Monday, June 26, 2006


A left dressed in feathers from Cold War hawks

Intervention in Iraq was not strictly a ‘humanitarian war’: it was an anti-totalitarian war. It was a war in the cause of liberty.” Oliver Kamm’s work, characterised by this statement, is an energetic and closely argued polemical “left-wing” justification for Bush and Blair’s war on Iraq.
His starting point is the historical precedence of opposition to fascism and the emergence and support for “collective security”. The “left” Kamm supports is the British Labour Party and its social democratic partners in Europe. However the major reference point is of central concern to all of us who are socialists: universal opposition to aggressive and oppressive regimes. The fact is that most of the left rejects this principle.

Kamm’s conclusions are, however, faulty.

Kamm weaves a picture of post-war foreign policy, Labour Party debates, the influence of and the influences on the peace movement and the impact of the Cold War to show that Blair’s decision to back Bush in war on Iraq was no departure from tradition but a continuation. In doing so he reveals both an encyclopaedic knowledge of the debates at hand and an ignorance of imperialism and what international solidarity actually means.

“Almost by its nature, the disarmament movement failed to give sufficient weight to the moral and strategic requirements of undermining totalitarianism.” This statement could easily be rewritten for today’s anti-war movement, a milieu with fanatical regard for the atrocities of western imperialism but with little to say about despicable regimes abroad.
Kamm suggests that the post-war left was torn between a position of support for the idea of collective security whereby the interests of the democratic West would be protected and expanded by containment of the USSR, and cooperation with the Stalinist states. He argues that many of the left gave their implicit support for the totalitarian regimes in the East in arguing that Labour governments should do business with them, a position based on the idea that Stalinism was a compatible progressive force in the face of US domination.

He uses the historical fact of the “hawks” Cold War victory as precedent for the situation today. In Kamm’s view of history the issues around Saddam, Iran and the Middle East meld with those faced during the Cold War — that opposition to totalitarianism implies the drive for regime change. “The essential point of the Blair-Bush policy, which is to change the balance of power in the Middle East — that has already been conclusively vindicated.” (Christopher Hitchens). To secure the collective interests of the West, to head off the threat of terrorist attack and to really deal with despicable regimes, you can and must impose from outside and above a form of “democracy”. For Kamm the Iraq experience vindicates this view, and he sees the Iraqi elections as central.

With almost total disregard for the actually existing conditions in Iraq, the destruction wrought upon its people, the resurgence of terrorism and the near civil war situation we are treated to a story of the past few years that makes one wonder — if it’s good enough for Iraq then why not North Korea, China … Iran already?

When dealing with Iraq’s most glaring problems: “inadequate security”, lack of infrastructure etc, Kamm argues that “Had the regime eventually imploded under — as it were — the weight of its own contradictions, it would have become the happy hunting ground of Islamist terrorists throughout the region.” You could be charitable and excuse Kamm on the basis that his book was written a year ago, but for a supposedly intelligent commentator to ignore the obvious trajectory of events is more worrying.

If just containing Stalinist totalitarianism was good enough during the cold war, why would it not work for Saddam? “ Containment of Saddam, quite apart from being a cruel policy imposing sanctions on exactly the wrong target, was also a tenuous one. Someday, unless we act to prevent it, the terrorists will obtain a weapons capability that can kill far more than the 3000 dead on 9/11. Western governments have the duty to interdict that flow of weapons from their most likely source.”

So here we have it – far from being a war of liberty for the Iraqi people, the real justification for war in Kamm’s eyes is based on the shaky supposition that Saddam may have at some time in the future, possibly supplied some terrorists with weapons.
Despite some messy logic and the poverty of specific arguments Kamm’s book is important for the detailed history it provides of arguments inside the Labour Party over foreign policy and because it raises — as a core argument — the opposition to totalitarian regimes.

For Kamm and some of his co-signatories to the Euston Manifesto, this may mean lending their liberal support to imperialist war. But for those of us who call for consistent democracy and international working-class solidarity, it means exposing the real drive to war — hegemonic positioning and economic interests – and arguing for the anti-war movement to recognise democrats in places like Iran and Iraq and make urgent solidarity with those forces seeking to end totalitarianism from inside and below.

“Secular Baathism and Islamist totalitarianism are the natural enemies of the Left, and the task of uprooting them … is our natural cause” — but not by giving uncritical support to our enemies at home.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Tests, Tigger and the ‘Hand Signal TM’…

Three ways to torture your students

It’s 2.30pm on Friday - just half an hour before the end of a tiring week - and Year Ten are predictably restive. You need to move the lesson on but all attempts to settle the class have failed. Detentions are issued, individuals spoken to and you even attempt the trick of starting to explain from the board in the hope that they’ll all realise what you want them to do. Nothing works. You’ve got one last trick up your sleeve (literally): the ‘Hand Signal TM’. You stand with palm held aloft (in the manner favoured by one or two 20th Century fascist dictators) and wait – the idea being that the class will automatically fall silent. A couple of students glance at you with a distinct air of embarrassment whilst the rest carry on as before. One … two … three minutes pass as the class continues to resist your Pavlovian idiocy. It’s now 2.50pm (just ten minutes left) and you realise that the ‘plenary’ needs to be organised. The hand is lowered and you give out the ‘Weekly Reflection Sheet TM’. Going from table to table you realise that although they’ve been a bit noisy most of your students are actually working. All that time spent in ridiculous gesticulation at the front of the class was even more futile than you first thought. Now you’re supposed to stop them working to ‘reflect’ on the week at school. You fill in a form yourself: “This week I learnt how futile and humiliating most of these new behaviour ‘strategies’ really are and now know that the £200,000 spent by the school in consultancy fees would have been better spent on something else … like more teachers.”

“I’m a Tiger” shouts the bearded, middle-aged man at the front of hall. “Gggrrrrrrrrrrr” responds the audience of teachers. “Are you a Tiger?” the man asks one woman. “I’m … I’m a tiger” she stutters and her face flushes. “She’s one of our group! She belongs here! She loves this place!” he responds. “I’m a donkey” exclaims the head of sport – the hall bursts into laughter. Tiger-man is not amused. “It’s that sort of thinking that drags everyone else down. Yes you are a donkey, you’re just like Eeyore”. “This is a load of old Pooh!” responds our sports teacher. The assembled teachers are then told that there are different types of people, different types of learners. What a revelation. Some are indeed like Eeyore, others like Tigger and some like Pooh himself. What teachers have to do is encourage our students to be like Tigger – not as ditzy as the bouncing feline but as enthusiastic about life and school – and to feel part of ‘the group’. To move them into Tigger-type enthusiasm we must first know their learning styles: auditory, kinaesthetic, visual … the list goes on. Tiger-man quickly scrawls a picture of the human brain on a flip-chart and starts circling the different ‘active-centres’ corresponding to different types of learner. We’re informed that to get the most out of our students we must take into account their ‘learning style’, position on the ‘Pooh Bear’ mood spectrum and craft individual lessons to suit. After about twenty minutes of this pseudo-science someone asks what evidence exists to back up his claims. “This is all cutting edge thinking based on the latest findings from ‘brain-science’ … there isn’t actually any published research … but this is what makes it so exciting” Tiger-man enthuses. How exciting!

Three weeks to go until Year 9 take their maths SAT. They’ve gone through the KS3 curriculum, done the ‘Booster Sessions’, been subjected to motivational sessions from the LEA numeracy consultant and now all that’s left is to coach them on the most important skill of all: how to answer a SAT question. You’ve been informed that the biggest barrier to success at KS3 is the inability of many students to satisfactorily answer exam questions! They can do the work in class – teachers have evidence to prove this – but fail to understand what the questions mean. As exam questions tend to get recycled with only minor modification from year to year, all that’s required to overcome this ‘major problem’ is to coach students on a fairly narrow array of problems. So you go about preparing three weeks worth of lessons, sort out the exam questions you’ve been told to concentrate on and think to yourself: “can I really distil three years worth of teaching into three weeks? If this works, why not just give kids SATs three weeks into Year 7 and be done? Why can’t my students answer exam questions … is it a problem with children or with the exam? Can SATs really measure learning?”

The three scenarios above are based on real events in real schools. If they don’t yet sound familiar, they soon will. ‘Behaviour Management’ (dressed up pop-psych mumbo-jumbo) is an idea that is being sold to schools at an increasing rate. Profit making companies (some linked to universities, most not) are queuing up to sell their version of ‘cooperation’, ‘community’ and ‘classroom management’. In most cases the training amounts to little more than stating the obvious (“students like to feel safe”, “if you’re not consistent then students won’t know what to expect” …) and learning a few ‘strategies’ like the ‘Hand Signal TM’ (these are all trade marked … seriously). The outcomes of these new strategies are measured by a few self-serving surveys that, not surprisingly, tend to show continual improvement. Private companies are hardly going to conclude that what they’re selling is a load of old $%$^%$*£. Some students just find the whole thing hilarious but the principle that we can train young people to behave like a hungry animal is abhorrent. Such an explicit system of triggers, rewards and punishment reduces human relationships to a mechanical set of procedures. Skilled teachers don’t need a check-list approach to relating to students. We establish mutual respect and trust based on our skills as thinking people. If a school does have discipline problems then it’s no good just blaming unruly kids or ‘bad teachers’ – how about looking at the curriculum, social conditions, resources and class-size?

Personalised learning based around the ideas of learning styles and personality types is hokum written in the name of a basic truth. Yes, all students are different but when was this ever not the case? Any good teacher uses a variety of learning techniques in every lesson. Group work, kinaesthetic activities, writing and speaking happen in every single lesson. To insist that particular students can only work and learn in one particular way is an ideological crutch for the return to more vocational courses and the creation of a two-tier system. The ideas are largely without a theoretical base and are presented in such an outlandish way that most teachers find them laughable.

Testing, testing, testing … Students have always sat public examinations but the introduction of SATs, continual testing and assessment continues to have a destructive impact on how we teach. To pretend that all of these tests have some intrinsic significance is just one more fantasy indulged in by successive governments. When you come to realise – or are told outright – that students must be coached to pass specific types of exam then the whole testing regime becomes an even more cynical exercise.

The issue of SATs and over-testing has been with us for some time now (introduced when this teacher started secondary school) and we must continue to expose the idiocy of subjecting young people to the extreme pressures of tyrannical testing. The other ‘initiatives’ represent new ways to regulate both learners and teachers and involve whole new layers of paperwork, useless preparation and monitoring. If government thinks it can distil the essence of quality education into these sorts of framework then they’re either mistaken or plain stupid. The introduction of behaviour management schemes and ‘personalised learning’ into our classrooms should be vehemently fought by all teachers, parents, carers and students. We need a national campaign to expose the dangers of these ideas and to continue the fight against over-testing. If rank-and-file members of the NUT won’t start such a campaign, then I’m not sure who will.


Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume V: War and Revolution

‘War and Revolution’ is the fifth volume of Hal Draper’s mammoth project to organise the political ideas developed by Marx and Engels – ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution’ – on a coherent, closely argued and contextualised basis. This is something Marx managed for himself in his economic writing but never with the diffuse array of journalism, essays and correspondence that constitutes his directly political writing. For Draper, this project wasn’t a mere academic exercise – though his lack of political activity during the period of writing leads some to level this accusation – but was part of a decades long battle against those who used Marx’s name in association with “counter-revolutionary tyranny”. He was determined to expose this “biggest Big Lie” with the aim of organising a genuine socialist movement. Draper was a founding member of the Workers Party and played a leading role in successor organisations up to the 1970s. His political career coincided with socialists such as Max Shactman and CLR James who developed a critique of Stalinist society and attempted to orientate Trotsky’s Fourth International towards working class emancipation. Volume Four of KMTR on the ‘Critique of other Socialisms’ was published in the midst of the collapse of Stalinism and in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Now fifteen years after Draper’s death and at a time when socialists are faced with pressing questions on the issue of war, Ernest Haberkern has completed Volume Five at a similarly relevant time.

The concern of this volume is not to develop the ‘Marxist line’ on war, but to account for the many complex and often forgotten episodes to which Marx and Engels were forced to react. The issue for Marx was not just to explain why wars happened but to determine what impact war would have on the working class movement and any prospects for revolution. This motivating spirit has often been obscured by down-right misinterpretation by such august figures as Lenin, Kautsky and Luxemburg. By claiming that Marx was a Russophobe, by invoking ‘Marxist’ assertions that were never made or by making excuses for Marx and Engels’ supposed ‘aberrations’ on certain questions, the common picture of their stand on the issue of war and revolution is terribly muddied. Draper and Haberkern attempt to set the record straight. The book shows that up until their deaths, both Marx and Engles changed their specific views on war time and time again whilst never loosing sight of the overall perspective of revolution. This should be no surprise given the tumultuous events and rapid developments they both lived through – and given the fact they were both very human. ‘War and Revolution’ is a very thorough account of a great many arguments, so a detailed exposition is not possible in a book review. What is possible is to explain some of the dominant issues and to give a quick glimpse at one important argument.

Three key themes are identified in the introduction: Marx’s alleged ‘lesser-evilism’ on the question of Russia, his supposed predilection for choosing ‘one bourgeoisie over another’ and the case of what Engels did and didn’t say. You could be forgiven for thinking that what we have here is more akin to a detective story than a work of politics and Draper’s forensic method in some ways bares this out. August 14, 1914 is a date in the history of the socialist movement whose resonance will be felt for some time. On that day the avowedly socialist German Social-Democratic Party joined forces with the German ruling class and backed the issue of war credits. This move came as some surprise to members of the Second International who’d seen the SDP press expose again and again the dubious activity of German diplomats. Surely this move represented a massive break with the Marxist tradition? Apparently not! You see Marx and Engels were outspoken Russophobes who supported any prospect of war on Tsarist totalitarianism. The pro-war SDP appeared to have a precedent for their abandonment of socialist politics and Lenin and Luxemburg – though opposing the war – seemed to agree with them. Marx had been a Russophobe but he was wrong went the official view. The fact that neither the SDP, Lenin or Luxemburg produced written evidence for Marx’s pro-war position didn’t stop this becoming a Marxist ‘Fact’. Marx did despise the Tsarist regime and often seemed to be cheerleading the prospect of war but on a very clear basis. The basis that ‘democracy’ – the newly democratic or potentially revolutionary states – would be the liberating force.

It seems that the pro-war Marx didn’t limit himself to just Russia – he appears to have a habitual tendency to choose one bourgeoisie over another and again this is invoked in all kinds of ‘Marxist lines’. Where Marx and Engles did support one side over another – in some instances over Russia, the Crimea and the US civil war – they did so on the assumption that success for one side would further the prospect of revolution. As European capitalism developed and the much-hoped-for revolutions failed to develop as Marx had predicted, Engels went about developing what became a socialist anti-war perspective – one that recognised the fact that wars between rival powers would be to the detriment of the working classes involved.

It should be clear that in the final analysis it was the dynamic of the European working class that most effected Marx and Engles’ judgments on war. They were active participants in the creation of a working class movement ready to take on the bourgeoisie to end all war and exploitation. This meant that at times the content of their work was addressed to very specific sections of society in very specific conditions. This context is rigorously argued through by Draper and Haberkern in an effort to show that no other concern occupied their political positions than moving towards socialist revolution. At a time when the dominant ‘anti-war’ stance of the Left seems at pains to ignore the dynamic of the Iranian and Iraqi working classes, this book provides powerful reading for those of us determined to forge a socialist anti-war movement.


School privatisation still on the Bill

The publication of the Education White Paper last year commenced months of wrangling, negotiations and campaigning that went to the very heart of the Labour Party. MPs and party members lined up with education unions to denounce proposals to unleash rampant market-driven measures upon schools. Up and down the country local associations of the NUT held protest meetings, Constituency Labour Party’s debated the issue and internal groupings like ‘Compass’ issued pamphlets denouncing the plans. With good reason some in the NUT have taken this as signalling a deep crisis for the Blair Government – a crisis that could result in defeat for what has become the Education Bill. For now it remains unclear what the outcome of a vote on the Bill will be but the campaign so far, the collective weight of would-be parliamentary rebels and the meagre efforts from the leadership of the NUT have done little to ameliorate the substance of the proposals.

Since 1997 Blair and a succession of education ministers have pursued and extended a policy of school diversification introduced by the Tories in the early 90’s. The test-beds for this process were the unpopular Grant Maintained (GM) schools and City Technology College’s (CTC’s). GM schools were an attempt to assess the viability of allowing schools independence from local government control. Individual heads and governing bodies were encouraged to hive themselves off from the ‘interference’ of LEAs and make themselves directly responsible to central government. GM schools – perhaps unsurprisingly – proved an unappealing prospect for most heads. CTC’s were a different kettle of fish. These were brand-new, built for purpose schools that actively sought private sponsorship, employed teachers and adjusted the curriculum on an independent basis, which selected a spectrum of abilities (albeit significantly skewed to the top end) and which received appreciably more funding than your average secondary school. The former steel producing town of Corby in Northamptonshire clearly illustrates the ‘benefits’ of this type of school. When steel production stopped in the early 1980s Corby was left an empty shell with high unemployment, poor housing and health and extremely low educational achievement. The solution to the last of these problems was to open a CTC. The result? Close to 100% A*-C at GCSE for those lucky enough to be selected for the new school but a continued downward spiral for the rest. At the time Labour came out fighting against the CTCs but New Labour have pushed through these sorts of ‘reforms’ for the past eight years. The Education Bill and City Academy scheme should be seen as the logical conclusion of this Tory policy.

Comprehensive education – like the NHS – is one of the last remaining symbols of Labour’s reforming past. Some Labour members who weathered the removal of Clause IV, the continuation of Tory social policy and a string of unpopular military escapades have baulked at the prospect of this legacy being destroyed. Veteran Blairites like Fiona Miller have transformed themselves into vehement class-warriors at the prospect of the abolishment of comprehensive schools. In ‘A Comprehensive Future – Quality and Equality for all our Children’ (co-authored with the more consistent Melissa Benn) we hear the following assessment of our schools: “One of the biggest problems facing British schools is the gap between rich and poor”. That’s a situation Blair has failed to do anything about since coming to office - but what about his future plans? “If the government continues in the direction it is currently heading, we risk creating a multipartite system, a pyramid of provision, with high-achieving state schools at the top, largely drawing from better off families, down to a hard core of low achieving schools and colleges, largely in the inner cities, serving the poorer children”. Even those who otherwise support the Blair agenda can see what awaits us and to their credit they’ve done a lot of work to make this a national issue.

The White Paper contained proposals on issues from school meals to a new inspection regime. Of all the proposals, selection and the idea of ‘Trust Schools’ – an amalgam of GM, CTCs and Faith School ‘values’ – have caused most concern. The main thrust of Labour Party opposition has been focused on selection. This particular cat was let out of the bag some years ago but proposals in the White Paper put down in ink complete school-based control. To many this signalled a concrete return to a Grammar/Secondary Modern system and spurred them into active opposition. The main weakness of the internal party opposition – and importantly any likely rebellion – has been this focus on selection because by expunging these proposals from the Education Bill, Blair has potentially defused a large element of the rebel block. The main thrust of the Bill – marketisation through the creation of Trusts – remains intact.

In spite of the forced concession over selection, the Education Bill remains a major threat to the idea of inclusive, community comprehensive education. Any wheeler-dealer, religious fanatic or ‘educationalist’ on a mission can set up a charitable body, form a ‘Trust’ and take over a school. The motivation to do so is greater now than in the past because elements of the market – in the form of Academies and other specialist schools – are already in place to act as a lever for other schools. To effectively oppose the Education Bill we must engage forces like those around ‘Compass’, MPs who opposed the White Paper and the wider labour movement in a grass-roots led campaign against the Bill. Specifically we should campaign for individual teachers, Governors, and trade unionists to sign up to a pledge of non-compliance with the proposals in the Bill – to pledge that under no circumstances will they take part in the privatisation of our schools.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Solidarity with Iraqi and Iranian Workers

No to war – No to occupation – Down with Ahmedinejad

Support Iraqi workers to end the occupation

We, who opposed the war on Iraq and who call for an end to the occupation, demand that the anti-war movement recognises the importance of the developing workers movement in that country. We condemn without reservation the attacks on prominent trade unionists by both occupation forces and those elements whose agenda is to impose a repressive, authoritarian regime on the Iraqi people.

We recognize that a nation ‘liberated’ by authoritarian movements, be they clerical or Baathist, would leave Iraq an empty shell – ‘liberated’ from foreign occupation but ruled by a clerical-fascist dictatorship. This would be a mockery of self-determination.

We support an anti-occupation movement that does not jeopardize the demands and aspirations of the working class, of women and gays, of secularists, national minorities and democrats. In the workers movement of Iraq we see just such a force. They are a minority, but it is a militant democratic working class that holds the key to full self-determination for the Iraqi people.

Solidarity with Iranian workers and democrats -
No to interventionist war – Down with Ahmedinejad

Iran has a repressive, clerical regime and a militant workers and democratic movement. In December 2005 the government arrested several members of the ‘Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company’ following strikes over pay and conditions. Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tehran on 2 January to call for their release. The regime has hit back by freezing bank accounts, stopping wages and initiating a crackdown on trade unionists.

At the same time we see the Iranian president, Ahmedinejad, asserting Iran’s regional power status by restarting nuclear programs. All this has led to thinly veiled threats of US action against the country.

We state now our opposition to both military attacks on Iran and the oppressive government. We condemn the attacks on the Iranian workers movement and offer solidarity to those within the country who seek to replace the existing regime by a mass, democratic action.

International Solidarity

The support of the international labour and anti-war movements is imperative to the continued development of the progressive forces described above. The leaders of the anti-war movement in Britain either ignore the Iraqi workers movement (or sometimes attack it!) or pick-and-choose who they promote. Their response to threats on Iran is to simply state their opposition to war without consideration of the forces at play. We ask trade union and anti-war activists to build practical solidarity with the workers movements of Iraq and Iran.

We call on you to sign this statement, affiliate to ‘Iraq Union Solidarity’, join local international solidarity initiatives and encourage others to do so.

Signed (affiliation for identification purposes only/in personal capacity):

Tony Byrne (RMT)
Liam Conway (Notts Division NUT)
Dave Green (FBU executive member)
Richard Hindes (aka the Disillusioned kid – see, formerly of Nottingham Student Peace Movement)
Edward Llewellyn-Jones
Konnie Lloyd
Pat Longman (NUJ)
Dawn Montiel (Unison)
Pete Radcliff (Socialist Unity Candidate, Nottingham East 2001, 2005)
Louise Regan (Deputy Division Secretary Notts NUT)
Dan Robertson (Nottingham Student Peace Movement)
Alan Simpson MP (Labour, Nottingham South)
Tom Unterrainer (Nottingham City NUT, Nottingham Trade Union Solidarity bulletin)
Ivan Wels (Joint Division Secretary Notts NUT)
Pat Wilkinson


Monday, December 19, 2005


Blair’s Education White Paper

the logical extension of the Academy scheme

I’ve written and spoken about the city academy scheme so many times now that the full horror of what they represent sometimes passes me by. On street stalls and in meetings I churn through the pre-rehearsed explanations of what an ‘academy’ is and the reasons why - as a teacher - I’m opposed to them. Two recent events have made me think again about the scheme and Blair’s overall plan for education: the first being the publication of the government white paper on secondary education and the second a meeting of the newly formed ‘Anti Academies Alliance’. It’s become overwhelmingly clear to me that the inspiring anti-academy campaigns around the country deserve renewed and extended support from the NUT on a local level and that the ‘firefighting’ approach taken by our union ‘leaders’ is no longer sufficient.

‘Tony Blair and his government believe that the public sector is so atrophied that the only hope for regeneration comes from the private sector. Teachers and other educationalists are so stuck in their ways and seemingly incapable of effecting change that decision making has to be wrested from them and placed in the hands of new, dynamic, commercial forces. In essence we live in a time where those who attempt to govern have conceded defeat in the public sector and decided that only market forces [forces with real interests other than public service] can provide answers.’ This ‘tabloid’ version of events is only part of the story. Whilst some would like us to believe that civil society is incapable of and teachers unwilling to make changes, we know differently. We’re not opposed to change – in fact many of us would agree that major changes are necessary – we just oppose the changes at the heart of Blair’s proposals. The sort of changes we’re opposed to are deregulation and privatisation. The attacks on our pay and conditions, evidenced by the MA to TLR scheme and the meddling with our pensions is part of a preparatory process for the wholesale transformation of the education system. These are changes we can do without.

You see, Blair hasn’t conceded defeat in the public sector – he just objects to the idea of a public sector. He inhabits the same sort of mental space as the Tories who thought it ‘silly’ to have public transport and ‘immoral’ to set minimum wages in the 1980s. He dares to take a hammer to the public services in a way undreamt of by Thatcher and Major, he dares to take to their logical conclusion the neo-liberal policies practised by successive administrations for the last thirty years because he suspects he’ll get away with it. We have a responsibility to prove otherwise.

As evidence for the disastrous road we’re on and as a precursor to an outline of the new proposals, let’s revisit the record so far of the Academy scheme. There are currently twenty seven academies up and running with forty in the pipeline and a target of 200 in short order. Academies are ‘backed’ by a sponsor – generally some seemingly benign company or trust but all too frequently a fundamentalist businessman (no, there don’t seem to be many fundamentalist businesswomen). The sponsor is interested in a combination of indoctrination, self-promotion and getting a toe-hold in a soon-to-be deregulated education market. In the last school year the Academies have demonstrated their ‘tremendous’ success in a more than fourfold improvement on GCSE results as compared to the national average (8% increase in A*-C). So we have material proof of the validity of the scheme – unless, of course, you live in a world where you analyse results rather than throw figures about. 5 out of the 11 Academies open in 2004 failed to improve results at all and the 6 that managed it have substantially ‘recomposed’ their intake. The three academies with the longest history (opened in 2002) have mixed results. Two of them have significantly improved results and one is in special measures. Only in cases where the make-up of the school has been distorted towards middle-class children has an ‘improvement’ been measured.

The Academy scheme doesn’t just mean a name change and an adjusted curriculum. The governance of the school and working conditions are also different. The now famous PriceWaterhouseCooper report showed that staff in school had an overwhelmingly poor assessment of the appointed Governing Bodies. The majority saw them as inaccessible, unrepresentative and non-participatory. On the workforce front, Academies do not sign up to national conventions and agreements and do not recognise trade unions! The PWC report showed that 60% of staff in Academies thought that workload is heavier in the new institutions as compared to previous schools. So in addition to being an assault on the comprehensive system, Academies appear to be relatively unsuccessful when the extra investment and ‘dynamism of the market’ are accounted for. As for teachers, they have less say in how the school is run and are denied the representation of their union.

In the light of the new white paper, the Academy scheme is best seen as a combination of experiment and an integral part of a market driven diversification process. The existing Academies have shown that it’s at least possible to find a ‘sponsor’ and that schools can run ‘autonomously’. Academies give a glimpse at the reality of a new system and are potentially an important lever in encouraging schools to set up trusts and gain some level of independence.

So what’s in the new proposals? Schools will be encouraged to set up a Trust that will have a private sponsor that can have a majority on any governing body. The sponsor will have to act as a ‘charitable organisation’. At the heart of the new proposals remains the dominant theme of Academies – the private sector is a necessary agency to push through reforms and that the market can manage the public sector better than specialists from the public sector. The implications of the scheme are as follows: extended private control over schools, less role for LEAs and parents and a new layer in school hierarchy. The question is why should these proposals be any more popular than Grant Maintained status under the Tories? Why should schools bother to set up a trust and hive themselves off from LEA control? What’s in it for them? There’s no extra money, loads of paper work and all you’ll get is a new layer of people to meddle in schools. Why should a head and Governors go for it? Some schools will go for it just for an increased sense of status, others because they want to become a religious school – but I don’t think many will do it for these reasons alone. At the moment the incentives don’t seem very strong, unless you take at look at the impact of the new Academies.

I teach in Nottingham where we have an existing Academy and three more in the pipeline. To make way for the new Academies, three (or possibly four) community schools will be closed completely and another three transformed to Academy status. In Nottingham, we have a large number of students who travel out of the city to nearby county schools – schools with a certain status and reputation. Whilst city schools take all-comers from the various deprived inner city areas, county schools take students from Nottingham’s less deprived suburbs and middle-class students from the city. The three new Academies could potentially stem the exit of students from the city and force county schools to accept ‘less desirable clientele’ from our deprived areas. One of the major planks of the Trust is the ability to define specific catchment areas, thus ruling out undesirables from the city. Could this be an incentive? It only takes one school in an area to set up a Trust for others to consider the implications of being left out. In these circumstances, Academies can be seen as the market lever to induce the whole process – it’s no accident that these proposals have been engineered in combination.

If schools do carry out the steps in the new White Paper there are a number of other implications: Popular schools will be able to ‘expand’ and in doing so force out the competition and schools that change status – though merger, special measures etc… - will have to become Trust schools. To top it off, no new school can be a community school. So even if schools don’t choose to become Trusts they’ll be islands in a market ocean and risk being completely overwhelmed by the logic of the market. Blair has a plan and it seems (from his perspective) to make sense.

How did we get here and what is to be done? The warning signs for the Blair education agenda have been present for some time in the initial enthusiasm for specialist status schools and then the introduction of Academies. The BSF proposals that have been knocking around for some months now clearly included a significant amount of PFI. Now the White Paper has been unveiled with a dramatic agenda for complete reorganisation of our school system. We should have seen it coming (many of us did), our union leadership should have seen it coming and done something about it. There have been criticisms of the scheme from our leaders in the press but no proposals for how it will be stopped – this is not good enough. The planned/talked-about anti-academies demonstration and conference has yet to emerge and insufficient materials are making it into schools. So far it’s been down to individual associations and groups of campaigners to resist the moves. Up and down the country imaginative and effective campaigns have sprung up to resist the move towards Academies – some have been successful in driving away crazy sponsors and in making ‘respectable’ businesses think twice about putting their toe in the water. The campaigns should be congratulated and supported not just by all NUT members but across the labour movement. The newly formed Anti-Academies Alliance is a national initiative of teachers, campaigners and other trade unionists to coordinate activity and launch some national initiatives. The Alliance is a vital part of our efforts to stop the White Paper because it incorporates existing activists and because – as I hope I’ve shown – the Academy scheme is integral to the implementation of the proposals in the paper. The campaign against Academies shouldn’t be limited to those areas and associations with Academies but should be supported by all who want to stop the new proposals. I encourage you all to seek affiliation, to support the campaign and to spread the message throughout our union that unless we stop these proposals, comprehensive education will be a thing of the past.

(Thanks to colleagues at the Anti-Academies Alliance steering meeting for many of the ideas and bits of information in this article)

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Solidarité sans frontières

The concept of solidarity - along with democracy - must be at the heart of any consistent formulation of socialism and the act of solidarity has a centrality to the practice of working class partisans. Two recent events and the response of the labour movement to them demonstrate just what this means. The sackings of both Rolls Royce Shop Steward Jerry Hicks and the Gate Gourmet workers have been a battle cry to the labour movement. They have received support from numerous individual trade unionists, branches and national unions. Countless people have visited the picket at Gate Gourmet and the demonstration I attended in Bristol to support Rolls Royce workers had numerous banners from a range of unions. These struggles receive generous support from fellow trade unionists and in many towns or cities you will find people arguing for donations, messages of support and other acts of solidarity who belong to one socialist group or another. Solidarity with other trade unionists is bread and butter for the movement and finds its best advocates amongst the revolutionary left … or does it?

However energetically the largest of the socialist groupings builds support for unions in this country, the coverage their press gives to struggles across Europe and the Americas or the spotlight they turn on selected other parts of the world, there is a glaring inconsistency in the solidarity they show. Why do the struggles of the insurgent trade union and socialist movements in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and many other places receive no mention in the Left press (with notable exceptions)? Why when these struggles are brought up in anti-war and other ‘progressive’ meetings are they treated with contempt? Why would the same people who’d argue for all-out action in support of British trade union struggles baulk at similar support for foreign comrades in extreme difficulty? It can’t be just a simple lack of consistency; there is a political problem.

This problem has its origins in a mixture of a mechanical understanding of what is termed ‘revolutionary defeatism’* and the race for short-term political gain (opportunism). The struggles of Hicks and the Gate Gourmet workers are not contentious because they are directed towards the business/ruling class of the UK/West. It’s easy for the enemy to be identified and for support against them to be developed amongst a wide layer of workers - and this is exactly what socialists should seek to do. This sort of work is fundamental to us. The struggles of Iraqi, Iranian and Pakistani workers are ‘difficult’ because there is an added ingredient to the class-struggle mixture. This little (or not-so-little) bit extra is imperialism. Iraq is occupied by foreign imperialist powers and Iran and to a lesser extent Pakistan are threatened by these same powers. For some on the Left, this means that the character of the ruling or would-be ruling classes in these countries is ignored, that the attempts by workers to organise are ignored and that all attention is focussed on campaigning to ‘Stop the War/Occupation’.

Stopping wars and ending occupations form part of the socialist outlook but to campaign on these issues without reference to an existing internal opposition condemns the majority in these countries to continued oppression. To maintain one form of oppression over another is not in the socialist ABC – we seek to liberate. This ‘ambivalence’ stems from the idea that ‘the main enemy is at home’. No matter what’s going on elsewhere in the world, we should concentrate on what ‘our’ ruling class is up to. If ‘our’ ruling class declares war on another then we should wish defeat for ‘our’ side. In other words we give no thought to how awful the foreign ‘foe’ may be and suspend our belief that they should be removed. So we oppose the war on Iraq but forget what we’ve been saying about Saddam for twenty years, we ignore the reactionary nature of the ‘resistance’ and in effect call for their victory (‘end the occupation’ full stop) - we take no notice whatsoever of the democratic forces fighting for real liberation. Confusing the issue with reference to the actually existing conditions in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan makes it all the more difficult to develop the all important political projects at home.

“If you copy from one person it’s plagiarism, copy from two then it’s research and copy from three – you’ve got genius”**. The Left is bereft of any genius but some research seems to have been done because in a way we’ve been here before. Once upon a time there was a country that claimed to be ‘socialist’ and saw fit to manipulate or ignore world politics to protect its own interests. With rather less to lose the contemporary Left has reinvented itself in a Stalinist mould just as sections of the ‘Trotskyist’ movement accommodated themselves post-WWII. The interests of the working-class on large sections of the planet are either ignored because to address them would be a diversion from the ‘anti-imperialist’ project or because a fully developed critique of the regimes in these places would be less than flattering to certain ideologies the Left seeks to align with for ‘political advantage’.

Rather than looking reality squarely in the eyes in order to organise and communicate to an opposition, much of the Left has developed a political-autism whereby eye contact is an impossibility and the mode of communication is repetitive and dogmatic. It’s possible, even essential, to maintain the old routine but to learn anything new is too painful.

Solidarity can have no borders and a socialist perspective demands analyses and a course of action independent from tired or misconceived formulations. Yes oppose war - but not in isolation from the existing dynamic in the countries in question. Yes call for an end to the occupation - but consider by what means this should come about. To fail to take this course is to devalue the acts of solidarity shown to Hicks and the Gate Gourmet workers.

*see and go to ‘The myth of Lenin’s ‘Revolutionary Defeatism’ for more on this.
** attributed to Tony Cliff

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


The Moral Low Ground

“‘We are to understand then that in achieving this end anything is permissible?’ sarcastically demands the Philistine, demonstrating that he understood nothing. That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind.”
Their Morals and Ours, Leon Trotsky (my emphasis)

For those of us who opposed and organised against the war on Iraq, it was axiomatic that the attack would bring nothing but bloodshed and disaster. Many opposed the war for this reason alone, finding the idea of human killing human unbearable. Others, whilst never ignoring the inevitable loss of life, explained that this was to be an imperialist war – fought for regional hegemony and control of oil production. A third group - who understood all the above - explained that in addition, a war on Iraq would make the liberation of the Iraqi people from oppression an impossibility. This categorisation may be over-simplified and it is possible to find a whole mixture of ideas and assertions throughout the anti-war movement. However, in terms of ‘words-and-actions’ or ‘theory-and-practice’ the movement split itself into these three groups – the first being ‘pacifist’, the second ‘anti-imperialist’ and the third ‘socialist’. For much of my time in the anti-war movement I’ve been firmly in the second of these groups. Confrontation with the reality of present day Iraq has forced me to adopt the perspective of the third of these groups – the ‘Third Camp’. This has led to accusations of my “taking the moral high ground”.

Those who substitute abuse for a political argument have read some Trotsky in their time - perhaps even Their Morals and Ours - but like the Philistine (though from a different direction) they appear to understand nothing. Trotsky wrote this essay from the perspective of a working-class revolutionary fighter and intended it to demolish the hand-wringing of liberals over the use of revolutionary violence. The ‘anti-imperialist’ reads the work as justification for all the actions of the Iraqi ‘resistance’, excluding (it seems) those who oppose the occupation and seek to organise workers into a class-independent force. In propaganda they shout ‘Troops Out Now’ and fail to even think about what comes next. In conversation and polemical writing they defend the ‘resistance’ as waging a war of liberation. Do they comment on the political motives of these fighters (other than their opposition to occupation)? Do they have anything to say about attacks on civilians, women, trade unionists and socialists (or even seek to explain them away)? They do not and this is why I accuse them of taking the moral low ground. I’m not talking about morals based on religious diktat or allegiance to some other social construction but of a morality based on a perspective of international working-class solidarity. The sort of morality lost in a fog of reflex anti-imperialism and cultural muddle.

To say anything other than just ‘Troops Out Now’ is to support the occupation. To level criticism at the reactionaries who murder men and women fighting for real liberation is to be Islamophobic. To try to frame your current position in the context of years of active opposition to US imperialism is ‘moralistic’. This situation stinks of something far removed from the socialist movement I want to be part of. It stinks like the body of an organism once imbued with potential and now rotting as it staggers towards an imaginary spring. I can tell those following this animal that there’s no fresh water where you’re heading, no life giving nectar to renew the movement you probably care about. Keep following and you’ll be led further and further away until the beast drops dead. Some will pick the carcass up and keep marching; many others will simply lose all direction.

So what alternative is there? Is it wrong to attempt to organise an anti-war movement? Isn’t it inevitable that US imperialism will seek to remove regimes like those of Iran and possibly even Venezuela? What does the perspective of extending working-class solidarity across borders imply? The alternative is for socialists to start to argue for our ideas at every opportunity. To maintain an anti-war/occupation movement with a variety of perspectives but to fight for solidarity with Iraqi worker, socialist and women’s movements as the only hope for real liberation. To campaign against further imperialist wars but to understand that this is insufficient – that only by making solidarity with workers and socialists in these countries as we would at home can real liberation be achieved. This is something I attempt at a personal and local level. I don’t propose a new party or organisation as yet (though I do appreciate their advantages), only a not so new way of looking at the world and seeking to change it. The view from the moral high ground is excellent and the air is fresh – why don’t you join us?

Monday, August 15, 2005


Iraqi Union Solidarity and 'Stop the War'

The following is the text of a leaflet I'll be proposing for use on the campaign stalls of 'Nottingham Stop the War'. The whole process of arguing for and eventually getting agreement on a form of words in support of Iraqi Unions has been difficult (and this text will probably provoke some argument):

Starting in December 2004 and extending into early 2005 a strike wave spread throughout Iraq. Within a cycle of violence that is gradually spiralling out of control, a growing number of Iraqis are organising themselves into trade unions, women’s and students groups. These organisations seek to defend the interests of ordinary workers against the brutal US-led occupation (that retains the Ba’thist trade union law) and a reactionary backlash.

Occupation – giving democracy a bad name

Bush and Blair would have us believe that their war on Iraq was waged in the name of democracy against the brutal Saddam regime. Saddam was an appalling dictator and for too long he enjoyed support from the West. Despite elections in the country – where unprecedented numbers demonstrated their desire for self-determination – Iraqis are denied basic freedoms (the right to work, food and sanitation) and day-after-day are subjected to the horrors of a continuing war. But still they are told: ‘you have been liberated, you are free’. Is it any wonder that forces opposed to democracy receive so much support? This horrific situation demonstrates in the clearest way that democracy cannot be imposed from outside and above but must be built by a people in their own interest.

Building democracy from below

Opposed to both the occupation of Iraq and those groups that seek to deny real freedom are a growing number of independent trade unions and progressive movements. These groups serve a number of purposes from defending the rights of those lucky enough to have work to campaigning for equality of the sexes on university campuses. These organisations oppose the occupation of Iraq but also see the need to organise Iraqis against attacks on workers and the threat of a return to dictatorship. They are the only real hope for democracy in Iraq and represent a powerful kernel for radical change throughout the Middle East.

Against privatisation

Against both intimidation from the occupation and the real threat of violence from forces opposed to trade unionism, workers in the Basra oil-fields have struck against threatened privatisation of the industry and poor pay and conditions. Following the January elections it seems likely that whole sectors of the Iraq economy will be sold into the hands of private corporations. The Basra Oil Union which represents 23,000 workers in the southern oil-fields has mounted a significant campaign against the moves. Hassan Juma’a Awad, leader of the union, said ‘The opinion of all [Iraqi] oilworkers is that they are against privatisation. We see privatisation as economic colonialism. The authorities are saying that privatisation will develop our sector and be useful. But we do not see it as development at all; we view any plan to privatise the oil sector as a big disaster’. These forces need our solidarity.

Solidarity with Iraqi Workers

In February this year the British TUC held a conference to organise the collection of aid for Iraqi unions. This material assistance is essential to strengthening the unions and ensuring a democratic future for Iraq. Please give your support.

“The bedrock of any democracy is a strong, free, democratic labour movement. We are united in our commitment to build strong, independent, democratic unions and to fight to improve the wages, working and living conditions of workers everywhere. We confront the same economic and corporate interests that have mounted a global assault on workers and labor rights … We call for free and independent labor unions in Iraq based on internationally recognized ILO conventions guaranteeing the right to organize free of all government interference and including full equality for women workers.” Joint statement from leaders of Iraqi labour movement and US Labor Against the War (USLAW).

See, and for more information.


Hands Off Our Schools - Nottingham Kids are Not For Sale!

It seems that all those extra lessons have paid off for the slow-learners at Nottingham City Council. They’ve reassured us that the proposed sponsors for the City Academies are to be of a ‘respectable’ (the words of Councillor Chapman) nature. By ‘respectable’, the council implies that they’ve decided not to take the coin of any of the religious organisations currently running schools into the ground up and down the country. They’ve done this for one reason alone – the bad press and vigorous campaigns motivated by such sponsors and not because they’re opposed to these people running schools. However much teachers, parents and students want and need new schools, the thought of selling education to these dubious characters is abhorrent to all. The council can’t have its flagship education programme dragged through the mud by sponsors who wish to ‘teach’ creationism, intolerance and hokum. It can’t afford to lose votes.

Sadly they seem to have missed out a very important lesson - the one where they tell you that under no circumstances should private companies, business enterprises or undemocratic institutions be allowed to make a profit from education. By the time you read this, the three sponsors may well have been announced. They are likely to include a health organisation, a construction firm and some kind of retail outfit (could be Barrats Shoes, Tesco, McDonalds … pick one … just pretend you’re the council). One of the sponsors could even be an ‘independent’ education consortium of some kind. These are profit making organisations run by a board of directors. All ‘respectable’ institutions (though some would have preferred Clarkes, M&S or Café Nero) but whoever claims they’re willing to hand over £2 million pounds is immaterial. Those of us opposed to the City Academy scheme don’t just object to individual sponsors, we object to the idea as a whole.

The City Academy scheme rests upon two ideological choices made by Blair’s Government. The first of these is that the ‘market’ will do a better job at running education than teachers. What this means in practice is that Blair and his supporters on the City Council think that gaps in the labour market (in Nottingham there is an increasing need for health, construction and retail workers) and shortages in key skill areas (one year IT skills, the next year food preparation) can be better met by giving control of schools to the people who’ll end up offering employment. Seems logical doesn’t it? The second is that the ‘social and moral degradation’ evidenced by poorly performing schools and the sort of behaviour seen in them is best challenged by ‘traditional’ religious values. ‘All knowledge begins with fear of the Lord’, read the plaque unveiled by Blair at the opening of one Academy. This ‘Market and the Bible’ view of the world allows Blair to take steps that the Thatcher governments of the 80s never dared to consider – further steps toward programming kids for work rather than providing an education and indoctrination rather than equipping them with a critical facility. More broadly, it’s an agenda of privatisation and the surrender of society to backward ideas.

Although Nottingham City Council appears to have embraced just the ‘Market’, it’s not true that they reject the ‘Bible’. Over the past ten years they have handed over control of a number of comprehensive school to both the Catholic Church and the Church of England – schools that now select students on the basis of religion. Although not religious fundamentalists like some of the Academy sponsors, they represent a worrying trend that points to the preparedness of this council to put schools under religious control.

So for now we don’t have to worry about one side of the problem; but why should we oppose the seemingly logical plan of letting the market regulate the provision of education? Do we oppose young people being able to find jobs when they leave school? The objection rests on one fundamental idea about education and on one fact about the market.

The council proposes building three academies in Nottingham and they seem to have done some homework about the type of schools required for 21st Century Nottingham. One will specialise in ‘Construction’, another in ‘Retail/Enterprise’ and the last in ‘Health’. Anyone who walks around the City will realise that construction is booming, the shops are full of people and as long as there are humans on Earth, there’ll be birth, death and disease. So Nottingham has a pressing need for builders, shop-workers/entrepreneurs and health workers. It seems reasonable to try and meet the need. Reasonable, that is, until they start trying to do it with eleven year old children. The myth of ‘choice’ bandied about by Blair and his local allies is exposed by these plans. By ‘choice’ they mean choice for some – for those who can afford to choose. If you live in Bulwell you’ll have the choice to be a builder, in St Anns to work in a shop and in Aspley to be a care assistant: some choice! It’s a return to the days of consigning young people to a life down the pit – there will be no other expectations. The people we’re talking about aren’t those whose parents ‘choose’ the religious schools, the county schools or the ‘High School’, but those without a choice – those limited by economic and social constraints. It limits the expectations of the education system on achievement from the children of working families and limits opportunities of these young people when they finish school. Rather than schools giving children the opportunity to grow and develop as thinking human beings, Nottingham City Council plans to pick on the children of working families for disciplining into a particular, narrow field of work. A maths lesson becomes an exercise on how to use a till, history lessons are now a study of brick-work throughout the ages and an art lesson is transformed into practising paint-effects for that hospital waiting room. Does this sound like an education?

But what about the shortage of builders and health workers? Is it really wrong to equip young people with the skills they need to work? We need builders and health workers and young people need jobs – but they shouldn’t have the decision foisted upon them from an early age. Young people currently leaving education have a hard time finding training courses for their chosen field of expertise, have difficulty funding their way through an apprenticeship. Government should fund training at this point – when young people have made a positive choice of their own. These plans rip the heart out of the education system and will transform teachers even further into mere tools of the market.

‘Nonsense’ the council will cry – just look at our existing Academy. This school turns out students who go on to attend university and train in a whole range of areas. This is true but the school also churns out hundreds of kids every year with the equivalent of five GCSEs in Information Technology, flooding an already saturated IT skills market. The initial move towards training young people in this way was made during the ‘Dot Com’ boom of the mid-90s when there was a desperate need for these skills. Most schools adjusted by incorporating IT into the whole curriculum and by running a separate GCSE. Djanogly Academy appears to marginalize other subjects in favour of a narrow field of specialism – this is the reality of the ‘market’ responding to need. If all education is ‘regulated’ in the same way we’ll see privately run academies competing for a place on the league table, churning out students with five GCSEs in the same subject and will end up with huge numbers of highly (and expensively) trained young people who have no prospect of finding work they’re trained for – a crisis.

This is the potential future of education in Nottingham – it doesn’t have to be this way. There have been successful campaigns against academies up and down the country and there must be one in Nottingham.

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