You can’t deny it – Boris Johnson is making waves up North

At least in rhetoric, Boris Johnson is hailing a dubious era of investment in England’s Northern hemisphere. Not unlike all those politicians that have gone before him, he has promised to splash out on education, the NHS and Northern transport, pledging a Northern Powerhouse Rail modelled on London’s Crossrail. He’s stated his intent to preserve and restore British Steel, a dominant force in the North East’s economy, while also turning Teesport into a ‘free port’ – thus gifting it with preferential trading arrangements. He’s even thrown in a commitment to improving provision for special needs education, which will give a small lifeline to local constituencies such as Durham, who earlier this year expressed a ‘debt crisis in SEND provision’ to the tune of £5.6 million.

These are hardly the dramatic bailouts the region would hope for: though they look like massive giveaways when compared with the stinginess of governments prior.

By conveniently rediscovering the Tories’ ‘magic money tree’ and pledging to divert a substantial chunk of it across Northern England, while making tangible commitments to a No-Deal Exit, Boris is doing something genius. He is appealing directly to the region’s staunch Lexiteers: left-wingers who want Brexit but rely heavily on public services. If austerity was the only thing keeping many Northern Labour strongholds semi-resistant to Conservative rule, Boris’s unorthodox political approach – and frank borrowing of long-held Labour manifesto pledges – may just clinch their support.

Of course, many other politicians, such as George Osborne, have made similarly blasé commitments which have failed to materialise. But Boris knows it’s different this time because of Brexit. Fed up with Labour’s lack of clarity on the issue – among the fact that all-but-one North Eastern constituency voted to Leave in 2016 – the region is perfect breeding ground for Boris’s new, patriotic, spend-heavy Brexit Britain. While the ‘Boris Bounce’ seemed muted in the Brecon by election, its impact in the North East is untested but guaranteed. This is mainly because of the region’s specific dynamics: high suicide rates, high unemployment figures, low immigration, a dominant age demographic between 40-55, a propensity to have voted Brexit and a history of voting Labour. Many Northern Labour MPs now fear a general election precisely because they know they might get turfed out. It doesn’t matter that Boris’s promises are most likely bluster and will damage the North East in the long-run. All he needs is to get his no-deal over the line.

In reality, Boris’s entire strategy will serve only to destroy the limited infrastructure the North of England has. The Confederation of British Industry has explicitly warned that the North-East will be hardest hit by a No-Deal Brexit because of the threats to its manufacturing industries and the region’s reliance on the EU as an export market. Bridget Philipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, recently tweeted a snapshot of the economic damage no-deal would inflict on her constituency – regardless of the spending Boris has pledged. She said: ‘Brexit will not make Sunderland richer, more equal or more free. Around 60% of our exports go to the EU and, on a per job basis, we export more into the EU than any other British City.’ Later, she added: ‘Johnson wants my city and my constituents to pay the price for him to stay in Downing Street. A No-Deal Brexit was hardly mentioned back in 2016, but it will wipe out jobs and industry.’

So, then, as Boris continues to make waves up North, by showcasing his devout commitment to anti-austerity, a Brexit that ‘works for everyone’ and the burgeoning potential of the ‘powerhouse of the North’, he sacrifices ever more livelihoods for his own political gain. Who knows what the result of that will be?


ITV’s Love Island redeems itself by championing regional accents

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that reality TV is horrible, and uncanny in its ability to draw out the worst parts of human nature. But it’s also one of the only occasions in which regional British accents receive public airtime. It’s strange to admit, but ITV’s producers, when it comes to casting for this over-subscribed and widely-cherished reality contest, have a fairly nuanced appreciation of diversity. They get the fact that reality TV thrives off relatability with its audience, and unlike the BBC’s tired and London-centric dramas, they’ve remembered that there’s a world beyond the Capital and the Home Counties. To this end, creds to them.

Besides reality TV, the UK’s most-watched dramas of the past few years are nigh-on all based in London and its cultural peripheries. Unforgotten, Collateral, Fleabag, Line of Duty, The Bodyguard, Luther, Silent Witness, Killing Eve. The list goes on. The only marginally regional thing about any of these shows was Richard Madden’s Scottish accent – but not even that salvaged an otherwise unforgivably insular, boring and repetitive display of London’s cultural and political allure. Each of these performances – acting aside – are deeply annoying in their desperation to appeal to international, and specifically American, audiences. In doing so, mainstream producers fail to recruit, feature or acknowledge the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, you’ve got Love Island, which is so British it hurts. There’s no risk of alienating American viewers here, because this is all about engaging the domestic populace after dreary summer days spent in the office. When considered from a regional perspective – as diversity drives seldom are – Love Island is one of the only truly representative domestic television features. Its hetero-normative comprehension of gender and sexuality is grossly old fashioned – and yes, the idea that young, often vulnerable individuals are willingly subjecting themselves to intense public scrutiny is conceptually bizarre. But does it discriminate based on accent, region or linguistic idiosyncrasy? Definitely not.

What did Twitter have to say about this year’s conglomerate of regional voices? This is an important question to ask, because many people who watch Love Island are also prone to giving their feedback on Twitter. Audience interaction – via tweets, hashtags and polls – is woven into the fabric of the show itself. So, when Twitter’s overwhelming response is to ridicule the non-London portion of accents featured on this series (of which there are a fair few), you can best believe that that’s what most people think. (Fyi, just type ‘Love Island Accents’ into Twitter and have a browse over the last week: the responses I feature below aren’t anomalous).

‘They honestly need to make a Londoners only Love Island season… these accents are too much’, said one Twitter user, followed by a similar tweet that ‘Love Island should be Londoners only because all these accents are giving [me] a headache’. Many talked about ‘needing subtitles’ to understand what people were saying. Another read: ‘Tonight’s show taught us that we must never raise our kids outside London because these accents are all the way backwards’. Echoing this statement, a heavily-favourited tweet asked whether Love Island’s producers were ‘refusing to let people from London onto their show? Because [he] was sick and tired of hearing all these shit accents.’ To clarify, there are three people from London currently in the villa.

Evidently, ‘linguistic profiling’ is something which we fail to acknowledge as a form of discrimination within national media (but which also affects people in their daily lives, at university and within the workplace). According to an ITV investigation, 80% of employers admit they discriminate against applicants based on accent, while 28% of Britons feel discriminated against because of their regional identity. It’s obvious why: because the general perception is that a standardised British accent makes you sound smarter, posher, more middle-class and more recognisable at a global level.

On this front, again, Twitter users didn’t hold back. ‘Where the fuck does Love Island find these dirt accents every FUCKING year’, said one woman, adding that she ‘still hadn’t forgiven them after they let a Birmingham accent on National TV last year.’ Someone else asked whether ‘it’s just that Scottish lad on love island’, or if ‘all Scottish accents sound fucking horrific on TV.’

Many tweets struck up a more serious tone. “When we said we wanted more diversity we meant more ethnicities, not accents’, said one female user, while another bemoaned that ‘Love Island’s idea of diversity is white people with different accents.’

This gets to the heart of the matter. Regional diversity, for whatever reason, is not perceived as ‘real’ diversity. While it’s undeniable that those of BME status are underrepresented in the media, leading national institutions and higher education, so are the regions (particularly the heavily ‘accented regions’, such as the South-West, North-East, North-West and Wales). To therefore recruit ‘diversity’ based solely on ethnicity completely diminishes the reality of this fact and the division it perpetuates. Ideally, all forms of under-representation need to be addressed for society to function at its maximum potential.

Of course, siphoning off ‘regional’ accents to the reality-TV portion of our small screens is dangerously self-reinforcing. Shows such as Love Island, which actually so often champion the regional accent, end up construing non-standardised voices as spectacles or novelties. Until mainstream dramas begin incorporating regional accents into their work, shows like Love Island remain the only source by which non-standard accented citizens can ‘relate’ to individuals on screen, allowing linguistic prejudice to continue unobstructed.

For now, though, it’s quite nice hearing voices from Newcastle, or Liverpool, or Wales or Manchester, garnering more attention at 9pm on ITV 2 than the contestants with more ‘standardised’ accents. What exists in Love Island – so far at least – is an accented microcosm of the nation in true voice: a visible, audible reminder that different ways of speaking mutually co-exist. The fact that people should consider hearing accents offensive, disconcerting or abnormal in any way undermines diversity in one of its most basic forms. It’s also just heart-breaking for those who live and talk in those very regional voices, and don’t want to have to change to fit in.

We need to stop obsessing over women’s tears and what they might mean

The clamour around Theresa May’s resignation is subsiding, with the new Conservative leadership election well under way. But Twitter continues, rather sadistically, to pore over that haggard image of Theresa May crying outside No.10. Whether you think ‘sympathy’ for this crying woman is justified, or the sobs were legit, is totally irrelevant. By even analysing her ‘self-indulgent’ tears – and more specifically, her lack of them at times ‘when it mattered’ – we perpetuate damaging stereotypes about ‘expected’ female behaviours and personality traits. She cried at this juncture because she felt like it. The other times she didn’t. Let’s just leave it at that.

It is claimed that crying ‘humanises’ a politician, but this is stupid, because emotions are subjective and personal, and the ‘humanising’ process is only really open to young or liberal individuals. Successful criers and sympathisers are typically affectionate, liberal men (and the occasional liberal woman, such as Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s current Prime Minister, seen hugging victims and crying in a motherly manner after the Christchurch terror attacks, or Hilary Clinton, who broke down during her 2008 Presidential Campaign and swept up the female vote). Male examples include Gordon Brown, when speaking about the death of his daughter on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories; Obama, when he cried during a speech against gun violence and the death of his grandmother; and Justin Trudeau, publicly crying as he met a Syrian refugee.

Unsuccessful or ‘heartless’ displays of emotion, meanwhile, have emanated from older, Conservative women: Margaret Thatcher as she was extricated from office; Angela Merkel when she ‘welled up’ after Obama’s scathing criticisms in a Eurozone Crisis meeting in 2011 but failed to be moved by the plea of a young Palestinian refugee; Theresa May’s most recent public address. A double-standard is in operation, and you can recognise it without agreeing with their politics: while the public go mad over chivalrous outpourings of emotion by stoic political men and the occasional down-to-earth liberal heroine, older, more reserved women are unfairly attacked for failing to be consistently vulnerable, or false when they are. They become ‘head-mistressy’, ‘robotic’ or ‘witch-like.’ 

The way the media has responded to May’s speech exposes the dichotomous patriarchal constructions that dictate female roles in a male political world, of which even Liberal women are not exempt. On the one hand, women who cry are irrational and unfit for leadership. On the other, women who don’t are typically seen as inhumane and frigid, forfeiting their femininity. They can’t win. The new mural of Theresa May’s face on Digbeth Street in Birmingham encapsulates this paradox. Beneath a drawing of her crying sobs is written ‘STRONG AND STABLE’ in mocking terms. While the words point to the strong-willed political vision she attempted to offer the nation, her tears are weaponised as symbols of its inevitable failure: pathetic manifestations of her female weaknesses.

But at the same time, many other individuals were praising Theresa May for her tears, frustrated that she hadn’t cried sooner. Heidi Allen questioned why Theresa May ‘hadn’t shown that emotion more? Things could have been so different…’. An Independent columnist, likewise, argued that Theresa May’s resignation speech ‘finally did something good for women’, because her cries showed that ‘she’s just another human being’ who actually ‘really cared.’ These comments suggest that as a woman, you must cry to show you care, and you’ll be supported if you do. That seems to be as equally sexist as the presumed link between female tears and fragile irrationality.

In fact, demanding tactical tears for every occurring tragedy or political manoeuvre is absurd: it’s a standard we wouldn’t hold men to. Mrs May’s policy record is poor – there’s no denying it. Her decision to continue depriving Universal Credit of necessary investment has disproportionately affected low-income single mothers, while her ‘hostile environment’ policy criminalised refugees. But having said this, it is still hypocritical to expect May – and other female leaders – to cry at such daily injustices. While many of us feel desperately for the plight of those suffering in society today, we might not necessarily cry for them. Those calling out false equivalences between May’s ‘selfish’ job-loss tears and the dry-eyed face she presented to Grenfell Tower and Windrush victims probably don’t cry about such scandals either. If they do, well good for them. Showing your emotion isn’t an objective science: just because we don’t cry it doesn’t mean we don’t feel.  

By expecting female politicians to be pure, affectionate, and conveniently-emotional (lest they otherwise be portrayed as cold-hearted, power-hungry, spinster-like iron ladies), we make the office even less attractive for female political hopefuls both left and right-wing. In craving emotional displays, we simply demonstrate a weird fetishisation of watching people suffer. Better to just not talk about the crying at all, because then we can’t set up impossible emotional conditions for female leaders to meet.  Crying says nothing about a person’s humanity. It’s just a topic loaded with sexism and ageism. 

Gateshead Head Teacher Andrew Ramanandi: ‘I’m still positive about the future of our state-funded schools’

Last week, Regionalitics spoke to Mr Ramanandi, Headteacher at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Gateshead and architect of the petition ‘Increase Funding for Schools’. Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Ramanandi vows to remain both positive and hopeful about the long-term prospects for the UK’s state-funded education – despite the evident challenges facing the sector.

‘I’m encouraged because MPs across all parties and all regions are recognising the need to paint a national picture’, he said. ‘We’re all looking to cut staff, cut back on activities for children and non-core enrichment such as music and art. We aren’t in this position because of mismanagement. It’s because the money just isn’t there. This petition and associated debate made that clear: this isn’t about politics.’

But for all his unstilted confidence that the DfE will inevitably concede to real-terms funding increases in primary and secondary schools, a quick look at the data presents one difficult question: how?

Above all else, there’s the frustrating veneer of resistance by Government to truly grasp the gravity of the situation. Ministers continue to draw on comparisons with 1990 and 2000 funding-levels, maintaining that ‘more money is going into our schools than ever before’. Factually incorrect in real-terms, ‘School Cuts’ monitoring and activism service, maintained by the National Education Union, stress that 9 in 10 schools in England have faced cuts to per-pupil funding since 2015: that’s £5.4bn.

One headteacher based in Durham told me that the local authority is facing a budget shortfall of £5.6 million in special educational needs provision over the next financial year, with the money having to come out of the general council budget on a one-off basis. Even in stoutly Conservative authorities, such as West Sussex, rural schools are suffering from unprecedented cut-backs to resources, teaching and non-teaching staff. Ministers are so wrapped-up in fruitless debates around Brexit that they are refusing to listen to the plight of MPs from their own political party.

Information provided by the Commons Library echoes the concerns of the National Head Teachers Association and the National Governance Association, revealing that ‘there has been a clear decline in spending in the five years from 2012-2013 onwards.’ According to that same Commons Library data, public spending per head on education in 2016-2017 remained highest in London at around £1,600. It was lowest in the South East and South West of England at £1,200.

Even more frustrating was Education Minister Nick Gibb’s concluding remarks in the Commons debate prompted by Mr Ramanandi’s petition. Besides reiterating tired taunts that schools are receiving unprecedented levels of funding when measured by other means, Mr Gibb also suggested that head teachers use a ‘new benchmarking service’ to compare their school’s financial data with similar schools – and spend less money on advertising for recruitment. Gibb seemed unaware that ‘benchmarking’ is a practice which has been used by teachers for many years, and that recruitment advertising swallows a tiny proportion of school’s overall budgets. The overwhelming perception by the Government remains that teachers’ failures to ‘balance the books’ is down to financial mismanagement rather than their own flippancy.

While Mr Ramanandi agrees that the Commons’ debate itself was rather deflating, he tells me that his positivity isn’t because of an immediate expectation that teachers’ demands will be met without delay. Rather, teachers are concentrating on pushing for change in anticipation of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

‘What you’ll actually find is that this isn’t a regional issue: nor is it a case of inner-city areas versus their rural counterparts. Everyone is facing a squeeze’, he said.

‘If you remember “The London Challenge”, a programme launched by the UK’s Labour Government in 2003, that completely transformed the capital’s state education system. That’s why so many MPs outside of London now talk about this ‘fair-funding’ model: the idea that money should be available based on need. Headteachers and MPs nation-wide don’t want to take money away from other schools; they just want more money in the system. They want to see the kind of transformation that took place in London but never reached the outskirts. I’m confident that sooner or later the government will realise boosting educational attainment everywhere is in everyone’s interests.’

Brexit, of course, is getting in the way for now. But the National Head Teachers Association continue to take ‘all steps necessary to achieve the aim of a 10-year funding plan for schools.’ The NAHT annual conference recently backed a motion committing the union to industrial action if persistent underfunding is not addressed in the spending review. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman told the BBC that the union will ‘work with government, advise and campaign.’ Meanwhile, Durham Councillor Olwyn Gunn, Cabinet member for children and young people’s services, added that she hoped ‘intense lobbying will result in increased funding from the 2020/21 Comprehensive Spending Review’.

‘This is why I’m positive’, Mr Ramanandi admits, ‘because I know that the messages delivered by teachers and local authorities nationwide will reach the DfE loud and clear. We live in very uncertain times. It’s difficult to know who will even be in power by the Autumn. But our children still need to be educated. This petition and debate showed that education is a topic MPs care very strongly about. Education underpins everything else in society. It has to move up the Government’s priority list.’

The onus now, of course, falls squarely upon the heads of Government. Only time will tell if Mr Ramanandi’s position is justified. I’m sure many teachers will not be feeling quite so reassured.

Why rape comments are always tactical

Gerard Batten assured us that it was a ‘statement of non-intent’ – but Carl Benjamin’s comment that he ‘wouldn’t even rape’ Labour MP Jess Philips should never be consigned to the offhand-remark pile. An explicit attack on the ‘over-sensitivity’ of mainstream media outlets, rape references by right-wing politicians are always tactical. Signifying the greatest possible dispensation with cultures of equality and progressivism, such comments – brash, offensive and provocative – function as assurances of equally radical policies. In other words, rape-comments win votes.

Somehow, by their sexism and misogyny, male political outsiders have become the champions of free-speech and anti-establishment views. The list is increasing at an alarming rate. Donald Trump, after claiming that his celebrity status allows him to ‘grab any woman by the pussy’, dismissed the comments as ‘locker-room talk’ during his presidential campaign back in 2016. Jair Bolsonaro, now President of Brazil, claimed in 2015 that his fellow Congresswoman Maria do Rosário was ‘not worth raping’ because she was ‘very ugly’. Meanwhile, Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte has been known to make frequent jokes about rape, offering the justification that ‘as long as there are many beautiful women, there are plenty of rape cases as well.’  His Presidential spokesperson noted that Duterte was ‘known to make jokes’ and simply has a ‘sense of humour.’

Though UKIP might be down in the polls ahead of the upcoming European elections – and overtaken by Nigel Farage’s ‘Brexit Party’ – examples above suggest that drawing on rape imagery empowers outlandish political men and their followers. It speaks to an inner traditionalism that many voters in civilised democratic landscapes feel is being overtaken by elite preoccupations: welfare concerns, female empowerment and uncontrolled immigration. Support for Benjamin’s ‘quip’ is already evident and rife: Phillips admitted that she was chased down the street by a man asking why Benjamin ‘shouldn’t be able to joke about her rape’. This only adds to the multitude of rape and death threats women politicians now routinely receive.

But why are blasé affirmations of male sexual dominance so effective? Because they pare power relations back to their most basic and rudimentary form: male versus female. If female politicians act to the distaste of political men (and they just so happen to be white, heterosexual and of the same nationality, like Jess Phillips), then ‘rape’ is their go-to trump-card: a guaranteed way of asserting essentialised, biologically-determined authority over a female opponent. Swearing candidates like Benjamin into the European parliament is a dangerous endorsement of such strategising. Bolsonaro started off on the outskirts of Brazilian politics, and now he presides over a population of 212 million people. His controversial views – widely publicised – were no doubt the driving force behind his bid for the presidency. Who’s to say Benjamin couldn’t possibly follow suit?

Importantly, these comments are never simply an end-in-themselves. Part of their function is to stimulate backlash and debate – giving the perpetrators opportunity to defend their comments on televised TV debates, like Politics Live. Horrifyingly, this turns those same perpetrators into heroes for boldly upholding their right to cause offence, even when challenged on live air. What courage! As one Twitter user aptly remarked, referring to the now-infamous Politics Live showdown between Gerard Batten and the surrounding panel (where the UKIP leader defended Benjamin’s comments): ‘I do not care for Gerard Batten, but your interview is almost an inquisition. He’s beset on all sides and the panel’s disdain for him is palpable. He may gain votes from people who have seen this and feel sympathy for him and his party.’

With this in mind, it’s time we stopped dismissing rape comments as meaningless bluster. They are always premeditated, always spoken with a purpose, and always an indication of the type of politics any individual wants to enforce; we should never assume otherwise.  UKIP donor Aaron Banks, when defending Trump’s sexist remarks in 2016, proffered that ‘men say all sorts of things’, adding that there’s a marked difference between ‘what you do and what you say.’ This is wrong: we need to start taking sexists, and their comments about rape, at face value. We must stop giving them the chance to explain ‘what they meant by what they said’ and, for the love of God, stop giving their defendants invaluable public airtime.



The Mayoral North of Tyne devolution deal is a waste of time

Two days ago, the North of Tyne combined authority elected their first regional mayor: Momentum-backed Labour candidate Jamie Driscoll. Gifted with £600 million across a thirty-year stint, the money provides the office with an annual £20 million to invest in infrastructure and job creation. Disqualified from legislating on local transport and housing, the incumbent will be prevented from addressing the issues affecting the region most. At best, the money will buoy a small number of large-scale, high-publicity projects unlikely to translate into wider prosperity.

Branded as a historic devolution deal guaranteed to level out regional divides, the project is the brainchild of George Osborne. Anxious to prevent his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ idea from being written-off as another never-to-be-fulfilled pledge by an insensitive Westminster politician, Osborne fed the authority enough funding to secure its approval in just three out of seven councils: Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle.

Unfortunately, Gateshead, Durham, Sunderland and South Tyneside’s abstention from the devolution deal assuaged the authority’s political bargaining power, and therefore purpose, from the outset. Even in the country’s most cash-strapped councils, hostility towards austerity continues to mitigate against the acceptance of tokenistic handouts or lacklustre devolution scams. Originally proposed as The North-East Combined Authority (NECA), Mr Osborne had offered a fund of just £900 million to be metered out over 30 years, equalling around 4.2 million per council per year (or 40p per person per week). That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the scale of funding cuts (which, claims Gateshead Council’s Martin Gannon, have resulted in a £900 per-family spending reduction in Gateshead since 2010).

That being said, the North-East still finds itself in a dilemma: caught between a desperation to progress by any infinitesimal means possible, and the strong inclination to reject Conservative ‘charity’ on the basis that something better might eventually come along. It may appear that refusal to participate in devolution is illogical and self-sabotaging, because, as George Osborne made clear, this was ‘the only game in town.’ But many believe the post exists to force local councils into taking responsibility for funding cuts emanating from the top tier of government, creating local-level scapegoats to offset legitimate government criticism.

On top of this uncertainty, it’s also worth remembering that while ‘the North’ exists as a homogeneous, industrial mass for anyone who lives down South, it’s very multifaceted. It can’t be grouped together, politically or geographically, with any kind of ease. Durham and Sunderland, for one thing, are extensive in size: they have little affinity with their North-of-Tyne counterparts. Even Gateshead – just a stone’s throw away from Newcastle – feels like a different world entirely. The distance isn’t alleviated, either, by prohibitively expensive local transport links (especially buses), adding physical barriers to economic ones.

When it came down to the mayoral race itself, there ensued a second-round run-off between Labour’s Jamie Driscoll and the Conservative candidate Charlie Hoult, proving that this was never anything but a partisan struggle between the two largest, safest, political organisations. Smaller, more radical and experimental groups lacked the institutional backing, funds, or perhaps will, to put forward the £5000 deposit required for entrance into the candidacy (such as The North East Party and the Greens), also citing concerns about the post’s democratic credentials. Indeed, though the independent candidate made the process slightly more interesting, the absence of any women screamed anti-progressivism.

Far from an exhilarating and diverse electoral contest, then, the candidates seemed only halfheartedly engaged. They could afford to be, because no real power was at stake. Tyne and Wear Citizens, a local charity, set up a Citizens’ Assembly event the day before voters went to the polls. Here, Lib-Dem candidate John Appleby revealed, honestly but uninspiringly, that Newcastle’s met-mayor will have considerably less authority than its regional counterparts (in Manchester, or London for example). ‘That doesn’t mean I think the role is pointless, just that we shouldn’t over-promise or expect too much,’ he said, which basically meant, ‘I’m not over-promising because I think this role is pointless.’

The sad thing is, his scepticism is justified. The project is nothing but lip-service: it appears that up North, councils can’t be trusted with real power, and those dissatisfied with this state of affairs are punished via austerity for calling the government out on it.

If the government wants ‘clean air’, it can start investing in local transport somewhere other than London

Pressured by our still-affiliated EU member states into finally doing something about climate change, the UK government is frantically trying to reduce pollution levels in Britain’s metropolitan hotspots. But without decent municipal transport services to offset high congestion charges everywhere but London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive will only increase mobility poverty in regional areas.

When it comes to the UK capital, the government’s congestion-charge onslaught is fair enough. Last week, London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone began levying a daily £12.50 fee upon cars that don’t meet the emissions standards of the zone. Some motorists have derided the charge a ‘poll tax’, arguing that it will affect low-income families who can’t afford electric cars. Most agree, however, that London’s toxic atmosphere requires immediate thinning. Besides, with an extensive (and cheap) network of tube links, bus services and local trains, will the charge really make much difference to the average commuter? Probably not.

But congestion charges in regional areas are a different story – and that’s because regional councils don’t have their own Transport for London equivalent. As a highly organised, integrated public body – capable of implementing policy and receiving government bail-outs if targets are not met – TfL ensures that public transport fares within Greater London remain comically reasonable. In the surrounding regions, meanwhile, where government has no legal duty to guarantee efficiency or affordable fares, local bus prices have faced inflation rates of over 35% since 1995.

The 1985 Transport Act marks the beginning of this tragic affair. Under Thatcher, local bus services outside London were deregulated and privatised: the proviso being that this would ensure increased competition, leading to better services and lower prices. In reality, the reverse is true, meaning buses are doing nothing to relieve congestion or reduce fuel emissions. In fact, they only make driving cars the more economic option.

That’s why it’s so likely the government-decreed Low-Emissions-Zone proposed in Tyneside, for example, will be mothballed after the current online consultation reveals little sympathy for its implementation. Several reasons come to mind. Firstly, the prospect of a £12.50 nation-wide congestion charge just seems ignorant: it fails to account for the fact that disposable household income, as of 2016, was £11,388 higher in Greater London than the North East – a gap which can only have widened since the EU referendum. Secondly, the charge seems to forget the existence of a blatant disparity in the cost of public transport between the North-East and the nation’s capital. For the latter, a congestion charge may be an inconvenience; for the former, it could threaten economic survival.

Maddeningly, in areas outside of London, municipal private bus companies can charge whatever they like (and do) – because they face little to no competition and are unaccountable to government. In 2014, The Progressive Policy Think Tank argued that deregulation was failing the poorest in society, with working people living in deprived regional areas relying more on taxis than any other income group because of prohibitively high bus fares. A congestion charge will hit them hard. This speaks to a wider trend: passenger journeys on buses outside of London are down 4.2% from the figures obtained in March 2005; while London’s are up 23.5%. Depressingly, there are more passenger journeys in London than in the rest of England combined.

With expensive fares and unreliable services prevailing everywhere outside of London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive is going to exacerbate regional inaccessibility and isolate the country’s poorest households. Unleashed nearly 5 years ago, the recommendation put forward by The Progressive Policy Think Tank to ‘create regional transport bodies modelled on TfL at the level of city-regions and combined authorities’ has remained largely ignored. Bizarrely, for groups not entitled to concessionary passes living outside London, bus travel has become a luxury mode of transport.

Of course, eradicating pollution is essential – but placing the burden of this on the shoulders of those who can afford it least is not progressive, especially when there are no alternatives in place. To achieve ‘clean air’, the government must first commit itself to generating a comprehensive, national transport framework based on the model they reserve exclusively, and unjustifiably, for London alone.

I’ve got no problem with a People’s Vote campaign – just the campaigners

Last weekend was a biggie for Remainers: and didn’t the whole world know it.

A petition demanding the revocation of Article 50 – the process by which any country should wish to leave the European Union – gained enormous traction on national and social media; and a People’s Vote March raged through Central London demanding Brexit ‘be put back to the people.’

Admittedly, there’s nothing anti-democratic about a People’s Vote. It’s a feasible solution for breaking the Brexit deadlock once indicative votes have revealed which EU-exit route appears the most advantageous. But as a vehicle through which to overturn Brexit in its entirety? That’s anti-democratic.

It all boils down to an issue with the campaigners themselves. They’ve hijacked the People’s Vote as a bid for Remain rather than an opportunity to validate the initial result – and in doing so, they’re refusing to acknowledge the democratic will of half the population. And in doing that, they turn over that same half-population to the hands of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Initially, I hated Brexit. Why would my constituency, Gateshead, which relies on the EU for infrastructure investment, bite off the hand that feeds them?

But then I came to understand something that none of the People’s Vote Campaigners (PVCs) seem willing to grasp. A Leave vote might well have been disastrous, but it worked in making a statement. Though the PVCs may brand Leave-voters as political illiterates operating under the puppeteer-hand of the ‘far-right’, they can’t deny that they’ve definitely grabbed the attention of negligent governments and an over-mighty City service sector; who, for their part, appear callously oblivious to bitter regional divides.

It sounds very dramatic – but the reasoning is fair enough. That’s why I can’t quite wage war on Brexit the same way the PVCs have; and why I’m getting sick of sanctimonious marchers who think they’re doing the country an ounce of good by giving up their Saturday to wave around some cardboard.

Still, I’m fully aware that the North East is better off in the EU than outside of it. Left to the government alone, the North East will starve. The Confederation of British Industry has already bemoaned the scale of economic loss the region would be exposed to under a disorderly EU departure. But it’s really saying something when, despite knowing all this, people are still willing to make such a huge sacrifice to have their decision heard and implemented (with very few people who voted Leave actually changing their minds, regardless of what PVC-sponsored YouGov polls tell you).

Quite frankly, the People’s Vote campaign has become a self-sabotaging mess. Rather than argue, reasonably and democratically, for retention of reformed EU membership in order to enhance regional prosperity, level out national inequalities and hold a clearly-delusional government to account (you know, things which might actually persuade people to change their minds) – the selling point of the People’s Vote appears to be an immediate return to the status quo. The very thing that everyone voted against.

From up here – the status quo looks like a situation where affluent Southerners retain easy access to their continental homes, regain the £10,000 in value knocked off their London-properties, and avoid those inconvenient strikes on the Eurostar. But in that scenario, the North-East still receives no cultural funding or infrastructure investment, and former mining communities continue to be left to their own devices with minimal revenue support-grants from the government.

Nowhere is this alliance between the PVCs and well-off clearer than in the selection of allies they have chosen to champion their cause: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve and Michael Heseltine – all Conservative (or formerly Conservative) MPs that have willingly supported austerity.

These are individuals that have consciously, in part, manufactured the divide that now exists between London and its peripheries. So, how are they supposed to fix it? Their love for the EU, weirdly enough, doesn’t outweigh the damage their party has waged on its own people. There’s something particularly disturbing in the way Michael Heseltine, former front-man to Thatcher, noted in his PV March speech that Maggie would be turning in her grave if she were alive to witness Brexit. Everyone cheered in response. Does that mean we now remember her as a sagacious Europhile, more so than as the architect of devastation in the very places that voted to Leave…?

And then, there’s the genuinely unforgivable assumption by PVCs that young people unanimously voted to Remain – with the consequence that non-university educated electors have been virtually ignored.

The PVC’s youth contingent is exclusively represented by young people of Our Future Our Choice and For Our Future’s Sake (OFOC and FFS). Unfortunately, while they might be eloquent and informed, both groups are hopelessly metropolitan organisations that claim, incorrectly, to speak for ‘young people’ as though they were one, singular, homogeneous, degree-level-educated and Erasmus-appreciating mass. Which, as we all know, they aren’t.

And rather than reach out to older people in deprived areas, who have seen their communities disintegrate around them – and have been led to believe this stems from immigration and open borders rather than by governmental neglect – the PVCs have paraded snobbish placards around the streets of London: taunting half of the electorate with tasteless witticisms that seem to suggest their bigoted stupidity.

One such placard boasted: ‘52% Pride and Prejudice; 48% Sense and Sensibility’. Hmm, maybe take a look in the mirror?

Labour MPs, for one thing, should not give into the PVC’s demands, but embrace what their constituents asked for (and with that I nod my hat to Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields). With a support base of which almost 70% voted to Leave, Labour’s proposal of retaining access to the customs union and ‘close alignment with the single market’ is the best option to pursue, lest they risk further entrenching a toxic national divide which is in nobody’s interests to perpetuate.

Ultimately, a People’s Vote should be a free-vote: where consensus from all sides of the political spectrum can be found regarding how to leave the EU. Currently, however, its proponents are damaging its credibility by way of their obstinate elitism – those same traits they so fervidly criticise when found among Brexiteers. And for that reason, the PVCs will never have my support. Not that they want it, anyway.

Brexit might just be a productive disaster

Two nights ago, in a widely-acknowledged ‘blame game’, Theresa May backhandedly suggested MPs were at fault for the Brexit stalemate – and that she alone shares the public’s ‘frustration’.  The day after, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, in her well-publicised feud with John Bercow, criticised the Speaker for telling Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley to ‘grow up’ as he loudly heckled Labour MP John Cryer – who dubbed Theresa May’s performance the night before as ‘one of the most contemptuous statements I’ve ever heard’. This came on the back of news that opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stormed out of a cross-party meeting because Chuka Umunna, The Independent Group’s standing representative, was present when, in matter of fact, ‘he wasn’t a real party leader.’

This begs the question: are we right to feel totally pessimistic at the current state of affairs in our deeply divided political system? Are we right to despair at the hopeless cadre of our floundering leaders? The answer is yes and no. While it’s depressingly true that inequality is at its worst level for decades, public trust in political leadership is all-but-absent, regional prosperity is non-existent and nothing seems likely to change any time soon, it’s also the case that this fiasco could be exactly what Max Weber termed a ‘productive disaster’.

As a prospective political candidate that failed to get elected, Weber spent ages poring over German parliamentary systems. He was writing in the early 1900s – just before European affairs were about to take a nasty turn – and identified the most important feature of modern politics: that of perpetual conflict and struggle.

Instead of viewing politics as the profession of idealistic peace-keeping, he recognised that it is precisely because of the impossibility of total peace and prosperity that parliament can nurture and elevate genuine talent. Crisis, believe it or not, gives people a chance to shine and become creative, charismatic individuals (as well as weeding out the ones who haven’t got what it takes).

Most importantly – and nobody can deny this – Weber argued that political conflict is the only thing which keeps citizens politically educated and engaged: preventing individual liberty from being buried under unaccountable civil service bureaucracies (who do everything secretly, under the guise of specialised ‘officialdom’). The 2016 EU referendum, as we know, boasted an unprecedented turnout of 72.2% – with 33.6 million exercising their right to vote. In effect: Brexit has, for all the wrong reasons, forced us to become politically literate, and awoken us from our passivity.

Weber’s beef back in 1900s Germany was with Otto von Bismarck and the Kaiser: two Prussian Conservative leaders that had reduced parliament to bureaucratic shells – quashing all diversity of opinion and the space for new leaders to rise and gain prominence. Their mess-ups, unbelievably, caused even more grief than Brexit (like a World War).

Weber recognised the cynicism of his line of reasoning, but decided that WW1, in many respects, was an opportunity. The horrible, crushing defeat by the Allies – though awful for German citizens who had been humiliated on the international stage – killed off the Emperor’s uselessly bureaucratic rule, giving parliament a chance to assume greater power and dictate policy. It also afforded citizens opportunity to become a ‘nation of masters’: this being a people who cared about their political destiny and strove to shape it.

Weirdly enough, the model for Weber’s theory of ‘charismatic leadership’ was William Ewart Gladstone. Liberal British parliamentarian for over 60 years, and many-times over British Prime Minister, his proto-populist campaigns of the late 19th century rallied his electorate round to his cause – whatever that may be – and stopped the stagnation of parliament, society and culture in general.

By constantly changing tack – whether it be quitting the Conservative Party only to attack it from opposition benches, or crusading against Irish Home Rule and then crusading for Home Rule – Gladstone kept the political landscape alight with passion, persuasion and public engagement. His ability to flexibly bend towards voter sentiment was not seen as disingenuous tactlessness, but strength of his virtues as a parliamentarian.

Contrast the era of Gladstonianism with stagnating, rigidly adversarial political parties of 21st century Britain, beset with pointless in-fighting and a tendency to become bogged down by dogma, discipline and technicalities rather than national interest and voter opinion – something both parties are guilty of.

But already, we’re starting to see elements of Weber’s back-against-the-wall productivity coming to the fore.

We know that it is likely Theresa May will resign should her deal be defeated again, or possibly even before; and already, we know that scores of Labour MPs are unhappy with the Party’s current leadership. Tom Watson has delivered an urgent warning to Jeremy Corbyn to ‘reach out to all wings of the party’ or risk further alienation and even more defections to The Independent Group, while many other Northern and Midland Labour MPs feel the front-bench’s commitment to a second referendum is a betrayal of voter trust and direction. Emma Lewell-Buck was among a group of defiant Labour MPs that ignored Corbyn’s whip to abstain in a second referendum vote, already showing greater independence and a nascent disintegration of overly-partisan structures.

To many, this breakdown of traditional party-political edifices is worrying: but it is also an episode that history will look favourably upon. If through all this tired Brexit haze and broken-record rhetoric emerges new talent, new ideas, new opportunities and new thinking (and even if all of it goes to nothing and we end up with a second referendum and or a revocation of Article 50), you can best believe that people will, ultimately, somehow somewhere, be intellectually better off for it. In other words – let’s embrace Brexit, embrace radical change and embrace an historic recasting of an out-of-date political landscape.

Cambridge’s access problem lies in the refusal to reduce offer grades for disadvantaged applicants

Though it’s been proudly operating an exclusionary admissions process since the early 13th century, not even the country’s most ‘unequal’ university can absorb relentlessly negative branding without having to concede at some point. It was perhaps inevitable then, a few days ago, that Cambridge would announce a cobbled-together access scheme that gives 100 disadvantaged students a ‘second chance’ at joining its undergraduate ranks through clearing.
Hailed a ‘step in the right direction’ by the Sutton Trust, the scheme reserves 100 places for ‘originally rejected’ applicants obtaining ‘better than expected A-Level grades’. Ethnicity will not be a factor in the process. Places, it has been revealed, will be offered to students living in areas that do not normally send individuals to Oxbridge.
Given that sizeable chunks of both mainstream political parties continue, unapologetically, to recruit their MPs from Oxbridge alumni circles, and that 42 out of the 56 most recent Prime Ministers studied at Oxbridge, it’s impossible to tell whether the announcement is a cynical and necessary riposte to bad publicity, or a genuine desire to harness untapped working-class potential. Guaranteeing just 100 places for working-class students out of a population of 3,500 suggests the former – and will do nothing to pacify national concern that Oxbridge remains an institution firmly and predominantly associated with posh, white, middle-class social groups.
The scheme, while offering some good news, possesses a fundamental problem. Offering a ‘second chance’ to disadvantaged students whose applications had been initially denied is perfectly noble, but also lazy.
There’s an irritating inconsistency in Cambridge’s presumed response to NEON’s ‘Enabling Wider Access to Higher Education’ report – which revealed just how few white, working-class students from Low Participation Neighbourhoods (LPN) were attending top UK universities. Not only did NEON specify universities’ rejection of candidates from LPNs as a contributing factor: it also identified the sad reality that very few students from underrepresented backgrounds apply to these institutions in the first place.
With this in mind, a far more effective strategy by Cambridge would be to waiver its abiding commitment to unnecessarily high offer grades for those students exhibiting great potential in interview, but whose academic record and predicted grades do them a disservice.
Tired rebuttals made by the university usually involve an assertion that the context of a student’s educational background is already taken into account when making, or declining to make, an offer. However, since the data shows minimal evidence of disadvantaged youngsters making it into universities like Cambridge, Oxford and other London-based institutions – it’s clear that something is going hugely wrong during this process. Another argument is that staff shouldn’t fall into an ‘ecological fallacy’ trap, assuming that an individual from a low performing school must automatically be low performing. This is flattering, but clearly out-of-touch. Psychologically, lower offer grades would be of immense benefit to those already struggling with ‘imposter syndrome’ from regional, working-class and underrepresented communities.
Using data based on 30 UK universities, the Sutton Trust – a social mobility charity – found that lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils ‘by just two grades’ could lead to a ‘50% increase in the number of free school meals eligible pupils admitted to top universities.’ They found that in universities where they profess to use ‘contextual’ data when making offers, only 4 of the top institutions committed to reducing a grade offer; while arbitrary decisions about how to use contextual data left many students suffering from missed opportunities that they otherwise deserved.
Crucially, the report found no evidence that universities who contextualise offers and reduce grades are more likely to see higher dropout rates, lower degree completion or lower degree results than among their peers.
Clearly, then, Cambridge’s preciousness about A-Levels reflecting ‘innate’ and somehow all-persevering intelligence despite extenuating circumstances is unrealistic and unnecessarily harsh. In effect: what an individual receives at A-Level is as much about their teachers, school resources, family background and school ethos as much as it is individual capacity to work hard. The data provided by the Sutton Trust about reduced grades posing no threat to academic excellence refutes every illogical reasoning the university cites behind their refusal to reduce offers for the most needy.
Ultimately, the government is responsible for tackling educational inequality in secondary schools, not Cambridge. But throw livelihood-wrenching austerity and heavy regional funding imbalances into the mix; alongside a tendency for overworked teachers to inaccurately predict their students’ grades – and the way universities like Cambridge strive to ‘nurture diversity’ requires drastic reconsideration and upheaval.
Fair enough, some students from LPN areas don’t actually need a lower offer to reach Cambridge – but many do. And Cambridge needs to recognise that.