>Too big a tent

> British politics usually bore the pants off me. I am unfortunately just the kind of lazy, not-really-engaged, not-really-informed member of ‘informed public’ described in the previous entry. Perhaps I might flatter myself with Pippa Norris’s label of ‘engaged non-partisan’, but that would be pushing it. My political interests are of course skewed towards the theoretical and the East Central European. The days when I read the British politics pages in the paper or sat up all night for the election results are long over.

However, for a mixture of family and other reasons one thing made me sit up and tune in a bit this week. I was depressed to see the government’s Education Bill finally bulldozed through the Commons by a coalition of New Labour and ‘New Tory’ votes. I worry about both the bill itself content and the way was passed.

First, as grand reform it seems back-of-envelope stuff that should alarm even the most dyed in the wool pragmatist. Quite how allowing the country’s secondary publicly funded school’s to transform themselves into quasi-private trusts with educational input from the likes of Tesco and assorted fundamentalist Christians, nobody knows. Its whole rationale as a measure empowering the excluded rests on the dubious assumption that it will empower the educationally excluded via some quasi-market mechanism (‘choice’) raising efficiency and quality (‘standards’).

The Bill is also the latest act on the war on local government initiative by Mrs Thatcher in the early 1980s dressed up as a decentralizing measure (the ‘new localism’). To me the logic of the reform seems a bizarre mixture of populism (‘parent power’ ) and technocracy (‘empowering headteachers’), which cuts even limited democratic accountability that local council control offered down into the weaker, more fragmented and more manipulable structures of school governing bodies – not all of whose members will be fully elected. It also means probable destruction of even half special needs provision and services such educational psychology, which the rump Local Education Authorities left by the bill will struggle to hold together in the face of autonomous secondary school trusts, let alone enforce. Not only will the socio-economically and educationally less well resourced be pushed aside by the sharp elbows of the middle classes, but children with special needs will also go to the wall.

This particular legacy of Tony Blair, like that other great piece of top-down ‘reform’ the PM helped initiate – the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq – is likely to be bitter and chaotic – with added bonus that as taxpayers and citizens, if not cash-rich enough opt into real private education, will only bankroll a fragmented mess, but having to education our children in and through it too

Interestingly, the bill’s passing also seems to highlight the emergence of a submerged Grand Coalition running through the Blairite ‘left’, the Cameroonian ‘right’ and – although the liberals disciplinedly voted against it en bloc – the pro-market Orange Book ‘centre’, who will surely assert themselves as Ming Campbell proves the worthy failure that anyone with a sense of modern media politics could have predicted.

I picked up a copy of the Daily Telegraph in the children’s soft play area of the local leisure centre where I spent the morning today and noted that the latest poll (Cameron up, Blair down) also shows 14% support for minor parties – the Greens, BNP and UKIP, divided roughly evenly between each – although the BNP are apparently down from a 7% level recorded around the time local elections, when local breakthroughs generated national publicity – one of the far right’s greatest assets is the almost sexual fascination for both journalists and academics alike

To some extent this pattern seems to re-run of the cycle of British politics the late 1960s/1970s when tepid managerialist politics generated electoral gains for (then) marginal parties the Liberals, National Front, Scottish Nationalist and to a much lesser extent the far-left (whose noses were buried in industrial disputes, new social movements and revolutionary fantasies.

The difference this time seems to be that there is no Thatcherite free-market right waiting in the wings to offer a neat radical ‘solution’ to our problems packaged in a coherent all encompassing narrative. Indeed, the ‘solution’ is now the new mainstream, whose logic is slowly being extended to – viz the Education Bill – and whose ‘achievements’ (deregulated economy, privatized utilities etc) are being managed and tweaked by the country’s main political forces, now, as suggested, occupying different wings of a David Beckham-sized Big Tent.

Bivouac-ed outside are few small groups of Flag, Faith and Family moral conservatives, Social Democrats who remember the pre-Blair Labour Party, Europhobe Little Englanders, Greens, hard left socialists, politically engaged Muslims and assorted independents. This submerged ‘party system’ – which may if a deadlocked election and hung parliament in 2009-10 yields electoral reform – may quickly emerge from the family 2 ½ party system we now have is in its own way more depressing that the dire new secondary education system waiting to come to life.

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