Monthly Archives: April 2012

“The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited”. And a bit of a rant by me…

I went to the RSA to hear Stephen Armstrong talk about his journey last year, following in the footsteps of George Orwell, which he describes in The Road To Wigan Pier Revisited. It was a disturbing and challenging talk, because it suggested to me that there had ben a systematic failure of politicians of all hues over the last fifty years.

Armstrong described how, despite the growth in wealth and incomes in this country, the poor were in much the same situation as Orwell described in 1936.

Armstrong told lots of stories – he is a journalist, so that is what he does. Most were depressing – housing estates designed to isolate those living there; employment contracts which won’t guarantee to pay you, but will stop you claiming benefits; short term employment contracts which disincentivise working since leaving and rejoining the benefits system means the worker may go weeks without money; workers too scared to talk openly about their working conditions because they fear reprisals from their employers; the police enforcing civil contacts by arresting debtors so debt collectors could take back property.

Some stories were heart-warning too: the community centre putting on art classes which seem to change the way local people view themselves and the works around them; communities coming together in the face of adversity; a former steel worker with a tattoo of George Orwell on his arm, telling Armstrong “not to fuck up” the book.

Most of the stories told how those in power had let down the people below them – those at the bottom of the pile. Inequality in Britain is at the same level as 1936. (I can’t find the figures, but this data and infographic show a dramatic increase in inequality between mid-1970s and 2000s.) The transfer of population and jobs from the north to the south has taken the heart from communities – just as the relocation of people from slums to new estates broke long-held ties. The de-industrialisation from the 1980s onwards has created a non-working class, whom the demonisation of “chav culture” has left unrepresented. It is easier for politicians to point the blame at “benefits fraudsters” (despite getting his figures very wrong – as pointed out by that well know left-wing paper, the Daily Telegraph) than it is to collect taxes from global corporations.

Armstrong didn’t mention it, but that much of this happened under 13 years of Labour government is a shocking indictment.

(This makes me sound like a rabid socialist; I am not. But the gross wrongs undertaken by politicians seem – well, so wrong!)

Armstrong didn’t have any solutions; nor did the audience. There are no simple answers to complex problems. But the failure of party politics to meet the needs of much of the population suggests to me that party politics won’t be able to supply the answers.

Armstrong believed that much of the problem lay with the disruption of established communities: so perhaps the answers lie within the communities themselves. He mentioned on community leader who, on being asked if the “big society” might be one answer, responded that the big society would fail because it was imposed from above: it had to be communities which solve their own problems.

This may be too much of a get-out clause for central government: they need to take steps to enable communities to tackle local issues. Party politics at a local level has not provided any answers. Is there another model that could enable local communities to coalesce and take locally-oriented action? What would central and local government need to do to facilitate true localisation? To put power in the hands of local people? And can they do it before the underclass we have created decide to do it inspite of, not because of, their representative politicians?

(You can listen to Armstrong’s talk here. Anyone with any solutions can tweet them to Armstrong on @RoadToWigan – he’d love to hear them. Or maybe it would be better just to put them into action…)

Talking about Dialogic Learning…

Last week’s Everything Unplugged discussion was about dialogic learning. I first came across the term “dialogic” when I heard Richard Sennett talk at the RSA last month: Sennett contrasted dialogic against dialectic: the first involving discussion, listening, and understanding, the second involving argument, debate, confrontation, polarisation and adversarial stances.

Our discussion could be summed up by “statement of the bleedin’ obvious”: learning through discussion, sharing ideas and collaborating rather than the intervention of an expert (ie a teacher) to direct our learning and lead us to the truth, has clear benefits. But then we are a self-selected group of people with a clear interest in self-directed leaning through discussion. That’s what we were doing there. Of course it seemed obvious to us.

In part, we were talking more about the Wikipedia article on Dialogic Learning, which reads like an essay and really needs editing (which, somewhat hypocritically, I haven’t been bothered to do), rather than the concept of dialogic learning itself.

But despite perhaps being obvious to us, the idea of dialogic learning is useful. Sennett pointed out how it leads to collaboration rather than confrontation. It teaches people to think for themselves, perhaps in a creative fashion, making new connections and challenging established ideas – critical to innovation, perhaps.

At a time when schools are being criticised for schools are being criticised for failing to adequately prepare students for university and “teaching to the test“, dialogic learning could be a useful method.

We may all know this – but it doesn’t make it any less valid…

(David Terrar’s thoughts on our discussion can be found here.)

Matthew Flinders In Defence of Politics

In a week of strange political events – imaginary petrol shortages created by politicians, pasty-gate, and the surprise by-election landslide by an outside candidate – it was interesting to hear Matthew Flinders talking about his new book “Defending Democracy: why politics matters” at the RSA, and a fascinating and provocative talk it was. Flinders was experimenting with what he called 20/20 – twenty slides in 20 minutes; it wasn’t quite pecha kucha (not least because Flinders controlled the slides, and because he had three times as long for each slide), but it was close.

Given its apparently earnest topic, it was a very entertaining talk, which reinforced Flinders’ desire to get away from dry academia and engage people: he wanted to provoke. He was critical of political scientists who reckon if ordinary people can understand their work, they can’t be doing it properly. Instead, he subscribes to the views of Bernard Crick, who himself adhered to guidelines on writing laid down by George Orwell. (I clearly don’t: Orwell would have written “stuck to” instead of “adhered to”…)

In In Defence of Politics, Crick looked at various threats he saw to politics in the middle of the last centiry – ideology, democracy, nationalism, technology, and “false friends”. Flinders has examined the threats he sees today, using Cricks’ book as a model: he examines the threat to politics of itself, the market, denial, crises, and the media. Where the 20th century was, he said, the century of democracy, the 21st century has seen a divergence: as much of the world cries out for democracy, the advanced western democracies have become distrustful of politics and politicians: we have a view – what Flinders called “the bad faith model of politics” – in which politicians are seen as venal, inept and corrupt: a view Flinders was keen to challenge our knowing cynicism.

He believed that democratic politics delivers more than most of the electorate understand – essentially that we take hard-fought for rights for granted. (It is less than 100 years since women were granted the right to vote in the UK and the franchise was extended to most adult men.) Politicians are people just like us – and those who stand for office apparently do so because they want to change society for the better. It has to be said, though, the thought that politicians are just like us makes me think that maybe we get the politicians we deserve.

Flinders made what he saw as five key points:

  • healthy scepticism has given way to a corrosive cynicism, an assumption that politicians are wrong and corrupt
  • in modern society, there are no simple solutions to complex problems: and yet people want – and expect, even demand – simple solutions
  • we have become democratically decadent: we look to our rights, as if we were consumers of democracy, rather than our responsibilities (and I would say politicians were complicit in this: the Thatcherite revolution in service delivery at all levels made people think as consumers rather than citizens): politics is about voice rather than choice
  • there is a deficit in the public understanding of politics: the public are not educated to be politically aware, and Flinders puts the blame for this on the media and political scientists like himself (the corrosive cynicism I am suffering from today can’t help adding politicians to that list – surely it benefits them to keep people in the dark?). We may be media-literate, but we are not politically-literate
  • politics is not a spectator sport: it is all very well shouting at politicians on BBC’s “Question Time“, but we need to be more involved than that: Flinders believes we should move to a politics of optimism and actually get engaged with politics

What he thinks this comes down to is public expectations, which will shape the politics of the 21st century. We have high expectations – we want all those simple solutions – which can’t be delivered. We want more – of everything – for less (mostly money). Politicians are trapped – and they make promises which can’t be kept, or try to manipulate our expectations (let’s call that “spin”). It is easier to get into power than it is to govern. Politicians will outbid each other in their promises in order to get into power, increasing public expectations as they do so. (This is Flinders’ need to defend politics from itself – perhaps better phrased as defending politics from politicians.) Politicians work in the short or medium term, but most of the big problems are long term: and so they disappoint.

The media clearly has a role in this as well – another of Flinders’ targets for defense. Only bad news sells. The media like clear cut black-or-white stories – but it is always more complicated than that. By focussing on adversarial “attack politics”, the media contribute to the bad faith surrounding politics. They too want simple answers – and so politicians give simple answers that can be reported. (Some might say that in doing so, they lie.) The media like to make mountains from molehills (pasties make good headlines). Whether this changes in a post-Leveson world remains open.

I think the adversarial nature of party politics in the UK is a central issue. The complex problems we face in the 21st century need a bi-partisan approach – collaboration rather than confrontation. The Liberal Democrats are finding out how hard it is to collaborate: by being in coalition government with the Conservative party, they are seen as sleeping with the enemy. But as Flinders contends, politics is about compromise: no one party has all the answers.

Flinders said that people need to force parties to change: but to change political parties requires working within political parties, which many people aren’t willing to do. Instead, people are focussing on those issues most important to them: the rise of single-issue politics. As party membership falls, and if coalitions become more common, parties may need to change themselves just to survive. People rarely vote for candidates over the party, however good the candidate. Perhaps party allegiance runs too deep.