John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Labour on communities: cohesion and atomisation

Here is a piece I've written for Tribune, which you may (or may not) find interesting:

In their desperate drive to re-establish communities, the Labour government has displayed noble intentions and contradictory policy in equal measure. Since the New Year, both Blair and Brown – ever the heir apparent, but only now allowing us glimpses of what he really thinks – have outlined their visions. Brown, speaking in January at the Fabians’ annual conference, has said that the cultivation and promotion of an inclusive sense of Britishness is vital to create solidarity in a new, globalised age. Blair, in his Education White Paper (one of the “legacy” reforms), has championed the empowerment of parents, in partnership with faiths and businesses, to open new schools. Both strategies have laudable aims but are potentially disastrous in practice, and could have the effect of atomising our communities further.

Gordon Brown does have a point on identity. Neal Lawson, chair of the campaigning group Compass, maintains that it is “essential [to] develop an all-encompassing, universal sense of belonging”. After all, why should the far-right be allowed to crudely monopolise Britishness?

Yet he is critical of Brown’s approach, stressing that the creation of a healthy national identity, as opposed to one that could be again hijacked by the likes of the BNP, must be a leftist endeavour. Lawson finds it difficult to see how Brown can draw up an inclusive narrative and achieve a cooperative community climate when the Chancellor “is in favour of flexible markets” in our public services, resulting in the “undermining of our key institutions”, such as the NHS and our schools. On this he is right – how can we on the one hand speak of the need to consolidate our national identity, but on the other create a culture of individualism in our daily relations with the state, where the national and the personal meet?

Moreover, Brown’s rhetoric on the subject is devoid of intellectual bite. Standing in front of a Union Jack, he asked the collected Fabians “what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in every garden?” It is one thing to bemoan the ebbing of our national identity, but it is quite another to misread what little we have. Britishness, as it stands, is represented by a phlegmatic pride in our trying to save a whale in the Thames, our boys going out and saving Russian navy sailors trapped beneath the waves, the fact that the best earthquake relief workers are Brits – this is really the stuff of our national pride. What counterpoints this is a rejection, if not an outright distaste, of “flag-waving”. To watch the French or the Americans doing it so readily is to witness a foreign spectacle. How Brown can keep a straight face whilst essentially arguing that our patriotic fervour should be imported is beyond me.

The real danger is that because there is no coherency to Brown’s agenda, the rhetoric will be used to defend a myriad of actually quite divisive policies on immigration and civil liberties. The government cannot proclaim the virtues of an inclusive national identity when certain religious and ethnic communities feel their government wants to silence and control them, the net result of attempts to outlaw expressions of religious hatred and introduce ID cards.

Indeed, the recent fault lines revealed over the Religious Hatred Bill and the ongoing furore over the cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad have demonstrated the necessity for governments to tread carefully and neutrally to maintain civic cohesion. New Labour’s take on how this neutrality should manifest itself has been revealed most forcefully in the Education White Paper. Blair has never made a secret of his support for faith schools and the upshot of that, in the interest of equal treatment, is that the number of CofE and Catholic schools should be swelled by interested parties from any faith who wish to establish a school.

But far from creating a benign patchwork of equal access for minority communities, the existing faith sector has a net effect of being enormously divisive in both class and community terms. Most faith schools do better than standard comprehensives – a recent report by the Sutton Trust found that whilst they represented only 18% of all schools, they accounted for 42% of the top 200 comprehensives and 59% of the top schools in charge of their own admissions. Is this because of greater community spirit engendered by religion? It surely plays a part. But we can see from statistics that it probably has more to do with the fact that these schools have entry criteria (we have all heard about the parents who turn up to Father O'Brien's services for a couple of months to get little Cortina into the local Catholic school). Indeed, faith schools have significantly fewer free-lunch pupils than the national average. That, largely, is why O'Mary's is better than Mandela High.

Neal Lawson is championing the reform of the White Paper as Compass chair by publishing Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn’s excellent pamphlet A Comprehensive Future. When I put to him the potential extension of faith schools in Bradford he replied that it would have to be “a recipe for suspicion and potential conflict”. Neither is the public convinced: an ICM poll for the Guardian in August 2005 revealed that 64% of people believed that “the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind”. It would seem that in terms of both educational access and community relations, proposed “Trust” faith schools would be damaging. Yet the government ploughs ahead.

Indeed, “Trust” schools of any description – faith or otherwise – look set, despite forthcoming concessions, to be troublesome and divisive. John Denham MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee (and not a rebel by nature), is sceptical of the value of these new schools, saying that “it is quite possible to extend partnerships to outsiders and between schools and this can be positive, but it is not a reliable mechanism”. Indeed, pointing to evidence from a similar drive for school autonomy in Minnesota USA where education became segregated by wealth (largely because the “Trust” schools that were founded in poorer areas had a tendency to collapse but ones established in well-off areas were successful), he sets out for us all the dangers of divorcing admissions from LEA oversight.

Unlike the so-called “fourth option” on social housing (where it is argued councils should be able to raise debt themselves and keep control of housing stock instead of handing over to a housing association), there is no public borrowing issue here, as Trusts would be majority funded by the taxpayer under the White Paper’s proposals. Yet the government is saying that LEAs should not be commissioners and providers and is promoting the finding of outside sponsors for new schools. Denham points out that this orthodoxy will “come as a surprise to the prison service”, which has both tendered out and brought back in-house the provision of its services under New Labour.

It will also disappoint the Campaign for a Secondary School in Holborn and St Pancras, whose aim is to have a new local, LEA administered, non-faith school. Concessions by the DfES mean that the local LEA will be able to bid to run the school in a competitive tender, but would be up against others – never mind the will of the local community or the fact that there is no real market, with the taxpayer picking up the bill regardless. The campaign’s chair Emma Jones told the BBC that “the parent power the government is offering is on certain terms, with strings attached”.

Community empowerment is important, but it must be done coherently. On both the rejuvenation of national identity and education reform, the Labour leadership’s stated aims are admirable, but the policy detail is either absent or likely to divide and atomise our communities into layers of individuals with competing interests.


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