Dubious Stat klaxon!

It passed me by at the time, so I’ve only just seen a piece by Gary Younge in the Guardian, published back in May, which contains this damning observation on the educational background of MPs. ‘Today,’ wrote Younge, ‘almost 40% of MPs went to private school. In 1997 it was just 30%’. He went on: ‘In terms of social mobility, we are going backwards’.

Gosh.  Isn’t that terrible?

Except, of course, that anyone who knows anything about the composition of the House of Commons will have noticed the sleight of hand involved.

In 1997, Britain had just had a Labour landslide – with more than 400 Labour MPs, fewer than 170 Conservatives.  Today, the number of Conservative MPs has topped 300, with a concomitant decline in the number of Labour MPs.  Conservative MPs have long been more likely than Labour MPs to have gone to private schools, and so – all things being equal – you should hardly be surprised if the number of privately-educated MPs goes up when you have more Conservative MPs.

The more interesting trend is the one behind the headline statistic – and which shows that things are actually going in the opposite way to that identified by Younge.

As Byron Criddle points out in his chapter in this (rather good) book on the 2010 election, the propensity of Conservative MPs to have come from private schools has been in decline for decades.  If you take the last four Conservative victories, the figures are: 73% (1979), 70% (1983), 68% (1987), 62% (1992).  The figure for 2010 was even lower – at 54% – and of those MPs elected for the first time in 2010 the split was even between privately educated MPs.  Criddle also notes that ‘within the private school category, the presence of the famous elite schools has waned’, with fewer Etonians than ever before.

The figure for privately educated Labour MPs in 2010 was 14%, about the same as it had been for several elections.

One might still think these figures too high – and there is no doubt that there are plenty of issues about the composition of the Commons, on all sides of the House.  For all the talk of trying to create a parliamentary party in the image of those represented, the absence of working class MPs on the Conservative side of the House is striking.

At the last election, the party secured 37% of the C2 vote and 31% of the DE vote and yet almost no efforts have been made to ensure that this segment of the population – and of the Conservatives’ own supporters – receives representation on the Conservative benches.

But if you get your diagnosis of the problem wrong, you’re much less likely to get the right remedy.

UPDATE: Wrote this on Friday, and by coincidence found myself at a conference with Byron Criddle on Sunday, where he was making exactly the same point. His paper also pointed out that there has been a similar fall in the percentage of privately educated ministers under Conservative governments. The current proportion is exactly the same as their preponderance in the parliamentary party as a whole.

Professor Phil Cowley


Polling Observatory #16: Summer Doldrums

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it.

It seems that, for David Cameron at least, April really was the cruellest month.

The sharp decline in Conservative support we observed in spring has now definitely levelled off, as for a second successive month we find little change in public opinion. The Conservatives recover slightly to 31.8%, 0.8% up on last month, but still six points down on where they were at the beginning of the year. Labour are also stable, at 41.7% down 0.3 points on last month’s record high. The gap between the top two parties remains ten points, which if reflected in general election voting would almost certainly deliver Ed Miliband’s party a large majority in the House of Commons.

The junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, remain more or less unchanged, their 8.3% rating returning them to the level of two months ago after a brief dip last month. Over 18 months of poll ratings in the 7-10% range suggest that what is left of the Liberal Democrat support base is pretty loyal to the party. UKIP continue to notch up similar shares, particularly in internet polling, but we have not as yet been able to compile the necessary data to run reliable estimates on their support. We hope to begin doing this by the end of the summer.


Robert Ford, Mark Pickup and Will Jennings

Miliband Addresses the Big Meeting: A Return to Labour’s Past?

In his speech to the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday, Ed Miliband was keen to emphasise that he was there to honour the past – to honour the tradition of the Gala itself, of the North East and of the labour movement. He was ‘humbled by the history’ of the Gala, and by the list of Labour leaders who had addressed the meeting and in whose footsteps he was ‘proud to follow’.

So, is this a return to ‘old’ Labour? Was Miliband ‘cosy[ing] up to his militant, left-wing union paymasters’ and ‘handing his party back to Kinnock’, as Baronness Warsi put it?

First, it is worth noting that relations between the Labour Party and the miners have often been far from cuddly, as Kinnock knew only too well. His appearance in 1984, during the miners’ strike, ended in humiliation, with most of the audience walking away while he was speaking. In 1969 a BBC documentary picked up on the way in which Labour leaders were called to account at the Big Meeting. It showed Harold Wilson at the 1969 Gala, sidestepping questions about whether a planned new power station in the area would be coal-fired and Barbara Castle arguing that change was ‘by definition’ part of Labour politics, while acknowledging that her audience would be at the sharp end of that change. This was just months after the publication of ‘In Place of Strife’. Even in 1947 when Hugh Dalton announced the nationalization of coal, the Durham Advertiser reported that his speech was met with ‘stony silence’ – Labour’s plans stopped far short of the miners’ demand for control of the pits.

Second – and again, contrary to popular perceptions – New Labour did not dissociate itself from its history altogether; it just became selective about the parts it was willing to claim. As I have argued in my new book, even Blair was relatively comfortable with invocations of Labour greats of the past – especially the distant past. Keir Hardie and the Rochdale pioneers were all drafted in to legitimize his political project and, crucially, to allow him to distance himself from the controversies of the more recent past. This is where Miliband’s speech gets more interesting. He didn’t stop with distant history, but instead sought to draw parallels between the divisions of the 1980s and those of the present, casting them as an example of the ‘same old Tories’, creating another ‘lost generation of young people’. Even more interestingly, it is these sections of Miliband’s speech which the Labour Party website chose to quote – precisely the divisive history from which New Labour sought to distance itself; not the more anodyne tributes to Labour’s ‘traditions’.

But this is not 1984 or 1994. The Labour Party, the country and – indeed – the Big Meeting itself, have all changed. As others have noted, Miliband’s appearance in Durham came in the same week as his praise for Tony Blair at the Labour Party Sports Dinner. Apparently Miliband felt there was a ‘synergy’ between these two events – glittery New Labour and grittier old Labour. It is only by reconciling both these pasts and focusing on the opposition outside the party that Miliband feels Labour can rebuild itself. The message is not one of returning to the past, but of moving on from it.

In any case, there is no unchanged past which can be recovered, as the recent history of the Miners’ Gala itself demonstrates. From being ‘bigger than Christmas’ in the inter- and post-war years, it declined in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the pits began to close. It was only in the early 2000s that old banners were resurrected, new ones commissioned and numbers exceeded anything that had been seen since 1960. But this couldn’t be a simple return to the past. Instead, it was a quite deliberate and self-conscious attempt to use a sense of shared heritage to reassert local identities and, perhaps counter-intuitively, to heal rifts that continue to divide villages and neighbours in the wake of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

Carol Stephenson and David Wray have called this process ‘emotional regeneration’ and emphasised the extent to which it revolves around the memories of the strike itself. In their view, the revival of the Gala would not have happened ‘had the closure programme been allowed to follow the piecemeal and largely uncontested process that was the norm, pre-Thatcher.’ It was the need to overcome the trauma of the 1980s which made it necessary to reclaim and redefine the past. Heritage here is cathartic.

It is this story of resilience and communal spirit that Miliband is hoping to tap into.  And he too is realizing the power of invoking a sense of shared heritage in order to smooth away the divisive and uncomfortable reality of the past. As he responded to Warsi:

When you see people marching past as I did from the balcony of that hotel, a march people have been doing for 140 years, I think that it is not just about politics, it is about the strengths of these communities.

Emily Robinson

Questions about G4S, the government and securing the Games

Dr Will Jennings is a regular contributor to our ‘Polling Observatory’. He blogs over at Olymponomics.

The private firm at the centre of the row about Olympic security, G4S, has been widely criticised and some of the stories that are appearing from people who received training depict a chaotic process, but a number of questions remain about whether this situation was predictable and avoidable, and whether the government should have known that the assurances being given to it were unreliable. Indeed, this dates back to the under-estimate of the number of private security staff required for the Games in the original bid to the IOC. As far back as 2008 there were fears about a shortage of police manpower for securing the Games, so one would have thought that similar questions might have been asked about the private security industry. But, important questions remain unanswered.

  • Did the government not know that there was a shortage in the private security industry? As far back as April 2011, LOCOG itself reported concern about “A gap in the number of Security Industry Authority licensed private security guards” (p.81). The government is responsible for regulating the private security industry and so must keep a record of the number of individuals licenses as security guards, and from this should have been able to establish whether there was capacity in the sector to cope with the increased numbers required for London 2012 (which had risen from 6,500 in the bid to more than 20,000 according to some reports).
  • Indeed, it is hard to believe that the government was not aware of the issue given that in 2011 it created a special exemption through the ‘Bridging the Gap’ (BtG) programme to deal with this issue: “The BtG initiative was developed to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of qualified people in place to support the security operation at the London Olympics.” The Home Secretary was responsible for the terms of this exemption (intended to provide security training to full-time students to make up the shortage in the industry). Further, the Home Office is astakeholder in the BtG programme. While G4S might be receiving a hammering from the media and politicians at the moment, the problem needs to be put in wider context.
  • Why were penalty clauses not inserted into contract with G4S? One of the questions arising from this situation is why proper controls were not put in place to ensure that the firm delivered the services set out in the contract. This highlights the problem of ‘moral hazard’ all the more because the two actors involved in the contract (LOCOG and G4S) were not exposed to the risk, and government has had to step in to solve the problem when it was not even a party in the original contract — although it clearly was a stakeholder.

In short, given that the Olympics is the largest peacetime security operation that the UK has faced since the war (perhaps ever) and given the unprecedented demand on the private security industry, and given that all this was well known, it is surprising that more questions were not asked about the capacity of the private security industry to deliver the required number of licensed guards (even after special exemptions had been put in place). This is perhaps indicative of an ideological belief (on both sides of the political aisle) in the power of the market to deliver public services, when the reality is that labour markets often work imperfectly and slowly, especially in a specialist sector such as security when the stakes are so high.

Syria, Assad and the Military

News that a Syrian General has defected from the regime and fled to Turkey focuses international attention on the state of the Syrian military. More than any other single factor, the size and capability of Syria’s armed forces have deterred outside powers from intervening directly in the internal situation of that troubled country. Its ‘order of battle’, in the military jargon, is that of a significant military power, equipped primarily with Russian hardware. Even the creation of buffer zones along the border in Syria, let alone a large-scale intervention to topple the regime, would risk confronting this sizeable military adversary. It would require a major air campaign to dismantle Syria’s air defence system before outside troops could be inserted into what would remain a hostile military environment. No coalition of powers or even NATO have the political will to consider such a course of action.

The equation might be a different one if the Syrian armed forces showed more evidence of disintegration. It has been one of the disappointments for western observers that the Syrian military edifice appears so intact. Granted, there have been defections from the military and the case of Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass is just the most high profile of these. There is also a rising death toll amongst the military that will inevitably be placing strains on loyalties. Nevertheless, there has not yet been the large-scale fracturing of the Syrian armed forces that many expected. Unlike the experience of Libya, the Syrian military has remained largely cohesive and loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As a result, the Free Syrian Army finds itself consistently outgunned when it comes into confrontation with the armed forces.

The apparent cohesion of the Syrian armed forces may obscure the fact that the command and control exercised by the political leadership in Damascus is weakening. With pockets of violence breaking out across the entire country, the ability of the Assad regime to exert direction over its forces is coming under intense pressure. Violence, confusion and rumour are all playing a part in degrading the ability of the President and his senior officers to maintain control. This is what the classical Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz referred to as the ‘fog of war’. It results, over time, in the attrition of the government’s ability to manage the crisis.

It may also help to explain the growing brutality that is reported from inside of Syria. The names of towns and villages, such as Homs and Houla, have become synonomous with massacres and the killing of civilians. This may be a deliberate policy by an increasingly desperate leadership in Damascus but equally it may be the result of the armed forces slipping out of central control. Reports speak of pro-government militias, the Shabiha, perpetrating atrocities alongside regular armed forces.

It may also account for the mysterious shooting down of a Turkish F-4 Phantom aircraft on 22 June. Whether or not the plane was in Syrian airspace and irrespective of its mission, it is hard to think of an act more designed to incur the hostility of a powerful neighbour. With the Free Syrian Army having no airpower at its disposal, there was no strategic thinking behind this belligerent act. But it becomes more understandable if we see this in the context of a politico-military leadership that is losing control over its front-line units. An air defence commander in the north of Syria may have decided to use his own initiative and may not have obtained the consent of his superiors.

The outlook for Syria is bleak. As the violence continues to spiral upwards, and arms flow into Syria from outside parties, the control exercised by the Assad regime over its military is likely to deteriorate further. Unless a diplomatic solution can be reached, there appears every prospect of a descent into civil war that may result in the break up of the military. Once that point is reached, the level of blood letting will get much worse and the experiences of conflicts such as in the Balkans in the 1990s may be re-lived.

Professor Wyn Rees

Four Records Down, a Fifth Avoided

Last night’s massive rebellion by 91 Conservative MPs broke four records.  It was – as many have pointed out – the largest Commons rebellion to have hit the coalition since 2010, topping the 81 Conservatives who defied the whip in favour of a referendum on the EU in October last year.

It was also the largest rebellion on the issue of Lords reform in the post-war era, almost double the 47 Labour MPs who voted against Richard Crossman’s white paper on the subject in 1968.

But perhaps most impressively, it was also the largest rebellion by Government MPs on the Second Reading of any Bill in the post-war period, easily outstripping the 72 Conservative MPs who voted against the Shops Bill in 1986 or the 72 Labour MPs who voted against the Higher Education Bill in 2004.

If the government wants silver linings, it might point out that there have been bigger revolts before.  The Blair government suffered larger rebellions, over both Iraq and the renewal of Trident.  It could even point out that this was not the largest rebellion by Conservative MPs in the post-war era – John Major suffered worse over gun control, one of which saw 95 Conservative MPs voting against their whip.  But to pray Iraq in aid is maybe not quite so wise.  And measured as a proportion of the parliamentary party, last night’s 91 Conservative MPs represented a larger proportion of Cameron’s parliamentary party than did the 95 gun control rebels of Major’s.  So that makes the fourth record: the largest Conservative rebellion of the post-war era measured in relative terms.

By pulling the programme motion in the face of certain defeat, we can also be pretty sure the government avoided achieving a fifth rebellion record yesterday, with what would have been the largest rebellion on a programme motion since the procedure was introduced in its present form).

Of the 91 Conservative rebels, 67 (or 74%) had form from the previous session – what itself had been the most rebellious session of the post-war era – but that leaves 24 new rebels. Of these, 16 come from the new intake of MPs, including two who left their positions as PPSs in order to vote against the whip.  Perhaps of greatest concern to the Government will be the fact that of the 91 rebels, 47 (or 52%) came from the 2010 intake of MPs.

As well as the 91 Conservative rebels, there were also 26 Labour opponents of an elected Second Chamber, a mixture of old-style abolitionists and Blairite believers in maintaining the status quo. Eight DUP MPs and one independent Unionist, Sylvia Hermon also voted against Second Reading.  But as we have long argued, no one really cares about splits in opposition parties; all the focus is on the government.

The vote was won by 462 votes to 124, a whopping majority of 388. But it wasn’t the outcome of the vote that counted.  The withdrawal of the programme motion by the Government avoided certain defeat, and bought the Coalition some time.  But the problem hasn’t gone away.  Attempting to legislate on this subject without control of the timetable can prove disastrous, as the Wilson government found out in the 1960s.

The Tory rebels seem a pretty immovable bunch.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart



‘No Extremists Please – We’re British!’

Why has the far right in Britain failed? In a new Radio 4 documentary, Trevor Phillips explores this question and draws on an interview with Dr Matt Goodwin. The documentary also includes excepts from infamous speeches by Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and Gordon Brown, and takes a nuanced look at a question that has received much attention but little careful analysis.

Lords reform: back to the future

Want to know what happens when you lose control of the timetable of the Commons whilst trying to push through a controversial piece of legislation?  Want to know what ‘full and unrestrained scrutiny’ looks like?

Then take a look at the Parliament (No. 2) Bill.

Most people won’t have heard of it. Most of the participants are now long dead, and the Bill itself died in 1969, battered beyond repair.  It was the Maastricht of its day – except that Maastricht did at least manage to make it to the statute book.

The Parliament (No. 2) Bill was the Wilson government’s attempt at House of Lords reform.  A result of cross-party talks, just like today’s Bill it was criticized for being a dog’s breakfast.

Just like today, it was an issue where the party leaders attempted to lead, only to find that their followers refused to follow.  For the Conservatives Reggie Maudling gave his support to Richard Crossman’s White Paper on the subject, only then to find that most of his MPs did not share his views.  When the White Paper came before the Commons, a total of 47 Labour MPs defied their whip to vote against it.  Until today at least, that was the largest rebellion against Lords reform in the post-war era.  The Conservatives gave their MPs a free vote – as they were to do throughout the subsequent Bill’s passage – and Maulding watched as his MPs voted more than 2:1 against his own position.

Just as they will do today, the government achieved the bill’s Second Reading without too much trouble (although the hostility shown during the debate should have been a warning of what was to come), but then it entered its committee stage, on the floor of the House – and it never emerged.

With no automatic programming motions, the Government endured a torrid time, with backbench opponents on both sides moving hostile amendment after amendment.  All-night sitting followed all-night sitting, with the Government forced to resort to a series of closure motions to try to ensure that the Bill could proceed.  Between Second Reading in November 1968 and the final vote on the Bill in April 1969, the government suffered 45 separate backbench rebellions, spread over 80 hours of debate.  The end came after the nineteenth closure motion when the government failed to muster enough supporters to achieve closure.  With only five clauses of the Bill having been discussed, the Government gave up, exhausted.

Which is why the government need to secure a programme motion for their Lords reform bill.  There is – as I write – talk that they may pull the motion tonight – thus avoiding what looks like certain defeat and buying themselves more time to attempt to build consensus over a revised motion.  But whether it’s tonight, or later, they’ll need it at some point.

Philip Cowley

Struggle for a Public University

In February, the Annual Dearing Higher Education Conference 2012 was held at the University of Nottingham entitled The Business and Growth Benefits of Higher Education. At the meeting, the Director-General of the CBI, John Cridland, demanded that business not only co-operate with universities in the setting-up of spin-off companies but also be more closely involved in the actual shaping of university curricula. But should the training of future workers for industry, the city, and the knowledge economy in Britain really be the main preoccupation of higher education? The workshop ‘For a Public University’, recently organised by the local UCU association and supported by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), the Centre for Research in Higher, Adult & Vocational Education (HAVE), and the International Political Economy Group (IPEG) was a crucial counterweight to the interests of business on our university campuses. Significantly, it too was held at the University ofNottingham, on June 15, and raised some pressing issues as to whether universities should be generating profits for business or prophets for society.

John Cridland’s demand is, in many ways, symptomatic of wider developments in higher education both in Britain and around the world. In the UK, the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000, the related commodification of degrees, and the increasing focus on employability has gone hand-in-hand with salary cuts and the devaluation of USS pension benefits for staff members. These material concerns have been accompanied by a general devaluation of the academic profession as a whole.

Globally, a battle is being waged against students, academics, and the public service of education. In Canada, the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, has announced that university tuition fees should be raised over the next five years leading to an increase of 60 percent sparking wide student protests. In Chile, across 2011 to 2012, massive student-led protests have sought more direct state participation in secondary education as well as an end to the existence of profit in higher education. After all, student tuition fees in the country account for 80 percent of spending on higher education and the protests have ‘presided over the biggest citizen democracy movement since the days of opposition marches to General Augusto Pinochet a generation ago’, according to the Guardian.

In Australia, despite the University of Sydney recording a substantial surplus, management have proposed job cuts of up to 340 staff members. In 2012 the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) launched a campaign calling for management to rescind the planned cuts and to “invest in staff, not stones”. In the United States, Noam Chomsky has railed against the assault on public education, including sharp tuition fees coupled with cutbacks in services threatening to undermine the much-admired University of California state college and university system. In Britain, the 2010 protests against impending fees resulted in 50,000 students on the streets of London subjected to police brutality, leading prominent human rights lawyer, Michael Mansfield, to highlight that the riot squads were aimed at quashing political protest. The calls for the co-ordination of a global education strike across November 14-21, 2012 by a coalescing international student movement might be significant in binding such developments.

Within universities in the UK, the trade union experience in many institutions is that management informs the union with neither a consultation of the union’s views on these developments nor an attempt to negotiate over these changes. Ultimately, this is down to the way power is distributed within institutions. As long as local associations fail to mobilise their members more successfully to balance the power of management, the latter do not have to pay attention to the views of their workforce. Yet, even if a union was invited to negotiate changes, these negotiations would mainly focus on the shape of restructuring, not on how to do it differently. In order to achieve the latter, trade unions need to set the overall frame of reference. Demonstrations, strikes and negotiations with management are all necessary and important, but on their own they are not enough. Unions need a clear vision of what an alternative to the marketisation of education could look like. The formulation of what such an alternative vision might resemble was one of the objectives of the ‘For a Public University’ workshop.

In his essay on ‘Intellectuals and the Class Struggle’ [1971] in Revolutionaries, the renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm surveyed how university students were likely to form a permanent discontented mass providing movements of the left (and the radical right) with activists.

“In a sense the system which maintains vast numbers of young people for a few more years outside employment is a modern middle-class equivalent of the Old Poor Law of the early nineteenth-century: a concealed system of outdoor relief”.

Today, though, we are far from the aftermath of 1968 and the radicalisation of intellectuals, young or old, allied with the support of workers and other discontented strata. In deliberating how to support higher education as a public good accessible to all it is important to avoid the presumption of an assumed ‘Golden Age’. Yes, mass higher education made universities accessible to ever larger parts of society. But higher education also excluded the more marginalised members of society on the basis of race, class, and gender.

Alternative visions for the public university also have to be aware of the new technological possibilities and dangers embedded in the increasing internationalisation of education. The public university of the twenty-first century will have new dimensions and it will look differently from mass higher education during the second half of the twentieth-century. What is, however, essential is heightened resistance against the commodification and marketisation of higher education in the first place.

The workshop ‘For a Public University’ held at the University of Nottingham was one advance in this respect. Will it be supported?

Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton