Class, Corbyn and the cult of austerity

The difficulty in understanding what is really going on in Britain, Raymond Williams wrote in 1960, ‘is that too much is being said by too few people’. The same is true today, only more so. Not only is the current Westminster commentariat small in number, it is exclusive in background, in terms of schooling, political outlook, ethnic background and social class, to an extent that would have surprised even Williams, I suspect. It would have been difficult, from the vantage of the 1960s, to have predicted quite how unequal and divided a society we would become in so short a time.

Of course, as Sadiq Khan said eloquently about his wealthy mayoral opponent Zac Goldsmith, having a privileged background does not exclude you from empathy, and it certainly does not mean that your opinion is wrong or lacks value. But it is a clear indictment of the quality of our democracy – and the failings of our education system – that those charged with interpreting politics for the general public – those, in other words, with the most influence over public opinion about politics – are, like the politicians they talk to and write about, drawn overwhelmingly from a narrow, privileged section of society. This perhaps explains the degree of indulgence (so far) afforded to David Cameron in the reporting of alleged indiscretions during his student days. It is hard to imagine this relatively sympathetic coverage being extended to Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be surprising, given this background, if the range of opinion on offer in our print and broadcast media was broad and inclusive. And, indeed, it is not. The range of debate in the mainstream media is extremely narrow. The broad consensus in the media about the need for austerity cuts contrasts with the substantially more varied spectrum of opinion among economists and the general public. As a result, there has been little real scrutiny of the government’s economic position. Compare this to the aggressive, often hectoring tone in which opposition policy is questioned, and it becomes clear that this unfair and unbalanced approached to political reporting and commentary is threatening (perhaps preventing) the successful functioning of our democracy.

This is not only about social background. There are powerful, fiercely defended vested interests shaping UK media coverage. But the fact that so many of our leading journalists come from privileged backgrounds – the Sutton Trust reported in 2006 that most ‘leading’ journalists went to independent schools, compared to seven per cent of the population as a whole, while just 14 per cent had attended comprehensive school (compared to 90 per cent of the population) – and have, quite often, to varying degrees, a stake in these same interests, makes it much more likely that the artificial confinement of debate will go unchallenged. There is a stark contrast between the cosy affability and rough uniformity of opinion to be found in most UK political programming and the desperate desire for change felt by so many ‘ordinary’ people who believe their views have no outlet.

All of this has been thrown into sharp relief by the election of Mr Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, a remarkable turn of events which sent much of the mainstream media into a state of deranged frenzy. Almost all of the media – like the other three Labour leadership candidates – have, to differing degrees, accepted a heavily politicized version of recent political and economic events, committing to the necessity of austerity politics and the myth that Labour overspending was a contributory factor in the financial crash (either in directly causing it and thus crashing the economy or, in a more polished version for the better educated, in leaving the country unprepared to cope with it). Winning this ‘argument’ has been critical for the Conservatives, and gave them the platform they needed to win a majority in the general election (credit where it’s due: they couldn’t have done it without the support of the Liberal Democrats). It provided the ultimate justification for the huge cuts in public spending and the misery they are causing to poor and vulnerable people across the country (those, the story goes, whose demands on the public purse plunged us into economic crisis in the first place). The problem with Corbyn, from the point of view of the mainstream media and of mainstream politics more generally, is that his success was due largely to his rejection of this view.

Unsurprisingly, the media would prefer not to have this debate. The same is true of our politicians. Tony Blair described Corbyn’s outline economic plan as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ politics, while the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, anxious to occupy what he wants us to believe is the centre ground, said this week that Corbyn was engaged in ‘fantasy’ economics. None of this of course constitutes a debate. It is an attempt to close it down. But there is, at the very least, a serious debate to be had here. Most of what Corbyn is proposing, including borrowing to finance investment, national ownership of the railways and quantitative easing to finance public services during time of recession, is not unreasonable or untested, and has the support of many mainstream economists. And while you may not agree with all of Corbyn’s views, on Trident, for example, they are surely worth a serious, national debate, if only because they are shared by many thousands of UK voters. They certainly do not deserve to be derided as childish, dangerous, backward-looking or foolish. The effort being made to close down these debates reflects the remarkably shallow and unequal nature of our democracy.

One of the main uses to which austerity politics has been put is to convince people that moral and political choices are facts of life they cannot change, and that they really have no option when it comes to the kind of society they live in. Political decisions, often driven by ideology, are passed off as tough choices necessitated by difficult times over which politicians have no control. It’s vital to the health of democratic society that people understand that change is possible. Much of what we now value and admire about our society – universal suffrage, for example – is the result of the efforts of difficult, awkward people who were derided as childish, dangerous, backward-looking or foolish. No society, as R.H. Tawney argued, can be too poor to seek a ‘right order to life’ – or so rich that it does not need to. We shouldn’t be discouraged from asking difficult questions because people who believe they know better tell us things can’t change. We are not obliged to put economic considerations before human ones. This is, in itself, a moral and political choice that can be challenged and resisted. As Tawney recognised, the creation of a ‘right order of life’ is the first business of politics. Those who try to convince us otherwise should be viewed with suspicion.

Tawney poses an interesting question here. It’s one that will, I think, resonate with those who work in adult education, particularly with next month’s spending review looming large and the new secretary of state reportedly keen to impress by taking a huge hit to his departmental budget (an odd form of initiation but perhaps not the oddest I can think of). The small but important adult and community learning budget, long protected (though only in cash terms), is once again under scrutiny, with sector leaders preparing to make an economic case for something that is, like adult education more generally, of far wider value. We have been doing this for some time, playing the Treasury’s game while privately finding other ways of valuing the work we do. In fact, despite the economic case having been made exceptionally well, backed by a strong body of research, including that produced by the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, publicly funded adult education is facing its end game. Adult further education is widely predicted to be a thing of the past by 2020 while part-time higher education continues to decline rapidly with ministers happy to turn a blind eye as long as full-time numbers hold up. Yet it’s obvious that we need much more of both. The economic case is clear, well made, yet ignored. Perhaps it is time to take a different tack, offering a wider vision for adult education tied to a more optimistic view of what is possible for us, as a society. It may be that by adopting the language and values of those who do not, by and large, understand us, we are inadvertently contributing to our own demise.

GCSEs, class and inequality

I’m always struck at this time of year by the huge amount of pressure we place so early on the shoulders of young people. That pressure is evident in the relief of the students (and their parents) who gain the GCSE results they are hoping for, and in the despondency of those who don’t.

As someone who left school at 16 with no qualifications I always feel a desire to reassure people that, just as doing well in your GCSEs is not a definitive measure of your worth, not getting good GCSEs is not the end of the world either. There are plenty of opportunities down the line, plenty of ways of making good and doing something useful in your life. There are as many ways to become a success as there are people to become successful.

This was true in the 1980s when I left school. I was able to take GCSEs and A-levels at my local college, get onto a ‘pre-entry’ journalism course and start out as a reporter at a good regional paper at 19. A few years later I left my job to take a degree as a mature student, funded by my local education authority (seeing all of this in black and white I’m surprised at just how definitively the language dates me).

Many of these opportunities are still there, though the costs, of course, are much higher – eye-wateringly so in the case of higher education. Yet, as the latest UCAS figures show, this is not necessary deterring people, even people from the least advantaged backgrounds, from accessing higher education. And, while part-time numbers show no sign of returning to previous levels (and this remains extremely bad news for us as a society, a democracy and an economy – as well as for the diverse sort of higher education system the government says it wants to see), full-time mature student numbers appear to be picking up.

This is welcome news for the government, which will see the latest figures as a vindication of its reforms, and, in particular, of the underlying fairness of the fees and loans system it has introduced. Evidently, the generous loan terms the government was able to offer have been a factor in maintaining student enrolment numbers, but there is another more important reason, I think – the same reason that 16 years olds approach GCSE results day with so much apprehension: the costs of failure in our society can be huge and are much, much harder to reverse than they were, for example, in the eighties when it was still possible to enter a profession like journalism without a degree or even a decent set of A-levels.

This is why discussions of social mobility often founder – they do not first address the underlying problem of social inequality. Social mobility, of course, cuts both ways. You can go down the escalator as well as up. One of the main reasons middle-class parents have become so adept at hoarding opportunity – and excluding others from it – is that the gap between those who do succeed, gaining a degree from a good university and accessing the professions, and those who don’t and find themselves grinding out an existence close to the poverty line, has become so great that the consequences of failure are too enormous to contemplate. And every parent wants the best for their kids. It’s a fight, and pretty bloody one, almost from the off.

Of course, in Britain (or do I mean England?), we love putting someone in their place. Weighing someone up, by the way they speak, the way they dress, whether or not they went to university, or, if they did, which university they went to, is close to a national sport. Selection, at 16 or 18, plays nicely to something fundamental about our national psyche: vocational or academic, Russell Group or red brick, pre-1992 or post-1992, Oxbridge or any of the others – it’s even played out among the upper echelons, in the refined thuggery of the Bullingdon Club and its ilk.

It’s obvious too that the ways in which we select, though in some respects plainly unfair, are just as plainly doing a good job, from the point of view of preserving advantage and ensuring the distribution of opportunity remains unequal. For that reason they are incredibly hard to change (imagine what the Daily Mail would say!) – just as our absurd system of taxpayer-supported public schools is considered politically unassailable, though it is at the heart of much that is unfair and divisive in our society.

The same kind of snobbery runs through the educational offer you can expect to find at the kind of institution or course to which you are selected. The kind of rounded, liberal education capable of producing George Davie’s ‘democratic intellect’ is increasingly the province of the privileged few, for whom history, culture, politics and the arts are considered a part of day-to-day life, essential preparation for a fulfilling existence. For everyone else, preparation for employment is all that is needed (though it’s becoming clear that simply preparing someone for work is no adequate preparation for work).

The result of all of this is more entrenched social inequality and a working class which struggles to assert its political voice or which, in many cases, has given up on politics altogether. This will no doubt be celebrated by some – one dimension of the triumph of Thatcherism over organized labour – but it is disastrous for democracy and for our society as a whole. The voiceless working class bears the brunt of austerity politics while great institutions like the NHS are gradually picked apart for profit without democratic mandate. The vast amount of talent and enterprise that is permitted to go to waste is horrible to think about. The narrowing of opportunity for adults to study what they want, for reasons other than employability, is a serious indictment of our civilization.

Sixteen is depressingly early to write someone off, yet, all too often, this is the routine outcome of a combination of selection and few second chances. There is a human cost to all of this. Huge social inequality is not just damaging to economic growth it makes people at the bottom feel worthless, that they are less than human. It also cultivates a sort of indifference, bordering on contempt, among those at the top for those ‘below’ them. Crucially, I think, it prevents people from recognizing their commonality, and their common needs – those things in virtue of which we really are all ‘in this together’. Narrowing educational opportunities – particularly the kind of liberal adult education opportunities that inspired the likes of the Pitmen painters and have now all but disappeared – makes it that much harder for people to see further or to find ways to effect social and political change. It is difficult to see where the kind of fundamental change we need will come from. But it is just as difficult to imagine how we can continue as we are. Perhaps a place to start is with the recognition that people not only need resources and opportunities to move up the social ladder but also that these resources and opportunities must be available throughout life – rather than for a fleeting moment on which all of one’s future life chances appear to hang.