turns?

If you’re a cynic you might think that the government’s decision to do something about its catastrophic cock-up over algorithms in public examinations was largely driven by Boris Johnson’s desire to start his holiday. However, the back-pedalling will still be welcomed by candidates and schools alike. The interesting question is how we have got into this mess and how both government and Ofqual got it so wrong. It will be fun over the next few weeks to see how each of them blames the other!

It will be news to some people that the government regularly intervenes in the business of examination standards. Since the first Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) was set up just over thirty years ago it has always had the right to inspect examination standards before results are issued and to comment. These comments are not public but there’s no doubt that they impact and that Ofqual and its predecessors perceive them as instructions.

It is also the case that government has a terrible fear of grade creep which can be summarised as young people doing better in examinations than they ought to. The fear is not of school improvement but of castigation by members of Parliament, vociferous right wing commentators, the right-wing media and the elderly. Bizarrely, this overlooks the fact that those who comment are generally the ones who succeeded in school examinations and went on to positions of power. They are unlikely to see the process which got them there as fundamentally flawed.

In some ways, it is a baffling position to take up. Fear of grade creep got rid of some really good improvements in teaching and learning like General Vocational Qualifications, modular A-levels, practical skills tests and coursework. The final stage, overseen by Michael Gove, was the return to single terminal examination papers taken at the end of the course. He is the least likely to apologise but his decision left no evidence base for 2020 assessments.

Anyway, going back to interventions, the way that Ofqual manages grading gives some hint as to why its behaviour this year has appeared so weird to those outside the process. Each year, and for every subject, the examination boards submit tentative figures to Ofqual along with their proposed grade boundaries. Ofqual aggregates these into what is essentially a national order of merit so that it can see, in theory at least, if one examination board is being lenient with its clients or another one being severe and if the national standard being contemplated is sufficiently in line with previous years to be explainable. That is an odd expression because some people would argue that the huge investment in education in the past few years, the expectation that teachers are better qualified and trained, more on-the-job training and professional qualifications for leaders should be reflected in a rise in standards. It’s a balancing act but, in general, Conservative governments like to be tough on standards and then to be able to berate the Labour opposition for being soft when in power. The Murdoch press and the Daily Mail like this as well!

If Ofqual advises the government that everything is hunky-dory and the maintenance of standards is guaranteed, and the government agrees with this, then the examination boards get the nod to finalise the results. In some subjects they may be told to make minor changes – typically downwards. Although the examining boards have made decisions about grade boundaries on the basis of standards by inspecting genuine scripts there is sufficient leeway within the process for this to happen without the awarding meetings being recalled.

This year therefore, and in line with practice, the examination boards sent Ofqual a series of teacher assessments probably expressed in terms of marks and percentages as in any other year. The Government implied in public and, probably also, private statements that it did not expect a free for all in awards and that standards should be the same this year as in any other. So, when Ofqual discovered that nationally this was not the case the natural tendency was to reach for the algorithm!

As everyone knows, there is nothing fancy about the Ofqual algorithm and the old statement that if you put rubbish in you get rubbish out seems to have held true. What the algorithm tried to do was to compare standards in schools in subjects year by year and compare the 2020 pupil cohort taking examinations with those of other years based on key stage assessments. That sounds a bit fancy but it’s like taking your 11+ score and seeing if it predicts your geography A-level grade! To test the algorithm they ran it on the data from 2019 and discovered it would have been 60% accurate. It seems not to have occurred to them that it would have been 40% inaccurate which is about what has happened this year!

I think some of the above explains the sheer blindness at Ofqual (to some extent shared with the examination boards) in failing to spot the iceberg which was looming up in front of them. If they had only thought about the human level they might have done better because it is worth underlining here that predictions are bread-and-butter in schools. If you have a twelve year old in their second year in secondary school it is quite likely that their report tells you what grade is predicted for them at GCSE four years down the line. So, the A-level student who says they were predicted three A grades is talking about an achievement trail which goes back at least three years, not something conjured out of the air. This year’s teacher assessment known as the Centre Assessed Grade builds on these sort of forecasts. It’s a reliable measure.

We just need to divert to scotch all this nonsense about teachers being overly generous. A teacher assessment indicates what the student will do against exactly the same criteria as the examination but not under examination conditions, stress, nerves and whatever. As an indicator of potential rather than performance it is probably a better guide than an examination. You can have a political position on this but, yes, teacher assessments do deliver higher outcomes.

In the end, Ofqual failed to think things through and then it fudged. It didn’t tell government because it was doing what the government wanted and one suspects that the agency thought it would get away with it. It’s a mess now but not that bad. Young people have had a horrific 2020. Imagine being locked down with your parents when you are eighteen for a whole Spring and Summer if you can! It’s not a happy thought. It’ll be very interesting as well to see whether the 2020 GCSE cohort does better or worse at A Level in 2022. My suspicion is that by the time Ofqual have run a few new algorithms the standard will be almost exactly the same…

 

An Entirely Avoidable Mess and how to make it worse!

The roots of this week’s A-level results fiasco can be traced back to Michael Gove’s obsession with one-hit terminal exams. His nostalgic motion that if it was good enough for me then it’s good enough for today’s young people was always destined to hit the buffers somewhere. The latest announcement about using mock examination results as the basis for an appeal is simply going to make things worse.

Anybody who understands the purpose of teacher assessments appreciates that they are going to involve the allegedly awful consequence of grade inflation. If an education system is any good and if children learn more as a consequence then grade inflation should be the outcome but that’s a bit difficult for right-wing politicians to understand. Teachers aren’t corrupt either. The teacher assessment takes into account the work done by a student over two years and posits what their best performance would be given an obliging examination paper, hard work in the final run-up and no nerves. Inevitably, therefore, the assessments are bound to be higher than the final outcomes from an examination. It’s a good process where it is used, for example, to award a grade to a student who misses the final exam because of some personal or family disaster which is entirely out of their control or to provide a post examination analysis of where things went wrong.

There is one other element to the teacher assessment which is that a good proportion of the candidates are in schools where parents have paid considerable sums of money for them to succeed. That’s a significant pressure on the teachers who work in those schools who, for quite intelligible commercial reasons, will be required to inflate assessments by the school management and hierarchy. It means that these teacher assessments are not quite the same as the others.

Mock examinations are not the same as teacher assessments either although they are often confused. They are simply not designed to be externally valid. Some schools seeking a very high pass rate in examinations will use them as a gateway to entry. Some teachers will use them to challenge lazy pupils and some teachers will use them to encourage the nervous underachiever. These are commonsense approaches to student learning but it makes a mockery of using them as a basis for some kind of appeals process.

What Ofqual did wrong, perhaps for understandable reasons, was to try to maintain a similar standard in terms of past percentages between this year and last, taking into account the teacher estimates and the past performances of pupils. When examination authorities do this they like to respect the teachers and the school’s order of merit but move the grade borderlines up and down to get the outcome they prefer. This preferred outcome is influenced by the school’s previous results and can also include analysis of the assessments made at key stage 2 or eleven years of age and the impact of the result on national statistics.

You don’t have to be a statistician to realise that this process is going to disadvantage a very bright child in a neighbourhood comprehensive and produce bizarre outcomes in schools where an additional factor like gentrification, an influx of refugees, changes to the school’s catchment or simply considerable pupil mobility over five years undermines the mathematics.

Worse still in the current situation the approach doesn’t benefit rapidly improving schools of the kind which the government likes to trumpet where, for all sorts of reasons, standards might be expected to rise faster than the average. In overall terms and for everyone, it is the students on grade borderlines or thereabouts who are likely to lose out but they are also likely, given that this is an A-level, to have concerned, middle-class voting parents who know how to complain!

Could things have been different? The answer is that without Michael Gove’s intervention the assessments would have been considerably more reliable. It was only a few years ago that there were AS Levels which assessed the first year of a two-year A Level course, there were modular exams where credit for the candidate was accumulated over the whole two years and there was coursework, distinct from teacher assessment because it was evidence presented by the candidate to meet external criteria. Additionally, coursework was often approached under test conditions. Had any of these approaches survived they would have provided a statistically reliable component to provide the starting point for a valid assessment.

Is anything to be done? The Scottish approach of giving people teacher assessed grades and biting the bullet of single year significant grade inflation may be justifiable given the challenges which the pandemic has created for young people. It will also encourage some interesting research options! If it turned out that the young people who get places at Scottish universities with these 2020 grades go on to perform at degree level just as well as their peers from any other year that would be interesting. It might suggest that we have an examination system which is managed to depress the achievements of young people and to restrict access to what are perceived to be high status professional careers while acting as a brake on the aspirations of the disadvantaged seeking a better future. Perhaps a little grade inflation is not such a bad thing after all!

 

Poor old JK…

Poor old JK Rowling! I think it’s very difficult for anyone who is what you might call traditionally heterosexual and with a clear biological sex to say too much on this issue and once you start reducing it to the changing rooms in M&S the waters get a bit muddy. Anyway, here’s what I think.

Most children are born with a biological sex except for the occasional hermaphrodite. Medical practice has always been to try to turn the hermaphrodite into what it mostly appears to be. I can’t say if that’s good or bad but it does seem to be, firstly, traditional, secondly, medically considered to be the solution and, thirdly, it probably tallies with what parents want.

Sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. We grow up as we do and while public schools, Catholic priests and old perverts may do what they can to temporarily sway us or give us the odd kinky perversion later in life, I’m inclined to think they don’t change sexual orientation. If you like hanging from the door knob with an orange in your mouth, the sexual fantasy it engenders will, I think, relate to your sexual orientation. I’m open to other points of view on this one but it just seems to me to be how it is.

Forever, the world has behaved appallingly – sometimes more and sometimes less – in its attitude towards non-heterosexual sexual orientation. I don’t think it’s got any better or is, somehow, in some golden age. Children who are gay, in almost any sense of the word, have an awful time of it and may eventually come through it, declare themselves and be well rounded human beings but they will still have memories of bigotry, prejudice and, of course, their own self-doubt and lack of self esteem.

Gender is different and typically the range of gender and its scope is glossed over in all these arguments. Heterosexual people exhibit a huge range and complexity of genders and it’s fair to argue that gender is shaped by family background, experience, environment and, therefore, it is likely also to be formed in the 21st-century by social media.

Not surprisingly, many gay people have explored their own genders as a way of finding a pathway through their sexuality. Within my lifetime, gay people have been tolerated as female impersonators and bus conductors by the same people who vilify them in day-to-day life. I’m hopeful that isn’t the case for gay people today but I suspect it sometimes is.

That’s an aside. People have a right to choose their gender and a right to behave how they like. I think they are entitled to expect people to respect their choices and to be treated as people. If you can’t meet people who are ‘trans’ without seeing them as people I’m inclined to think that’s your problem.

I don’t doubt that social media and 21st-century culture encourages all people to play with their sexual orientation but, as I said before, I don’t think that changes the orientation and what they are really doing is playing with their gender. Lots of people have fun with that and good luck to them!

I think there are big issues related to gender reassignment and to psychiatric counselling which are problematic. Medical intervention is a last resort designed to make people feel better about who they are and, if it works for them, good luck to them but it doesn’t change their sexual orientation even if it makes them more comfortable with it. Unfortunately, it is a business like cosmetic surgery and if a procedure is possible you can find someone to do it but I can’t see it has much to recommend itself but I do think there should be more education in the basics of gender rather than pointless regulation to control it.

There is also a quite legitimate worry that non-heterosexual orientation is being deliberately fudged as being to do with gender which is, of course, just another version of gay people can be cured. It is just doctors this time rather than mad evangelists! Anyone can see why the gay community would find this behaviour abhorrent but, actually, we should all find it distasteful whatever our orientation.

Wrap all these things together and what we have at the moment is a heterosexual right wing group, in the sense that it knows what is good for people, panicking – maybe having an anxiety attack – at what it sees as an outbreak of gender confusion and firing off in all directions to explain what is bad about it. There’s a lot of concern in this group that the result is people masquerading as women and confusing the issues surrounding women’s rights as well as going in the ‘wrong’ changing room. Since blokey blokes have been arguing for fifty years that most feminists are probably lesbians or not really women not much has changed and there are still a lot of people who do not have their proper entitlement to life and a lot of them are women!

And, honestly, there are a lot of young people who are still a bit confused about what they are and they don’t need adults putting them into boxes, assuming they need psychiatric ‘help’, gender counselling and the rest. What they do need is good education and don’t forget that sex education in schools is still largely Christian focused and verging on the deceitful. They also need good parenting and less panic as well as fewer Twitter storms and rants from people with no authority to mouth off about these issues and they need some sensible open discussion. Society continues to be not much help to young people and gender is just part of the problem.

In just a few years…

I met Terry up at the hospital. I was queuing up – hopefully – to get some blood pressure medication but it never arrived. They said there might be another shipment in the next couple of weeks but there were so many of us queued up at the dispensary today that there didn’t seem much chance. I didn’t recognise Terry at first although he lives in our village. He’s got the house on the corner, the one that is beginning to look a bit dishevelled these days. I think his wife must have done the garden and it all looks a bit neglected now.

Terry, isn’t it? I asked. He looked at me without much recognition. You live in our village. I’m still up in the cottages at the other end.

Oh yes, that’s right. Sorry, he said, I have a bit of trouble remembering stuff these days.

Don’t we all, I replied.

Actually, I did remember Terry. I first came across him when he started the campaign in the village to drive the paedophile out. He and his skinhead mates threatened to burn the house down if he didn’t go, so he went! It was hard luck for him really as the allegations were not about him but about the vicar. The vicar lasted in the job for another ten years and then got quietly retired. They said the Bishop had known about it long before but prayed things might get better. They didn’t!

Are you still in the same house? I asked. I’ve not seen you around much.

Must be a few years, he replied.

I think it was that barbecue you had to celebrate Brexit. That must have been in 2020 and you had a flag in the front garden. I think you got the vicar to ring the church bell as well. I remember because I wasn’t too happy about it and I suppose now if it hadn’t happened I’d be picking up my medicines with no trouble today.

I remember that flag. I got it free from the Daily Mail. We had to do something about the coloureds coming in and taking our jobs and stuff like that.

Do you remember how we were going to take control of our borders, I said. Seems funny really when you think what’s happened to Scotland and Ireland.

Yeah, but we didn’t need them. They weren’t really English anyway.

Well, I said, you can’t really feel sorry for Scotland and if I lived there I could get my medicines without any problem. They’ve just put pensions up again and they haven’t had the food shortages either. It’s hard to believe how easy it was to go down to Aldi in those days and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables.

Course, they’ve gone now, back to Germany and good riddance to them.

They were cheap though. Still I wasn’t so sorry about BMW and Bosch. Anyway, there’s no way I could afford any of them since the 2022 budget and the pension reductions.

I blame the Irish for that, he said. We should have stood up for our rights and sent more troops in. Killed a few more of them!

I’m not so sure, Terry. I think once the government in Dublin asked Europe to help restore order and they landed the German and French troops in Belfast I think we had to accept that Ireland was going to be reunited – but they did make us pay a lot. Reparations they called them.

We should have refused, he answered. Showed them what it means to be British!

Well, we didn’t have much of an army left really did we after the Gibraltar fiasco and the fishing war. I remember in 2020 how we were all thinking that the French would make a fuss about wanting to fish in our territorial waters and how we’d be ready to say ‘Non!’.

It was a bit of a surprise when those Russian factory ships turned up and how that rogue Putin laughed when the British Ambassador went to complain. He gave him a bowl of caviar to take home! Lucky man, since there’s hardly any fish left in the North Sea now and not much left to argue about. You wouldn’t want to eat them anyway after the Sizewell accident.

That was the fault of the French and the Chinese, he said.

I read that too, I said, but the public enquiry said the software went wrong after half the team went back to India and the English replacements didn’t know how to stop the meltdown.

Send them all home, I say, he said.

Well we tried to, I replied. Lost a lot of skilled workers, a load of factory workers and the people who picked the vegetables. And, you try finding a plumber these days! It was worse for the hospitals. I expect you know that seeing as you are here.

Came to see about my hip, he said. The waiting list is now seven years unless you’ve got the new American health insurance. Being my age I couldn’t afford the premiums but at least we’re not pouring money into the health service like we used to.

Shame about your hip though, I answered. I paid up as we had a bit of a legacy and stuff saved up for the kids. We’ve got a policy with American Mutual but it doesn’t cover my blood pressure meds as that’s excluded. In fact, quite a lot seems to be excluded!

Well, at least we’ve taken back control. Stopped the waste and the coloureds!

Yes, I said, but funnily enough it was an Australian who took my job. There’s a lot around now since we did the trade deal. Still, I suppose that a bit of meat that has been frozen on a boat for six months and sent over here is better than no meat at all! And, I don’t think we’d have any industry or a health service without the coloureds as you so rudely call them. They were the ones who stayed and said they liked being British. Shame we undervalued them for so long but there you are.

There are still foreigners though, he said. But, now, we can feel like England, King George and all that. We can be proud to be British!

Pity we got knocked out of the World Cup by Malta then!

The referee was Spanish, he was biased.

I don’t know about the referee, I said, but we went to Spain last autumn. It’s too hot in the summer now with this climate change but it was nice in October.

They’ll be suffering then, he said, without us to subsidise them.

Funnily enough, they seem to be doing all right, I replied. Markets are full of food, there are a lot of new cars around and we were near the new Airbus factory which they moved there from Wales. They’re starting to build Dyson electric cars there soon as well.

How’d you get there? he asked suspiciously.

Took the car. You can get petrol there without coupons. It’s a long wait now to get the ferry though since they closed the Tunnel and it took hours in customs. But it was worth it and we had a great time.

Well I won’t be going there, he said. Yarmouth will do me.

After the cholera outbreak, I’d keep away from there.

I didn’t go in the sea, he said. It’s foreign!

And you still get duty free in Europe, I said. We brought back all two bottles of still table wine we were allowed and a bar of chocolate. It was a feast that night!

Foreign stuff, I’ll stick to what’s English.

Lots of white label cider for you then, I laughed. Anyway, there’s an election coming up so it might all change. You decided who you’re voting for?

The Brexit National Party. Who else? We’ve made this country great again and there’s more still to do! Now, I’m off to lunch.

Enjoy it, I said, what do you fancy?

Chlorinated chicken breast and chips, of course, he answered.

Suddenly, his face contorted in a spasm of pain. He tried to mouth some words which might have been something like ‘Oh Farage’ and then he plunged to the floor in front of me. A hospital syringe was sticking out of his back. A young hospital doctor was behind him.

Time for the revolution, he shouted.

Count me in, I replied.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before you blame Jeremy Corbyn

I’m appalled, but not altogether surprised, at the pummelling being handed out to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership and before more people get on the same bandwagon it is good to think for a few moments about how we got here.

Immediately Jeremy Corbyn was selected (by a huge majority of Labour Party members under a democratic process) a sizeable group within the Parliamentary Labour Party set about subverting his leadership. They thought that Corbyn and his Marxist allies were seizing control of the party so that it would cease to be democratic. It turned out not to be the Labour Party that was being bankrolled by foreigners! They claimed that anyone who disagreed with him would face de-selection. It wasn’t the Labour Party where that happened on a grand scale! They constantly stressed potential division and they elevated debates within the party into arguments and scandals. It’s not that this group of MPs haven’t backed the leadership in the election, it’s that they never did – even to the extent of forcing a second leadership election and then still refusing to accept the democratic result. Worse still, with a nudge and wink, they instigated and then fed a flow of critical stories. Perhaps to their surprise, the Party never moved against them and permitted this constant undermining of its own chances from within.

Of course, Brexit played a major role as well but we need to remember that it started with David Cameron who, as Prime Minister, made the absurd decision, in response to pressure from his backbenchers, to hold a referendum on whether the country should leave the EU. The simple majority clause was just plain daft and the campaign was a shambles on all sides. An argument within the Conservative party was elevated to a national issue despite it being largely irrelevant to most people.

One of the reasons why the referendum campaign was a shambles was a political vacuum which allowed the supporters of the no vote to thrive. Newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express and the Telegraph spent the run up influencing the agenda so that the vote was about immigration, foreigners and our imperial dreams. Ever since then, the political agenda has been set by the same newspapers which have turned flag-waving for right-wing ideologies into an art form. This wasn’t driven by the Conservative party but by altogether nastier influences and it’s fair to say that although it has put Boris Johnson in Downing Street it isn’t altogether his show either and there will be a price to pay.

It has also been increasingly obvious since the referendum that the political agenda has been set by the same ideologies and that the BBC assiduously reports what they say without finding an alternative point of view. Seeking balance in this environment – which is already oddly out of kilter – leads to Nigel Farage being given too much airtime and an assumption from anyone left of centre that the BBC is inherently biased. The problem is that ‘the story of the day’ should already come with a health warning!

A failure to control the political narrative has been a real problem for Labour since 2017 and one of the things that made this more difficult was that the voice of the disenchanted Labour MPs was amplified by the Guardian – the last liberal chance for balance. The Guardian provided a weekly sounding board for them, repeating stories from ‘reliable sources within the Labour Party’. Guardian columnists then used these titbits to produce sarcastic copy and a newspaper which has been traditionally associated with radicalism drifted to the right. Sadly, the Guardian has also appeared to have lost touch with its capacity for radical investigative journalism. It assiduously investigated the Iraq war but it hasn’t got to grips with the billionaire bankrolling of the Brexit movement and the Conservative party, or with the sources of the orchestrated campaign concerning anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This has been left to small groups and to other individuals but it would once have been bread and butter employment for Guardian journalists.

Anti-Semitism was a big issue on the doorstep. The Labour Party is not anti-Semitic but that was not the perception. A policy of supporting Palestine and the rights of its subjects was assumed to be anti-Israeli and by association anti-Semitic. Jeremy Corbyn was seen not to have acted fast enough to deal with something largely chimerical. A cartoon, a meeting to support the peace process, some daft online comments by individuals and so on do not make a political party inherently anti-Semitic. There was a ruthless media campaign designed to say the opposite and it succeeded.

Whatever the Labour Party said it was doing was simply not believed or rubbished as a lie and lies have been a particularly unpleasant feature of the election. A scant regard for truth characterised the Brexit negotiations and the election campaign, particularly that of the Conservative party was triumphantly managed to make the public think that all politicians are liars and that, therefore, Boris Johnson is no worse than the rest.

Detached observers have been clear that setting up Facebook pages designed to deceive and running untruthful stories in newspapers were largely the work of the Conservative party and their sympathisers but that isn’t what people were persuaded to think. Telling lies brought rewards. People on the doorstep believed that the child on the floor in the emergency department photograph was a fake, well after that lie had been rebutted. The BBC and ITV political correspondents both apologised and blamed Conservative party sources for saying that one of Matt Hancock’s team was struck when video evidence proved that he hadn’t been. But, of course, they had already filed their stories!

In the end, it wasn’t the outcome we wanted and the road ahead is anything but smooth if you’re a Labour supporter, it’s not the first time the combined force of the media and the establishment have worked together to destroy a party leader and an agenda for radical change. It’s happened and it’s time to regroup but it is still useful to reflect on why people voted how they did and rushing to blame Jeremy Corbyn does not help.

If you’re a disillusioned Labour voter read this – please!

Okay, I admit that Labour is going to have a bad day on Thursday. My suspicion is that the Conservatives may have an even worse one but that’s not important. As I understand it, Labour is being criticised for not having a clear policy on Brexit, for not supporting Remain, and for having Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

Jeremy Corbyn has been additionally attacked as being the wrong choice of leader although he was democratically elected. He is considered to be too left-wing, pro-Palestine, an international ally of radical left-wing movements and anti-Semitic. At one time, it was thought that he would use his influence as leader to drag the party further to the left and allow left-wing elements to oust sitting MPs so as he could consolidate a kind of Stalinist grip on the party. Momentum was imagined to be the parallel of Napoleon’s dogs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, hounding and destroying those who opposed him.

So, let’s start with Brexit. Labour does have a clear policy on this which started from a decision to honour the referendum result, shared across Parliament before it took place, so that the issue, it was thought, could be put to bed for ever. Labour cannot be blamed for the existence of the referendum which was David Cameron’s fault entirely. As we know, the referendum was lost and despite the fact that the campaign was corruptly funded and many lies were told Labour agreed to respect that result as it had committed itself to do.

It is sometimes argued that if Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned more vigorously the referendum would not have been lost but it was difficult for anyone in the Labour Party to share platforms with the Conservatives who instigated the thing, who thought they would win easily and would come out of it with David Cameron smelling of roses. Labour did not make it a political party issue but Labour MPs did go out and support Remain in large numbers. In hindsight, some people think that was a mistake but it wouldn’t have been an easy option at the time with the Conservatives desperate to find splits in Labour support which their media friends could amplify so as to cover up some of the gaps in the Conservative Party.

David Cameron went and Theresa May’s government came into power and set in motion the departure of the UK from Europe – again supported by virtually all of Parliament shortly after the result. It should then have been a foregone conclusion for the government to do the deal, or whatever version of the deal it wanted, which would have flown through Parliament, whether or not it was necessary for it to do so then which is questionable, and we would have left Europe some time ago.

Then, Theresa May made a decision to call a snap General Election, a decision which turned out to be almost as stupid as David Cameron’s. Labour fought a strong campaign on achieving social democracy, a better departure from Europe than the Conservatives were promising and with a radical manifesto.

Labour did much better than the media ever expected, perhaps because the media viewpoints, and particularly those of the BBC and the Guardian which might have been supportive, were informed by a constant campaign to destroy Jeremy Corbyn encouraged by disaffected Labour MPs. These people tried to suggest that there were deep splits over nuclear deterrence, to imply that Labour’s foreign policy would be pro-Soviet and that Momentum and Seamus Milne would run the country. In practice, no MPs were deselected but the constant tabloid headlines and the stream of criticism had the effect of reducing the Labour vote. Without that, it is more than probable that Labour would have won the election with a workable majority.

Labour then developed a policy on the Brexit negotiations which was, essentially, to achieve a result which still respected the referendum while maintaining a customs union and free-market, workers’ rights and conditions and UK control over its industrial investment policy. If this could not be achieved, Labour would want a General Election and, failing that, some kind of second referendum. This was considered to be a surprisingly clear policy at the time and many people were surprised – imagining that the arch anti-European Jeremy Corbyn would not want such a deal. The assumption was that he must have been defeated following some internal strife but the reality is that this was a policy worked through from the bottom ranks of the party and well supported at the time.

While negotiations were going on, there were still attempts to discredit Jeremy Corbyn over links with Palestinian organisations and for failing to root out anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. There is no evidence to suggest that the Labour Party is more or less anti-Semitic than society at large but it is more anti-Israeli and the attempts to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism have continued for some years. There has been evidence to show that there’s been an organised campaign to discredit the Labour Party on this basis probably in the interests of the Israeli state and funded by it as well. It has been a success as well and a difficult and problematic diversion for the Labour Party. When a handful of its MPs left to form Change UK it was one of the reasons they put forward. This is all worth mentioning because it shows how readily the media could have jumped on anything Labour said which appeared to be any sort of reversal, betrayal or indecision.

It is also worth noting that the Conservative party with the help of the Ulster Unionists still had a majority. It is only because the European Reform Group faction rebelled on certain issues that Labour has had any influence whatsoever on events.

However, there are plenty of people around who think that Labour could, somehow, have changed its policy and become a Remain party and this is, somehow, Jeremy Corbyn’s fault that it hasn’t because that is what everybody else obviously wants. In practice, the only way to do that would have been to call a special conference which would have revealed substantial splits in Labour, maybe quite reasonably because of the view that there was a strong Brexit vote in some Labour heartlands which ought to be respected. You can also imagine the media firestorm and political rant which would have accompanied such a conference and because Labour is a democratic party, you can appreciate it would have ended with a compromise quite similar to that already achieved.

To come up to date, it is nice to recognise that Labour has achieved a significant series of defeats for the government on Brexit issues but also necessary to understand that Parliament has only agreed on the issue of No Deal. It is clearly understood even by its supporters that there is no majority for a referendum to be rerun, even with a Labour whip.

However, Labour has used its influence and the ‘discussions’ to gain significant concessions on workers’ rights, a wider acceptance of the notion of a continuing customs union and, more recently, the idea of a confirmatory referendum. This would not be a rerun of the original referendum but would instead offer the choice of a negotiated deal and remaining in the EU.

Finally, we need to underline that the decision to hold European elections is nothing to do with the Labour Party but it is an outcome of Parliamentary indecision and the incompetence of the government. Labour is following its established policies in the manifesto even if it is seen as sitting on the fence when, allegedly, it could change its mind and support staying in Europe. Instead, it has maintained its position which seems a fair choice given the history and even if you don’t agree with it personally.

Where does it all go next? Possibly, the best option would be another defeat for Theresa May and a confirmatory referendum with the options as above. Worse ones include Boris Johnson as Prime Minister reigning with the help of a triumphant European Reform Group or a general election where the continuous carping against Labour creates a situation where right-wing fascists hold the balance of power.

That’s why, whatever you think about Europe and whatever you think about Jeremy Corbyn, you ought to go out and vote Labour on Thursday and encourage your friends and relatives to do the same. If you were planning not to, at least think again for five minutes about what the consequences might be and if you still won’t all I can say is that I tried and you might regret it later.

 

Building the new Maginot Line

I went on the march yesterday. I like to think of myself as number 700,001 but that’s probably being optimistic. The press coverage, at least last night, was unusually generous but I suspect everyone was overwhelmed by the numbers. The tube trains were rammed, Green Park turned into an exit only station and the crowds kept on coming. The front of the march got lost somewhere in the middle as a rolling crowd simply began to move.

You’ve seen the banners; especially the funny ones, the ageist ones the photos of young kids but you should have heard the people. This was simple indignation at the failure of the political class to write a stupid wrong foisted on the country by the multiple failures of the Conservative party and the right wing press – who I sometimes think simply wanted some revenge for being caught out hacking people’s phones.

This roar of indignation and this call to put things right rolled in shouts of protest from Marble Arch through Trafalgar Square and down to Westminster. It was tangible. You could hear it coming. The anger was real but the people were friendly. I think everyone felt a sense of delight and communion that here they were with people who felt like them; anxious, powerless but determined to make a point.

There were politicians there but this was no party political event. It was exactly what it was meant to be, a shared demonstration by people who valued our place in Europe, valued tolerance and open borders and wanted politicians working to make us better, safer and united citizens of the world.

Of course, the sniping and crowing has already started. Did you know that this was the largest demonstration in London in all of history not to be attended by Jeremy Corbyn? TV wanted to say that last night and also to tell us that there was a pro-Brexit demonstration in Harrogate attended by Farage and, at a generous count, around a thousand people. More people went to under seven football yesterday across the nation but Harrogate got mentioned on the news. Balance, you understand.

Will it make a difference? Probably not. Events are still being driven by a fractious, ugly, factional government but at least the people who attended made a point. That will be forgotten in a couple of weeks but, ironically, we’ll be celebrating the centenary of the armistice as we start building our new Maginot Line.

It really is time to stop this Brexit nonsense…

Today, as August comes to a close, we’ve had Downing Street briefing that the EU doesn’t turn up for meetings and David Lidington moaning about the French as if it is all their fault. Everyone seems to forget that for the past six weeks or so we’ve been stuck in the silly season of ridiculous stories and nobody negotiating anything about anything. The media, and I am sorry to say a lot of apparently sensible people, have been going round in circles trying to prove that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, which he clearly isn’t, as the latest in the series of orchestrated attempts to oust him as Labour Party leader. Then, the same people have the cheek to moan that he hasn’t got a Brexit strategy. Maybe if they’d shut up for a week or two he could have developed one.

The thinking, but not thinking straight, middle-class remainers think that Labour with a bit of help from Chuka Umunna, who barely counts as Labour at the moment, should adopt a new policy of remaining. This view is soft in the head. Imagine what the right-wing media would do, let alone Jacob Rees Mogg, to a Labour Party founded on democracy and now appearing to reject it on the basis of convenience. Jeremy Corbyn and Kier Starmer are not stupid!

However, if the preferred outcome is to stuff all this Brexit rubbish it requires a strategic approach. There are good reasons for developing one, including the fact that only just over one third of the population voted to leave, the leave campaign told lies and funded their campaign illegally, their campaign was racist, the right-wing media attempted to swing the result, and the Russians might have been interfering. There’s hardly any need to go on! Do we really want to hear another politician going on about the will of the people? The purpose of politicians is to argue that they represent what people actually want and then submit themselves to the vote where people can agree or disagree. Parliament has been at its worst on Brexit, prevaricating and allowing the sloganeering Tory right-wingers to spout their usual guff without proper contradiction.

There’s a chance now with the conference season but, of course, the media will still be babbling on about anti-Semitism, the NEC elections will suggest that Momentum is continuing its takeover of the Labour Party and the Tory party has confirmed they will be focusing on domestic issues. What the fuck is Brexit if it is not the most important domestic issue this autumn, maybe this century?

What we have instead of discussion is the deal or no deal scenario without Noel Edmonds to explain the rules. Since the Conservative right-wing and the DUP who currently hold the levers of power in Parliament are going to keep pushing for a no deal and the Daily Express and the Daily Mail are busy persuading wavering Conservatives that the Chequers agreement is a sell-out it looks like the banker on the telephone is going to say no and that will be a disaster for the UK as I think everyone with even the slightest involvement knows perfectly well. There are, admittedly, a few people with overseas trusts, quite a lot of pensioners who hanker after the Empire and some fairly uneducated people in T-shirts who think differently but I’m inclined to trust the others.

Another group I’m not inclined to trust are members of Parliament. Given the option of going against the government to reject the final no deal scenario, I’m afraid that many MPs in all parties will go back to the referendum vote and blame their constituents. I could go on about how spineless they are and how unprincipled they are but perhaps it is difficult for them. Too bad, for once they need to stand up and be counted.

Where does that leave the vast majority who now want to stay in Europe? I’m happy to estimate that at figure is now around 70% of the population but you’re welcome to argue. You’d be daft if you said there wasn’t a majority though given the original vote, the turnout and the shift since then.

If it comes to it, people will just have to turn out and blockade Parliament with some direct action and we will be right back with the fucking poll tax riots where it certainly wasn’t the government who turned out to be on the side of righteousness. But it doesn’t have to come to that it just needs people to stop dissing Jeremy Corbyn and start talking about the options and how to stop Brexit from happening.

What kind of Bubble do you live in?

As part of the recent national endeavour to bash social media there has been a lot of talk about ‘echo chambers’ and other forms of ‘epistemological bubbles’ – reflective and enclosing ‘spaces’ – as if these are a new threat and a new invention and why don’t we all go back to listening to experts and believing them like we did in some misty wonderful past – the one where the experts said that slavery was good, black people were stupid and wilful, and women had smaller skulls so they must have less brain? Or, if you want a more recent example, think of the experts who found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq!

As a bit of pointless reactionary froth this debate doesn’t really do any harm and, quite helpfully, makes people think about what knowledge actually is. The fact that some academic and a lot of traditional media sources stir this debate has nothing to do, of course, with their own sense of feeling threatened but it certainly keeps it on a roll.

The first odd thing to say about all this is that echo chambers and bubbles are usually for ‘other’ people. Those of us who comment so ‘knowledgeably’ about such things are far too self-aware to fall into the trap of only talking to people who reaffirm prejudices or agree with our points of view. The second is that there appears to be a fair bit of research evidence that people who trawl the internet are not limited in what they view and read online so the hypothesis has to evolve to say that people have a life outside the bubble but form their opinions inside it.

That isn’t exactly surprising and has arguably always been the case. If your parents are rabid conservatives, you are quite likely to end up as a Tory-boy, and that goes for much else besides. People are influenced by one another in their actions and beliefs as, more worryingly, they may be influenced by God, the Daily Mail, Muslim Extremists, Paddy Power and a million other fairly awful things.

To claim that social media constrains people more than this and coerces them into having opinions is questionable. It might make the process sometimes more visible but is not indicative of some substantive change in human behaviour. We do, as social beings, place a degree of trust in what people say, in what we read and what we hear but, hopefully, we also learn to discriminate between sources, to double-check and cross check, and to filter. If anything, social media and the explosion of knowledge in the 21st Century should make us all the more questioning and that can only be a good thing.

What it also does, as it does this, is to lead to a more complex debate about what is real, true, incontestable, supported by the evidence and so on. This seems to be a place where a lot of people get quite grumpy or smart arsed! So, we have had a lot of debate in the last fifty years about global warming and its impact on the environment and it is easy to get hot under the collar – not from the global warming itself but from people like Donald Trump rubbishing the science. However, that doesn’t make the reality any different. In evidence terms, it is fairly easy to establish that global temperatures are rising but much harder to be authoritative about the impact. At a very local level, experts said we should change our gardening habits in the UK because the climate was now so dry we would need tropical plants. They could be right in the future but they were wrong then!

This is an insignificant example compared to melting icecaps but we don’t have to complain about the breadth and/or the quality of debate to know what the issues are and, if we are not fooled, is it right to criticise others as if they are? And, when people clearly have been fooled in recent history as in the Brexit debate and referendum, it wasn’t social media that did the fooling but the ugly combination of devious self-serving politicians and nasty press barons aided by the feebleness of the respectable media and broadcasters.

We should also be cautious when talking about the rise of the far right in the UK as if that is something which is facilitated by Facebook and Twitter. They may supply the apparatus for these like-minded people to get together but the legitimisation of their views comes straight from the tabloid press with its attacks on immigrants, the ease with which it associates race and crime and the constant demands for firm, reactionary, action – something which has been a feature of these outlets for at least fifty years and long before the Internet ever got going.

There’s also a lot of talk now about post-truth as if everything once used to be so certain and is now questioned. For many people we have always obviously and truthfully needed a nuclear deterrent, selective education and public schools, a Royal family and so on, and people have been shocked by opposing views and astonishingly hostile in their opposition to them. It’s refreshing to have a discussion about some of these things but that doesn’t mean we are in the middle of an informational crisis when nobody knows what is true anymore. It’s nonsense to say that experts do not have a role in these debates either when they have something to contribute.

My sense is that quite a few people are lamenting the passing of the notion that knowledge was always true and reliable, supported by the voice of experts who could be trusted. They now think we have the wisdom of the crowd instead, about which it is easy to be disparaging but which may, if people dig a little deeper, be quite critical in the formation of social knowledge. There’s nothing to stop experts standing out in the crowd!

Other people think that this leads to relativism and the notion that anybody can say what they like and think it is as true as what anybody else says. That isn’t what the wisdom of the crowd says and aberrant or unsupported ideas are going to seem no more valid than they have ever been. There’s a sense in which knowledge is always relative: it changes and is modified over time in terms not only of facts but also of perspective, interpretation and status. It would be odd to think of knowledge as not being in a state of permanent flux.

Finally, if you want to talk about knowledge you have to recognise knowledge as the servant of power and control. At its simplest, power allows you to define the boundaries between what is known and what is heretical. Democratising knowledge is a handy step forward in reducing authoritarian power. It is arguable that the collapse of dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is largely attributable to a battle between sources of information where the information feeding in from outside effectively destabilised the status quo. And, of course, it isn’t what you know but who you know that still really counts…