Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Britain: The politics of envy and a new Labour czar gunning for the middle class

There is much excitement over the fact that former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn is being brought in from the cold by Gordon Brown to head a review of social mobility. The return of this arch-moderniser and erstwhile political foe is being seen as yet another tactic to shore up the Prime Minister's position in readiness for an early General Election. Milburn's ultra-Blairite reputation supposedly punctures the charge that Gordon Brown is bent on re-imposing the Old Labour agenda of redistribution and state control.

But here's the strange thing. It appears that Milburn is being brought back to mastermind the latest offensive in the class war - to the opposition against which, as one of the principal outriders in Tony Blair's campaign to drag Labour into the centre ground, he devoted his political career. The Prime Minister apparently wants to stop the middle classes from dominating professions such as law, medicine and the media. Accordingly, Milburn will head a review of the supposed obstacles in the way of the poor - including the work experience or internships used by middle-class parents to give their children a head start.

In addition, the Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne will this week launch a white paper on social mobility. It is certainly dismaying that so many young people are trapped in social disadvantage. Children from the highest socio-economic group are nearly three times more likely than those from the lowest to get good GCSEs, and six times more likely to go to university. What's more, even fewer young people from the poorest backgrounds now go to good universities than when Labour came to power. But that's because, as Tory spokesman Chris Grayling rightly observed, education standards have plummeted, family life has disintegrated and the welfare state traps ever more people in dependency. The way to boost social mobility is therefore to stop the rot in education, shore up intact families and reform welfare.

But the Government will not do that. How could it? To do so would be to stifle its deepest instincts to bring about an egalitarian utopia through social engineering and state control of individual lives. In education, it has systematically rigged the system to boost artificially the achievements of under-qualified young people, thus penalising those showing real merit. Now Messrs Milburn and Byrne appear set to continue this unjust discrimination. Although Downing Street has denied that quotas could be used to reduce internships for middle-class children, it has also made it clear that children who go to private or grammar schools - or who have professional parents - are its main targets. So it appears that once again the agenda is bashing the middle class, and rewarding young people not for what they have achieved but on account of their family background.

In a grotesque mirror-image of everything Labour is supposed to be against, it will once more favour people on the basis of where they come from - but only if they come from the wrong side of the tracks. This makes a total mockery of its supposed aim to improve access to the middle class for those from poor backgrounds. For once such folk have hauled themselves into that middle class, they will promptly get clobbered by Labour for being 'privileged'.

Moreover, given the number of Labour MPs who secure either job placements or internships for their own children, the hypocrisy is pretty staggering.

Milburn has long expressed concern about sluggish social mobility. And he has acknowledged that the correct approach lies not in taking things away from people, but in ensuring that opportunities are opened up for all. But the evidence suggests that, just as Tony Blair himself did, Milburn deludes himself about New Labour's purported success in doing so. In a debate on the subject last year, he used some fancy footwork with official statistics to claim that social mobility had increased because incomes for the less well-off had risen. But, in fact, incomes among the very poorest have actually risen more slowly than among those at the top.

He also claimed that a 'very good' education was available to a small minority of people only because they could afford to pay for it. But the truth is that a 'very good' education is not available to all, simply because government education policy has destroyed education standards - and by axing so many grammar [selective] schools, reduced the opportunities for academic excellence that once lifted so many children out of disadvantage.

Ministers boast that record numbers of young people now go to university. But this has caused a catastrophic drop in standards as universities - under threat of losing grant aid - are forced to admit students who don't cut the mustard. Not surprisingly, record numbers of students are now dropping out - particularly among precisely the kind of people the Government is determined to shoe-horn into universities and professional jobs at the expense of the better-qualified. Figures dragged out of the Government show that students from poor families who get preferential places at universities by being offered lower A-level requirements are three times more likely to drop out of their courses than those who win places by simple merit.

Byrne insists it is a 'classic liberal error' to assume that the middle classes have to suffer in order to give others a fair chance. But that's precisely what this Government has been doing for the past decade. Yet far from opening up real opportunity for those from poor backgrounds, this approach has tricked them by giving them only the illusion of achievement. It has thus achieved the truly brilliant outcome of treating the middle class with undiluted spite and the poor with profound contempt.

There is, of course, a direct link between declining education standards and people playing the system through internships and other manoeuvres. Undoubtedly, internships are potentially unfair because the lucky few who get them have a head start over those who don't. But the reason they have mushroomed over the past few years is that, with crashing academic standards producing - absurdly - vast numbers of top grades, employers often rely on internships to show the true worth of a candidate.

Now it is reported that 400,000 students due to graduate from universities this summer will be offered government-sponsored internships to help them cope with a recession-hit job market. But it is far from clear that the Government will help fund companies to do this; nor that such interns will be paid anything at all; nor that after their three-month internship is up they will actually get a job. After all, many companies are either axing their graduate schemes or not giving jobs to those already on them. In other words, this just looks like a prime piece of political window dressing.

Social mobility is rightly considered to be the lynch-pin of progressive politics. But it is inextricably connected to the creation of a meritocracy. What this government is committed to, in direct contrast, is the destruction of meritocracy and its replacement by social gerrymandering. The fact that an ultra-Blairite politician should be drafted in to pursue such an Old Labour agenda should not surprise us, since the pursuit of egalitarianism was always Labour's real 'Clause Four'. Everything else was smoke and mirrors - the real reason the New Labour project went belly-up. Alan Milburn's return is thus not a radical departure at all; it's just more of the same old same old.


If any government is serious about unemployment, it must sweep away the laws that make it difficult to hire and fire

Comment from Britain

Hi ho, hi ho, it's back to work we go. With luck. Even those who took a long Christmas will be heading back today, and if there is one safe prediction it is that the usual unseemly scramble over holiday rotas will be a bit muted this year. In 2009, if you've got a job you don't rock the boat. In retail, building, banking, manufacturing, marketing, media - even bits of the bloated public sector - jobs are twisting to the ground like dead leaves in the financial gale. As the Prime Minister convenes his "jobs summit" today, there will be a change of tone from the accustomed fret about the long-term workless and the unwilling. The new and tormenting problem is what to do for the willing: the newly redundant and the newly adult.

For new graduates, the buzz word is "intern". There is to be a national scheme - finances, scale and rules still murky - to give them short paid internships in white-collar business. The Higher Education Minister, David Lammy, speaks of "preparing for the upturn" with useful experience. Alan Milburn, meanwhile, has been ordered to improve social mobility. He writes that recession is an opportunity to do this, although, frankly, it is hard to see why 11 years of boom were not.

Internships arise again: his mission is to end the "middle-class monopoly". It seems that government has finally grasped what some of us out here have been saying for years - that unpaid internships are a racket. All the experience and networking (especially in arts, media and the City) go to kids whose parents can house and support them while they act as unpaid drudges. Meanwhile equally bright young people have to flip burgers for the rent money. And companies exploit it: in France, where the racket is even more common, in some companies 20 per cent of the workforce are permanently interns. One New York magazine boasts 50 per cent. If the new scheme makes it all fairer, good.

But in the end people need real work. To leave university and spend three impoverished months being half-trusted at a corporate keyboard is clearly better than hanging around on benefits. But what all workers deserve, as much as money and experience, is honour. Whether you are a cleaner or a QC, you want to know that you earned your money and would be missed. Even the most solipsistic "creative" needs validation - bums on seats, commissions, viewers, buyers.

And, by happy coincidence, this is also what the economy needs: not millions on benefits and millions more in perpetual training that leads nowhere, nor artificial jobs (such as the new "food leftovers advisers" now allegedly turning up on doorsteps after a one-day course). And - here's the tough bit - in the end it is better to have a job that does not fulfil you creatively than no job at all. This may be a difficult pill to swallow: a recent television series took teenagers to work in Indian sweatshops. One English girl, promoted to the coveted job of machinist, threw a tantrum because "it's just sewing bits of cloth, it's not crea'ive".

Schools must bear some responsibility for letting children think that they have a right to earn their living being creative. The truth is that they have both a right to earn a living and a right to be creative, but not necessarily at the same time.

I met a lot of Cowley assembly-workers in the 1970s: men who made museum-quality models, played in bands, won dancing cups or bred winning pigeons after each tedious day bolting the same bit of trim on endless Minis. And even in medialand, trust me, there are unspeakably mundane tasks to be done before the tiger of creativity runs free.

So - real jobs for the "upturn". What might help? At the moment the Government's obsession is training - internships, grants to mothers, penning teenagers in classrooms until they're 18. Some of that training is pointless, leaving us with such a shortage of practical skills that we need Polish craftsmen and poach Third World nurses.

The thing which ministers seem never to consider is removing some of the impediments to hiring that they gaily put in place during the palmy years. Note that in the US in normal times the average gap between redundancy and a new job was four weeks. Here it was six months. This is because in America you can fire people you can't afford. Thus when an upturn begins, US employers hire early. Here, employment protection law makes an exhausting and time-consuming process of "managing people out": written warnings, meetings, monitoring, watching your language lest lawyers pounce. It takes three months, during which time you are still paying wages as business crumbles. Even genuine redundancy involves lengthy rituals and compulsory verbal hypocrisies about "alternative roles in the organisation" even as bailiffs prepare to board up the windows.

Workers need reasonable protection from caprice and exploitation: you can't bin all the rules. But in seeking to encourage employers, ministers should reflect that helping lame dogs over stiles is more difficult if you have previously laced the stile with barbed wire. The same applies to health and safety law: if, say, a rural bicycle business wants to take on a school leaver but can't guarantee that the shed will be maintained at the prescribed minimum temperature and a dedicated employee toilet provided (rather than the one in the farmhouse), it is not legally enough to give the lad a fleece and a back-door key.

On top of that you might worry about being hammered for sexual or racial discrimination, or indeed kneecapped by the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. This was designed to protect gay workers from persecution, but, as usual, is so loosely drafted that from day one an employee has a case even if he or she just subjectively "perceives" that the boss is feeling homophobic. This applies even if the employee is not gay, and if the boss has never given it a thought but just happened to be a bit testy that week. Although few cases actually arise, the law makes such fears real: so the bike business remains a one-man band, unwilling to expand as trade looks up. Only the big battalions will score a delightfully disposable national intern.

Government can't make everyone prosperous and good. But it can help a bit. And it could certainly smooth away some of the obstacles to hiring which, in happier times, it invented to demonstrate its idealism. At today's jobs summit, I fear this will be the unacknowledged elephant in the room.


Gaza is not Warsaw

The comparison of Israel to the Nazis sums up the childish and dangerous `binary thinking' that is rife in international affairs today.

Denouncing Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories as brutal `Zio-Nazism', as a genocidal project and a process of inhumane ghettoisation akin to the experience of the Jews in 1940s Europe, is not new. But over the past week, such shrill and inaccurate historical equating has sunk to a newly degenerate level. From the London protesters who called for an end to `the final solution' in Palestine, to the former London mayor Ken Livingstone who said that the Israelis `will continue to create a Warsaw Ghetto in the Middle East', anti-Israel campaigners are lazily using images of Nazi atrocities as readymade symbols of human oppression. They are doing it in order to denounce the violence in Gaza, which, however desperate, bears no resemblance in either form or scale to the Holocaust, the greatest crime of the twentieth century. As David Aaronovitch argued in The Times (London), the comparisons with the Warsaw Ghetto are `philistine' (1).

Looking at the Middle East conflict from the outside, it might be tempting to fall back on shoving Jews, Nazis, Israelis and Palestinians into one simple narrative instead of going through the trouble of understanding what went on back then or what is going on right now. Some anti-Israel campaigners also find a perverse satisfaction in throwing the Jews' recent tragic history back in their faces, with slogans like `Zionism = Nazism', `Israel: The Fourth Reich', and `from oppressed to oppressors'. These, by now tired, clich‚s can easily fit on to placards and plant a powerfully simplistic image in people's minds of Jews `doing onto others what was done to them'.

As Aaronovitch rightly says: `This ahistorical hyperbole is. the product of a kind of binary thinking, the belief that there can only be two kinds of anything, and two possible responses: there's the good and the bad; there's the victim and the murderer.' (2)

However, it is not only the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians that is understood through `binary thinking' these days, and reduced to `good and bad, victim and murderer'. Disparate contemporary conflicts, each with complex roots and circumstances, are routinely transformed into black-and-white morality tales and likened to the Holocaust - think Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. And anyone who questions this representation, and argues that however awful these conflicts are they cannot be compared with the Holocaust, will likely be labelled a `denier'. That accusation also comes straight out of debates around Nazi crimes, evoking the phrase `Holocaust denier'. The reduction of Israel/Palestine to a simple, binary morality tale looks like the logical conclusion to the recent moralisation of international affairs.

Undoubtedly, Gazans are suffering terribly. Civilians are being maimed and killed, property is being destroyed, and any hopes of leading a normal life in Gaza have been crushed for the foreseeable future. Yet even a brief examination of what went on in the Warsaw Ghetto shows just how ignorant and opportunistic the Holocaust comparisons are.

Between 1941 and 1943 the population of the Warsaw Ghetto dropped from an estimated 380,000 to 70,000 as a result of starvation, disease and deportations to concentration and extermination camps (3). The rate of starvation in the ghetto was over 4,000 a month. In 1942, mass expulsion of the ghetto inhabitants began at a rate of over 5,000 Jews a day. Only some 55,000 remained in the ghetto. Some decided to resist, but the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed after four weeks. According to German figures - which may have understated the resistance fighters' resources yet still revealed their poor odds of winning any victory - the Nazis captured nine rifles, 59 pistols, and several hundred grenades, explosives and mines. Seven thousand of the captured Jews were shot, 22,000 were transported to death camps (4). "

Israel is not dotted with labour camps and gas chambers, there is no plan to exterminate the Palestinians. Israel's leadership has repeatedly said that their enemy is Hamas, not the Palestinian people, who are given advance warning of bombings through leaflets and mobile phone messages. It has been reported that Israel is offering some injured Gazans hospital treatment, which is certainly not something the Nazis ever did for Jews. None of that remotely justifies Israel's bombing campaign, but it shows clearly that the Israelis cannot be compared to the Nazis who ghettoised Jews in Warsaw.

Some Jews, too, have compared Israelis with Nazis, and the Israel Defense Forces with the SS. The right-wing Jewish settlers who were deported from Gaza under then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's `disengagement plan' wore orange Star of David patches similar to the yellow ones that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. They accused the IDF soldiers overseeing the evacuation of acting like Nazis.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Tony Greenstein, who describes himself as `socialist, anti-Zionist, anti-racist', said to anti-Israel demonstrators in Brighton, England, last weekend: `The Gazan Palestinians are no different in kind from the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and it is no surprise that the Zionists, who collaborated with the Nazis during the war, should now seek to ape the persecutors of the Jews.' (5) Greenstein spoke `as a Jewish opponent of Zionism and their terror bombing of Gaza' (6). The irony is that he has no qualms about rehashing a worn-out conspiracy theory, while defiling the memory of the Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and denigrating Palestinians by turning them into objects of a vicarious Western pity.

The Holocaust has become cheap currency in contemporary debates about international affairs. Even some of the commentators who now denounce any comparison between the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Holocaust have not hesitated to apply the analogy in other ways. David Aaronovitch and many others applied `binary thinking' to Bosnia, arguing: `In front of our eyes, just about, with our full knowledge, thousands were taken to European fields - just as they had been 50 years earlier - and murdered en masse. It was the most shaming moment of my life. We had let it happen again.' (7)

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel columnist Melanie Philips, while criticising the idea that Palestinians are being subjected to a planned extermination, has no qualms about calling Hamas' rocket-firing a `truly genocidal assault upon [Israel's] citizens' (8). Jewish organisations have also interpreted the term `genocide' generously, often insisting that they have a special responsibility to ensure the Holocaust `never happens again'. The British Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, for instance, `commemorates the tragic loss of life in the genocides of World War II, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur' (9).

We should resist the urge to indulge in `binary thinking' - in relation to Israel and Palestine and all other contemporary conflicts. Those affected by them deserve not to be reduced to black-and-white pawns in Western campaigners' sloganeering. Anyone who wants to uphold the memory of the Holocaust and understand today's conflicts in their specifics - all the better to try to come up with some possible solutions - should stay well clear of the cynical use and abuse of Nazi atrocities.


Running at Recess

Called to a Florida school that could not cope, police led the disorderly student away in handcuffs, all 40 pounds of her 5-year-old self. In a Solomonic compromise, schools in Broward County, Fla., banned running at recess. Long Beach, N.J., removed signs warning swimmers about riptides, although the oblivious tides continued. The warning label on a five-inch fishing lure with a three-pronged hook says, "Harmful if swallowed"; the label on a letter opener says, "Safety goggle recommended."

No official at the Florida school would put a restraining arm around the misbehaving child lest he or she be sued, as a young member of Teach for America was, for $20 million (the school settled for $90,000), because the teacher put a hand on the back of a turbulent seventh-grader to direct him to leave the classroom. Another teacher's career was ruined by accusations arising from her having positioned a child's fingers on a flute. A 2004 survey reported that 78 percent of middle and high school teachers have been subjected to legal threats from students bristling with rights. Students, sensing the anxiety that seizes schools when law intrudes into incidental relations, challenge teachers' authority.

Someone hurt while running at recess might sue the school district for inadequate supervision of the runner, as Broward Country knows: It settled 189 playground lawsuits in five years. In Indiana, a boy did what boys do: He went down a slide head first -- and broke his femur. The school district was sued for inadequate supervision. Because of fears of such liabilities, all over America playgrounds have been stripped of the equipment that made them fun. So now in front of televisions and computer terminals sit millions of obese children, casualties of what attorney and author Philip Howard calls "a bubble wrap approach to child rearing" produced by the "cult of safety." Long Beach removed the warning signs because it is safer to say nothing: Reckless swimmers injured by the tides might sue, claiming that the signs were not sufficiently large or shrill or numerous, or something. Only a public outcry got the signs restored.

Defensive, and ludicrous, warning labels multiply because aggressiveness proliferates. Lawsuits express the theory that anyone should be able to sue to assert that someone is culpable for even an idiotic action by the plaintiff, such as swallowing a fishing lure. A predictable byproduct of this theory is brazen cynicism, encouraged by what Howard calls trial lawyers "congregating at the intersection of human tragedy and human greed." So:

A volunteer for a Catholic charity in Milwaukee ran a red light and seriously injured another person. Because the volunteer did not have deep pockets, the injured person sued the archdiocese -- successfully, for $17 million.

The thread connecting such lunacies is a fear permeating American life. It is, alas, a sensible fear arising from America's increasingly perverse legal culture that is the subject of what surely will be 2009's most needed book on public affairs -- Howard's "Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law."

A nation in which the proportion of lawyers in the work force almost doubled between 1970 and 2000 has become ludicrously dense with laws. Now legal self-consciousness is stifling the exercise of judgment. Today's entitlement culture inculcates the idea that everyone is entitled to a life without danger, disappointment or aggravation. Any disagreement or annoyance can be aggressively "framed in the language of legal deprivation."

Law is essential to, but can stifle, freedom. Today, Howard writes, "Americans increasingly go through the day looking over their shoulders instead of where they want to go." The land of the free and the home of the brave has become "a legal minefield" through which we timidly tiptoe lest we trigger a legal claim. What should be routine daily choices and interactions are fraught with legal risk.

Time was, rights were defensive. They were to prevent government from doing things to you. Today, rights increasingly are offensive weapons wielded to inflict demands on other people, using state power for private aggrandizement. The multiplication of rights, each lacking limiting principles, multiplies nonnegotiable conflicts conducted with the inherent extremism of rights rhetoric, on the assumption, Howard says, "that society will somehow achieve equilibrium if it placates whomever is complaining." But in such a society, dazed by what Howard calls "rule stupor" and victimized by litigious "victims," the incentives are for intensified complaining. Read Howard's book, and weep for the death of common sense.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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