Sunday, March 20, 2011

Political Education and the Labour Party

A Conference with the above title was held in Rotherham on Saturday. I suspect that a number of democratic socialists (but thankfully not all) were put off attending when they saw that it was organised by the local Rotherham MP Denis MacShane and that Gerald Kaufman and David Owen were key participants. For at first glance it looked like an anti-left stitch-up. And indeed this might have been part of its intention.

The title of the Conference refers to the General Elections which followed Ramsay MacDonald setting up a National Government, the Attlee Government running out of steam and Michael Foot becoming leader of the Labour Party. These elections led to Labour being in a minority position in parliament for three periods which each spanned between 13 and 14 years.

The implications behind the title being that to avoid such periods in the wilderness, Labour should have stuck behind Ramsay MacDonald, obtained a more dynamic leader than Attlee if Bevanism was to have been nipped in the bud, and just never ever have acquired Michael Foot as leader as he was a loser. The conclusion which is thought to follow from such an approach is that a right wing New Labour agenda is needed in current circumstances.

But as we had a seven hour day with only short breaks and contributions from a series of independently minded academics, Polly Toynbee and others, plus audience participation; other lessons emerged. In fact in the concluding comments of the day from Andrew Gamble a Professor of Politics at Cambridge, he pointed out that the most telling collapse of Labour support emerged in the 1970s and not in the three periods stressed in the title. He could have added that in the ten General Elections from 1974 the Labour vote has only twice topped the 40% mark, yet this level was comfortably surpassed in all the nine post-war elections which proceeded that date. Perhaps if all that talk in the Labour Movement in the early 70s about developing a Social Contact had actually led to the development of a social bond that would have moved us in the direction of sharing, decency and social equality, then our support would not have fallen below the 30% mark in 1983 and 2010.

We were in danger of being provided with a selective one sided diet of the left's failings, covering Jimmy Maxton, Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, past Communist Trade Union leaders, the Ban the Bomb movement, Tony Benn and Militant. But this would hardly amount to a serious analysis. An early contributor David Howell pointed out that Labour support in 1945 was particularly strong amongst first time voters, which covered all those who had not qualified to vote in the previous General Election which was then way back in 1935. This was a cohort of voters who went on to help sustain the Labour vote in numbers of other early post-war elections. The question this leads to is just where can we find such a cohort today who have a clear interest in sharing and equality? What about today's young voters who are concerned about Student Fees, the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a lack of jobs, a world facing massive shortages of essentials, the dangers of climate change and the horrors of third world poverty? If we bring the young on board on such issues we do more than gain a political advantage, we help to revitalise our own beliefs.

Any conference which provides scope for the dialectics of debate, soon moves out of the realm of political propaganda into that of much needed world of political education; something which invariably takes over when carefully expressed disputes and disagreements arise. Even the anti Michael Foot line which was pressed by Kaufman and Owen, provides scope for countervailing considerations. Just why in 1983 did Michael Foot's leadership produce the worst percentage turn out for Labour of any General Election since 1922? Was it all due to his unilateralism, his duffle coat and his left-wing credentials? What about the knock on consequences of Thatcher running a highly populist and successful military campaign over the Falklands, and then there was the massive rupture within the Labour Party which led to the formation of the SDP? David Owen was at the centre of the breakaway and bares a major share of that responsibility for that 1983 election result.

Around 15 speakers made contributions, numbers of whom had sufficient interest in the topic to join the rest of us in the audience over the seven hours. I have always believed that speakers should also be listeners. Even when Hestor Barron confined her remarks to the experience in Durham Mining Constituencies in the 1930s, my concentration did not drop. But then she was discussing the area of my roots and I have read her book on the Durham Coalfield at the time of the 1926 Strike.

The day revealed an important issue for Labour if it is ever to maintain its future and reach its potential. It needs political education, political education, political education. So it is all power to Denis MacShane's elbow. He may have helped to produce something that has more significance than anything he probably ever had in mind.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Now For Adult Education? Lessons from Derbyshire's Miners

Some of the members of a group of Derbyshire Miners in 1960 who have just completed a three year Day Release Course. They are presenting miners' lamps to their tutors who are the men wearing glasses. On the left is Noel Williams of the Workers Education Association who taught economics and on the right is the politics tutor Royden Harrison from Sheffield University Extramural Department who was a leading Labour Historian and whose final book was to be "The Life and Times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb : 1858 to 1905 the Formative Years". From left to right, the students are Les Ralley who became a leading figure on both his local District and Parish Councils, a 27 year old Eric Varley who four years later was to embark upon his parliamentary career and became a Cabinet Minister, W. Whitaker, E. Lawrence presenting the lamps, E. Bradbury and N. Wade. The nature and significance of such courses is indicated below. A meeting is to be held on May Day in Chesterfield to discuss how far the tradition they were part of can be revitalised in modern circumstances. Details of the meeting appear at the close.

Under Bert Wynn who was Secretary of the Derbyshire Miners, a programme of Day Release Classes was established in 1952. These continued in operation for the next four decades, but finally ended as a consequence of the closure of the local pits. Miners attending studied subjects such as industrial relations, economics and politics.

A new class of 20 miners was established each year. They came to span a three year period and involved a total attendance of 120 days. The tutors on the courses came from the Sheffield University Extramural Department. The Derbyshire Miners having an agreement with the National Coal Board (NCB) to release their members from work to attend the classes.

Those attending required no prior educational qualifications; nor were any exams, tests nor marks ever provided. However, because the supply of places on the courses was always outstripped by the demand, selection conferences were held in the Miners Offices on Saltergate by the tutors where the applicants met together in discussion groups and participated in a note-taking exercise. A Saturday morning class also came to be run for those who it was felt would benefit from a preparatory development of their student skills; many of these miners moved onto the full Day Release Courses and made highly effective use of the abilities they had developed.

The miners on the courses also engaged in private study and produced a steady stream of written work. After their time on the courses, the participants went on to make a variety of uses of their studies. Some becoming more deeply involved in the work of the National Union of Mineworkers, other progressed through the NCB, numbers became involved in the work of the wider labour movement including those who became local councillors, whilst the late Eric Varley and Denis Skinner became local MPs, others moved into full-time studies at Adult Education Colleges and then often went on to obtain degrees at University before taking up posts such as social workers, educationalists and full-time trade union officials. Others remained in their established roles in their communities, taking their newly developed interests with them and also influencing communal developments.

I was lucky to be a tutor on the courses for 21 years from 1966, before becoming a local MP for a further 18 years. I have always claimed that the standard and seriousness of the investigations in the classes was more substantial than was the general run of my experiences in parliament. This is because serious adult education is about making well thought out judgements on complex issues, whilst parliamentary politics is too often about point scoring.

The pattern which was established in Derbyshire was pursued elsewhere. The Extramural Department were involved with similar courses in areas such as the South Yorkshire Coalfield, the Steel Industry, the railways, engineering and with Shop Stewards Courses which drew people together from differing firms.

It was not, however, just because of the decline of large industries mainly concentrated in the public sector, that such courses were ended. Another pattern of adult education (which had always had its own separate existence) took over but was manipulated under Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately, it became a growing trend that was then pushed under New Labour. What remained of day-release work was often placed under the influence of employers, whose interests were to see their workers being trained to undertake tasks strictly relevant to their employment duties. More emphasis was placed upon adults attending courses in their own time, which would be carefully accredited to meet specific and limited purposes. Certification became the order of the day. The way for adults to progress via education came to be seen as requiring studies to be broken up into specific and limited modules and tested at each stage, so they could act as stepping stones (or some would say stumbling blocks) to higher qualifications. The scope for investigating key issues about life and society were restricted and were seen as secondary. The old form of equality and socialising between tutors and students, in which each learnt from the other, was seen as being unnecessary. Increasingly course fees were expected to cover the bulk of the provision of adult education.

It is not that there should be no room for some forms of today's dominant trend in adult education, but it should never have happened at the expense of the invaluable approach which the Derbyshire Miners had participated in and developed.

Nothing in life is, however, ever too late. Some of us have always attempted to replicate something of what used to be called the liberal education tradition by running and attending a variety of discussion groups. But it is now time to campaign for what was taken away from us. We are not alone in this.

Why not join us at the meeting advertised below? Former participants in the Derbyshire Miners' Day Release Classes will be present. But we know that we can't somehow just try to re-cycle the past. It is a matter for all of us to seek new ways in which what was once achieved in a period from the 1950s can be refashioned to meet the challenging conditions of the 21st Century. We owe many debts to Coal Mining in Derbyshire; serious adult education is one of them.

What Now For Adult Education? Lessons from the Derbyshire Miners.

A Discussion Meeting.


Toby Perkins, Labour MP for Chesterfield and Shadow Education Minister

John Burrows, Leader of the Labour Group on Chesterfield Borough Council.

Bob Heath, former Director of Studies for the Derbyshire Miners' Day Release Courses.


1.30 pm (after the May Day March and Rally)


2nd May, 2011


Council Chamber of the North East Derbyshire District Council, Saltergate, Chesterfield


Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Labour Charter For Young People - A Discussion Paper

A document of this form is being presented for discussion at Labour Party Branch level. If its contents are considered to be worthy of further action, it can then be forwarded for consideration at Constituency, District Party and then national level.

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party and genuinely is the only political party of the people of the United Kingdom. It has a long history of service given to the nation. We are committed to the continued improvement of society, both at home and abroad. In particular as a Party we are dedicated to continue our work to abolish poverty both here and elsewhere. These are not easy tasks, nor are they empty promises. In order to achieve these goals we shall have to confront and control many obstacles. For these tasks we shall remain steadfast in the struggle to reach our objectives.

Whilst we appear as a Party to be in good heart, we should be concerned that our base of support remains too narrow for Labour to win outright victories in the future. What we need is to begin a process of continuous engagement with Youth Organisations and Student Unions, with a view to drawing up a Labour Charter for Young People, to get the youth of the country to join with Labour in a united way to confront the many challenges which lie ahead.

Ensuring the well being of young people today and in the future is no easy task, nor will it be a straightforward task for the Labour Party. The issues to be confronted are central to the tasks facing Labour when it is re-elected. These include, huge housing problems at a time when we are building less houses than at any time since the early 1920s, mass unemployment, an ageing population with a pensions crisis, the problem of climate change and a decline in natural resources and even greater famines in the future. These are all issues which are a major concern for young people.

As things stand, young people are not really included in our political debates, yet all of the issues mentioned above will have a major impact on their futures. Labour has to include young people in its vital discussions on the future of our country and our place in tomorrow's world. Labour needs the energy of our young people, we need their vital spirit of idealism if we are to meet the today's challenges and if we are truly to reform society. Labour cannot achieve what it can, without the support and involvement of the young.

From Ken Curran, Chair Birley Labour Party in Sheffield. Chair Sheffield Branch of the C0operative Party. Please discuss and comment.

My own view on the way forward is for Labour to set up its own Ministry for Youth with the specific remit of preparing policy proposals for the next Labour Government to act upon. Such proposals should be drafted as a result of a wide ranging exercise involving as many Youth Clubs, Student Unions, Youth Workers and Community Groups as possible. Once the work is completed the Party should call a special conference which would consider its report for final approval; with the National Executive of the Party and the Shadow Cabinet holding prior meetings to make their own assessments of the proposals.

The future challenges which lies ahead for our young people are huge. They are confronting a cocktail of challenges which are wider than for any past generation. Labour desperately needs young people with the energy and desire to build a better world. In the recent past politicians have been preoccupied with finding short term solutions to long term problems. The knee-jerk politics of the Blair-Brown era lacked a long term vision of the kind of society we were supposed to be creating. Short term thinking does not produce long term solutions, the nature of the many problems which our young people shall have to tackle in the years ahead requires long term and well thought out solutions. Labour can no longer think in terms of Parliamentary Sessions in order to deal with long term problems. If we believe that the depth and seriousness of our problems will take 5, 10 or 15 years to begin to tackle, then it is better to show this than to camouflage the facts. We have to prepare programmes capable of achieving objectives, and at the same time campaign for that period in order to take the policies forward.

In order to secure the long term support of our young people, Labour shall need to give certain guarantees in return for our Contract with Young People. It is reported that 650,000 young people who should either be at school or in Colleges are instead wandering the streets. Labour needs to offer young people proper jobs, education rights, housing, access to sports activities and events, concessions to cinemas, theatre and travel; all in return for their participation in stimulating civic service activities. The above issues should form part of Labour's Charter for Youth. With the support and involvement of young people, we shall be able to face the future.

LET US FACE THE FUTURE TOGETHER...........................

The Future Of Food And Farming

The above title is given to a special report produced by Government Scientists and Government Advisers, which was commissioned by Gordon Brown's Labour Administration in 2009. On 24 January, 2011 the report was presented to both the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of International Development by Sir John Beddington the Chief Government Scientist. The report and related material can be found here.
The report deserves to be taken seriously, although the Government's response failed to match up to the depths of the concerns it expressed. The most alarming findings being that by 2050, we shall need 40% more food, 30% more fresh water and 50% more energy. The report warns us to expect food riots and social unrest. It draws attention to an ever growing world (and local) population growth placing huge burdens on the earth's natural resources and concludes that developments cannot be sustained. The combination of climate change, the growth in population and market forces are creating conditions which will produce world wide chaos.Link
We should take a proactive approach in order to meet these serious threats to humanity. We can at least write, email and otherwise put pressure upon MPs, Euro MPs and officialdom generally to get them to play their part in helping to create a better and safer world.

The Labour Party has to develop a wider political landscape for itself, at present it is consumed by the cuts crisis in Local Government and reforms to the NHS. Important as these are, we cannot ignore this report. If we do so, we do this at our peril. For as the report states "we face the perfect storm".

Ken Curran, Sheffield District Labour Party and Chair of Sheffield Branch of the Co-operative Party.