Cockroaches

Universities take advantage of caffeine addiction from students

who will later struggle to find a pot to relieve themselves in

as the doors of the NHS slam to privatisation

please tell me, what is the use of council taxation?

 

When the roads are still bumpy

and the grass is uncut

and the schools are all closing

as their budgets are cut

 

When will the small towns find any luck

will it take a neck and a noose for them to

give a…

care about us?

 

Like those Jarrow crusaders

let’s kick up a fuss

demand we’re treat fair

or is that too much?

 

Let’s march to 10 downing

I wish they were drowning

because too many times

they’ve broken our trust

REVIEW: The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

The Baltic of early 2018 had been an impressive proponent of contemporary art that, to my disappointment, utterly failed to explain itself. The gallery’s old injunction on verbal details left me confused and disinterested. I am not opposed to more enigmatic works of art per se: less (can be) more. But with formal displays comes a different situation. To hang an artwork on a wall is a social act as much as an aesthetic choice. It is one for which any visitor, not to mention the wealth of talented artists without a place on the wall, deserve a justification. In an art world that too often credits status over skill, the stakes are simply too high.

How things change. If the twenty minutes it took the Baltic café to make my cappuccino felt more like an hour, the full year since my last visit to this famous gallery seemed closer to a decade. For today’s visit, each exhibition I enter puts the visitor firmly at its core. Digital Citizen – The Precarious Subject brings together a diverse collection of artworks that focus the mind around the key issues of our age. In one corner, Petra Szeman’s ‘How to Enter a Fictional Realm’ – a YouTube tutorial on creating a life-like avatar on ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ – hints at the growth of a digital humanity, and the subsequent struggle to cement an identity of one’s own. Behind it, the box-cum-potting shed that is Peter Hanmer’s ‘Plato’s Lair Redux’ questions the truth of our world-experience, and the fragility of accepted ‘realities’.

The preface to the exhibition states a clear aim: ‘to inspire a conversation’. The phrasing is apt – Digital Citizen does not eschew information, but revels in it. On a large white table the curators have assembled a collection of books and articles treating various aspects of contemporary lived experience. In one, a Macedonian teenager discusses the ease with which ‘fake news’ articles employed in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential election could manipulate voters – and the extortionate sums to be earned in the process.

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Each available printout accompanies and augments its neighbouring works of art. But the rehousing of these web-articles carries an artistic point, too. As if answering its own question – ‘Are we still able to form a community or has the fragmentation of the present moment deprived us of the capacity of being active enabled citizens?’ – the gallery reclaims from the internet and its virtual existence a sense of the tangible, and the trustworthy. Looking round to see one’s fellow visitors, it is a timely reminder that art, if not the wider world, retains a definitively communal dimension.

This sense of art-as-action is one that the BALTIC Artists’ Award 2019 exhibition sets out to continue. Speaking to The Guardian last month, Iraq War veteran Aaron Hughes explained how “creativity can push back against the divisions that drive conflict”. Hughes’ own ‘push back’ can be found in his reimagining of Wilfred Owen’s wartime poems into powerful monochrome works that ‘construct narratives and meaning out of personal and collective traumas’. Likewise, Ingrid Pollard’s oeuvre is a laying bare of the intimate connection between race and representation. Her range of photographs, prints, moving image and audio deliver a genuinely shocking exposition of the extent to which British public spaces are themselves littered with prejudice – old hangovers from an era of imperial colonisation. Her own words explictly outline her motive: to make visible ‘what we always knew was there’.

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My personal highlight was Heather Phillipson’s ‘The Age of Love’. Pity the fool that, hearing of every gallery claiming to create a ‘remixed geology’, ‘augmented reality’ or ‘spatio-temporal field’, expects immediately to be welcomed into its purview. The majority of such attempts, beyond a bit of well thought-out interior design, fall sadly short of their mark.

Not Phillipson’s. She transports her visitors beyond the ‘rigidly anthropocentric’ into ‘other worlds and temporalities’; imagine walking on Mars – but with hypnotic screens, a giant rotating foot, and a (psychedelic) black cat unnerving from the sidelines. Such was the disorientating strength of her creation that a friend had to leave after 10 seconds with a headache. Perhaps some will consider that a fault. I, not without pains myself, chalked it up to astronomical art that fulfilled its intention.

Speaking in 2015, a couple of weeks into her tenure, Baltic director Sarah Munro described herself as “a talker”. Perhaps that influence hasn’t always shown, but on the basis of the gallery’s current display, few would doubt. Unleashed from the shackles of pretence, this was probably the most honest and important dissection of contemporary culture that I have seen in a British gallery to-date. Welcome to BALTIC 2019: a reformed space, firmly sat at the nexus of art and ideas. Anyone else best get with the times.

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.

For Theresa May, alientating the ERG is an inevitability. Why not reach out to Labour?

It’s regrettable, but if there’s one thing that Jacob Rees-Mogg and I have in common, it’s an undying love for historical analogy. Today marks nearly 8 months since the ERG-frontman advised Theresa May against relying on Labour votes to push her Brexit deal through Parliament, with a disparaging comparison to prime-ministerial forebear Sir Robert Peel. Thankfully, though, mine and Mogg’s similarities end there.

Rees-Mogg reckons Peel is the archetypal example of what-not-to-do as British Prime Minister In Crisis. I happen to disagree.

On 15 May 1846, Peel’s successful repeal of the Corn Laws came at the cost of fracturing his own Conservative Party. While they stood for the protection of agricultural interests and the Corn Law mechanism – which forbade the import of cheap grain from overseas – Peel emerged a crusading, Liberal-leaning Free Trader, with absolutely no desire to placate his country-dwelling colleagues. He gleefully teamed up with the opposition and consequently left his own party out in the lurch. Peel then resigned, and the Whig opposition saw an historic opening on the benches of Westminster (that just so happened to remain open until 1868).

In light of this, Rees-Mogg’s warning was clear: pursuing Peel’s ‘very dangerous’ path of cross-party fraternisation would be a strain-too-far for May’s wavering band of ministerial support.

Fortunately, the Moggite interpretation of history is only for men who care about power, Conservative majorities, and nothing of the national interest. And as Brexit edges ever-closer, it is one that Theresa May would do increasingly well to leave behind.

Most importantly, what Rees-Mogg’s half-baked characterisation failed to mention is that Peel’s actions – while ‘splitting’ the febrile opinion and allegiance of the privileged few – saved the Irish population from the disastrous potato famine, protected the working-class against unnecessary taxes, and avoided debilitating provincial unrest between landlords and city-dwellers. Yes, he lost his party and his decision cost him his career. But he saved millions, and could resign a man with principle and integrity.

As news breaks that the government is preparing a £1.6 billion package to Northern and Midland Labour-constituencies, it would seem the Prime Minister has already begun to renege on her promise that this will be a Conservative Brexit, pushed through by Conservative votes alone. But she needs to rethink the half-hearted element of the cross-party compromise, and replace it with something far more substantial.

Unsurprisingly, Labour, and indeed many of May’s own colleagues, have plenty to say about the insufficient care-package: not much of which is positive. Lib-Dem QC Lord Thomas of Gresford suggested on Twitter that May’s aid offering constituted a breach of the Bribery Act (2010), while John McDonnell publicly slammed the Prime Minister for only now trying to ‘tackle burning injustices.’ Anna Soubry, ex-conservative and Independent Group defector, claimed that ‘voters won’t be fooled by it’. Even Gareth Snell, who represents the constituency with the highest pro-Brexit vote in 2016 (Stoke Central) – and who has voted with the government against the Grieve, Cooper and Reeves amendments – asserted that ‘there is no price on my vote.’ 

On top of this, The Evening Standard reported another ‘sticking point’: funding was supposed to be meted out over four years, not the six the Prime Minister is now proffering. This means the fund works out at only £266 million a year, and doesn’t even scratch the surface of cuts to local council budgets. Neither does it come anywhere near the money invested in the UK’s regions by the EU.

At this point, it’s safe to say Theresa May is on the verge of precipitating national crisis. Not only are the ERG holding a gun to the government’s head with calls to meet unachievable ‘tests’ (like imposing a time limit on the backstop), as well as thinly-veiled threats to whip MPs against voting down no deal, but recent events show that the Prime Minister has managed to irritate literally everyone else with her bizarre and damaging aid-offering.

There is an ideological hypocrisy in the government that refuses to deal with its opposition on the one hand, but offers hush-money to pliable Labour ministers in the hope of turning heads. It makes absolutely no sense.

This being the case, it’s high time that the Prime Minister got on board with Peel’s strategic philosophy in the face of national calamity. It’s inevitable that Theresa May will have to alienate the ERG at some point, because their demands are unrealistic and their numbers do not constitute a majority in themselves. Like Peel, she must now fully embrace the opposition, as well as moderate Conservatives among her own ranks, with a genuinely acceptable deal that builds on the initial referendum result. That way, Labour lose their moral legitimacy in advocating a People’s Vote.

Peel was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of his Kingdom: Theresa May must now do the same. The ERG will feel betrayed, but at least the country won’t be reduced to a quivering wreck of regional division, unequal prosperity, seething hostility and total mistrust in our elected representatives. 

Regional bias is responsible for the working-class attainment gap: it can’t be ignored any longer

Just two weeks ago, NEON, the National Education Opportunities Network, released a report exploring the statistical dearth of working class students in top UK universities. These figures revealed, tragically, that ‘more than half of England’s universities have fewer than 5% of poor white students in their intakes.’

Helpfully, though perhaps overdue, this report draws explicit attention to the limitations of current efforts to improve access within higher education (HE): that is, a failure to account for the diverse and intersectional nature of underrepresentation. For the first time, bitterly entrenched regional bias has been officially identified as a barrier to social mobility, with the report’s findings showing that many working-class students living in Low Participation Neighbourhoods do not go on to participate in top HE institutions.

For a long time, we’ve known that there is underachievement of disadvantaged white youngsters across all forms of education. But now we know why: because the majority of these individuals living in ‘Low Participation Neighbourhoods’ come from regional backgrounds. Students living in those areas where university attendance is lowest – which is mainly among regional areas in the North and Midlands – are less likely to apply for ‘Russell Group’ universities, but instead enrol at ‘post-1992’ universities. Wrongly or rightly, these are considered to be less prestigious than their red-brick counterparts. The report showed that Sheffield Hallam University accepted the greatest number of poorer white students, along with Liverpool John Moores and Teeside. The top UK universities admitted barely any.

This is an issue much wider than higher education: it is about the discrepancy in opportunity between the country’s capital and its peripheries in all aspects of life. It isn’t about race. The young working-class individuals deprived from a fulfilling HE experience at more ‘prestigious’ institutions is not because they are white. It is because they live in areas with depressed local funding, terrible schools, high unemployment rates and little access to cultural enrichment.

While London and the South-East are brimming with cultural opportunities, grammar schools and ample prospects to earn a decent living (as well as all the associated ambition bound up with these phenomena), the North-East habitually produces the UK’s worst unemployment rate and possesses not a single grammar school. The capital alone boasts the highest proportion of outstanding schools in the country in both affluent and deprived areas, while the North-East sports the highest number of individuals living on free school meals (and therefore the ones less likely to make it to university).

What this report should make clear is not that working-class students are not being deliberately ‘forgotten about’ and ‘left behind’; only that the same opportunities to succeed are being withheld from them. More accurately, entire regions are left behind, and that incorporates everyone within them: it just so happens that they are predominantly white.

The ‘relative lack of white learners from low participation neighbourhoods (LPN) attending London institutions’, the report explains, reflect the small numbers of LPN in the capital, which is ‘almost universally a high participation neighbourhood area’. This explains why students of any colour living in the capital are more likely to participate in prestigious HE than their regional counterparts. NEON’s analysis found that of all applicants to HE by the LPN demographic, only 22% were accepted. More than half of UK universities have no procedure in place to prevent these students from slipping through the cracks. Instead, HE institutions accepted fewer than 20% of the applicants received from this social group. Doesn’t seem like a sensible way to incite confidence and fight cultures of exclusion, does it?

The take-away point here should be that one form of positive discrimination needn’t be privileged over another. Instead, society must focus on creating, as far as we can, an equal playing field that accounts for all forms of inequality during the admissions process by engaging with different measures of deprivation.

For example, getting 41 students from a state-school in London into Oxbridge is a massive achievement, but this in itself does little to fix the educational and participation imbalance between different regions of the country. The ‘working class’ is a broad church, but it’s important to note that everyone – including poor white students from a regional background – will benefit from wider inclusion policies.

We already have methods to track regional deprivation: now it’s time we put them to use. Take the POLAR quintile. This is a postcode tool that measures the proportion of young people in a specific area that participate at different levels of education. The POLAR4 quintile specifically looks at the proportion of young people who enter higher education aged between 18 and 19 between the years 2009-10 and 2014-15. It should be taken into greater consideration during admissions procedures as part of implementing ‘clear targets to recruit white working-class students’, which the report recommends.

Fees have so far acted as a deterrent for society’s ‘residuum’. As have cuts to local government funding in deprived areas. Rather than persist with the divisive tuition system, new scholarships and maintenance grants for deprived individuals from underrepresented POLAR regions must be created immediately in those institutions showing minimal admissions from LPN backgrounds, especially where living costs are particularly high (like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, in which LPN acceptances make up only 3%, 2% and 1% of all acceptances).

The Government, meanwhile, must undo years of regional bias in local government funding and investment. Otherwise, divides will get bigger, people will become snobbier and the UK, on the whole, will not be a particularly pleasant place to live. 

The North doesn’t want your charity, Mrs May

Originally published in Backbench.

The Prime Minister’s rumoured hand-outs to Northern industrial and mining constituencies in return for backing her Brexit deal are, as far as the region’s inhabitants are concerned, cynical in the extreme. Northern Labour politicians, though they despair for regional investment, are being warned not to accept Conservative ‘charity’. In weaponising government credit, it appears that Theresa May has invalidated austerity as a necessary political project, freeing up Labour to fight the next general election with a seemingly credible alternative.

Of course, we all know the choice facing Labour politicians remains a tough one. Many are inclined to push for Remain, while the majority of Labour constituencies voted to Leave. Seven Labour MPs voted for Graham Brady’s amendment to find ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish backstop, while fourteen rebelled against Yvette Cooper’s Corbyn-backed attempt to prevent no-deal.

Those defying the whip were mainly from Leave-backing Northern and Midlands constituencies: Rosie Cooper, Caroline Flint, Ronnie Campbell, Stephen Hepburn and Gareth Snell to name a few. Those defying their governments’ own whip were hard-line Tory Brexiteers. Whether the Labour rebels were driven by commitments to individual constituencies or personal ideological pursuits is irrelevant. What is more important are the Conservative manoeuvrings which this confluence of events has precipitated.

Ever the opportunist, Theresa May has been in talks with certain Labour MPs over whether a ‘transformative’ package of investments in Leave-voting areas could persuade them to help nudge her deal over the line. These are the same deprived industrial towns where the Conservative government has slashed central funding since 2010.

Above all else, this is a dangerous political gesture which seems to undermine the real-life suffering caused by Conservative cutbacks in both the North and the Midlands. To accept handouts would undo decades of staunch Labour support in the expectation that an eventual left-wing government would take regional underinvestment seriously. Defecting to the Conservatives now would be madness.

This is because, regardless of internal Labour divisions over the direction of Brexit, they all agree on one thing: namely that austerity is an arbitrary political choice rather than an economic necessity. By giving away £1.5 billion to Democratic Unionists in 2017 – forgetting the deprivation in nationalist Irish strongholds – and now suddenly finding the space to set aside a ‘multibillion investment fund’ for crippled Northern English constituencies, cutbacks have apparently become negotiable in times of Theresa May’s political need.

Gateshead Council is a case in point. This year, it has been allocated the same local central government budget as the borough of Westminster – which stands at around £200 million for the coming financial year. Gateshead has one of the lowest council-tax bases in the country due to low property value, and the highest demands for social care due to high levels of deprivation. Westminster, on the other hand, regularly generates yearly revenue of over £40 million through parking-ticket fines alone, notwithstanding high council tax income and business rate revenue. For both constituencies to be given the same local government support is evidence that austerity only exists where the government wants it to.

We caught a glimpse of this last October. When detailing the future preoccupations of his ‘Local Infrastructure Rate’, the Chancellor revealed that only five local authorities have so far been successful in bidding for access to investment to support high-value infrastructure projects: three of which are in London.

Instead of threatening punishment for rebel Labour MPs, the Prime Minister’s bribe should now galvanise Labour into collective action. The party must now make genuine efforts to shore-up credibility for its own plans to abandon austerity and rejuvenate forgotten constituencies to avoid sweeping alienation among Leave-backing constituencies. Efforts to rediscover its working-class roots should become a priority. They must draw attention to the blatant inconsistencies in Conservative rhetoric and policy rather than flout confusing and defensive political jargon (what does ‘pork and barrel politics’ even mean?) which doesn’t contend with Theresa May’s offer.

The PM’s tactless talks with individual Labour politicians have proved austerity is not fundamentally necessary, but they’ve also hinted that among distressed communities investment is becoming more important than upholding Labour values. Instead of receiving her handouts as a last-ditch effort to improve living standards, Labour politicians must capitalise on her desperation to launch a comprehensive and attractive solution for tackling regional inequality, based on a solid manifesto that dispenses with ‘book balancing’ in place of equal growth.

This vision is not necessarily incompatible with Brexit, but it is incompatible with the acceptance of one-off Conservative enticements. Investment should be unconditional, not predicated upon the Prime Minister’s need to out-source lost Brexiteer votes and intimidate an EU Commission that isn’t budging on the Northern Irish backstop. The North of England, on this occasion, shouldn’t budge either, but hold out for a far better option.

The North-East is doomed – it has been for a thousand years. But does it have to be this way?

Originally published in Backbench.

1066 is an important date in British history. It was the year William the Conqueror landed in Hastings ready to wrench the throne from the deserving (and probably dashing) English King, Harold Godwinson. But this didn’t just initiate sweeping changes in landscapes and government. It launched Anglo-Saxon England into a turbulent millennia of North-South civil unrest which continues to this day. 

The North’s seething animosity towards its Southern counterpart is more than an extended response to the violent class wars of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and her band of ‘dry’ economic disciples no doubt ring-fenced Northern prosperity for decades to come and intensified regional-metropolitan divides. But her crippling of Northern manufacturing industries is less important than the fact that she felt this was historically and politically acceptable – and, as a matter of fact, ‘necessary’. Why is that?

Go back 1000 years, and we find her predecessor in Duke William II of Normandy. His ‘Harrying of the North’, which involved ‘wasting’ land in an effort to deter rebellious Northern lords, established a precedent. This was the strategic and ‘necessary’ depletion of the region’s population, community and sustenance in an effort to solidify centralised governance and consolidate Norman rule. 

A 1/3 of Yorkshire was declared uninhabitable as a result. This raid laid the foundations for an embittered Northern separatist movement that has ever since struggled to wrestle itself from the yoke of Norman London and its descendants.

As the South quickly ‘Europeanised’ through trade with modern-day France, the North was weakened and subdued. York, once a powerful political contender to London, was demoted. The Archbishop of Canterbury was made supreme, with the Archbishopric of York left flailing in the remnants of its former importance. Vital trade with Scandinavia was cut off. 

Today, the castles that litter the Scottish border and East Coast of Northumberland are relics of a Norman plot that drove northern communities inwards and stripped them of their autonomy.

Unbeknownst to William, this was not to be a temporary phenomenon: it condemned the North, and particularly the North-East, to a fated political subservience that has proven all-but-impossible to overcome.

The political consequences of the Battle of Hastings are still being felt today – even if historical impasses allowed for the temporary levelling out of regional inequalities. 

Almost 800 years after the Norman Conquest, a brief pattern of co-industriousness between North and South emerged during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the North fed the capital with its vast reserves of coal and enjoyed a prodigious, though short-lived, prosperity. But fast-forward to the 1980s and Thatcher’s brutal policies signify a return to normality: a vicious re-imposition of an entrenched North-South divide that politicians feel far more comfortable with. 

Stripping Northerners of their rights in the 11th and 12th centuries was a tragedy, but imposing inequality upon them in the 21st century has far more sinister consequences. Lower life expectancies, higher suicide rates, consistently high levels of unemployment, lower central investment on infrastructure projects and culture, less spending per person on education and transport, hardly any attention in the national media and next to no representation in political professions: these are all innumerable realities that pervade parts of Northern England without any justifiable cause other than careful neglect. 

It’s no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry estimates that the North-East region will be the hardest-hit under a ‘No-Deal Brexit’, or that government support rate to Northern councils is among the highest-cut in the country. This has simply become tradition.

Indefensibly, most governments view the North-South divide as a historically determined reality over which they have no control, obviating government obligation to reverse the decay and rendering it politically fatal to commit to doing so.  George Osborne gave it a feeble attempt with his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ solution, but this hasn’t materialised in any substantive sense. 

Democratic politics commonly consists of five-year cycles that leave little time to address regional disparity with any genuineness. Just like New Labour’s stint, which did so little to revivify the North during its time in power, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to rejuvenate the High Street will equally fall flat without adequate funding proposals and attempts to create sincere power-sharing regional authorities. Simply preventing high-street bank closures is not enough. Theresa May’s assertion, meanwhile, that the North East will ‘not be left behind’ after Brexit is highly dubious.

Norman Tebbit – one of Thatcher’s closest aides during her time in government – expressed remorse at the way the Thatcher government treated Northern mining communities many years after the damage had been done. In 2009, he claimed that the enormous ‘devastation’ inflicted by closures ‘went too far’ – ‘with people out of work turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone.’ There is no doubt, he admitted, ‘that this led to a breakdown in these communities with families breaking up and youths going out of control.’

Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May will, in due course, express their own forms of nostalgic regret about the way their governments have slashed resources and investment for deprived Northern communities. But what good is this to those who have suffered at the hands of a recurrent insensitive elite?

An EU membership referendum and then supposedly ‘Delivering on Brexit’, will not, contrary to Cameron and May’s electoral logic, make the North feel adequately ‘listened to’ or represented by those in Westminster in the long run. It will not undo years of deliberate political devastation. We need a far deeper reassessment of the country’s fundamental regional power prejudices if we ever hope to emulate a civilised nation; starting with acknowledgement that regional disparity is anathema rather than an inevitable state of affairs.  If we fail on this account, it’s clear that the next millennia will unfurl in the exact same way as the last one. The North will remain doomed, and history will happily repeat itself. 

Why are MPs clueless about what the people want? Because they don’t represent ordinary voters

Originally published in Shout Out UK.

The Brexit impasse is maddening for ordinary voters who seek clarification and compromise from the British governing class — but it’s not the only reason the public is growing frustrated with their elected Members of Parliament.

In recent years, more numbers of women and candidates of ethnic minority status are being elected to the House. However, these promising signs mask the dark reality that ordinary voters have become increasingly voiceless in Westminster — and they’re getting pretty sick of it.

Latest government statistics reveal the full extent of this developing gulf between Parliament and its electorate in terms of educational and occupational background — which has inexcusably worsened since the 2000s. The 29 per cent of politicians elected in 2017 that attended fee-paying schools, for example, is over four-times the 7 per cent amongst the UK population as a whole.

Of the 82 per cent that hold a degree, 29 per cent have come from Oxbridge — a higher percentage than the total number of UK degree-holders (only 27.2 per cent). By way of comparison, over the period 1918-45, only 40 per cent of MPs belonged to the graduate class. Unlike then, apparently the ‘representative’ element of representational democracy is now optional.

Even within the Labour Party — the political grouping most committed to representing working-class voters — 84 per cent of 2017-elected MPs were graduates. That’s up from 59 per cent in 1979. In fact, the Labour Party is now almost exclusively run by public-sector or managerial professionals belonging squarely to the middle class. Jeremy Corbyn himself does not escape this charge, living out his entire political career in the prosperous suburbs of Islington North. Gone are the days when the party was buoyed by higher rates of regional miners, manual labourers, teachers, and non-university educated representatives. It appears that working-class credentials are simply tokenistic extras in a party-political system that relies on an educated bureaucracy.

There is a bleak conclusion to be drawn from all this — that the majority of Commons representatives share little direct experience with the constituents they claim to represent. This is not irrelevant: feeling adequately represented by your MP is precisely what distinguishes functioning democracy from an elective aristocracy in disguise. Members in representative democracies aren’t necessarily elected because they ‘know best’, but because they are typically one of the few self-selecting choices available. MPs need to avoid haughty presumptions that they understand their constituents’ needs better than they do.

The reasons behind this narrowing social distinction in the House of Commons are varied. One obvious issue of concern is the rising cost of becoming a politician. Recent estimates from The Spectator put the current price tag at a hefty £34,000 — on account of travel expenses, foregone salary and London living costs. Others are more endemic to Britain’s electoral system. For one thing, there are currently no requirements that MPs seeking election must represent the geographic region they live, or have lived in: amongst voting constituencies in the 2016 referendum, only half of MPs did so.

London in particular is over-represented in terms of the MPs it produces — resulting in their inevitable migration elsewhere. Even if well-intentioned, the absence of affinity between local constituents and migrating parliamentary candidates can lead to a breakdown of trust in the representative system. In short, these ‘migratory MPs’ are often viewed simply as university-educated political employees serving their constituents on a superficially contractual basis. The community they represent is emphatically not ‘theirs’, and as such, there is no genuine connection between member and voter.

The consequences of this pattern are becoming increasingly evident as the Brexit debate plays out. It is widely reported, for example, that Labour’s ‘grassroots’ favour pushing for a second referendum — with a view to Remain in the EU. However, using grassroots in this context is erroneous — since only the Labour membership backs a second referendum and is stringently pro-Remain. Seventy-one MPs have backed this commitment in a signed statement, while half a dozen came out in public support of the People’s Vote policy hours before Parliament’s no-confidence debate. Given that 6/10 Labour MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies, acquiescing to the demands of the membership alone would be electoral suicide. There is a widely held sentiment in Leave areas that politicians are refusing to take into account the expectations of their constituents. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that many life-loyal Labour voters are now considering voting Conservative if only to guarantee Brexit.

Ultimately, unless politics is democratised — by introducing higher pay, stricter representative requirements and an emphasis on suitability rather than educational and occupational background — the Brexit saga will continue to effectively wrestle control away from Parliament through violent and dangerous means. As certain individuals respond negatively to the perception that they are being ignored (recall ‘Soubry is a Nazi’ outside Parliament!) — the possibility of violence is growing more immediate. Politicians need to swiftly take stock of the breach of faith between themselves and their electorate before the recent barrage of verbal vitriol explodes into something far more sinister.

Don’t be fooled – the ‘Migrant Crisis’ is fake news in action

Originally published in Shout Out UK.

Over a thousand asylum seekers have crossed the Channel from Northern France to British soil since November 2018 … or, at least, this is what our  Home Secretary would have us believe. According to Sajid Javid’s most recent pronouncements, the landing of 239 asylum seekers on UK territory between November and January warrants a ‘crisis’ level political response. This is no doubt part of his increasingly self-delusional efforts to assume leadership of the Conservative Party — we should ignore him completely.

Sea-borne Channel crossings have increased in very recent years: our Home Secretary is not wrong about that. Increased border security at Channel ports has made lorry-smuggling more difficult, while the dismantling of the Calais refugee camp in 2016 by French authorities has been followed by an increasingly bureaucratic French asylum-seeking procedure. Amidst tales of French police brutality and the perceived absence of a feasible alternative — which is becoming more acute in the run-up to the UK’s EU withdrawal on March 29 — handfuls of predominantly Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi Kurdish and Eritrean asylum seekers are resorting to making the precarious Channel crossing by boat.

However, it’s worth noting that the Home Secretary’s perspective is painfully limited and misleading — these figures, for example, are nothing on the numbers we’ve witnessed historically. Rather, the ‘Channel Migrant Crisis’ is a warped manifestation of a seriously flawed UK migration policy: a final maturation of the increasing criminalisation of asylum our nation has witnessed over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This is a tradition that began with the Aliens Act of 1905 — and its full offering of migration control powers over to the Home Secretary. It is a tradition that then rallied behind the expatriation of Jewish refugees despite Hitler’s assumption of power in the 1930s, and blatantly discarded Commonwealth Migrants automatic citizenship rights in the 1970s by conveniently forgetting the British record of brutal colonisation overseas. It is also one that has consistently turned a blind eye to the horrific conditions of asylum seekers in detention centres nationwide, as well as violations of their basic human rights. More than anything, this is a tradition that has become legitimised and indeed expected in the aftermath of 9/11 and now Brexit.

Even on a short-term political timescale, the number of recent crossings is far smaller in holistic terms than the numbers of migrants attempting to enter the UK between 2015 and 2016 as stowaways. It is also negligible when compared with the number of refugees crossing the Channel by dinghy on a yearly basis. The Government’s annual immigration publication states that in the year ending June 2018 the UK issued only 14,308 grants of asylum. This figure is down 12 per cent compared with the previous year.

Furthermore, Javid’s suggestion that this specific wave of crossings is being perpetuated not by ‘genuine’ asylum seekers but ‘illegal economic migrants’ is unnecessarily dehumanising. It turns oppression into a subjective matter that can be dismissed at will. His comments are dangerous: if asylum seekers can be so frivolously reconceptualised as ‘illegal migrants’ without any due procedure — what’s to say the Government’s conceptualisation of mental health, domestic abuse and hate crime victims won’t also suddenly change when it seems politically convenient?

Media coverage isn’t helping the situation either. A string of BBC News headlines have simply reiterated Government press releases without nuance; placing titles like ‘Five migrant boats rescued in English Channel‘; ‘Major incident declared over migrant boats’; ‘Two held over English Channel migrant crossings’; and ‘Royal Navy sent ‘to prevent migrant crossings’ in Channel’ alongside emotionally stimulating images of boat crossings over the Christmas period. Instead of evoking pity, this coverage has had an expectedly paradoxical effect. The boats harbouring ‘migrants’ — and never asylum seekers — have become potent symbols of lax border control and an apparent dearth of British patriotism among politicians. They are cannon fodder for the far-right.

Katie Hopkins, for example, in a ruthless Twitter video that has amassed over 500k views, recently brandished the Government’s asylum-seeking policy as overly generous, suggesting that the UK Government ‘advertises’ a collection of cushy provisions for refugees that draw such individuals away from ‘safe countries like France’. Hers is an inaccurate sentiment, irresponsibly and reprehensibly fostered by Javid. Though provided with shelter and a tiny cash allowance to pay for food and toiletries (which is totally acceptable and an essential basic human right), asylum seekers housed on the Government’s dispersal scheme end up in cheap, sub-standard accommodation in the counties which can least afford it. More asylum seekers are housed in Stoke than the entire South East, excluding London. Their situation is anything but enviable, both here and in France. And what’s more — affluent Southerners like Javid and Hopkins need not even interact with them. Their vitriol against asylum seekers is purely political and ideological.

Of course, national media outlets are occasionally including realistic portrayals of the so-called ‘Channel migrant crisis’ — only the caveats are usually located half-way down an article; buried among detailed recaps of Javid’s ridiculous rhetoric. ‘Channel migrants: UK and France to step up patrols’unfurled one BBC headline on the 30th of December. ‘The UK and France are to step up joint patrols and increase surveillance to tackle a rise in the number of migrants trying to reach Britain in small boats,’ read its opening paragraph. This suggests — again, misleadingly — that a recent migrant-spike justifies increased action.

But delve deep enough into the article, and another angle emerges, like some sort of Easter egg in a film: ‘Compared to the number of refugees seeking asylum in the UK every year, the number who have attempted to cross the Channel by dinghy is tiny’. In other words: the ‘Channel Migrant Crisis’ is a figment of Javid’s imagination; and a nasty attempt to turn desperate people into scapegoats and audiences into victims of Government manipulation. Next time he’s on a holiday in South Africa, he should do everyone a favour and just stay put.

 

Anti-Brexit group publishes report on ‘Real Agenda of the Brexiteers’ marking a new low for People’s Vote campaigners

Originally published in Shout Out UK.

The student-run anti-Brexit group For Our Future’s Sake has this month released an exposé on the ‘real agenda’ of the so-called ‘Brextremists’.  Featuring a series of decontextualised and out-of-date comments spoken by Conservative politicians, the document attempts to demonstrate a ‘categoric’ imperative by Brexiteers to overhaul the NHS, destroy workers’ rights, reinforce sexual inequality and decry environmental protections — all under the guise of leaving the EU. However, the unsubtle attempt by FFS to vilify those on the political right showcases the hard-left’s equally explicit political agenda: that of overturning Brexit at any cost.

While morally denouncing the Brexiteers’ politics as part of a regressive, ‘backwards’ agenda, For Our Future’s Sake conveniently overlooks its own self-serving political ambition. The report, entitled ‘The Real Agenda of the Brexiteers, presents to its readers a handful of provocative and selective declarations made by Conservative politicians — some over 20-years-old — that seemingly validate FFS’s demands for a People’s Vote.

Chris Grayling, we are told, argued that national minimum-wage requirements should not apply to those with learning disabilities in 1998. John Redwood, meanwhile, undermined the scientific proof of human-induced climate change in 2008. Ten years later, in 2018, Tory Peer Lord Ribeiro questioned the usefulness of EU workers’ directives that protect employment standards and wages. Boris Johnson, in 2002, floated the idea of a privatised NHS as being ‘greater appreciated’: Daniel Hannan, on the other hand, scandalously suggested in 2009 that the NHS didn’t ‘work’ at all.  Jacob Rees-Mogg, more recently, is revealed to have said he could ‘not care in the least’ about ‘chlorinated chicken’; and Andrea Leadsom, in 2016, restated her view that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

The statements, when read holistically and out of context, serve to create an overall image of Conservative Brexiteers as radical megalomaniacs bent on destroying basic human rights. According to the report, Brexiteers — in which Theresa May is included — all see EU withdrawal as the ‘vehicle’ through which right-wing social and economic agendas can be discreetly enforced. The idea of an ominous, conspiratorial, Brexiteer presence depicted by FFS is an ironic one: it exists as a disturbing mimicry of Brexiteers’ own portrayal of the EU in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. This time, a few comments about the NHS and minimum wage have transplanted memorable case studies about bendy bananas and ounces and pounds. ‘Brussels’ Elites’, in the report, has been substituted for ‘Brexit Elites’.

In actuality, the ‘real’ nasty character traits of Brexiteers, as the public know them, are not their right-wing views (which, in a functioning democracy, the politicians are entitled to), but their misuse of words, facts and figures in a deliberate intention to mislead — remember the £350m on the side of the bus? Unfortunately, FFS’s catalogue of quotations attributed to Theresa May between 1998 and 1999 do just that. They misrepresent her current political stance and proven track record in order to spin a certain narrative.

The report alludes to numerous comments made in 1998 and 99, where May stated that the EU Social Chapter could be a ‘burden for business’ and suggested that many employers cannot afford to implement it. The report then claims, that in the Prime Minister’s ‘own words’, she has therefore attacked workers’ rights — and this makes her one of the right-wing, Brexit ‘crony’ elites. Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone entertaining this view after May’s most recent vote of confidence result. It’s clear that disgruntled Brexiteers made up the large part of the 117 Tory MPs that cried ‘no confidence’ in their leader.

As recorded in Hansard, and re-quoted in the report, the PM is noted to have said the following on the 28 April 1999:

‘The impact of employment legislation, particularly the loss of income for pre-schools caused by the loss of numbers, is exacerbated in a variety of ways by the increased costs of the minimum wage and the working time directive’.

In the report, this is followed by the words: ‘The Prime Minister has called the minimum wage costly’, without any effort to contextualise the quotation. When evidence is presented in this way, it has no persuasive force. It looks as disjointed, randomised and opportunistic as something Boris himself would come out with — and flaunts the same underhand techniques that Brexiteers are often degraded for.

FFS itself is guilty of Brexiteer-like arrogance by dismissing those individuals who voted Leave for genuine, and valid, reasons.  Despite 70 per cent of Labour constituencies voting to Leave, and only 47 Labour MPs voting against the triggering of Article 50 in 2017, the report’s foreword, signed off by David Lammy and Caroline Lucas, argues that opposing Brexit is an ideological obligation for those on the political left.

Likewise, the organisation claims to give ‘young people across the UK’ a chance to ‘stand up and be counted’. However, since the movement was founded at the NUS 2018 Conference with a specific ‘agenda’ of its own — to bring about a People’s Vote — it has turned a blind eye to the non-university educated portion of young people in the UK today. These are individuals that have had little opportunity to endorse or reject FFS’s political goal. Even if you voted to Leave, FFS encourages you to see that choice as misguided and reversible.

‘Whether we voted Leave or Remain, this is not the future that young people want or expect for themselves. We [of FFS] have a responsibility to stand up and make our voices heard, for all our future’s sake’.

Those that did vote Leave, which was 29 per cent of under 25s, are dismissed and patronised:

‘This document shows categorically what we have always known — that Brexit is led by the right, of the right and for the right’.

Pushing aside Brexit voters as right-wing political cannon fodder, rather than acknowledging their feelings and views, is irresponsible and elitist — no less so than the ERG’s desperation for no-deal. However abhorrent that cadre of Conservative politician is, the statements recorded in this document do not in themselves invalidate the Brexit result, upon which the revocation of freedom of movement was the predominant concern held by people of all ages — including young people.

Ultimately, rather than helping ossify unilateral conviction among opposition MPs that Brexit must be abandoned and shelved; the ‘Real Agenda of the Brexiteers’ report has done little other than prove that hard-left Remainers are as obstinate as those they so vehemently criticise. Their political ambitions, much like those of the Brexiteers, are part of an effort to prevent national unity and consensus under a narrow and singular aim. Their desire to overturn Brexit — often against their constituencies’ wishes and the public tide of opinion — is as damaging as the Brexiteers’ ambitions to push through Brexit by whatever means necessary. I’m not sure which is worse.