Trying To Make Some Sense Of It All

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It’s taken me a few days to put this post together. I first started it at 5am on Friday morning as I sat in tears, having had just two hours sleep, trying to make some sense of what had happened. Reading it back it read much like one of those unhinged post-break up emails that you send to an ex after too much rum. Saturday afternoon I tried again but it ended up as 900 words of: “OF COURSE BORIS WAS LYING TO YOU, YOU UTTER, UTTER MORONS – THAT’S WHAT BORIS DOES!”  Back to the drawing board. Four days in and I’m still trying to come to terms with the decision Britain made last week.  I feel desperately sad about it. I’m sad that ignorance won over reason, fear won over unity and hate won over compassion.

I walked around London yesterday trying to process the last 24 hours. Everything looks the same: the buses are still red, the weather is still unpredictable, the grass is still green, Oxford Street is still unbearable – it’s all still there. But something has shifted. We’re a little less open as a nation, slightly more afraid, more inward looking and, worst of all, we’re almost completely divided in two.

Perhaps this needed to happen. The referendum did not create the divisions in this country it only exposed them. At least we now know what the picture is – we may not like it but we can’t heal a rift without first acknowledging that it exists. Whether or not it can be healed at all I have yet to decide. My gut reaction is to get as far away from the UK as possible as it no longer feels like home. The country I thought I lived in was tolerant, vibrant and open – it would have chosen union over separation.

Leave voters have talked a lot about feeling as though their “National Identify” has been eroded in recent years. I don’t know what this means.  If I’ve learnt anything in the last four days is that National Identity is entirely subjective. For some, National Identity is the good old days of local pubs full of familiar faces, knowing your neighbours and children playing out on the street. For me, our National Identity is as a progressive, multicultural inclusive society in which communities aren’t defined by where we live but by the values that we share. However, it turns out that my National Identity is as foreign to half the country as theirs is to me.

I think back to the 2012 Olympics and how proud we were to host an event that represented the best of internationalism. From Boyle’s opening ceremony to the very last race, the Olympics was our chance to show off the best of Britain. The message was loud and clear: we are multicultural, progressive and tolerant – and we welcome you with open arms. We won the hearts of the world and people from every nation lined our streets, ate in our restaurants and drank our Yorkshire tea.

We cheered passionately for Mo Farah, who arrived in the UK from Somalia at the age of 8 with only six word of English, who could not have been prouder to wear the Union Jack on his vest. Did these in our country divisions exist then? Of course they did they were just harder to see. We were all cheering on Great Britain but perhaps for slightly different reasons. Were there some people cheering simply for the fact that hosting the Olympics, to quote one Leave voter, “put us back on the globe”?  We mocked Aidan Burley for dismissing the Opening Ceremony as “multi-cultural crap” but was he just voicing what millions were thinking? Perhaps we just weren’t listening. Now we are forced to. We do not have to agree with their fears about immigration but we have to listen to them and we have to try and understand them. The future of the country depends on it.

It isn’t helpful to call voters with anxieties about immigration racist. Whilst they may not share his views, with their vote Brexiteers have legitimised the views of Nigel “I’m not racist but…” Farage. The man who claimed that if we stayed in the EU we could see an increase in sexual assault on women. The man who argued that employers should be able to choose their employees on the basis of their nationality.  The man who stood proudly next to a poster closely resembling Nazi propaganda just to remind people that they are right to be scared of immigrants. The problem is this: once you vote for somebody this extreme it legitimises those views. Others with racist views no longer feel as though they need to keep quiet if Nigel Farage can go on TV and say he would be concerned if a Romanian family moved in next door.

Sadly, for a small but vocal minority of Leave voters Nigel Farage isn’t extreme enough. There are some who genuinely believed that by voting Leave they weren’t just voting to stop immigration completely but to actually start sending immigrants “back.” In the last four days there has been an increase in racially motivated attacks. From people being told to “go home” to anti-immigration leaflets that read: “Leave the EU – no more Polish vermin” being distributed outside of a primary school.

I have no interest in demonising Leave voters. For some communities this referendum was the first time in 40 years that they felt as though they had a voice. It’s just a shame that the only person listening to them was Farage who opportunistically took on their problems, made them his own and offered them a false solution. Those communities have voted to be more vulnerable, poorer and further neglected. They were lambs, so distracted by the bleating about cows coming into the field and eating all their grass that they didn’t realise they were following Farage into an abattoir.

Of course there were reasons for voting Leave that were not about immigration. Some people didn’t want Brussels deciding how powerful our hoovers could be or setting the standards for imported fruit. Others were worried about those “faceless bureaucrats” making decisions about pollution levels – just to be clear – they’re not faceless – they have faces. I checked. Some claimed it was about democracy, sovereignty and control.  Never have such powerful words had so little meaning. It turns out a catchy three-word slogan will trump wordy but rational arguments every time. This referendum wasn’t won on reason it was won with soundbites and few memorable lies: “£350 million a week for the NHS” being the most prominent. Sadly, those who swallowed Farage and Boris’ lies are now learning the hard way the importance of fact checking. Those people who genuinely believed that there would be more money for the NHS are not fools but they didn’t bother to check and Michael Gove told them to ignore the opinions of experts.  Any attempt to point out the truth behind the lies or warn of the risks of leaving was shouted down as “Project Fear”.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Remain campaign was equally abysmal. Corbyn, a man voted in by the young, was unable to even feign the enthusiasm and energy required to fight for the EU. Cameron had an even more difficult job. Having spent the last 6 years making people’s lives worse, closing their libraries and leisure centres, cutting their pay and running their schools and hospitals into the ground he had to somehow convince the general public that Brexit wasn’t worth the risk. Of course a leap into the unknown is worth the risk when you have nothing to lose. Cameron couldn’t say: “The reason your life is so hard is because my party destroyed your industries in the 80s without any plan and you never really recovered. Oh and then since 2010 I’ve bled you dry with my austerity agenda”. Corbyn could have said it though and he should have.

The more rational Leave voters are now on social media saying, “Look we know things are difficult at the moment: the pound is the lowest it’s been for 31 years, the Prime Minister has resigned, the opposition are collapsing and racism is back but if we work together we can make this work for us” yet they weren’t willing to apply to the same philosophy to the EU. They choose division and now want everyone united to steer us through this turbulent time. Even the most confident Leave voter must be slightly unnerved as they watch Gove and Boris squirming as they explain that no, Brexit won’t mean exactly what we told you it would mean. Immigration won’t end and the NHS won’t see any of that money. Oh and the most terrifying truth of all – there is no plan for what happens next. Nothing. Nada.

They’ve taken back control of our country. Yet, as I suspected, they have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Why I Wish I Wasn’t “Left-Wing”

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As you can imagine, over the years I’ve met with lots of parents because we’re concerned about their child’s progress. The classic one is spelling: “We’re thinking of having her/him tested for dyslexia” they’ll announce gravely. Now I don’t for a second question the existence of dyslexia, but I’ve always found it interesting that the number of dyslexic pupils increases with the level of affluence of the school catchment area. I digress.

“So… should we have her tested?” they ask anxiously. My answer is always the same. “Have her tested if you think having a name for why she finds spelling difficult will help her.” The diagnosis of dyslexia doesn’t suddenly provide a school with additional resources and strategies for teaching that child. Strategies targeted at dyslexic children are often just good practise and work just as well with children that are not dyslexic so they are probably happening. For some people the label is almost a comfort “Oh, so THAT’s why he/she can/can’t do ____________.” I don’t say that with judgement and obviously there are many cases where you need to have your child’s needs diagnosed as they require specialist health care and treatment.

So there is a need for labels; we use them a lot in schools: High achieving, low achieving, free school meals, gifted and talented, English as an additional language, special educational needs etc.. they are the terms that staff use between themselves as a shorthand for talking about groups of children. But what happens when you leave school? Are you labelled at all? Well yes, of course, but by whom and are the labels helpful? We have labels to describe gender, sexuality, faith, race, appearance and interests. Before writing this post I started listing some of the labels someone might attach to me and there was nearly 100. Are they all accurate? Yes. Do they tell you a lot about me? Not really.

Politics if full of labels: leftie, tory, liberal, anti-establishment, pro-establishment, feminist, anarchist, left-wing, right-wing, Blairite. These words have become shorthand for the values people might have. They are so common that we rarely scrutinise how much we really understand by them. I think the best description I found was in this post:

“They [labels] give us a comfy vagueness of meaning, without having to bother with the hard graft of true understanding.” 

Whilst I use the term “left wing” to describe myself, I often wish we could do away with speaking about political views within these limited terms. Firstly, by separating views into “right wing” or “left wing” it means people feel as though they have to “pick a side” and stick with it. These labels are clumsy; they lack nuance and don’t accurately describe people’s views which evolve and change all the time. Most people (myself included) are a mix of what would traditionally be considered “left wing” and “right wing” beliefs. I attend local Labour Party meetings which means I sit in rooms with 12-15 Labour party members and we talk about local politics. All of these people are “left-wing” but their views vary hugely and the term left-wing doesn’t begin to explain what these people believe.

Secondly, there have been occasions when I’ve given my opinion on an issue and the response has been “well you’re a leftie – you would say that.” As if having left-wing views is how I was born or the way I will always think rather than a choice I make about each issue. I find this way of thinking particularly unhelpful because it suggests your political views aren’t based on any sort of conscious thought process (which arguably for some people, they aren’t.) It implies people are born to either a “left wing” or “right wing” family and that’s the side they’re on for the rest of their lives.

When it comes to voting labels complicate things further. You have to once again pick a side. My rather fantastic friend Kirsty once made a rather brilliant off -the-cuff suggestion that people should be able to vote between two parties on individual policies. I loved this idea – the two main parties wouldn’t just be able to take chunks out of one another because they would need votes each other’s “supporters”. People would be able to openly discuss the different viewpoints without feeling pressured to commit to one side or party. It might lead to a more honest way of doing politics.

Voting

I’m not sure what the answer is but I do think being labelled as part of a particular side can close down debate and discussion because it then becomes about one side proving the other wrong. I also think some people feel intimidated by political labels it makes them feel they “don’t know enough” to have an opinion.

It’s also subjective. Both Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn have been described as radical. Ed Miliband was criticised for being too left-wing by some groups and too right-wing by others. David Cameron has been criticised by Conservative backbenchers for being too left wing on equal rights. One man’s Corbyn is another man’s Gove. No wonder people are confused – the definitions of these labels seem to change depending on who is using them.

If I’m really honest with myself perhaps my main concern is that labels are just so lazy. At school I often remind/nag children about being specific with their vocabulary choices. I really try and discourage them from using lists of adjectives to describe nouns but if they really must use an adjective at least let it be meaningful and accurate. That’s all that this opinionated, cheese-loving, educator asks.

4 Things Jeremy Corbyn Got Wrong and 4 Things He Got Right

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For some, watching the Leadership Election results last week was as devastating as watching the General Election results; for others it was the start of a revolution. I fall somewhere in between. Personally I think Jeremy Corbyn is something that HAD to happen to the Labour Party – it is perhaps an inevitable result of a right wing government that the Left pulls further left. I like Jeremy Corbyn. I think he is a decent man, I respect his excellent record as a local MP and I share a lot of his views. He has spent his adult life working tirelessly for his constituents and genuinely wants to improve the lives of vulnerable people. At the hustings he spoke with passion and was very convincing. Will he be able to get his message through the prism of right-wing press? No, of course not. Is he going to win in 2020? Nobody knows on what terms the next election will be fought so, whilst there is is a chance, it is highly unlikely – the public are displaying no appetite for Socialism now nor any sign that they are going to acquire such an appetite any time soon . 


From the moment he was elected, we knew Corbyn would do things differently. His first act as Labour leader was to attend the “Solidarity With Refugees” march, We’re a week in now and it’s time to reflect on how Parliament’s’ Best Beard of 2013 is doing. As is conventional for a school leader, I will first feed back on the positives. Here’s what Corbyn did well:

1) He changed the tone of Prime Minister’s Questions


Throughout his campaign Corbyn maintained he didn’t do personal slights and smears. He believes PMQs should be a time when the Prime Minister is held to account and not a theatrical slanging match. He also asked the public to send in THEIR questions for Cameron. I think this was an excellent move – even though the Tories jeered every time a new question was read out it meant Cameron could not attack the question in his usual way as it had come from a member of the public. There is criticism that suggests that using questions from the public meant Corbyn wasn’t able to dig a bit deeper into the Prime Minister’s answers and so all Cameron really had to do was roll out his standard answers. Overall though, the result was a calmer, more reasonable discussion about policies. Cameron was as soundbite-tastic as he always is and Corbyn was just very human. 

2)+50% of his Shadow Cabinet are women
It was something both Andy Burnham and Cobyn pledged to do in their leadership campaigns and now it has finally happened. Of the 31 members of the Shadow Cabinet, 16 are women. This should not be the first time this has happened but it is and should be celebrated. 


3) Shadow Minister for Mental Health

There is no equivalent in the Conservative Cabinet so she is not really the “Shadow Minister” but the appointment of Luciana Berger was an excellent one. Currently 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health problems every year and yet only a quarter of those people are currently in treatment. It is time Mental Health was valued equally with physical health and this appointment shows the Labour Party are taking the issue seriously. 


 4) Calling on Neale Coleman

One the reasons for Corbyn’s success in the leadership election was his straight-talking honest manner. At no point did people feel he was reciting a well-rehearsed story or feeding them a line. Unfortunately there is a reason most seasoned high profile politicians speak like robots and that is because the media will twist your every word. Neale Coleman was an adviser to Ken Livingstone who is the only English politician in the age of colour television to win major elections from a socialist platform. Corbyn has appointed him as his Head of Communications. 


Corbyn’s first week would have been Even Better If…


1) He had appointed Angela Eagle as Shadow Chancellor
Not because she’s a woman (although at least one woman in the “Top 5” couldn’t have hurt); because she’s better qualified. Whilst I like how passionately John McDonnell has opposed the cuts to welfare, famously announcing he would “swim through vomit” to vote against the welfare bill, he does not have the wider appeal that Eagle has within the party. That said she is now also Shadow First Secretary of State which is arguably the second most senior position in the Shadow Cabinet.


2) He’d just sung the bloody National Anthem

This one is difficult. I don’t sing the National Anthem if I can help it. I have a soft spot for the Queen but I think the idea of a monarchy is massively outdated – the idea that people are in charge because they are born into a particular family is a terrible message. However, I am not the leader of the Labour Party – I don’t need to win the next election so whether I sing the National Anthem is as irrelevant as the Royals themselves. Jeremy Corbyn needs votes from Middle England to win in 2020 whether he likes it or not and Middle England want to see him wearing a suit and singing the National Anthem. Should you have to sell out on all your principles to be in power? No but, sadly, you do have to compromise on some of them. This means picking your battles and the National Anthem battle could definitely been saved for a later date. 


3) He’d not cancelled on The Marr


The morning after he won the Leadership Election, Corbyn was booked to go on the Andrew Marr show. He cancelled and instead sent Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, in his place. Again, Corbyn doesn’t have to court the media or flirt with the Murdoch press in the way Blair did but he does need to work with the media. I admire his refusal to speak to The Sun but a Sunday morning BBC Politics show is the sort of platform he needs to take if he wants to get his message out. That morning in particular Corbyn attending a Mental Health fundraising day in Islington, an annual event he has always attended. Sadly as Leader of the Opposition your job is to engage the electorate not just your constituency. That said, I am encouraged by Corbyn’s commitment to raising the profile of Mental Health issues so perhaps I am being too harsh. Also according to the man himself, Corbyn is due to appear on the Marr Show next week. 


4) He’d been slightly less irritable with the press
By all accounts, when you meet Jeremy Corbyn, he is the most charming, kind and patient man imaginable but there is already too much footage of him growling with thinly-veiled irritation at the press. Yes, the media are annoying and the press will get in your way and ask ridiculous questions but you’re leader of the opposition you’re going to have to get used it. Most people don’t follow politics avidly; they won’t be at the rallies meeting him or watching interviews on YouTube or attending events with him. Most people will build their judgement of him based entirely on short edited clips on the news. He needs to be more gracious to appeal to them.  


Peter Hitchens is not a man I often agree with but he published an article today with the headline: “You wanted honest leaders so stop whinging now we’ve got one.” I won’t link to it because I don’t want to add to the Daily Mail’s traffic but I will hand the last words of this post to him: 


“As I survey the smarmy, modernising ranks of Mr Cameron’s rabble, I feel pretty sure that they would abolish the Crown in a moment if they thought it would help them stay in office. Do you prefer liars to honest men?”