The north-south divide

20 04 2015

As personified by the middle-aged man-child Russell Brand, there is disaffection with politics across all young people. However, while 50% of men aged 18-24 voted, only 39% of women in the same age group bothered to cast their vote. This means young women are an easy group for politicians to ignore. Amongst women in general, women voting in general elections has fallen by 18 per cent and, according to Woman’s Hour, only 55% of women in the UK are planning to vote.

Why is this? Well, just 22% of political journalists are women and only 23% of MPs in the last parliament were women and the three main party leaders in Westminster are men. So with so few women in politics, or reporting on politics, there are few role models for young women. This male-dominated environment, with it’s grey suits and the constant braying and jeering in the House of Commons, is simply not one with which most young women can identify. The images and language of Westminster are almost totally masculine. Even when politicians focus on women they do it badly. What was more alarming than the Labour pink bus was how the Labour Party described the campaign itself. Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, demonstrated just what they really thought about women when she suggested that they wanted, “to have a conversation about the kitchen table and around the kitchen table rather than having an economy that just reaches the boardroom table.” That’s right. They are aiming to talk to you women where women are; in the kitchen not the boardroom!

But things are different here in Scotland, where almost three-quarters of Scottish women say that they are certain or very likely to vote in the general election! An election which, with many powers devolved to Holyrood, is possibly less relevant than the election to that parliament which will take place in 2016. The independence debate changed things in Scotland for all voters, but it changed most for young people and for women. Post-referendum there has been a huge increase in the number of women actually joining political parties; 44% of SNP members are now women. When Nicola Surgeon was elected as First Minister she became the first UK politician to appoint a gender balanced cabinet. Furthermore, all three party leaders at Holyrood are women, as is the Presiding Officer. The numbers in parliament are important, of course, but more so is the change in language and the change in emphasis. As Nicola Sturgeon said, “If you’ve got a fairer society you’ve got a stronger economy. The two should go hand in hand”

While the engagement started with that simple yes/no referendum it didn’t stop there.

Away from party politics, women have started and joined new political organisations in their thousands. Women for Independence has almost 20,000 followers in 53 local groups all over Scotland. Many of these groups, which show women how politics and campaigning works, were formed after the referendum as women continue to be engaged with matters of state and society. Regardless of whether women were yes or no voters, the referendum showed women that our opinions matter and that we could exercise influence and power.

6 of the 12 strong team at Common Weal, a self-styled group aiming to replace our “me first” society with one in which it is “all of us first”, are women. While there still seems some confusion about their legal form and directors/trustees, they have made a commitment to a 50:50 gender split on the board.

While David Cameron asserts that the prospect of a Labour government supported by the SNP is a “match made in hell” many of the UK electorate don’t seem to agree, with Nicola Sturgeon claiming an inbox full of emails from voters from outside Scotland who would love the chance to vote SNP.

It is incredible that it is a woman, one who as a member of the Scottish Parliament is not even standing in the Westminster election, is able to assert at the launch of the SNP manifesto that she would build not just a “stronger Scotland” but a “better and more progressive politics for everyone” in the UK.

By changing the look and the language of UK politics Nicola Sturgeon may succeed where pale and male politicians have failed and persuade women into the polling booths!

Wherever you draw the line, fee-paying schools fall on the wrong side

6 04 2015

Let me start with a statement. I am a firm opponent of elite, fee-paying schools on the grounds that their existence is an offence to both equality and meritocracy.

Fee paying schools in the UK educate less than 8% of the population, yet 71% of senior judges, 60% of those holding senior positions in the financial services, 54% of FTSE CEO’s, 53% of senior diplomats, over half of the House of Lords and a third of the current cabinet have been schooled in this way. It is perfectly clear that this is inequitable.

Why, then, do they still exist?

There have been many opportunities, particularly since the end of the second world war to either abolish them completely or to curtail their influence. None have been taken and governments of all hues have failed in this regard, both north and south of the border. In fact in the 1960’s, with the British Empire and the institutions that underpinned it disappearing, public schools with their fondness for cold showers and team sports over science and technology, had become a bit of an anachronism. A commitment to meritocracy in education was meant to ensure a fairer distribution of life chances. Entry to higher education would be determined not by family connections but by passing examinations which would be open to all. A system would exist that would allow children from socially and financially disadvantaged backgrounds to compete on a level playing field, so to speak, and to flourish. Meritocracy, in this sense, was supposed to benefit natural born talent. There is an argument to be had as to why natural talent is valued higher than the application of hard work upon lesser innate ability, think George Best and Bobby Charlton, but that is for another day.

Meritocracy in the sense that was intended, was not achieved. I confess that I should have been more sceptical and much earlier. In the 1970’s family friend and MP for Stoke South Jack Ashley visited my parents home and was massively supportive of their decision to send me to the newly established local comprehensive school. I was later told that one of his own daughters was studying at The Sorbonne and another was educated via Grammar School. Hypocrisy continued. In 1996 Harriet Harman, then Shadow Secretary of State for Education chose to send one of her sons to a selective school outside her local borough of Southwark. Meritocracy didn’t, however, fail due to the hypocrisy of some parliamentarians. It failed because the children from more affluent homes were best placed to benefit because they had the support of their parents. Some parents invested time and effort in developing the talents of their children, while others could not or did not.

Indeed my own parents were able to make a choice, one which is not open to all. My father moved job and into a part of the country that still operated selective education in order that my brothers and I could complete our education at grammar schools. In many cases, the meritocracy introduced into the education system simply widened the divide between children who did and who didn’t have parental support.

I was at a conference recently looking at women’s experience of sectarianism. Everyone in the room agreed that sectarianism was a bad thing and that greater integration of communities would lead to a better understanding of each others circumstances and life experiences and would help to alleviate the antagonism between different communities. Yet the vast majority sent their children to faith schools – on the grounds that they were, supposedly, better academically. Beyond Scotland, there are more and more cases of parents moving house to be in the catchment area of certain state schools or who are sending their children to faith-based schools irrespective of their own religious beliefs, or absence thereof.

There we have the reason.
Fee paying schools are simply an extreme example of parents exercising parental choice; they exist so that parents can use their wealth to secure career advantage for their children. But is this a good enough reason for such schools to be allowed to persist?

As a society we accept, as a given, that parents favour their own children over other peoples children. When we are doing things for our children it is easy to feel that we are being generous and are behaving entirely morally. Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? Returning to Harriet Harman by way of illustrating the point, she said “I think parents will understand we had to make the right decision for our child and that we would have been less than human if we had done anything else.” We feel that we should do as much as we can to gain advantage for our children and society is largely supportive in this regard. Harriet Harman wasn’t sacked. Selfish gene theory insists that this apparently altruistic behaviour towards our own offspring, and the feelings of wellness that it confers in the parent, are essential evolutionary traits in ensuring gene transmission to future generations. Additionally, it is very common to hear parents saying that they want a better life for their children than they have had; a sentiment rarely, if ever, challenged. Making choices that benefit just our own offspring rarely feels like selfishness, but in reality that benefit is often gained the expense of others. Even if another isn’t immediately or directly disadvantaged, we are gaining relative advantage by putting distance between our children and others.

Yet, most of us also feel that it is wrong that children from poorer backgrounds do not have access to at least some of the life chances as the rich.

What we have, therefore, is a conflict between the desire of parents to confer advantage on their offspring and needs of a fair and just society.
On the one hand parents as individuals feel that they have a right, a right that is rarely challenged, to do whatever they can for their children.
On the other hand is the desire in society for equality of opportunity for all.

Where, then, do we find balance between these two competing elements.
In practice there are already some constraints on parental choice. It wouldn’t, for example, be acceptable to disobey the law in order to confer advantage. How far can parents be allowed to improve their own children’s prospects before equality of opportunity is compromised? How about buying a pony? Is that acceptable? Paying for flying lessons? Paying for piano lessons? Since the supply of goods and services are limited helping some children to obtain them necessarily restricts their availability for others.

Not everyone can have a yacht but does that mean that no-one should have a yacht?
Better, perhaps, to consider a fair chance and fair society rather than equal chances and an equal society?
Not everyone can have a yacht but perhaps we should try and arrange things so that all those who want access to a yacht can at least learn how to sail?

Returning then to fee paying schools. Segregating children along the lines of wealth runs counter to the idea of a fair or an equal society. It creates unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes, as demonstrated by the numbers of alumni holding positions of power; positions from where they can, and do, create more inequality.

Let me end with a statement. While I am unsure as to where the lines of parental advantage should be drawn I remain convinced that fee-paying schools fall over the boundary. How they could be abolished, I’m not sure. I suspect if an attempt were made to close them they would move, like most of the money that supports them, to some offshore tax have.

The answer is to work to create a society with equality of income and wealth where it would be much harder for parents to purchase privilege.

Is the era of pale, stale and male really over?

6 04 2015

There is a general acceptance that gender equality is making progress in the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon made it clear on taking office as First Minister in Scotland, reinforced by her appointment of a gender balanced cabinet, that equality in high office can be achieved. And in the recent election debate the women leaders were seen to perform better than their male counterparts, replacing swagger and bluster with reasoned argument and debate. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon topped the post-debate opinion polls by offering sincerity, passion and intelligence as a coherent alternative to the baying of the men in suits and remarked that the debate showed, “why we need to break the old boys network at Westminster.” But in a world where Nigel Farage, the white, middle aged, city man, who went to a school that charged annual fees of £17,500 can cast himself as a political outsider, is the era of privileged, pale and male really coming to an end?

While it s true that Nicola Sturgeon acted quickly to ensure that her cabinet had equal representation of men and women, change at a national level is slower. For example, in Scotland only 28 per cent of the candidates standing for election as MP’s are women. Women have made progress, albeit slow progress, in representation on the boards of big businesses and public bodies but has anything really changed for women in the workplace as a result? Or have these successful women simply put on the clothes and adopted the mannerisms of the powerful, becoming part of the system without actually changing it? Placing women in influential positions doesn’t in and of itself bring about equality in the whole system. Having more women in powerful roles can change what power looks like but one doesn’t automatically follow that it will change what power looks like. One only has the say the two words ‘Margaret Thatcher’ to see the truth of that statement.

Take the ethically branded Co-operative Group, where Ursula Lidbetter is Chair. The group, along with all other high-street retailers, has refused to sign up as a Living Wage employer. The workforce, mainly women who continue to dominate part-time and insecure work, suffer and often have to rely on working tax-credits to top up their pay packets. Having women at the top of a business does not guarantee better conditions for those women working in the business.

Those who advocate gender equality in politics and in the boardroom need to match that support with commitments across all of society. The gender pay gap is wide and persistent. George Osborne has hailed as a success the current gap of 19.1%. True, this is the lowest on record but there has been equal pay legislation in the UK for over 40 years! In addition, women are increasingly being employed on zero hour and other insecure contracts.

The changing nature of the debate at a political level is, undoubtedly, a good thing but unless women use the position of power to create real change for the majority of women then the pale, male and stale system will be replaced by one that may look different but which will, in practice, be exactly the same.