New Statesman | Why technology is no longer the left’s great hope

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Do you remember when it wasn’t going to be like this? Technology was the left’s great hope. It was going to enable rapid, low-cost organising and people power. There would be revolutions because of it. Through it, huge volumes of information could finally be gathered into analysable silos for better decision-making. Governments could no longer rely on secrecy to maintain their power: a new era of transparency was upon us, and Wikileaks would lead us there. News would be open. Paywalls were the enemy. Everything was going to get better.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in 2008 was a cheery welcome for the wisdom of crowds. Yes, expertise was going to suffer – now anyone could be a journalist, journalists could no longer claim any special status or privileges – but this was just something to be accepted. And in any case, the same year saw Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which suggested that journalists hadn’t been doing so much to deserve their esteemed social position anyway.

Read the full column at the New Statesman

New Statesman | What the story of the niqab-wearing Welsh speaker tells us about what we want to hear

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You know this story because you’ve seen it on Facebook. Maybe you’re one of the 20,000-some people to have shared it. Or if it missed your wall, you saw it today in the Metro or the Times or the Welsh local press. It’s an irresistible one, seen through the eyes of a man on the replacement rail service between Newport and Cwmbran, though he doesn’t participate – he’s not the hero here, just the storyteller.

There’s a woman in a niqab, talking to her son in a non-English language. On the seat in front of them: a white man, who turns around and tells the woman that she’s in the UK and should be speaking English. On the seat in front of the white man, an elderly white woman who now says to him: “She’s in Wales. And she’s speaking Welsh.” How delicious. And how unlikely, if you care about things like that.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

[Comment is free] Childcare costs mean a choice of debt or unemployment for many parents

Originally published by the Guardian.

I could understand why my bank manager was looking at me like that. It did sound a bit stupid. “You’re about to start a job, and that means you need to extend your overdraft?” he said, dubiously. After years of scratching around as a student, I was finally about to draw a wage – but first, I needed to get myself just a bit deeper in debt. Continue reading

Dave’s got something for the ladies

We live in glorious times for democracy, my sisters: after many years of struggle and toil, finally we have the vote. At long, long last, our politicians are forced to listen to female voices – and act in female interests, if they wish to maintain power. Well, the Equal Franchise Act is actually 83 years old, so it’s not exactly new news, but it looks like someone only just got around to telling our coalition government, given the internal document that has been leaked, detailing how the Conservative Party (incorporating the Liberal Democrats, like a failing magazine swallowed up by a rival) plans to appeal to that psephologically baffling novelty, the Woman. Continue reading

School for scoundrels

It’s not exactly surprising that secretary of state for education Michael Gove has said he has “no ideological objection” to schools being run by businesses for profit. After all, as he points out, he is a Conservative: it’s pretty much a given that he’ll prefer corporations to citizens if the former wants something that the latter has. In this case, the something is funding for education.

I’m still small-minded enough to think that if there’s money washing about in the education system, then it should be reinvested back into education, not diverted to shareholders. I’m such a giddy idealist, I think that having already paid tax to support state education, it’s a bit bloody much for the state to cast that money out to the private sector on the understanding that profit is a better motive for education than responsibility. And I’m sufficiently economically naive that I just can’t understand how installing extra layers of non-educators is going to make the system more efficient or better value.

But while Gove says that “school improvement will be driven by professionals not profit-makers”, the profit-makers have already moved in. According to The Economist, Swedish for-profit company Kunskapsskolan is due to set up two academies in London. University College London is also getting into the academy business, and The Economist reckons they’ve chosen well: “Other universities might be advised to follow suit, for the government is ring-fencing spending in this financial year on schools. Universities are not so lucky.” (I guess someone has to pay for those grotesque vice-chancellors’ wages, and if the degree student glut is over, the younger ones will have to do.)

Even The Economist – which clearly thinks academy and free schools are a very good thing – is frank about who these new arrangements will help. It’s not going to be the children who most need support:

Whether having more academies will close the growing gap in academic performance between rich and poor children is moot; the new academies are more likely than existing ones to end up teaching well-off [pupils].

So the flagship education policy is going to entrench inequality, as well as suck funding away from schools and into the pockets of “providers”. And while all this is supposed to encourage appealing-sounding virtues like “autonomy” and “freedom”, Gove isn’t such an ideologue that he’s above a bit of centralised crowd-pleasing curriculum fiddling: he’s keen for empire-apologist Niall Ferguson to direct the history syllabus.

That’s the Niall Ferguson who, having weighed up everything and thought very hard about it, reckons that the deaths of millions of colonised Indians sits very fairly on the balance sheet opposite an entry for “increasing the GDP of Great Britain”. So children can learn the dogma of profits over people in the classroom, while they’re having the dogma of profits over people inflicted on them from outside, making Gove’s centralised decentralisation one of the most elegant hypocrisies of the coalition so far.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Xin Li 88, used under Creative Commons.

Paper chasing

Guardian, Guardian, why did you desert Labour? Since The Guardian plumped its electoral backing behind the Lib Dems, there’s been a l0w cry of anguish from some Labour supporters, involving words like “betrayal” and “hypocrites” and “haha, look, David Cameron’s the prime minister anyway”. Kerry McCarthy MP goes for The Guardian again in a blogpost this weekend:

… with its ‘once in a lifetime chance to get PR’ line, [it] lost us the chance of winning several seats where the Labour challenger would have made a far better MP than the Lib Dem incumbent. See Lucy Powell’s campaign in Manchester Withington, where victory looked a dead cert until the Guardian stuck its oar in, and Bristol West, where the votes ebbed away after the Guardian came out for Clegg. And Labour was offering a referendum on AV anyway, which could have put PR on the agenda for discussion too (especially if Labour had been the biggest party, with the Libs holding the balance).

Shot By Both Sides, 22 May 2010, “Puttin’ it down”

One of the curious things about this election was how little the campaign seemed to matter. Back in October, when the feeling of inevitability for Dave was running high, I caught an episode of The Week In Westminster with a pollster and a psephologist discussing the relative standing of Labour and the Conservatives after conference season. Both of them called it for a hung parliament, on the grounds that the swing needed for a Tory majority was immense. Six months before polling day, before most of the papers had pinned on a rosette, it was known that the general election would come down to two things: how big the swing from Labour to Tory would be, and which party was most successful in courting the Lib Dems.

So did the papers’ support make any difference at all? Not really. After all, if The Sun’s Camobama fantasia and The Mail’s dire threats of a fiery doom couldn’t sway it for the Tories, it’s laughable to imagine (even in tentative brackets as McCarthy does) that The Guardian’s support might have made Labour the biggest party in Westminster. As it happens, the Lib Dems gained a measly 1% of the vote and lost 5 seats – hardly a triumph for tactical voting. This was a bad election for newspapers, and a combination of poor judgement and hubris served to underline the fact that newspapers really aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.

But politicians still believe in the power of the press – still crave the cushion of a friendly new agenda. Which leaves the depressing spectacle of the Labour leadership contenders running around, chirping anti-immigration talking points back at the right-wing media that created them. This dedication to becoming BNP-lite seems more likely to undo Labour than any amount of disagreement with The Graun over electoral reform. Labour’s pursuit of press support will hurt it much more than the withdrawal of media backing ever could.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

A shrug of complaint

In 2002, I joined a Stop The War march in Sheffield. I didn’t enjoy my time as a protestor very much: I was a pushing a buggy, my baby started crying, there was some chanting, we shuffled around the city centre perimeter, and then I peeled off glumly to finish my shopping, feeling slightly embarrassed.

It wasn’t a moving moment of communal resistance. It was a tired shrug of complaint directed at some ministers who weren’t even looking. It rained a bit, and later on there was a war because there was always going to be a war anyway. So that was a good use of an afternoon.

It’s the Iraq war that feels like the biggest disgrace and disappointment of the Labour government. I hate the PFIs, and the patronising and ignorant populism, and the student fees, and the ruinous way that business and banking interests were whored to. Those things have all been depressing and awful and deceitfully introduced, obviously, but they mostly haven’t involved actually killing people on purpose. It doesn’t matter when the Labour party shunts out Brown, or who ultimately replaces him: I don’t want to vote for them until they’ve purged every person who ushered that bloody war through parliament.

That doesn’t matter very much where I live, because it’s a solidly Lib Dem area with an MP I won’t hate myself for electing. But you can’t build hopes and dreams on the Lib Dems. They’re political stodge: acceptable and wholesome enough, but a bit depressing when you’re looking at a whole plateful. Better, though, than the Tories – whose prospective government promises to continue everything grim about the current one while unapologetically rewarding the rich for being, um, rich. So I want the Tories to lose, Labour don’t deserve to win, and the Lib Dems fill me with limb-deadening ennui. Election 2010 will be an early night for me, I guess.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010