Tag Archives: reform


Why I’ll be voting “remain”

I decided a few weeks ago to break my blogging silence in the run up to the referendum, and the events of yesterday have somewhat concentrated my mind. I had imagined this article would be a magnificent rant about the lies and hate-mongering of the Leave campaign, but as I come to write this, I’ve found myself rather angered out.

Like many people with a history working in politics, Jo Cox’s murder feels close to home. I was working in Lib Dem HQ in 2000 when Cllr Andrew Pennington was killed by a constituent in Nigel Jones MP’s constituency office. I’ve worked the political beat in West Yorkshire. I campaigned for one of my friends, also called Jo, who also went on to represent the community she grew up in in Parliament. So yeah, despite having walked away from party politics, there are plenty of parallels in my own life to have given me pause for thought over the last 24 hours.

The referendum itself has become an undignified, ghastly mess. As a survivor of a previous referendum campaign, this of course has not surprised me one bit. What has surprised me rather more by how, as we near the finish line, I’ve found myself feeling quite as strongly as I did.

Twelve, even six months ago, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the EU. The way Greece has been treated, essentially as the sin eater for Eurozone’s shortcomings, has been appalling. The refugee crisis has been met with moral cowardice and indifference. Regardless of the TTIP’s merits or flaws (I’m genuinely on the fence), its secrecy has been, to say the least, undignified. For quite a while now, it hasn’t felt like the EU I felt proud to be a member of at the turn of the millennium.

The one thing I can say about this referendum is that it has clarified my thinking on that. Because the question arises, again and again, what the alternative is. I’ve heard countless people talk about how the EU is “undemocratic” – and yet not a single supporter of leaving the EU seems interested in a system that would be more democratic.

I can think of a number of ways in which the EU could be made more democratic. Opening up Council meetings, for example; there’s even a debate to be had over directly electing the Commission president (regardless of the pros and cons of that particular one, I doubt Jean-Claude Juncker would have had an easy time winning a popular vote). None of them whatsoever involve negotiating EU legislation in the same way that we negotiate bilateral treaties – entirely in the hands of the executive, with most of the work and negotiating done by civil servants entirely behind closed doors.

If we’re serious about improving the democratic scrutiny of EU legislation however, the most crucial place to start is home. Why, for example, are the committees which do the lion’s share of scrutiny of draft EU legislation, seated in the entirely unelected House of Lords? Why doesn’t our parliament scrutinise legislation as closely as so many other countries take for granted, particularly Nordic countries such as Denmark? In turn, if Parliament really wanted to give people more say, there are plenty of models it could adopt. None of these reforms would require agreement in Brussels – we could adopt them tomorrow if there was the political will.

If the EU ceased to exist tomorrow, the need for it would continue. We need trans-national agreements on standards; you might bristle about having to meet EU standards, but believe me you would bristle a lot more if you had to comply with 27 national ones. We need trans-national agreements on social and employment rights, because otherwise employers will face a Dutch auction, with the companies with the worst records in looking after their employees free to price out those with the best. And yes, all too often the EU, far from being an exemplar of free and open trade, is a cosy club of wealthy nations. But scrapping an organisation with protectionist tendencies with a free-for-all in which nation states will be under even greater pressure to roll up the drawbridge, isn’t going to solve that.

Most of the EU’s failings can be put down to narrow national self-interest, something which the EU exists to mitigate. You don’t solve that problem by embracing narrow national self-interest; I’d have thought that was self-evident. I’m actually not convinced that its main problems are institutional; predominantly, they’re cultural. “Europe lacks a demos,” by which is meant a sense of common identity and purpose amongst the people, has become a cliché, but it is nonetheless true and I can’t see an easy solution. Put simply, the vast majority of people just don’t feel a sense of ownership of the European institutions, let alone control. People struggle to name their MEPs and our media does little to report their work. As such, we have a set of actually quite open and democratic bodies which effectively operate in secret because so few people are actually paying attention.

It gets worse though. I think you could equally argue that local government largely lacks a “demos”. It is increasingly becoming true of national parliaments as well. Since 2009 and the expenses scandal, closely followed by the coalition government’s utterly failed programme of reform, the feeling that Westminster is unreformable and irrelevant seems to have set in. Increasingly, political outsiders are being invoked to ride in and solve all our problems, regardless of how unrealistic and futile their positions are. And it’s a global phenomenon: for every Nigel Farage, there’s a Donald Trump; for every Jeremy Corbyn there’s a Bernie Sanders.

What I’m getting round to saying here is that the problem with the EU is not rooted in the fact that we look to our cosy nation-states to represent us and solve our problems, but that democracy itself is in crisis because it is reliant on a sense of identity and common cause that we are losing rapidly. It’s a loss the left is struggling with more than the right, but even though the right is finding itself the beneficiary, it is becoming something shrill and even more incapable of providing reforms that don’t simply make things worse. Moderates who indulge their right flanks are being replaced by demagogic parodies of the politicians they have supplanted.

Not even countries with the best democratic systems are proving immune to this problem, which is fundamentally technological at root and thus irreversible (unless you consider nuclear apocalypse to be an option). Our problems are increasingly global ones. Our communities are too, even if they’ve become narrower. Walking away from the EU won’t stop that; it will just make our problems harder to solve.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of migration. Economically, we have benefited hugely from immigration and we simply can’t control our borders without international cooperation. There simply is no drawbridge to pull up. Where there is a clear failure in our immigration policy, it is our national failure to ensure that the wider public see those benefits – especially in the case of providing decent social housing for all.

The refugee crisis isn’t going to magically go away if we decide the leave the EU. The tight border controls at Calais aren’t magically going to be made impermeable if we go – and does anyone seriously believe that the price of French cooperation in that regard is not going to go up if we do? Laughably, the Leave campaign’s solution is a “points-based” system along the lines of Australia – a country with a higher number of immigrants per head of population than we do; and while they’re busy plastering brown faces on their billboards with an explicit aim to scare white people, they’re quietly telling Asian voters that they’d make it easier for their relatives to come to the UK.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more disreputable political enterprise in the UK, with the stakes as high as they are, yet it plugs into people’s fears and has proven effective. And does anyone seriously doubt that if they get their way on the 23rd, public dissatisfaction about immigration will get anything but worse?

I have no idea what the solution to any of this is. What I do know is that things will go downhill, much more quickly, if we vote to leave next Thursday. What I do know is that the EU, already under pressure as people across Europe increasingly vote for insular and and xenophobic parties, will struggle even more. And I know that those self-same xenophobes, whether they wrap themselves in Nazi flags or claim to be insulted at the suggestion that they have anything in common with fascists, will only lead us to more violence, death and bloodshed. Not a single one of these problems will go away if the UK votes to remain, but we might just get a little bit more time to breathe and come up with something that might work. And I can’t believe that close pan-European economic, political and social cooperation won’t be part of that solution.

Tory calls to make maths “chic” badly miss the point

The value of mathematics cover (composite)Reform is an interesting think tank. They claim to be non-partisan and solely interested in the neutral pursuit of “a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity” yet in reality have a tendency to favour reforms which involve a reduced role for the state and are not at all surprisingly firmly on the Conservative end of the spectrum. Their token Labour and Lib Dem sponsors, Frank Field and Jeremy Browne respectively, do little to confound their reputation for having a rightward inclination.

All of which makes their latest publication all the more perplexing. I’ve read the press release and executive summary of The Value of Mathematics (PDF) and it seems a little confused. I’m not an educationalist and am not qualified to answer their criticisms of how maths is taught in school. What I can say is that with the best will in the world, Gordon Brown can hardly be blamed for it. So why all the smirking innuendo about “Gordian knots”? The legend of the Gordian Knot is not famed for is association with mathematics as far as I know (although I am grateful to wikipedia for leading me to this article, which hardly undermines my point), nor is mathematics teaching a particularly intractable problem. And is Alexander’s solution – effectively smash and grab – sound like the sort of solution that is really needed? Alexander didn’t cut the knot in order to make people free; he did it to rule the fucking world! The closer you look at it, the worse a metaphor it turns out to be.

Perhaps if Reform was more interested in Phrygia than Prada they would have appreciated this, but clearly knowledge isn’t actually something they have much time for, as this quote from Elizabeth Truss reveals:

“In today’s Britain it is acceptable to say that you can’t do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn’t read. We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic.”

This quote highlights two conceptual fallacies within this report. The first is to equate the lack of people taking mathematics to an advanced level with innumeracy. Getting less than a C in GCSE maths doesn’t make you innumerate and more than getting less than a C in English makes you illiterate. It is a crucial distinction if the problem you purport to be identifying is a lack of scientists, engineers and statisticians rather than the poor quality of supermarket cashiers.

If the problem is the latter, and in fairness it should be pointed out that the report does briefly reflect on this (albeit it only to the extent that it quotes one of those surveys where businesses get the chance to whinge with no actual empirical data to back it up) then you have to take a number of remedial steps. That lead to the sort of policies Labour came out with in the late nineties. Fundamentally, it is a primary education issue more than it is a secondary education issue. Improving maths GCSE is a bit of an irrelevance in this respect.

That isn’t the problem that the report is mainly concerned with however, and it is highly doubtful that the UK would be a happier, more prosperous place if every person in the street could do complex algebra. Indeed, it could be argued that we would be better off if fewer people were doing maths at Key Stage 4. If there is a problem, it appears to lie in the fact that people who are good at maths are not fulfilling their potential and that there is a general cultural problem where intelligence is undervalued in a society obsessed with image and bling.

This leads me directly to the other conceptual problem. What’s all this guff about transforming maths from “geek” to “chic” (the report repeats this phrase throughout)? My favourite line in the report has to be this:

The many people who enjoy Sudoku, logic problems and computer games highlight the considerable potential interest in mathematics.

No it doesn’t. At all. Whether the two are linked is another matter, but interest in computer games has risen at an inverse proportion to interest in mathematics. Neither them, nor Sudoku and other logic problems are about maths at all, any more than crosswords and cinema are about English literature. None of them are “chic” – all of them are “geek” – yet they’re still popular. Doesn’t that suggest they just aren’t getting it?

Will our problems really be solved if only they talked about Pythagorean equations in Sex and the City with the same enthusiasm that they talk about handbags? Maths has always been “geek” and always will. Trying to fool kids into thinking it is somehow hip and happening isn’t going to solve anything. The problem isn’t Stephen Hawking and the solution most definitely isn’t Victoria Beckham.

Chic is the problem; in a world which celebrates superficiality and shallowness any vocation which requires a bit of brain power is going to struggle. Maybe if people like Elizabeth Truss, a Cameroon A-lister, weren’t so down on “geek”, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I’m sorry to bang home the point, but it does suggest an inherent confusion. You simply cannot with one hand dismiss attempts to make maths “relevant” while calling for it to be made “chic” with the other. To do so is utterly fatuous.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if, despite this being one of the paper’s main conclusions, they actually spelt out how this would be achieved. On substance however, the only thing the paper is willing to say about how to make maths “chic” is to have more “rigour” and more things like the UK Maths Challenge. They call for less state control while simultaneously demanding that the government “steps in” to halt the “current inexorable drift” towards modularising maths GCSE. All of this sounds like more state control to me, not less.

This is the other problem with the paper; in calling for less state control, it lacks the courage of its convictions. Outside of the Department for Children, Schools and Families I don’t think anyone fails to recognise that “teaching to the test” is doing anything but harm. But at the same time, they can’t help having a pop at “the misguided trend towards ‘progressive’ teaching.” But you can’t have it both ways. It wasn’t Thatcher who insisted on “progressive” maths teaching in the early 80s, it was the teaching profession. It is my experience that in areas such as the national curriculum, politicians tend to defer authority to civil servants and “experts” with remarkable consistency regardless of political ideology. It is those “progressive” experts who seem to be behind the “inexorable drift” that they are so opposed to. And if we are all to be much freer in choosing which schools our kids go to, a great many of us are likely to opt for ones with “progressive” attitudes.

The answer to that, surely, is that enabling greater experimentation will mean that best practice can evolve organically. No-one should be under any illusions however that giving teachers more power over their own jobs, and parents’ more power over where to send their kids to school is going to magically result in better teaching automatically. Nor are parents or even teachers going to put the interests of the national economy at their top priority. Many parents will pick schools on the basis of what religious ethos (or lack thereof) they adhere to. Many will opt for ultra-progressive education methods such as Summerhill‘s. China does a great job at hothousing mathematicians, yet somehow I suspect Reform would have issues with their education system.

There’s actually very little in this report which is about less control; merely bad teaching. That’s fine, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t conflate the one with the other. Liberalising education is a big, radical step. Pretending that doing so will lead to all schools adopting the same teaching methods is a fantasy. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Conservatives equate less state control with a rejection of “progressive” education and the problem they identify stemmed from the Thatcher and Major administration. Both these facts cast significant doubt over whether Tories really do get liberalisation.

Government certainly must share some of the blame, but it is important not to ignore the wider social pressures. Learning has always been uncool and it is foolish to pretend you can somehow make it so. A celebrity and vanity-obsessed culture is always going to under-value science and mathematics and any look at maths teaching in this country needs to reflect on that. Yet of course it is those cultural values that Cameron, and Blair before him, has capitalised on. After the London elections we now know what a real electoral force those values can be. So it is hardly surprising that a Cameroon report of this type is going to present those trends as a solution rather than a problem, no matter how foolish this appears to be.