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    After Cameron's declaration that "money is no object in this relief effort", Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin insists "I don’t think it’s a blank cheque".

    As I noted earlier this morning, David Cameron's declaration that "money is no object in this [flood] relief effort" rather undermines his government's previous insistence that the UK is "nearly bankrupt" (hence the need for all those cuts). He said yesterday: "Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed, we will spend it" and later added: "We are a wealthy country, we have a growing economy. If money is needed for clean-up, money will be made available." 

    By contrast, in a speech on the economy last year, he remarked: "There are some people who think we don’t have to take all these tough decisions to deal with our debts. They say that our focus on deficit reduction is damaging growth. And what we need to do is to spend more and borrow more. It’s as if they think there’s some magic money tree. Well let me tell you a plain truth: there isn’t." Yet a "magic money tree" was exactly what Cameron gave the impression of having discovered yesterday. 

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, ministers are already desperately trying to row back from the PM's loose rhetoric. In interviews this morning, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has insisted that there is no "blank cheque" from the government for flood relief. He said

    I don’t think it’s a blank cheque. I think what the Prime Minister was making very clear is that we’re going to use every resource of the government and that actually money is not the issue at the moment.

    Confused? It looks like the the Treasury austerians have chopped down Mr Cameron's magic money tree. 

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    Once new media themselves, newspapers have gone on to outlast cinema and television – but for how long?

    The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself
    Andrew Pettegree
    Yale University Press, 448pp, £25

    The News: a User’s Manual
    Alain de Botton
    Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, £18.99

    Anybody who says they can predict the future of newspapers is either a liar or a fool. Look at the raw figures, and newspapers seem gripped by terminal illness. Since 2000, the circulation of most UK national dailies has fallen by between a third and half. The authoritative Pew Research Center in the US reports that newspapers are now the main source of news for only 26 per cent of Americans against 45 per cent in 2001. There is no shortage of Jeremiahs, particularly from the wilder shores of digital evangelism, who confidently predict that the last printed newspaper will be safely buried within 15 years at most.

    Yet one of the few reliable laws of history is that old media have a habit of surviving. An over-exuberant New York journalist announced in 1835 that books, theatre, even religion “have had their day” and the daily newspaper would become “the greatest organ of social life”. Theatre outlasted not only the newspaper, but also cinema and then television. Radio has flourished in the TV age; cinema, in turn, has held its own against videos and DVDs. In the first eight months of 2013, US hardback book sales rose 10 per cent while ebook sales fell. Even vinyl records have made a comeback, with sales on Amazon up 745 per cent since 2008.

    Newspapers themselves were once new media. Yet as Andrew Pettegree explains in an elegantly written and beautifully constructed account, it took several centuries before they became the dominant medium for news. This was not solely because producing up-to-date news for a large readership over a wide area became practicable and economic only with the steam press, the railway and the telegraph. Equally important was the idea that the world is in constant movement and one needs to be updated on its condition hourly (or even monthly) – a concept quite alien to the medieval world and probably also to most people in the early modern era.

    Now, we expect change, as Alain de Botton argues in his playful inquiry into how we read and use the news, to be “continuous and relentless”. We think some extraordinary development may alter reality: a proposal for a new motorway or railway, a cure for a disease previously thought untreatable, a revelation that a once-admired celebrity molested under-age girls. To our ancestors, the only realities were the passing of the seasons, punctuated by catastrophes such as famine, flood or disease that they had no reliable means of anticipating. Life, as de Botton puts it, was “ineluctably cyclical” and “the most important truths were recurring”. Even if regular access to news had been possible, the medieval world wouldn’t have seen the point of it.

    This is not to deny that details of new laws and taxes, armies and their movements, or who was in or out of favour at court were eagerly sought. Travellers were closely questioned as to the news they brought. But it would have been perfectly normal and acceptable to say, as a BBC announcer did on Good Friday 1930 (to much subsequent mockery), “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight, so here is some music.”

    The medieval world received news orally. First-hand information from people who had witnessed important events was highly prized, at least by those, such as merchants and property-owners, who had some interest in its accuracy. To larger audiences, news might be conveyed by drama or song. Written accounts were mistrusted because the writer was not usually available for cross-questioning. This helps explain why, despite Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the mid-15th century, the development of newspapers was so slow.

    The first commercial news services, which emerged in 16th-century Italy, were confidential weekly handwritten briefings, known as avvisi, sent to selected subscribers including many of Europe’s rulers. They still dominated the Italian news market in the early 17th century. These avvisi possessed, Pettegree writes, “a subtlety and flexibility lost in a public printed document”. The scribes who copied them out doubtless felt as insecure in their employment as today’s newspaper journalists. But the apparently obsolete means of production guaranteed their exclusivity, their intimacy and, in the eyes of their readers, their reliability.

    Early printed newspapers, though they had the potential to reach a wider audience, tended to imitate this elite form of communication. Most of their news was foreign; domestic news carried too many dangers of attracting government censorship or worse. They rarely attempted analysis or comment. For readers ignorant of leading European political figures, shifting international alliances or the geographical location of German principalities, they offered little assistance. To many readers, newspapers must have seemed to offer, as Pettegree puts it, “an undigested and unexplained miscellany of things that scarcely seemed to concern them at all”.

    For most of the two centuries after Gutenberg, the news pamphlet was a more successful medium. It appeared sporadically when, in the publishers’ judgement, a big news event created a significant market. At its best, it could present news as a coherent, connected and complete narrative, without the half-truths, unanswered questions and loose ends that always characterised even the most high-minded newspapers. Pamphlets allowed readers to dip in and out of the news as they chose, opting for subjects that piqued their interest or seemed to affect their lives. Above all, they reflected the incontrovertible and eternal truth, almost entirely lost to our own age, that news is more urgent at some times than others.

    Newspapers, by contrast, offered mostly routine and unresolved events: as Pettegree describes it, “ships arrive in port, dignatories arrive at court, share prices rise and fall, generals are appointed and relieved of command”. Is that so very different from the celebrity relationships that today’s downmarket papers so painstakingly report? Or the daily ministerial and opposition manoeuvres that form the daily diet for broadsheet readers? Is the latest shift in Labour social policy or the latest boyfriend of a minor Coronation Street actor of any greater importance to readers than developments in the Muscovy court that early modern papers faithfully reported?

    For all the cacophony of information that surrounds us, no medium now reliably performs the service of the early modern pamphlet, giving us narrative news with a beginning, a middle and an end. In January, the journalist Ron Hall, a founder member of the Sunday Times Insight team in the 1960s, died. In its early days, Insight’s job was to give a context to the week’s news, often challenging conventional wisdom about what it signified. The Times obituary said of Hall that he was “a master of reductive research, assembling as many sources as possible, eliminating redundant information, then focusing on the shaping of the core story”. Sunday newspapers no longer have sufficient resources (or perhaps sufficient journalists like Hall) to do such a job with conviction. “Instant books” – of which the Insight team produced several – have largely gone out of fashion, as have TV news documentaries such as World in Action. The closest approaches to news narrative at its best come from radio (particularly Radio 4’s Analysis) and the weekly or monthly magazines.

    If de Botton’s frustratingly diffuse book has any central theme, it is this: that, as he puts it, “news as it exists is woefully short on the work of coordination, distillation and curation”. Nothing can be discussed or reported calmly. Read any British daily paper (with the sole exception of the Financial Times) and you are assailed by examples of cruelty, injustice, falsehood, hypocrisy, greed and incompetence, sometimes in a single story. The “fury” expressed by somebody or other – often the newspapers themselves – spills over into radio, TV and social-media sites. There is no hierarchy of rage, no modulation of tone, no admission of uncertainty. As de Botton observes

    We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt we cared about so passionately only hours ago.

    A good test of the truth of this observation is to take a random sample of ministerial resignations from more than few months ago and then try to remember why the minister had to go.

    Today’s news is full of loose ends. Is anybody now following what the government or the EU is doing about bankers’ bonuses? Or what has been established about British complicity in the torture of suspected terrorists and who was responsible for it? Or what is being done by whom about global warming? Or what is happening to newspapers themselves in the wake of the Leveson report? If people are increasingly cynical and apathetic about public affairs, the responsibility lies with the news media as much as with politicians. De Botton writes:

    There are dynamics far more insidious and cynical still than censorship in draining people of political will; these involve confusing, boring and distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganised, fractured and intermittent way that. . . the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.

    In Pettegree’s account, newspapers, which eventually came to be seen as part of the natural order of things, struggled for a long time to find a role. Journalism as a full-time trade from which you could hope to make a living hardly existed before the 19th century. Even then, there was no obvious reason why most people needed news on a regular basis, whether daily or weekly. In some respects, regularity of publication was, and remains, a burden. The daily paper’s pagination – usually dictated by advertising rather than editorial requirements – or Newsnight’s 50 minutes to fill each weekday night requires sustained drama and urgency, which cannot be varied according to events.

    Online news sites avoid the rigidity of periodical publication. Particularly if access is free, readers can dip in and out according to how they perceive the urgency of events. Increasingly sophisticated search engines and algorithms allow us to personalise the news to our own priorities and interests. When important stories break, news providers can post minute-by-minute updates. Error, misconception and foolish speculation can be corrected or modified almost instantly. There are no space inhibitions to prevent narrative or analysis, and documents or events cited in news stories can often be accessed in full. All this is a world away from the straitjacket of newspaper publication. Yet few if any providers seem alive to the new medium’s full potential for spreading understanding and enlightenment.

    The anxiety is always to be first with the news, to maximise reader comments, to create heat, sound and more fury and thus add to the sense of confusion. In the medieval world, news was usually exchanged amid the babble of the marketplace or the tavern, where truth competed with rumour, mishearing and misunderstanding. In some respects, it is to that world that we seem to be returning.

    Newspapers, Pettegree speculates, may have become established only because, at some stage in the 18th century, they became a fashion accessory – a badge of status for the country squire in Somerset or physician in Montpelier, previously deprived of knowledge of what happened in circles of metropolitan power. But they have never been very good – or not as good as they ought to be – at telling us how the world works. Perhaps they now face extinction. Or perhaps, as the internet merely adds to what de Botton describes as our sense that we live in “an unimprovable and fundamentally chaotic universe”, they will discover that they and they alone can guide us to wisdom and understanding.

    Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman and the Independent on Sunday

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    The villain is named Lord Business, a man who hates “hippie-dippy stuff” and thunders over Bricktown, where the workers drink Over-Priced Coffee™. No wonder Fox News declared the film “anti-capitalist”.

    This piece originally appeared at

    In his seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter wrote that “paranoid” was the only word adequate to describe the “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” possessed by the extreme actors of the American Right. I had that in mind when I went to see The Lego Movie to investigate Fox Business’s claim that the film was “anti-capitalist” and “pushing its anti-business message to our kids,” expecting to roll my eyes over yet another witch-hunt. 

    But I’ll concede this for once in my life: In a sense, Fox was right.

    The Lego Movie follows the adventures of Emmet Brickowski, a construction-worker Lego figurine completely devoid of original thoughts or interests. Consequently, he’s the ideal citizen of Bricktown, a Huxleyesque city governed by explicit behavioral instructions issued by corporate oligarch Lord Business – or “President Business,” as he’s known to the sheeple. Everything changes when Emmet finds a bizarre, distinctly un-Lego-like red artifact that makes him “the special,” a savior destined by prophesy to thwart Lord Business’ plans to freeze the world with Krazy Glue. The second and third acts ensue, wherein Emmet joins a cast of Lego-ised pop culture characters on a journey to fulfill that prophesy – which, spoiler alert, is ultimately revealed to be a stand-in for a dispute playing out between a live-action child and the real “President Business,” his anal-retentive father who wants to glue his “adult models” into permanent perfection. 

    It’s true: The Lego Movie is pointedly critical of late capitalism consumer culture. The villain is named Lord Business, after all; he hates “hippie-dippy stuff.” The inhabitants of Bricktown drink Over-Priced Coffee™. The film’s anthem is theBrave New World-ish “Everything Is Awesome.” The archetypical proletariat protagonist, the climactic class revolt, the laughable “relics” made from middle-class waste – The Lego Movie lays it on so heavy, even a five-year-old would get the drift. I suppose that’s the point, and explains how the folks at Fox picked up on it. But this is a film which, among other things, features Lego Abraham Lincoln piloting a jet-fueled rocket chair out of a meeting with Batman, Gandalf, and a robot pirate. Subtlety isn’t quite the point. But even more cartoonish is a world where full-grown adults devote ostensibly serious news time to decrying a children’s movie. And that, more than capitalism itself, is precisely what The Lego Movie is attacking. 

    Furthermore, corrosive bourgeois sentiment isn’t alone among The Lego Movie’s“targets,” if we can even use so serious a term for objects of ridicule in a children’s film. In its trim hundred minutes, the movie manages to assault an impressive array of cultural bull’s eyes, from academic think tanks (literally manifest as the best and the brightest with tubes plugged in their heads, threatened with electroshock if they fail to produce whatever new ideas are demanded of them), to film tropes in general (“it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true”), and even Lego’s own legacy of long-forgotten trend products made embarrassing by time, like theShaquille O’Neal figurine. And the politics are hardly one-sided: “Cloud Coo-Coo Land,” an aptly named locale for perpetual-rainbow dance parties and an explicit ban on negative thoughts (which must be “pushed deep down, where you’ll never, ever find them”), makes a mockery of those all-too-familiar Facebook liberals whose politics seems best expressed by cat GIFs and conflict aversion. 

    At the risk of stating the obvious, we should remember that this movie cannot possibly be anti-capitalist. Beneath the satire, after all, is a feature-length toy commercial for a ubiquitous plastic product valued at $14.6 billion. The film was produced by a major studio, banked $69 million in its opening weekend, and already has a video game tie-in available on Amazon. Even in the film itself, the profit motive isn’t seriously at risk. If it were, then perhaps The Lego Movie would end with the overthrow of President Business and the installation of a socialist utopia, or – in the “real world” where the Legos are revealed to exist – a moralising replacement of the Lego models with some environmentally friendly hemp dolls and an illustrated kids edition of Chairman Mao’s The Little Red Book.

    But that isn’t what happens. Despite Fox’s claims, the function of capitalism in our society isn’t the target of The Lego Movie. Lord Business isn’t so-called or so-hated because he’s “the head of a corporation where they hire people” and “[people] feed their families” – he’s called that because he’s the projection of a young boy whose obsessive-compulsive father wears a tie and does some kind of business-y job that, being ten years old, the kid doesn’t have a more precise word for. He’s hated because he’s a boorish control freak spoiling his son’s attempt to have fun with Legos. The kid isn’t upset that his dad pays employees a wage for their labor, he’s upset that his father is so fixated on his paranoid need to make everything the way it’s “supposed to be” and so self-conscious about any questioning of his “adult” use of the toys that he’s going to literally glue them in place, preventing his child from using his imagination again. 

    This movie isn’t revolutionary; at bottom, it’s more about empathy than politics. President Business is a villain because despite having everything, his overwrought sense of victimhood transforms him into a caricature of megalomania at even slightest hint of criticism. That sort of privilege-blind persecution complex is the real target of The Lego Movie’s scorn, and ironically, Fox’s full-scale meltdown over its “anti-capitalist” message is a pretty good case-in-point. 

    Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist, and political activist in Chicago, Illinois. His previous work has appeared in USA Today, Salon, The Los Angeles Times opinion blog, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at@revemmettrensin.

    This piece originally appeared at


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    Any take on sustainability that doesn’t have health and social care close to its heart probably isn’t worth taking seriously.

    Any take on sustainability that doesn’t have health and social care close to its heart probably isn’t worth worrying about any further. But you’d be astonished at how many people just don’t get that.

    A bit of history. Labour set up the Sustainable Development Commission back in 2000. It took a while to persuade the Cabinet Office that we should operate across the whole of government but, by 2004, we’d already started to work closely with the Department of Health on a whole range of different initiatives within the NHS. The redoubtable Anna Coote joined the Commission, and we quickly developed a fantastic health team within the Secretariat.

    It was a fruitful period. Synergies began to flow around public health issues (e.g. food and nutrition), health inequalities (e.g. food poverty), transport (cycling, walking, air pollution etc.), planning and housing, greening the NHS itself, and, of course, climate change. There was extensive engagement with Strategic Health Authorities (long gone), Primary Care Trusts (duly re-engineered), and Directors of Public Health through Regional Assemblies (again, long gone).

    During that time, the Department of Health got more and more involved, as did key people within the NHS. A Sustainable Development Unit in the NHS was created in April 2008, and the Department launched its own Carbon Management Strategy in January 2009. Of all the relationships the SDC had across government at that time – advising, supporting, monitoring, challenging – this was one of the best.

    Which mattered not a jot to the incoming quango-crushing Coalition Government. It wasn’t just the Sustainable Development Commission itself which was unceremoniously brushed aside. Bit by bit, with clear intent, not by accident, almost every element in the "SD infrastructure" of the outgoing government, built up over a decade (Departmental Action Plans, procurement, audited performance reports, improved policy-making and so on) was rooted out or simply allowed to die.

    But not completely, thank heavens, in the Department of Health – despite yet another mega-restructuring. And the best possible proof-point for this was the launch last week of a seriously impressive Sustainable Development Strategy not just for the NHS itself, but for Public Health England (which now falls under the remit of local government) and social care (which has never been part of this agenda before).

    I know that all sounds remarkably geeky – yet another strategy, clunky, departmental integration, boring old support units, and so on. But dismiss all that at your peril. When it comes to actually delivering more sustainable outcomes on the ground, institutional strength and continuity matter at least as much as smart policy-making.

    By and large, institutions work because of the people in them. Right from its inception, the NHS Sustainable Development Unit has been run by two extraordinary individuals: David Pencheon and Sonia Roschnik, with huge encouragement and vision from Sir Neil McKay. It’s a formidable team, which has somehow managed to navigate its way through the chaos of the last few years – and to bring together a quite extraordinary coalition of organisations across the wider health system which are all now committed to playing a much bigger role in putting sustainability at the heart of that system.

    I acknowledge I may be making a bit too much of this – the Sustainable Development Unit’s budget, for instance, is laughably inadequate. But right now, if you scan across the whole of Whitehall, sustainable development is mostly invisible. Michael Gove killed it in the Department of Education; BIS meddles a bit with various aspects of the "green economy", but has no strategic overview; DEFRA’s a basket case; DCLG has gone backwards on sustainability issues from the first moment that Eric Pickles crossed its threshold; the treasury is a pit of very smart, ideologically hostile vipers; the Foreign Office and DFID do good stuff, but are desperate to ensure that the Daily Mail never hears of it. It’s a grim picture.

    So against that backdrop, what the Department of Health is doing is really quite special – and the new strategy is very special, too.

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    After three waves of feminism, we're now being told subservience is "romantic". You can't be too hard on yourself, but you have to acknowledge the problem: so I will take those flowers and my boyfriend's coat, but I will keep my name, my goals, and my independence.

    “You know you have to buy me flowers, right?” In an effort to avoid that (presumably) awkward moment where my boyfriend shows up on Valentine's Day, bouquet-not-in-hand, I figured I would do him a favour. He was new to the serious relationship game – it was possible he didn't know the rules.

    Now, I am fully aware that cut flowers are not only useless, but environmentally irresponsible. But that hasn’t prevented me from adopting certain expectations around the day. Nor have my feminist sensibilities, however much I rationally understand that holidays like Valentine's Day are little more than a tacky cash-grab and an excuse for men to pretend as though uncomfortable lingerie isn't really just a gift to their penises.

    "But I like them," isn't an excuse that will hold up in feminist court either – there are an endless number of things people may well “like” which aren't necessarily “good” or ethical. (See: Hunter Moore, who “loves” ruining women's lives and behaving, generally, like a living, breathing, sociopathic cat turd). As a long-time critic of “but it makes me feel good” feminism, I feel obligated to look at what is behind the “rules” of romance many of us take for granted.

    When my boyfriend gives me his coat while we're waiting for a cab in the middle of January, I am grateful for the coat. Showing up at work and finding flowers there feels romantic – it's a show of affection that says "I want you and everyone in your office to know you are loved." But I've never bought a boyfriend flowers. And I would never give up my coat and freeze in order to keep my boyfriend warm.

    While I realise the lack of beflowered boyfriends is not a particularly serious and pressing issue of our time, I also realise that when we witness a phenomenon that is very obviously skewed, in a gendered sense, it can't simply be brushed off.

    Feminist writer Jill Filipovic points out that, as a culture, we still believe there are fundamental differences between men and women in many ways; and that those differences are tied to power. We often “frame those power differences as romantic or protective,” she says.

    When we think about traditional notions of romance, we might think of things like jewellery, showy proposals, a man literally or figuratively sweeping a woman off of her feet – acts that are tied to the notion of the male as not just the provider, but the romantic actor, and the woman as the passive recipient of romantic acts.

    Journalist Ann Friedman says that “even for those of us who don’t believe, on an intellectual level, that men should be the dominant ones in heterosexual relationships, it’s really hard to deprogramme years of stories we’ve been told about romance.”

    Despite our best efforts, we still learn men are the ones who have power and, as a result, it’s not uncommon for men to feel threatened by women who aren't subservient or who don't need a male breadwinner to take care of them.

    “The number of times I'd be out at a bar and tell a guy I was a lawyer that he would literally turn around and walk the other way . . .” Filipovic says, but it’s a sad truth that a lot of men still feel emasculated by successful women.

    A study (pdf) that came out last year found that men feel bad when their female partners succeed or “outperform them”. The idea that a man's self-esteem might be tied to feeling more “competent, strong and intelligent than his female partner” shows us that our heterosexual relationships are still steeped in old-fashioned notions of male power.

    As a woman who is both driven and outspoken, I've certainly felt that. Women aren't supposed to prioritise their lives, goals or careers above their male partners or families. It’s seen as selfish and, therefore, unfeminine.

    Friedman says that, actually, it’s this issue that provides a context for how she feels about traditionally romantic gifts or behaviour. “I don’t want flowers from the kind of guy who gets an uneasy look on his face when I talk about how great my career is,” she says. In an equal relationship where there is mutual respect and both partners do nice, romantic things for one another, Friedman says, “it feels OK to me”.

    Even many modern marriages still maintain some patriarchal traditions that place higher value on men's lives and identities than women's. As Zoe Holman recently pointed out in an article for the Guardian, “82 per cent of married Australian women still assume their husband’s surname” and a survey last year showed that only a third of women in the UK, in their twenties, kept their names in marriage. Despite three waves of feminism, the majority of women around the world are still clinging to this gendered practice.

    There are myriad reasons we can and do offer as justification for taking our husbands’ names: cultural or familial pressure, simplicity, tradition. Maybe we never liked our last name to begin with and are taking this as an opportunity to replace it. What defenders of this choice don't often cop to, however, is the romance-factor.

    “I remember being in middle school; I had this big crush on this boy named John Butterfield and I still have my journals where I'd written: ‘Mrs Jill Butterfield’ all over the margin,” says Jill Filipovic. It's a silly, embarrassing exercise that is also something many of us likely participated in as girls. “It was so much a part of my understanding of what it meant to be in love with somebody,” she adds.

    Since middle school, Filipovic's perspective has changed. She argues, in an article for the Guardian, that the practice of taking our husbands’ names in marriage “disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone's wife or mother or daughter or sister.”

    Many women see it as a symbol of commitment and family unity – but it's a symbol that doesn't go both ways, and that matters. If it weren't a gendered choice, guaranteed there would be far fewer Mr and Mrs. Dicks out there. That it is viewed as more “socially acceptable” for women to take their husband's names than the reverse is symbolic of patriarchy’s hold on society.

    Looking at how traditional notions of male power and female subordination shape “romance” isn’t meant to shame women who, like me, are admittedly tickled when surprised with a bouquet of flowers or who still appreciate their date opening the car door for them.

    Friedman is wary of falling into a dynamic where feminists spend more time beating up on themselves for not being feminist enough than being angry about the patriarchal structures they’re up against. “The burden of rewriting years of romantic narratives does not fall on you shivering next to your boyfriend after having rejecting his coat,” she says.

    Filipovic says she tries to "strike a balance between recognising that gender differences play a role in my own relationships and trying to suss out which ones I can live with or even strengthen the relationship and which ones are actually undermining a sense of equality between us or speak to his idea of me as subservient."

    “The answer is not ‘flowers are terrible’,” Friedman says. “And the answer is not to deny every impulse we have, but to ask why we want it.”

    And so I will take my flowers and my boyfriend's coat, but I will keep my name, my goals, and my independence. You can open the door for me, but that doesn't make me yours.

    Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her website is Feminist Current

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    Michael Gove on the NS education debate, Andy Burnham on why he’s prepared to rebel over HS2, and Germaine Greer on poetry.

    14 FEBRUARY 2014 ISSUE

    Michael Gove throws down the gauntlet to Tristram Hunt in the private schools debate.

    Andy Burnham: why I’m prepared to rebel on HS2.

    The new Storm Age: Edward Platt on climate change and the winter floods.


    Sophie McBain meets Tom Bower, big-game hunter of biographers.

    Rafael Behr: the general election will be won on pavement politics and constituency dogfights.

    Sex and the stanza: Germaine Greer on the art of erotic verse.

    Ed Smith on Kevin Pietersen, the man who fell to Earth.

    “These days, even Spock has a love interest”: Andrew Harrison on the brave new world of sci-fi romance

    John Pilger: war and the ownership of public memory.

    “The centre cannot hold”: Jason Cowley on Scottish independence.




    This week, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, joins the NS debate on the dominance of the privately educated in Britain’s public life and the correlation between poverty and educational failure. In a bold but concise commentary, he declares that our “segregated” education system is “perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back”:

    While the education [private] schools provide is rationed overwhelmingly to the rich, our nation remains poorer. From the England cricket team to the comment pages of the Guardian, the Baftas to the BBC, the privately educated – and wealthy – dominate. Access to the best universities and the most powerful seats around boardroom tables, influence in our media and office in our politics are allocated disproportionately to the privately educated children of already wealthy parents . . .

    When a few public schools can scoop up more places at our top universities than the entire population of boys and girls eligible for free school meals, we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgivable scale.

    Gove argues, however, that “the Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling”. The answer, he says,

    . . . is not to abolish, punish or undermine excellent educational institutions, but to spread their benefits without diluting their character. There is nothing any progressive should object to in a programme designed to democratise access to the best.

    I want our state schools to be able to compete on equal terms with private schools, so that a visitor to either would find them indistinguishable.

    Of course, this ambition is a threat to some in the private sector. There are, unfortunately, some heads in the fee-paying sector who still hope to preserve their schools as islands of privilege and try to curry favour with educators in the state sector by sneering at the academies programme as an exercise in creating exam factories, and by criticising attempts to inject more rigour into state education as the rule of Gradgrind.

    As the NS’s leading article this week notes, the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has chosen to remain silent in the debate over education’s Berlin Wall, preferring to concentrate on a policy of introducing “behaviour experts” into schools.



    George Eaton, editor of The Staggers, meets Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary and MP for Leigh, to discuss the National Health Service, “whole-person care” – and HS2. Burnham is particularly exercised about the latter, Eaton finds:

    It is when I ask for his views on an area outside his policy brief, the High Speed 2 rail link (HS2), that Burnham becomes most animated. “It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hard-headed way,” he says, complaining of an “absolutely massive depot” on what is “currently green space”.

    . . . Burnham goes further in his criticism than any other shadow cabinet minister has done. “I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new rail track in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.”

    The shadow health secretary tells Eaton he is prepared to rebel on the issue:

    Remarkably, Burnham refuses to rule out breaking collective responsibility and voting against HS2 if changes are not made. “If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: ‘Everyone’s constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally, does it?’ ”

    Back on his policy brief, Burnham is also troubled by how the proposed EU-US free trade agreement might affect the NHS:

    “It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, so that we can exempt it from competition law,” he tells me. “The market is not the answer to 21st-century health care. The demands of 21st-century care require integration. Markets deliver fragmentation.”



    For this week’s cover story, Edward Platt looks beyond the political name-calling that has followed the winter floods to ask what long-term trends are behind the record-breaking weather that has left the Somerset Levels under water.

    The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

    Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather . . .

    The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

    More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.



    This week the NS’s Sophie McBain meets Tom Bower, the big-game hunter of biographers, whose unwilling subjects have included the tycoons Richard Branson, Conrad Black, Richard Desmond and Robert Maxwell – all of whom sued him for libel. McBain asks Bower “what drives his dogged pursuit of powerful, dangerous men despite the threats and lawsuits”. Bower answers simply: “I am fascinated by power, and the people who exercise power. . . What do they have, these people?”

    On several occasions Bower’s work has put him in danger:

    There was a “Mossad man who once tried . . . but he failed”, he recalls cheerfully. He says his emails are constantly being hacked, although he’s not sure by whom. Then I remind him of the time he was beaten up on camera by a sheep farmer he had exposed on Panorama for exporting live sheep – an investigation that earned him an RSPCA silver medal. He laughs heartily at the memory; it’s the happiest I have seen him.

    McBain finds Bower disillusioned with the BBC and the British media:

    He is scathing about the BBC today: its “obsession with process”, its shoddy camerawork and the likes of Newsnight– “the most dreadful programme, because it all the time has these films of people screaming at you”. He believes presenters such as Jeremy Paxman “ruin” their documentary series by spending too much time in front of the camera: “That’s why people are bored with television.”

    Bower’s general view of journalism is no more favourable. The newspapers have lost their confidence since the hacking scandal, he says, and the UK’s strict libel laws need further reform. “The only reason we have any journalism at all in Britain is . . . Rupert Murdoch; he’s the only person who invests in journalism in Britain,” he says. The Mail originally agreed to serialise Bower’s Branson book but pulled out despite paying for it, so the Times bought it instead, he adds by way of evidence.

    Bower reveals to McBain that his next project is a biography of Tony Blair: “. . . he’s influenced all of our lives . . . With Thatcher, you knew much more; nothing has come out about her which remains an enigma any more. You got what you saw. With Blair, it’s not like that.”



    In the Politics Column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, meets constituents on the streets of Wythenshawe ahead of a by-election that Labour is poised to win. Pavement politics and local campaigning will play a vital role in next year’s general election, Behr predicts:

    Since 2011, Arnie Graf, a 70-year-old US expert in “community organising”, has been training local Labour parties in pavement politics. Miliband is evangelical about Graf’s work. He imagines it standing alongside his party reforms as proof of a commitment to open, inclusive politics. Not everyone in the party is convinced. Few question the intent. The worry is that, when time is tight and resources are scarce, “organising” people of unknown allegiance is no substitute for knocking on the doors of voters who will reliably turn out for Labour.

    With each passing month the prospect of a breakthrough recedes, making the race tighter and Labour’s prospects ever more dependent on Nick Clegg’s failure to woo back his old supporters and Nigel Farage’s ability to poach Tories. It won’t be one general election so much as a bunch of specific elections, each with its own complex four-party dynamic. “It’s going to come down to scrappy, inelegant dogfighting in every constituency,” predicts one Labour campaign official. “It won’t be poetic.”



    Laurie Penny on the female asylum-seekers of Yarl’s Wood.

    Lucy Ash talks to the Ukrainian journalist Tetiana Chornovol, who risks her life to expose corruption.

    Dan Hancox remembers the cultural theorist Stuart Hall.

    Giulia Cambieri on why the government needs to do more to support small businesses.

    Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares the latest Westminster gossip.

    The food columnist Felicity Cloake tires of diet and anti-booze bores.

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    The PM's loose rhetoric handed Miliband a win as he challenged plans to make 550 Environment Agency Staff redundant.

    As I predicted he would, Ed Miliband used PMQs to zero in on the contradiction between David Cameron's declaration yesterday that "money is no object" in providing flood relief and Patrick McLoughlin's warning earlier today that there is no "blank cheque". If money is no object, he asked Cameron, will he reconsider the government's plan to make 550 Environment Agency flood staff redundant?

    After his loose rhetoric yesterday, the PM was left desperately trying to wriggle out of his commitment. He repeated his pledge to introduce a grant for all affected homeowners and businesses, a £10m fund to help farmers, and to defer tax payments for businesses, with 100 per cent business rate relief. But on the fate of the Environment Agency staff he remained mute. As Miliband reminded him of "what sounded like a grand promise", Cameron was forced to try and change the subject to Labour's spending plans and to the governent's success in reducing the benefit. Since it had managed the budget well, he said, there was no need for "people to worry about penny pinching". But penny pinching is exactly the impression given by his decision to proceed with staff redundancies.

    Cameron eventually resorted to the age-old cry of a PM in trouble: the opposition leader was seeking to "divide the House when we should be coming together for the nation". But Miliband's calm and reasoned tone means this charge is unlikely to stick. In what is always difficult territory for an opposition leader, he came out on top. After the session had ended, No. 10 briefed that there would be no new money made available and that any extra funding would come from contigency budgets, a clear reversal of Cameron's pledge yesterday.

    The other significant moment came when Cameron was pressed by Labour's Cathy Jamieson on whether he could help Danny Alexander, who has said that the 45p tax rate will be scrapped over his "dead body", by ruling out any further tax cuts for top earners ("or should the Chief Secretary up his life insurance?" she added). Cameron, sounding more sceptical than before, emphasised that his overriding "priority" was to cut taxes for low and middle earners, but still refused to rule out cutting the top rate again. For Labour, such answers are a political gift. For the Tories, however, the significance of Cameron's answer was his reference to "middle" earners, which they view (perhaps wrongly) as a hint that relief could be offered to those who have been sucked into the 40p tax band by fiscal drag.

    Finally, after disastrously fielding an all-male frontbench last week and handing Miliband his strongest PMQs victory for months, the Tories went to predictably great lengths to avoid repeating this error, with seven women on the frontbench and a total of 14 in view of the cameras. If the Tories continue to ensure greater gender parity in future weeks, Miliband may well have done them a favour.

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    Labour has learned lessons from the Lib Dem campaign in Eastleigh last year.

    Nigel Farage has conceded defeat in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election and not very graciously. He has written in the Independent complaining about the behaviour of his opponents and hinting at dirty tricks, possibly even fraud. In reality, Ukip was never going to win the seat. It’s safe Labour territory and the by-election was triggered by the death of a much admired local MP. As George wrote yesterday, Farage’s party is in danger of mishandling expectations of what it can achieve.

    Although I don’t doubt that BNP activists are capable of being unpleasant – as Farage alleges – I saw the Labour campaign in Wythenshawe at close quarters and it looked entirely civil, decent and orderly. More important, it was organised. (I’ve written about the wider implications of this in my column in this week’s magazine.) One big reason Ukip couldn’t break through in this seat is that they didn’t know where their voters were. They knew potential support was out there somewhere, but there’s a limit to what can be achieved driving around spraying out messages indiscriminately.

    Above all, Labour’s organisational advantage helped with the postal ballots. Not surprisingly, Farage’s complaint on that front is the sourest grape in the bunch. For incumbent parties with up-to-date lists of supporters, postal votes are now paramount in a campaign. Asking about them was, from what I could see, an absolute priority on the doorstep – more so than the traditional offer of posters and garden-gate placards. With enough postal votes a contest can be settled before polling day.

    That is the lesson that Labour has learned from the Eastleigh by-election last year. The Lib Dems held the seat despite a serious challenge from Ukip and an aggressive media campaign against Nick Clegg and his party. It was the short race and post that did it. On the day, more people turned out for Ukip than any other party. Senior Lib Dems admit that if the campaign had gone on a week longer, they may well have lost the seat.

    That battle has become a case study for other parties, hoping to work their incumbency advantage and minimise the Ukip challenge. Interestingly, Eastleigh is now one of Ukip’s prime targets precisely because Farage’s party will be better organised next time. It takes at least one campaign to map the terrain and collect the data – house numbers, email addresses, phone numbers – of the people who can swing a seat. In most seats, Ukip simply doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure. (Although it is worth noting that they are more of a threat to the Tories than Labour precisely because, while they get votes from across the spectrum, they poach activists from Cameron and that is a deeper wound.)

    On that note, it is worth also puncturing some of the excitement on the Conservative side about Ukip under-performing in Wythenshawe and even perhaps May’s European elections. The latest ICM survey shows Ukip in third place behind the Tories in the MEP ballot, which gives Tories hope that the meltdown they have been anticipating might not fully materialise. It’s fair to say that if Farage’s party doesn’t out-poll Cameron’s there will be something approximating jubilation on the Conservative side. But judging by past precedent, Ukip are still on course to overtake the Tories in this particular race. Besides, Ukip coming in second – missing out on the first place that Farage craves – is still catastrophic for Cameron, possibly even worse than if they win outright.

    Why? Because Ukip coming top allows the Tories to say that everyone has been punished by the anti-politics insurgency, Labour included. It permits defensive Conservative briefing that, in reality, Miliband is losing too – the main opposition really ought to win a European election a year out from a general election to prove it has some momentum. In other words, if Labour come second and the Tories third, the triumph of Ukip over all of Westminster becomes the story. But if Labour win but Ukip come second, the specific triumph of Farage over Cameron is the story – and that’s exquisitely disastrous for No10.

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    It is time for a new law which places the cultural harms of pornography at its centre.

    Hidden amongst the more high profile reforms, in the newly published Criminal Justice and Courts Bill 2014, is a proposal to extend the law on extreme pornography. This law, first enacted in 2008, criminalises the possession of pornographic images which are grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise obscene and which explicitly and realistically depict bestiality, necrophilia or violence that is life-threatening or likely to result in serious injury.

    The law specifically did not include pornographic images of rape, a gap in the law which the Scottish Government closed with its own extreme pornography law in 2010.

    Fast forward to the summer of 2013 and to the successful campaign to #banrapeporn by Rape Crisis South London and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. We supported this campaign. As did 72,000 other people who signed an online petition, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who swiftly came on board promising to extend the extreme pornography law to include images of rape. Such pornography he said:

    can only be described as extreme; I am talking particularly about pornography that is violent and that depicts simulated rape. These images normalise sexual violence against women and they’re quite simply poisonous to the young people who see them

    And so to February 2014 and section 16 of the new Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. This does exactly what the Prime Minister said it would – and more. Not only is the possession of pornographic images of rape to be criminalised, but also those images depicting other forms of non-consensual sexual penetration.

    This reform rightly addresses the failure of the current law to take a strong stance against the normalisation of sexual violence. Rape pornography eroticises violence. It sustains a culture in which a 'no' to sexual activity is not taken seriously, in which sexual violence is seen as entertainment, and in which equality and dignity are not protected.

    A culture in which, research for the Children’s Commissioner suggests, young people, turning to pornography for guidance on sex, are engaging in risky behaviours, are uncertain as to what consent means, and develop harmful attitudes towards women and girls. Rape pornography is a form of cultural harm. And it is this cultural harm that justifies legislative action.

    This is not to suggest that those who view rape pornography will necessarily go on to commit rape. Such arguments of direct, causal links between pornography and violence are over-simplistic.

    Nor does our endorsement of these changes extend uncritically to the entirety of the extreme pornography laws and the proposed reforms. Further amendments are crucial to ensure both the effectiveness of the new law and that it targets culturally harmful material.

    First, we recommend the inclusion of a provision requiring reference to be made to the context - description, sounds, narrative – of the image when determining whether or not it is one of ‘rape’. Scottish law already includes such a provision and it helps make it clearer which images fall within the remit of the legislation.

    Second, we recommend extending the defence of ‘participation in consensual acts’. This would be a further signal that the target of the legislation is not – and should not be – private depictions of consensual BDSM activity. As we have argued elsewhere, the law currently allows for the criminalisation of many images which, when carried out with consent and produced for private use, should not be covered by this law. Extending the defence to ensure such images would not be captured by it would remedy this flaw in the current offence.

    Finally, the law should include a public good defence, as in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, as this would alleviate concerns that the extreme pornography provisions extend to works of art.

    In the end, however, while we welcome and support the Government’s recognition that rape pornography is ‘extreme’ enough to be included in extreme pornography law, we hope that these measures are just the beginning.

    If we truly want to address the harms of pornography, what we need is a wholesale review and revision of the obscenity and pornography laws.

    This would include a reform of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and its focus on the ‘depravity’ of the consumer of obscene materials. It would entail an examination of the prosecutorial policy which continues to label as ‘obscene’ material that may be distasteful for some but is not unlawful to perform. It would require ensuring that the law is up-to-date for our technological age, particularly around the difficult questions of what ‘possession’ actually means, as well as the implications of increasingly realistic computer generated images.

    It is time for a new Commission on Pornography and Obscenity, 30 years on from the Williams Report at the end of the 1970s. It is time for a new law which places the cultural harms of pornography at its centre.

    Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley are Professors of Law at Durham University with particular expertise in the legal regulation of pornography, rape law and gender equality in the legal profession. Follow them on Twitter @McGlynnClare@erikarackley.

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    A UN report released today has found that progress made towards reducing poverty is at risk of being reversed because of widening inequality and a failure to strengthen women's rights.

    According to a recent UN report, the progress made in the past 20 years towards reducing global poverty is at risk of being reversed because of a failure to combat widening inequality and strengthen women’s rights. The UN’s ICPD Beyond 2014 Global Report, has found that the number of people living in developing countries has more than halved from 47 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent in 2010, but argues that many of the 1 billion people living in the 50-60 poorest countries will be left behind as the rest of the world gets richer.

    Around the world, different groups are marginalised and discriminated against, but discrimination against women is universal. It’s a shocking thought that in 2014, there is no country in the world where women have equal economic and political power to men. As well as holding back billions of women from achieving their full potential, and asserting their right to live full, healthy lives, this is having an impact on the global economy too. Is, as the UN suggests, the reason for global wealth creation shifting from the West to fast-growing Eastern economies in part due to women’s increased economic participation? Most certainly.

    According to the IMF, closing the gender gap in the labour market would raise the GDP of the USA by 5 per cent, the UAE by 12 per cent, Japan by 9 per cent and Egypt by 34 per cent. Using TradingEconomics figures for 2013, I calculated that this means gender equality is worth $784.2bn for the US, $536bn for Japan, $43.2bn for the UAE and $96.2bn for Egypt.

    IMF also estimates that 853m women worldwide have the potential to contribute more to their economies, and 812m of these live in developing countries. In wealthier countries, more women in work can offset some of the negative effects caused by an ageing and shrinking workforce.

    Bringing more women into work creates a positive cycle: as today’s UN report points out, poverty often hits women hardest. In the world’s poorest countries, women are more likely to die in childbirth, for instance, and are disproportionately affected by the grind of unpaid, physical domestic chores like food production and collecting water.  Across many countries, single mothers are among the poorest sector of society. Poverty is a both a cause and a consequence of inequality. Both globally and within countries, the gap between rich and poor is widening - more than half of the gains in global income since 1988 went to the richest 5 per cent-   a fact that will have an outsize impact on women.

    Worldwide, 97 per cent of countries report having programmes and policies in place to address gender inequality, but with the lack of real political will, this still hasn’t levelled the playing field for women.  The economic impact of this global policy failure is just one reason for supporting women’s equality – but it is a good way of pointing out one obvious, but often overlooked point: when women gain, the whole of society benefits. 

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    The shadow health secretary says the party "can’t have a blanket position" because "it doesn’t affect everybody equally".

    After Ed Balls threatened to withdraw support from High Speed 2 (HS2) last year, Labour has recently moved to a more supportive position, with Ed Miliband recruiting the project's original architect Andrew Adonis to advise him on the issue. During the debate last year on the preparation bill, shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh described Labour as "the true friends of HS2" and declared that "it will fall to the next Labour government – on time and on budget." When asked last month whether both main parties were now committed to the scheme, its chief David Higgins said: "I think so, yes. We’ve certainly got a good line of communication with both sides of the government and the opposition."

    But one shadow cabinet minister who retains huge concerns is Andy Burnham. In an interview with me for tomorrow's New Statesman, the shadow health secretary refused to rule out rebelling against the Labour whip if changes were not made. "It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hardheaded way," he explained, complaining of an "absolutely massive depot" on what is "currently green space". He added:

    I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new railtrack in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.

    When I asked how he would respond if the government did not meet his demands, he suggested that the party would have to suspend collective responsibility and allow him to vote against HS2.

    If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: 'everyone's constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally does it?’

    Whether the Labour whips would take such an emollient view is questionable.

    For several reasons, the party remains more likely than not to support HS2. The first is that many of its northern and midlands MPs (as well as councillors and trade union leaders) are committed to the project and have warned Miliband that withdrawing support would damage the party's standing in these regions. Indeed, it was their comments in a private meeting that prompted the Labour leader to end the ambiguity over the party's position before the vote last year.

    The second is the threat by David Cameron to cancel the project if Labour comes out against it. As he said last year: "It [HS2] does have all-party support. We supported it in opposition when Labour were in Government; Labour support it today, as I understand it, now we are in government; the Liberal Democrat party support it as well. And that is all to the good because these multi-year, multi-parliament infrastructure projects, they can’t go ahead without all-party support – you won’t get the investment, you can’t have the consistency." The abandonment of the project would allow the Tories and the Lib Dems to suggest their own uses for the £50bn budget, reducing the political advantage to Labour.

    The third is that, as one senior strategist told me, Labour wishes to be seen as a party that champions infrastructure investment (which Balls has left room to borrow for) and cancelling HS2 would send out the wrong signal. In order to display its commitment to fiscal responsibility, it is far better to bear down on current spending.

    But Burnham's concerns, which are shared by shadow cabinet members including Balls, Yvette Cooper and Michael Dugher, show the potential for division as the party decides whether to give its final blessing to the project before the general election.

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    Julian Assange and his collaborators enacted a true and authentic political event. But what do we mean by that, and how does it influence our actions?

    In December 2013 I visited Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy located just behind the Harrods store in London. It was a rather depressing experience, in spite of the kindness of the embassy personnel. The embassy is a six-room apartment with no garden attached, so that Assange cannot even take a daily walk in fresh air. He also cannot step out of the apartment into the house's main corridor – policemen are waiting for him there. A dozen or so of them are all the time around the house and in some of the surrounding buildings, one even beneath a tiny backyard toilet window, in case Assange will try to escape through that hole in the wall. The apartment is bugged from above and below, its internet link is suspiciously slow... so how come the British state decided to employ around 50 people full time to guard Assange and control him under the legal pretence that he refuses to go to Sweden and be questioned about a minor sexual misconduct (there are no charges against him!)? One is tempted to become a Thatcherite and ask: where is austerity politics here? If a nobody like myself were to be wanted by the Swedish police for a similar interrogation, would the UK also employ 50 people to guard me? The serious question is here: where does such a ridiculously excessive desire for revenge stem from? What did Assange, his colleagues, and whistle-blowing sources do to deserve this?

    Jacques Lacan proposed as the axiom of the ethics of psychoanalysis: “Do not compromise your desire.”  Is this axiom also not an accurate designation of the whistleblowers’ acts? In spite of all the risks their activity involves, they are not ready to compromise on it – on what? This brings us to the notion of event: Assange and his collaborators enacted a true and authentic political event – this is what one can easily understand the violent reaction of the authorities. Assange and colleagues are often accused of being traitors, but they are something much worse (in the eyes of the authorities) – to quote Alenka Zupančič:

    Even if Snowden were to sell his informations discreetly to another intelligence service, this act would still count as part of the ‘patriotic games’, and if needed he would have been liquidated as a ‘traitor’. However, in Snowden's case, we are dealing with something entirely different. We are dealing with a gesture which questions the very logic, the very status quo, which for quite some time serves as the only foundation of all ‘Western’ (non)politics. With a gesture which as it were risks everything, with no consideration of profit and without its own stakes: it takes the risk because it is based on the conclusion that what is going on is simply wrong. Snowden didn't propose any alternative. Snowden, or, rather, the logic of his gesture, like, say, before him, the gesture of Bradley Manning – is the alternative.

    This breakthrough of Wikileaks is nicely encapsulated by Assange's ironic self-designation as a “spy for the people”: “spying for the people” is not a direct negation of spying (which would rather be acting as a double agent, selling our secrets to the enemy) but its self-negation, ie, it undermines the very universal principle of spying, the principle of secrecy, since its goal is to make secrets public. It thus functions in a way similar to how the Marxian “dictatorship of the proletariat” was supposed to function (but rarely ever did, of course): as an imminent self-negation of the very principle of dictatorship. To those who continue to paint the scarecrow of Communism, we should answer: what Wikileaks is doing is the practice of Communism. Wikileaks simply enacts the commons of informations.

    In the struggle of ideas, the rise of bourgeois modernity was exemplified by the French Encyclopedia, a gigantic venture of presenting in a systematic way to broad public all available knowledge – the addressee of this knowledge was not the state but the public as such. It may seem that Wikipedia already is today’s encyclopedia, but something is missing from it: the knowledge which is ignored by and repressed from the public space, repressed because it concerns precisely the way state mechanisms and agencies control and regulate us all. The goal of Wikileaks should be to make this knowledge available to all of us with a simple click. Assange effectively is today’s d’Alembert, the organiser of this new encyclopedia, the true people’s encyclopedia for the twenty-first century. It is crucial that this new encyclopedia acquires an independent international base, so that the humiliating game of playing one big state against another (like Snowden having to look for protection in Russia) will be constrained to a minimum. Our axiom should be that Snowden and Pussy Riot are part of the same struggle – which struggle?

    Our informational commons recently emerged as one of the key domains of the class struggle in two of its aspects, economical in the narrow sense and socio-political. On the one hand, new digital media confront us with the impasse of “intellectual property”. The World Wide Web seems to be in its nature Communist, tending towards free flow of data – CDs and DVDs are gradually disappearing, millions are simply downloading music and videos, mostly for free. This is why the business establishment is engaged in a desperate struggle to impose the form of private property on this flow. On the other hand, digital media (especially with the almost universal access to the web and cell phones) opened up new ways for the millions of ordinary people to establish a network and coordinate their collective activities, while also offering state agencies and private companies unheard-of possibilities of tracking down our public and private acts. It is into this struggle that Wikileaks intervened in such an explosive way.

    In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T S Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what Wikileaks did: its activity is based on the insight that the only way to keep our democracy alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main institutional corpse of state apparatuses and mechanisms. In doing this, Wikileaks did something unheard of, redefining the coordinates of what counts as possible or admissible in the public space. I wrote a book on the notion of “event” precisely to create the space for the proper understanding of phenomena like Wikileaks, when a political act does not only violate the predominant rules but creates its own new rules and imposes new ethical standards. What we hitherto took as self-evident – the right of the state to monitor and control us – is now seen as deeply problematic; what we hitherto perceived as something criminal, an act of betrayal – disclosing  state secrets – now appears as a heroic ethical act.    

    From this brief description, we can already see how an event is located within a narrative field. Our historical experience is formed as a narrative, ie, we always locate real occurrences within a narrative which makes them part of a meaningful storyline. Problems arise when an unexpected shattering turn of events – an outbreak of war, a deep economic crisis – can no longer be included into a consistent narrative. At that point, it all depends on how this catastrophic turn will be symbolised, on what ideological interpretation or story will impose itself and determine the general perception of the crisis. When the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for ideological competition – for example, in Germany in the late 1920s, Hitler won in the competition for the narrative which will explain to Germans the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar republic and the way out of it (his plot was the Jewish plot); in France in 1940 it was Marshal Petain’s narrative which won in explaining the reasons for the French defeat. And the same goes for the ongoing financial and economic crisis: which narrative will prevail? Will it be the neoliberal one, blaming the strong state, the conservative one, bemoaning the loss of traditional values, or the radical Leftist one, advocating radical emancipatory politics? The event is the successful imposition of a new narrative which makes a historical situation readable again to those caught in it.

    The important lesson of this example of Fascism is that there are also what one could call negative events. Imagine a society which fully integrated into its ethical substance the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, democratic rights, the duty of a society to provide for education and basic healthcare of all its members, and which rendered racism or sexism simply inacceptable and ridiculous – there is no need even to argue against, say, racism, since anyone who openly advocates racism is immediately perceived as a weird eccentric who cannot be taken seriously, etc. But then, step by step, these achievements are undone, one can openly propagate racism, advocate torture, etc. Did Hitler not do something like this? Was his message to the German people not “Yes, we can…” – kill the Jews, squash democracy, act in a racist way, attack other nations? And are we not witnessing signs of a similar process today? In the middle of 2013, two public protests were announced in Croatia, a country in deep economic crisis, with high unemployment rate and a deep sense of despair among the population: trade unions tried to organise a rally in support of workers’ rights, while right wing nationalists started a protest movement against the use of cyrillic letters on public buildings in cities with Serb minority. The first initiative brought to a big square in Zagreb a couple of hundred people, the second one succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands, the same as with a fundamentalist movement against gay marriages. Croatia is far from being an exception in this regard: from Balkan to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India, a new Dark Age is coming, with ethnic and religious passions exploding, and the Enlightenment values receding. These passions were lurking in dark all the time, but what is new now is the outright shamelessness of their display.

    This ongoing process of undermining the very fundamentals of our emancipatory achievements takes place at different levels. The debate about water boarding being torture or not should be dropped as an obvious nonsense: why, if not by causing pain and fear of death, does boarding make hardened terror suspects talk? As to the replacement of the word “torture” by “enhanced interrogation technique,” one should note that we are dealing here with an extension of the Politically Correct logic: in exactly the same way that “disabled” becomes “physically challenged,” “torture” becomes “enhanced interrogation technique” (and, why not, “rape” could become “enhanced seduction technique”). One should insist on this parallel between torture and rape: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here: I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it – and the same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is “dogmatically” rejected as repulsive, without any need for argumentation. So what about the “realist” argument: torture was always going on, if anything even more in the (near) past, so is it not better to at least talking publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem: if torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: to normalise it, ie, to lower our ethical standards.

    And it is crucial to see this ethical regression as the obverse of the explosive development of global capitalism – they are the two sides of the same coin. So where do we stand today? Maybe, we don’t even stand but just lean forward in a very specific way. Close to the children’s museum in Seoul, there is a weird statue which, to the non-initiated, cannot but appear as staging a scene of extreme obscenity: it looks as if a group of young boys leaning forward behind each other are sticking their heads into the rectum of the boy in front, while the first boy is standing in front of the queue and has the head of the first boy who is leaning pushed into his crotch. When we inquire, we are informed that the statue is simply the staging of malttukbakgi, a fun game that both Korean girls and boys play till high school. There are two teams; team A has one person stand up against the wall and the rest of the team have all their heads up in someone else’s butt/crotch area to form what looks like a large horse. Team B then jumps up onto the human horse one by one, each jumping with as much force as possible; if anyone from any team falls to the floor, that team loses.

    Is this statue not a perfect metaphor for us, common people, for our predicament in today’s global capitalism? Our view is constrained to what we can see with our head stuck into the ass of a guy just in front of us, and our idea of who is our Master is the guy in front whose penis and/or balls the first guy in the row appears to be licking – but the real Master, invisible to us, is the one freely jumping on our back, the autonomous movement of the Capital.

    How, then, are we to proceed in such a messy situation? There is a wonderful common Scottish verb tartle which designates the awkward moment when a speaker temporarily forgets someone's name (usually the name of his/her partner in a conversation) and the verb is used to avoid that occasional embarrassment, as in: “Sorry, I tartled there for a moment!” Were we all not tartling in the last decades, forgetting the name “Communism” to designate the ultimate horizon of our emancipatory struggles? The time has come to fully remember this word – its full public rehabilitation would have been in itself an authentic political event.

    Event by Slavoj Žižek, the second in Penguin’s Philosophy in Transit series by leading philosophers, is out now in paperback, priced £8.99

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    The shadow health secretary on why he’s prepared to rebel.

    Few in Labour feel the constraints of opposition more than Andy Burnham. “I’m a shadow of my former self,” he jokes when we meet at his Commons office, referring to his current post as Labour’s health spokesman (he held the position in government from 2009 to 2010). More hopefully, he cites the vote in favour of banning parents from smoking in cars where there are children and the government’s decision to accept Syrian refugees as evidence of how the party has changed policy from outside power. The next election, he tells me, is “completely winnable”, and he adds: “That’s a pretty great place to be for a one-term opposition.”

    Burnham’s ebullient tone changes when we turn to the National Health Service, around which, he warns, a “perfect storm” is still building. “If you look at the data on A&E, something has fundamentally changed in the last 12 to 18 months and that is that the pressure has both ratcheted up and has been sustained over the year, so it’s not diminishing. It’s normally a winter and then back down again.”

    One of the main drivers of the A&E crisis has been the 20 per cent cut in social-care funding since 2010, which has turned some hospitals into de facto warehouses for the elderly. The imaginative solution proposed by Burnham is “whole-person care”: the creation of an integrated service with a single budget for physical, mental and social needs. After securing shadow cabinet support for the principle last year, despite the well-known scepticism of Ed Balls, he is now working on the details. There is the promise of an announcement by the time of Labour’s national policy forum in Milton Keynes in July. The question, he says, is: “How far do you go? Do you go for a very ambitious version of it, or an amalgamation of the existing budget?” Burnham does not disguise his preference. “So great is the challenge that’s coming at the health- and social-care system, both in terms of the financial outlook and the demographic pressures, I would argue that you only rise to that with a solution of equal scale. Tinkering at the edges is not going to do it.”

    Complementing the establishment of “whole-person care”, his other main pledge is to repeal the coalition’s NHS reforms and halt the privatisation of services. He is troubled by how the proposed EU-US free trade agreement could give permanent legal backing to the new, market-led regime and reveals that he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby the European Commission over the matter. “It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, so that we can exempt it from competition law,” he tells me. “The market is not the answer to 21st-century health care. The demands of 21st-century care require integration. Markets deliver fragmentation.”

    But it is when I ask for his views on an area outside his policy brief, the High Speed 2 rail link (HS2), that Burnham becomes most animated. “It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hard-headed way,” he says, complaining of an “absolutely massive depot” on what is “currently green space”.

    Recently, after Balls threatened to withdraw backing for the project last year, Labour has moved to a more supportive position, with Ed Miliband recruiting the original architect of HS2, Andrew Adonis, to advise him on the issue. But Burnham goes further in his criticism than any other shadow cabinet minister has done. “I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new rail track in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.”

    Remarkably, Burnham refuses to rule out breaking collective responsibility and voting against HS2 if changes are not made. “If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: ‘Everyone’s constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally, does it?’ ” Whether the Labour whips would take such an emollient view is questionable.

    More than almost any other shadow cabinet minister, Burnham has the potential to be a transformative secretary of state. Whole-person care is the most fully developed example of the new approach to public-service reform outlined by Ed Miliband in his Hugo Young memorial lecture on 10 February. In an age of austerity, it is also among the most necessary.

    As Burnham points out: “People will often say, ‘Oh, integration – it all sounds quite fluffy, quite nice, but are there are any real savings there?’ Monitor are talking about £6bn as the potential gain from integration. That’s got to be taken before anyone asks anybody for anything else.”

    Now he just needs to make sure that Leigh gets that railway station.

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    A site in the Kootenay National Park has proved a fantastic source of fossils from the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago.

    In 2012, geologists discovered a major haul of fossils in Canada’s Kootenay National Park, in the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, Alberta. The find looked like it could shed further light on one of the most critical periods in the history of life on Earth, the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago - and the first study of its specimens, published in the journal Nature Communications, reveals that the find will “increase our understanding of early animal evolution” in an almost unparalleled way.

    While there is evidence that life existed on Earth at least 3.5 billion years ago, life as we know it - multi-cellular and adapted to almost every part of the planet - appeared in what is called the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago. This was the era before animals colonised land, and indeed this period coincided with the first era of algae-like plants adapting to survive above water on the edges of bodies of water.

    Over the course of around 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated vastly, and the ancestors of almost all of the major phyla we see today first emerged. Quite why this happened is the subject of debate among scientists - it could have been any number of environmental or genetic factors - but there seemed to have been a relative frenzy of evolutionary competition.

    The previously-dominant Ediacarans, which looked a bit like large floating sacks, were usurped and made extinct by the emergence of creatures that developed physical characteristics we still see today, like internal layering that separates digestive tracts from other organs, or having distinct “fronts” and “backs” (a trait known as bilateral symmetry). For an idea of what creatures exist today that missed out on all this, look to jellyfish.

    In the rush to try and fill each new ecological niche, there were thousands of experiments that resemble nothing like anything that lives today. There was the spiky grazer Orthrozanclus and the superhero shrimp Stanleycaris; the bristleworm Insolicorypha and the arthopod Marrella, with huge spines on its head. There were also trilobites, thousands and thousands of different trilobites.

    But these creatures lived in the sea, and were usually no more than a few centimetres in length at most. When they died - as they no doubt did by the million - they will have been eaten by other scavenging animals within a short time of settling on the sea floor. Our fossil record is dependent entirely on what were ancient landslides, when massive amounts of rock fell into the sea to crush entire shorelines, fossilising them. The few sites where this has happened, with whole ecosystems frozen in stone, are amazing - and none is better than the Burgess Shale. Nowhere else are the soft bodies of the ancient Cambrian explosion better-preserved, with detail so fine it’s possible to make out individual antennae or legs.

    The original Burgess Shale find was in 1909, in the Yoho National Park, by palaeontologist Charles Walcott. It was formed by what’s known as a Lagerstätte formation, a particular kind of sedimentary preservation that happens so quickly not even microbes have time to break the tissue down, which is key to preserving as much detail as possible. Walcott spent decades gathering more than 65,000 fossils from the site, with its major significance only realised in the 1960s. And, while the Shale itself extends beyond the Yoho National Park, the best fossils were always found at Walcott’s original site.

    However, it appears that the site in Kootenay National Park now rivals it for importance. The team of researchers - from institutes including the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto, and Uppsala University - gathered as many as 3,000 fossil specimens representing 50 different species in only 15 days.

    The study’s lead author, Jean-Bernard Caron from the Royal Ontario Museum, said: "This new discovery is an epic sequel to a research story that began at the turn of the previous century, and there is no doubt in my mind that this new material will significantly increase our understanding of early animal evolution. The rate at which we are finding animals – many of which are new – is astonishing, and there is a high possibility that we'll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho National Park site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world.”

    Some of the preservation is so good that internal organs are visible. There’s also further evidence to support that hypothesis that Pikaia gracilens - a 4cm-long creature that looks a bit like an eel with tentacles - is the earliest known creature with the characteristics of vertebrates. It could even be the common ancestor of all vertebrates alive today.

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    A history of empire and civilisation is a history of the sea.

    The Sea and Civilisation: a Maritime History of the World
    Lincoln Paine
    Atlantic Books, 784pp, £30

    In the latest tempestuous weather to hit the British Isles, members of the public were warned not to walk near the sea. It was as if the mere sight of the crashing, spumy waves posed a malign, almost preternatural threat – a reminder that, for all our supposed dominion, the sea remains an uncontrol­lable power that might yet rise up against us. Yet it also served to underline our increasing disconnection from the sea and all it means.

    Perhaps that explains a swelling cultural fascination with the subject. In the past 12 months we’ve had Nottingham Contemporary/Tate St Ives’s eclectic exhibition, “Aquatopia: the Imaginary of the Ocean Deep” and the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea”; Penny Woolcock’s film and interactive website, From The Sea to the Land Beyond, with a soundtrack by British Sea Power; the forthcoming exhibition “From Ship to Shore: Art and the Lure of the Sea” in Southampton, and the artist Tania Kovats’s show “Oceans” at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Along with books such as the marine biologist Callum Robert’s Ocean of Life; the naturalist Horatio Clare’s container-ship adventures, Down to the Sea in Ships; and a brilliant collection of critical essays from Royal College of Art students, As is the Sea, the horizon looks positively crowded with watery artefacts, texts and displays.

    The US historian Lincoln Paine’s global history steams into view from across the Atlantic, a brilliantly researched and ambitious affirmation of the sea and civilisation. It begins with an arresting image: the earliest representation of watercraft in 6,000-year-old rock carvings of hunting scenes in Norway. Soon, we are following the extraordinary migrations of Oceania peoples in dugouts, using intuitive navigational skills that assessed wind and tide, the mere colour of the sea, or the “loom” of an island, the changing light that land cast in the sky long before it was visible on the horizon.

    The Mediterranean – itself the relic of an ancient sea, the Tethys – bore witness to the first colonial sea empires. The legacies of the Phoenicians and Greeks remain in the ports that still ring the Mediterranean; Aristophanes’ fifth-century BC description of trading quays at Piraeus filled with “nets of onions, garlands and anchovies and flute-girls and black eyes” seems almost timeless.

    With empire came conflict. The ascendency of Rome would have been impossible without mastery of the sea, an era of sail-and-oar-powered warships – triremes and quinqueremes – and tyrant-rulers such as the wonderfully-named Demetrius “the Besieger”. Demetrius encouraged an arms race of ever more bloated boats, powered by slaves – sometimes eight to an oar – and armed with catapults launching bolts, boulders and, as one “creative tactician” suggested, buckets of vipers and scorpions. More peaceable but equally overblown were mercantile ships such as the Syracusia, a precursor of an ocean-going liner – complete with first-class accommodation, decorated with mosaics and comprising a library, a gymnasium, baths, flower-bed-lined promenades and a chapel dedicated to Aphrodite.

    Europe remained a maritime back­water until the Middle Ages. Paine writes that Viking depredations are exaggerated and they were far more concerned with trade; I’d never thought of the provenance of Norway as the “North Way”, a parallel to the “whale roads” of Anglo-Saxon poetry. But it took the monopolistic influence of the Hanseatic League to shift the focus firmly north by the mid-1300s. As well as bringing wealth to Lubeck, Hamburg and Copenhagen (“merchants’ harbour”), it also brought less welcome imports, such as the plague.

    Paine is full of such illuminating facts. I was glad to read of my own hometown, Southampton, that it was England’s first naval base and shipbuilding port in 1420; and that in 1439, for instance, a Venetian great galley sailed from Southampton containing 2,783 cloths and 14,000 tons of tin. Yet each of the modern container ships that slip down Southampton Water every day contains more cargo than the total volume of trade carried to Venice during an entire year of the 15th century.

    Paine forestalls any western bias with excellent chapters on Asian expansion. Long before the European age of navigation was enabled by the compass and the astrolabe, Chinese fleets of hundreds of ships and hundreds of thousands of sailors and soldiers were sailing to the Indian Ocean. Yet Zheng He’s seven expeditions under the Ming dynasty would be written out of its own history by the increasingly isolationist Chinese as “deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things”.

    Such a withdrawal left the oceans open to figures such as Henry the Navigator. Although Henry – a Portuguese prince and grandson of John of Gaunt – never travelled further than Morocco, the power of his sponsorship extended Europe’s dominion; as did the voyages of Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral and Ferdinand Magellan.

    Yet, so much of this was accidental. Christopher Columbus was alerted to new lands to the west by tales of strange flotsam drifting across the Atlantic – “in Galway, in Ireland, a man and a woman with miraculous form, pushed along by the storm on two logs” – and in the Azores, “the sea flung ashore two dead bodies, with broad faces and different in appearance from the Christians”. (Four centuries later, in 1877, the Ocean Notes for Ladies guide to sea-going etiquette would recommend that “a body washed ashore in good clothes, would receive more respect and kinder care than if dressed in those only fit for the rag bag”.)

    As Rosalind Williams demonstrates in her recent book The Triumph of Human Empire (University of Chicago Press), the ocean was mare liberum until the 18th century, not subject to the sovereign claims that had carved up much of the terrestrial globe. Even in 1812, Byron could still write, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “Man marks the earth with ruin – his control/Stops with the shore . . .”

    But then the world’s latest and greatest maritime power declared a three-mile nautical extension – the distance that a British cannonball could be shot – to assert its imperial rights. As Paine notes, the first commercial transatlantic service, in 1838, was greeted by the headline, “Annihilation of Space and Time”. Yet space and time were never more important. By the 20th century, a new empire, the US, had extended its coastal governance to 200 miles off its shores.

    Now, even the waters under the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap are staked out by Russian flags, while European fishing fleets pillage the coasts of African countries. Piracy and slavery are still with us; perhaps more than ever, the sea is an arena of dispute, both above and below. New proposals have been made to mine recently discovered abyssal volcanic vents for rare earth metals. Meanwhile, off the British coast, cold-water reefs with 4,000 year old spires of coral are destroyed by trawlers.

    Abused, ignored, trashed and transversed, the sea is a sink for all our sins. I’d like to think that Byron, my fellow open-water swimmer, had the last words – “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!/ Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain”, but I fear that I’m indulging a romantic fantasy. “The sea held no promise for slaves, coolies, indentured servants, or the dispossessed”, Paine reminds us, and while it is “fickle and unforgiving, it is a fragile environment susceptible to human depredation on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors”. And yet, whose heart does not sing out when they see the sea? Our last resort, it still holds its promise and its power.

    Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99) is published in paperback this month

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    "In our global world it is the local that will be the agent of political change, the place of belonging, the source of identity."

    Speech to the New Local Government Network

    Thank you Simon and to Emma for your invitation.
    I was looking through your pamphlet Localism 2015.
    Catherine West and Lib Peck showing the best of what Labour Councils can do.
    David Skelton of Renewal putting the blue collar Tory case.
    Sir Richard Leese, who is leading Labour's Local Government Innovation Task Force.
    John Hart of Devon Council on putting localism into practice.
    Lots of really good ideas.

    Now I expect that you want to know what Local Government can expect from Labour's 2015 Manifesto.
    So let me say something about the challenges ahead and how our Policy Review is responding to them.

    But rather than talk about localism, I want to talk about power.
    As Ed Miliband said on Monday we have to take seriously where power lies in our country.
    If we want a less centralised, more equal and inclusive society, then we have to talk about who has power and who doesn't.

    We face some very big challenges.
    Many people worry that the country is in decline; some don't think politicians can sort out its problems.
    They feel powerless to make their voices heard.
    They are right, we have locked too many of the British people out.
    People have lost trust in the political establishment of all parties.

    At the heart of our cost of living crisis is the question of how the country is run and who it is run for.

    Labour's Policy Review is about giving power to people to give them more control over their lives.
    Our task is to build a One Nation political project that helps people to help themselves and transforms how the country is run.

    This Government cannot renew our country.
    The Conservatives  cannot unite us around the things we have in common as a nation.
    I say this with regret and with respect for Conservatives here this morning.
    I have great respect for One Nation Conservatism and for Blue Collar Toryism, but I think the Conservative Party is losing its conservative values and becoming a party of free market liberalism: out of touch, rootless; divisive.

    So from now to 2015 there will be a struggle over the essential character of our country.
    You are on the frontline and you know what is at stake.

    Lets consider some of the facts.

    Britain’s families face a cost of living crisis the like of which we haven’t seen for generations.
    Real wages are down by an average of £1600 a year while prices are going up.
    And three years of economic failure means the government has borrowed £200bn more than planned.
    In 2015 George Osborne will leave the country with a deficit close to £80 billion and the national debt still rising.

    The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates government consumption will fall from 21.8 per cent of GDP in 2012 to 16.1 per cent of GDP in 2018 under the Tories’ current plans.
    The lowest level since1948.

    It’s an obvious fact that the size and function of the British state is being fundamentally changed.
    And it's not the Big Society.
    The government is stripping back the state but it's not giving power back to the people.
    It is concentrating power in ill-functioning markets.
    Often giving power to giant corporations without anything like enough accountability.
    There is no system reform in its austerity plan, just uncoordinated salami slicing of Whitehall budgets, squeezing separate public services and tinkering around the edges of traditional modes of delivery.
    Too often it is replacing an unresponsive bureaucratic state with an unresponsive corporate state.

    By the end of this parliament council budgets will have been reduced by an average of 40 per cent.
    At the end of this financial year, there will still be 60 per cent of spending cuts  to come.
    Whilst a growing and ageing population is putting public services and social care provision under growing pressure.
    More and more need, less and less money.

    The government is disproportionately cutting funding to the most deprived areas, shunting costs around, and failing to reduce demand pressures. 

    The shortfall is acute and growing.
    It is estimated that a third of our councils are cutting budgets below that required to meet their statutory obligations.

    These are the largest cuts in public spending  since the end of the second world war.

    Now shine the light on my Party for a minute.

    Labour recognizes that Conservative cuts will not simply translate into Labour votes.
    The public might not want a Conservative government.
    But we need to show we have changed as well.
    Since 2010 we have been learning the lessons.

    Ed Miliband understands the message.
    He has built his leadership on Labour's need to change.
    He understands Labour will not win in 2015 if we fight an election with the politics of 2010.

    Ed Balls understands the message.
    Ed has made clear that we will govern with less money.
    In 2015-16 there will be no more borrowing for day-to-day spending.
    And we will have to make cuts too.
    There is a zero based review on all parts of public spending.

    In the next parliament a Labour government will balance the books, and deliver a surplus on the current budget and falling national debt as soon as possible.
    We will inherit a state that in many areas has reached the limit of its capacity to cut without  transformational change to the system.

    We will be that change.

    One Nation Labour

    In many ways it was the Labour Party that defined the dominant political settlement of the Twentieth Century.
    After an historical struggle we built our welfare state.
    A profound achievement- but too often we settled for that.
    Arguably, the ideology and institutions of 70 years ago became the horizon of our ambition.
    Confronted by the revolution of liberal market economics in the 1980s we sometimes just defended institutions and ideas that were offering diminishing returns.
    We spoke as egalitarians and reformers but we had become institutional conservatives.
    Instead of changing our institutions and the fundamentals of our economy, we  relied on high growth and redistribution through tax and income transfers to try to deliver more equality and compensate for the failures of the economy.

    Of course our policies improved the lives of millions.
    But the link between economic growth and rising living standards began to break down.
    Personal debt grew.
    Our economy became dominated by an over powerful financial sector.
    Many of our assets were sold abroad.

    The Northern Counties Permanent Building Society was established in 1850 by local people to serve local interests.
    It was part of the local economy and society for 147 years.
    It weathered 4 serious depressions.
    It was demutualised as Northern Rock in 1997 and bankrupted within 10 years.

    Our football clubs, power generating companies, airports and ports, water companies, rail franchises, chemical, engineering and electronic companies, merchant banks, top end houses  and other assets sold off into foreign ownership.
    People left powerless.

    Then the music stopped in 2008.
    The 20th century social democratic politics of redistributing the gains of high growth won't be enough in the 21st.

    As Ed said on Monday to change the country means giving people the power to shape the services and institutions that affect their lives.

    Of course, this is also part of Labour's tradition. 

    Recently I turned to two short pamphlets from an earlier period sent to me by Anthony Painter.
    The first published in 1948 by  Michael Young called  'Small Man: Big World'.
    It calls for Labour to embrace an active democracy and the radical devolution of power to people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces.

    Democracy, Young writes, satisfies two of our fundamental needs: to love or to contribute to the good of others, and to be loved or to receive the affection and respect of others.
    Democracy gives everyone the opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of others and to earn their respect. He wrote,  in anticipation of another victory, that:

    'The main step for Labour's second 5 years is for the people to run the new and the old institutions of our society, participating at all levels as active members - workers, consumers, citizens - of an active democracy'.

    Labour lost. We did not choose this path- and Young left the Party.

    The second pamphlet was written by Tony Crosland in 1970 entitled ‘A Social Democratic Britain’. Here he castigates the siren voices of the left  who prioritise issues of ‘alienation, communication, participation, automation, dehumanization, decentralization, the information network, student revolt, the generation gap or even Women’s lib’.
    These are 'false trails' that focus attention away from the essentials of growth and distribution.

    These two short pamphlets are as relevant today as ever.
    I see the challenge facing Labour as returning to the traditions of Michael Young as a counter to that of Crosland. But this is not either/or.

    As future growth lies in us once again, returning to issues of power, democracy and devolution.

    This journey lies at the heart of Labour’s change today and our Policy Review.

    It lies behind Ed Miliband reforming the party to make ourselves more open and inclusive.

    It lies behind Arnie Graf training our community organisers to bring power to local people.
    It is their energy and innovation that will revitalise politics.

    Alongside this:
    -We will redesign the relationship between central and local government to spread power out to our cities and regions.
    -We will reform our economy to support business in wealth creation and support workers for a fair reward for their labour.
    -We will be radical in challenging injustice, unaccountable institutions, and all vested interests whether in the private or the public sector.

    But government alone will not solve our problems .

    We will put giving people power at the heart of our One Nation.

    Let me set out how we plan to start doing this.

    Labour's Policy Review

    Our Policy Review is now entering its key stage. From now until our National Policy Forum in July we will receive back many of the independent reviews we have set in motion- these are creating real energy in terms of an agenda for Government. It is being informed by what is happening on the ground.

    With Angela Eagle – chair of Labour’s National Policy Forum - we’ve taken the Policy Review across the country. We have transformed the process so that more people could have power and input.

    And Labour Council leaders are leading the way in changing how the country is governed.
    -Linking public service reform to growth.
    -Spending to invest in people to become more productive and better able to take advantage of future opportunities.
    -over time shifting from high cost reaction to long term prevention, and so reducing future demand on public spending.

    Part of this policy work  is being coordinated by our Local Government Innovation Taskforce led by Manchester’s Sir Richard Leese, Jules Pipe of Hackney, and Sharon Taylor of Stevenage.
    Their interim report will be published in a few weeks time for you to read.

    All of this work is building a One Nation political project that helps people to help themselves and will transform how the country is run.  Although there are many months to go we can already point out five organising principles  that structure the work of the Policy Review.

    Let me say what they are.

    1. Transformation.

    We will transform the systems and the institutions of our nation.
    We will shift power from the centre, and as Ed Balls has said, ‘we will devolve economic power to innovative cities and regions’.
    We will deal with the causes of our economic and social problems rather than manage their consequences.
    Our Cities generate 27 per cent of England’s wealth and have half  the country’s leading universities.
    Cities need the institutions that make them powerful and we will create a network of regional banks and a British investment bank for a more responsive system of finance.
    Aligning funding for skills, infrastructure and economic development.
    We must turn our cities into powerhouses of innovation and economic regeneration.

    Building our infrastructure is a major  priority of the next Labour government.
    Ed Miliband has asked Lord Adonis, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure to develop our strategy for regional jobs and growth and his report will be published in the Spring.

    We are learning from our City leaders.
    Nick Forbes in Newcastle is using business rates created in an Accelerated Development Zone to generate £90m of investment and 13000 jobs over the next 25 years to transform his city.

    Our focus will is on institution building for social development.
    The Condition of Britain project run by Nick Pearce and his team at the Institute for Public Policy Research  is setting out the policy agenda for a new social covenant between government and people.

    Lucy Powell, Shadow Minister for Children and Childcare has set out our policy of extending free childcare for three and four year olds with working parents from 15 to 25 hours, plus a primary childcare guarantee.

    It will be provided through funded places, rather than purchased in a market via tax reliefs, credits or vouchers.

    2. Prevention

    Government is wasting money on reactive high cost services because we are failing to fix social problems.

    -An estimated £5 billion a year is spent tackling worklessness, yet long term unemployment is increasing.
    -120,000 troubled families cost an estimated £9 billion a year, £8 billion of which is spent treating symptoms not fixing problems
    -And reoffending by recent ex-prisoners is estimated to cost between £9.5 and £13 billion a year.

    Despite these huge sums, too often, people end up not getting the help they are looking for and government ends up paying for failure .

    We are working through our Zero-Based Review to invest in prevention and  early intervention.
    Developing the self reliance and capacities of individuals and families can  avoid the costs of failure.
    It means designing services that develop inter-dependence within the family and its networks, and so less dependence on services provided by the state.

    -Jon Collins and Nottingham Council, with local MP Graham Allen have pioneered the early intervention approach.
    Shifting the focus from crisis intervention with troubled children and families to building their capacities to break cycles of deprivation .

    -Greater Manchester’s Troubled Families scheme reports significant reductions in levels of anti-social behaviour, offending, improvements in school attendance and reductions in exclusions and a five year saving of £88.7m against costs of £62m.

    Its Intensive Community Orders are reducing reoffending with an estimated return of £183 million on £12 million invested over five years, if the scheme is widely implemented.

    In health care there are an estimated 15 million people in England with one or more long term conditions.
    Over the next ten years the  number is predicted to rise to 20 million.

    They account for 70 per cent of the NHS primary and acute budget in England.
    And yet we have seen social care services dramatically reduced, even though they can keep someone healthy and independent in their own home.

    Andy Burnham’s  ‘whole person care’ will integrate physical and mental health and social care services into a single service.

    One of its aims is to empower people to manage their own long term health problems, keep them out of hospital, and so reduce the pressure on primary and acute care.

    By adopting this approach, the Greenwich Integrated Care programme is realizing savings of £900k in its social care budget.

    The CBI estimates that  delivering care closer to home for some patients could save the NHS up to £3.4bn a year.

    And Rachel Reeves, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions plans a radical devolution to local authorities, giving them the power to negotiate on behalf of their tenants to bring down the cost of housing benefit, and then invest some of those savings in building more homes. In that way we can shift spending from benefits to building.

    But while Labour Councils are rebalancing their services, they are working against the logic of the system.
    A One Nation Labour Government will make a more fundamental shift to prioritise investment in prevention.

    3. Devolution
    We will devolve power to help local people help themselves and shape their services in response to their specific needs.
    Hilary Benn has set out his New English Deal with more powers and devolution for local government:
    -developing our skills and vocational education to meet local need;
    -pioneering new approaches to job finding;
    -and making sure developers, communities and local councils work together with government to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020.

    Co-operative Councils like Sunderland, Lambeth, Oldham and Newcastle are taking devolution a step further and devolving power from local councils to communities.

    They are building local leadership and involving local people directly in co-creating services.

    Young Lambeth Coop directly involves young people, their families and wider community in commissioning services.
    Jim McMahon in Oldham is pioneering the use of open data; for example by publicly rating their residential care homes and paying premiums to the best.

    Durham Council’s Area Action Partnerships involve thousands of residents in developing participatory budgeting to decide directly on what local projects should be funded.

    The third sector and social economy have a vital role to play in a bottom up approach by pioneering local enterprise for example the work of Locality and Community Links in East London.

    Devolving power to local people to help themselves and to shape their services and communities is a fundamental part of a future One Nation Labour Government.

    4. Collaboration and Cooperation
    We will increase the power of local places by building collaboration between and across public services and organisations, and pooling funds to stop inefficiency and  avoid duplication.

    The old silo mentality where different departments or services jealously guard their resources won’t work.

    For example as many as 35 different national schemes seeking to address youth unemployment have been identified, across 13 different age boundaries, funded by eight different national departments and agencies, costing around £15 billion a year.
    Yet there are 50,000 fewer young people accessing support than three years ago.

    We can't afford the status quo.

    As Liz Kendall, Shadow Minister for Care and Older People  has argued, public money doesn’t belong to individual services, it belongs to the whole community.

    The tendency of organisations  to protect their own power and self-interest, and the scale of the challenges, mean we can’t do this from Whitehall.

    So the Local Government Innovation Taskforce is drawing up plans to better organize services around the places people live in rather than institutional silos.
    Evaluation of community budgets have shown that if decisions are devolved to all local areas there is potential for better services, and savings of between £9.4 billion and £20.6 billion.

    With pooled budgets services can be joined up in ways that make sense to the people who use them rather than the people who provide them. 
    Services are more responsive and so money is saved.
    Outcomes are protected not the institution .
    What matters is not whether the provider is public, private or third sector but that it does what the people who use it want. 

    5. Citizenship and Contribution
    We seek to create powerful citizens. Key to our changes will be using open data and new technology to call to account institutions and services. New aps are being developed all over the country which are empowering citizens and driving change- this will be a key element to our work over the next period and link into an enhanced role for the Government Digital Service..
    Our other major resource is the power of people’s relationships and the networks they create to strengthen and  build upon the human capacity for resilience, love, care,  and good neighbourliness.

    Our welfare state cannot protect us from the new social evils such as loneliness and the loss of community.
    It is failing to address the rising levels of mental illness, and it is not able to solve the problem of social exclusion.

    Liz Kendall has put people’s relationships central to her reforms of the social care system; making older people genuine partners in the design of their care.

    We need to teach our children the virtues of character to help them develop the social bonds and self confidence to get on in life .
    Tristram Hunt is calling for the inclusion of character education in initial teacher training, and for all schools to embed character education and resilience across the curriculum.

    Home Start is an example of the kind of service we need
    It is run in local authorities across the country, and helps young single parents bring up their children safely. 
    They are matched with experienced parents from their own community for practical help, and as a source of comfort and reassurance. 
    Home Start creates a family for teenage parents who may have little experience of successful parenting themselves and strengthens relationships across that community. 

    Final Remarks

    Ed Miliband said on Monday that the failed experiments of too much state and too much market mean we can only transform public services if individual citizens and communities have far greater voice in decisions that affect them.
    Giving people esteem and value.
    Helping them build strong relationships.
    To provide opportunities and a sense of security.

    In our global world it is the local that will be the agent of political change, the place of belonging, the source of identity.
    It is relationships and good homes that give people wellbeing and happiness.
    And these are the foundations for rebuilding our country.
    That is why Labour’s national renewal begins with families, the work they do and the places they live- this is where our Policy Review will be going over the next few months.

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    A Briton detained by immigration officials in Canada was repeatedly referred to as "he" and sent to a male prison, despite holding a female passport. In 2014, why are so many authorities still so bad at dealing with trans people?

    It seems like every week brings with it a fresh new controversy about the way some hapless transgender person has been treated poorly by an interviewer, a police officer, a journalist, a school or a church. This has been going on for years, of course, but the difference now is that there’s an angry online mob ever ready to respond. I happen to find much of this anger deeply off-putting and I suspect it puts off a good deal of people the trans community might otherwise count as allies too. Often, though, it does seem to work.

    I could give you plenty of examples of the braying crowd kicking up a fuss and achieving something – the way sports magazine Grantland treated a trans interview subject, the fallout over the death of teacher Lucy Meadows, Janet Mock's encounter with Piers Morgan– but none quite so effective as the latest outrage over a British transgender woman who was sent to a men’s prison in Canada. Stand-up comic Avery Edison flew to Canada on an expired visa and was barred from entering the country. Her tweets describe how border police referred to her as “he” before insisting that she undergo the humiliation of a medical examination to work out where she should be detained. Her passport says she is female, though she has not had genital surgery and retains a penis. (At least the UK Passport Agency seems to be clued up on transgender issues.)



    Toronto Pearson Airport didn’t know what to do with her and I admit that, for your average Joe, the question of what to do with a woman-with-a-penis has probably never come up. Shouldn’t airport staff have some sort of training on situations like this, though? Statistically speaking, Edison is rare, but not unique. She summed it up best with a tweet: “Please keep Toronto Airport customs/immigration officials in your thoughts, as this is apparently their first time meeting a trans person.” And this is in Canada, which we’re told has some of the best rights for LGBT people in the world. That this could happen there, of all places, gives you a taste of how harrowing travel can be for transgender people. Supposedly progressive Denmark put transgender asylum seeker Fernanda Milan in a male detention centre in 2012 – where her medical treatment was stopped and she was repeatedly raped. If you respect the rights of transgender women you don’t put them in men’s prisons, regardless of their genital status. And if Canada and Denmark treat trans people like this, what do you think it’s like elsewhere?

    One of the successes of transgender people’s push for social acceptance is making society aware that we exist outside ridiculous comedy stereotypes. The hope is that, once everyone realises that transgender people are real human beings they might start treating us like human beings. Still, it seems 60 years' worth of documentaries on transgender people, transgender chat show guests, enough transition tales to fill a library and around three articles on the subject every day in the Daily Mail, some people still haven’t got the message. Transgender people exist.

    I don’t mean to patronise the powers-that-be but wouldn’t it be prudent, if, like Toronto Airport, you are responsible for dealing with members of the public – in all their wonderful human diversity – you had some sort of policy on what to do with transgender people? You know, guidelines? Because at some point transgender people are going to walk through your airport or sit down in your restaurant or commit a crime or any of the other things people do and you’ll need to be prepared. Prisons, airport security and hospitals need to develop robust and clear guidelines. Or else we'll be seeing this again and again.

    To say the prison system is patchy in its approach to trans inmates is an understatement. If, like me, you’re eagerly awaiting the second series of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, you probably already know about fictional women’s prison Litchfield and its transgender hairdresser Sophia, played by the brilliant Laverne Cox. Critics questioned her inclusion in the show when it first aired last year – was it, they asked, truly realistic to see a trans woman in a women’s prison in the US? Some trans women are treated as women by the prison system, but many are not. Take Chelsea Manning. She was sentenced while she still publicly identified as male and was sent to a male prison. The facility that’s holding her refuses to let her transition while she’s incarcerated – essentially she’s being denied medical care. Since when do we deny prisoners medical care? They may as well have put her in Guantanamo Bay. I spent eight months as a gender non-conforming person in a male prison and it wasn’t much fun. Prison’s not meant to be fun, of course, but it’s a cruel and unusual extra layer of punishment to place a trans woman in a men’s facility. And Edison hasn’t even been convicted of anything.

    This is part of a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy. It would be nice to see some humanity in these situations or, in the absence of that, better guidelines on how to treat people. It’s the same failure we see when gay asylum seekers are asked to give intimate details and, sometimes, photos of their sex lives to prove they are who they say they are, or indeed the disbelief of rape victims seeking refuge here. It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are. A message trans people hear all the time, of course.

    Those who police our borders are invested with the power of the state, but this is also about prejudices, false assumptions and plain old ignorance. As a trans person you frequently find yourself in conflict with society yourself – whether you’re setting up a direct debit or buying a pint of milk – so is it really surprising that border control offers more of the same? Why would they excel where the rest of society so dismally fails to accommodate the existence of trans people?

    Edison has been transferred to a women’s prison following the eruption of online outrage on her behalf. Another poor soul is saved, but what if we didn’t have the web? And just how many more times does the Internet have to step in and correct the failings of the state?

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    The education secretary responds to the NS debate on public schools.

    England’s oldest public school, Winchester, was founded in 1382 to educate 70 “poor scholars” in theology, canon and civil law and the arts. Eton, its younger sister, was established in 1440. According to the great classicist and historian of public schools Rex Warner, it was “modelled almost entirely on Winchester”. St Paul’s was established in 1509 to educate children of all backgrounds, “with no other charge than the sum of fourpence to be paid at admission”. Rugby was established in 1567 as a grammar school for the local poor. In similar vein, Harrow was founded in 1572 for the free education of the children of the neighbourhood.

    It is then perhaps no surprise that, centuries on, there was considerable political disquiet at the way in which these foundations for poor scholars had come to provide so many benefits for the rich.

    There was a sustained campaign to get the charity commissioners to regulate these schools because, in the eyes of one activist, “considerable unauthorised deviations have been made … from the original plans of the founders”.

    That campaign ran from 1816 to 1818. And the activist was Henry Brougham, later Baron Brougham and Vaux, lord chancellor of Great Britain. His proposals for reform included having parliament administer the endowments of the great public schools for the greater public good. But a Tory majority in the House, concerned to defend property rights in the wake of revolutionary upheaval, thwarted the proposal.

    At the time Brougham was leading his campaign, MPs sat in the Commons for rotten boroughs with corrupted electors, slavery was still legal in the British empire, women had no vote and no legislation existed to prevent children under the age of nine from working in factories.

    Two hundred years later all those abuses and injustices are righted. But still the great public schools overwhelmingly educate the children of the rich.

    In a masterly essay in the New Statesman two weeks ago, David and George Kynaston demonstrated, beyond challenge, that the wonderfully liberating education offered by our great public schools is overwhelmingly the preserve of the wealthy.

    I write as an enthusiastic admirer of the education these schools provide. Their cultivation of intellectual curiosity, insistence on academic rigour and provision of character-building extracurricular activities help students to succeed in every field.

    But while the education these schools provide is rationed overwhelmingly to the rich, our nation remains poorer. From the England cricket team to the comment pages of the Guardian, the Baftas to the BBC, the privately educated – and wealthy – dominate. Access to the best universities and the most powerful seats around boardroom tables, influence in our media and office in our politics are allocated disproportionately to the privately educated children of already wealthy parents.

    We have one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the developed world, perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back.

    When a few public schools can scoop up more places at our top universities than the entire population of boys and girls eligible for free school meals, we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgivable scale.

    Does anyone really believe the stranglehold of wealthier children on these university places, and the opportunities they bring, reflects the spread of talent in our country? Of course it doesn’t. We are still very far from living in the meritocratic society I believe is a moral imperative. As matters rest, children from poorer homes are being denied the opportunity to fulfil themselves, and to contribute to our national renaissance. So matters cannot be allowed to rest.

    But if our contemporary mute, inglorious Miltons are to be given a voice then we must all learn from the history of previous attempts to make opportunity more equal in Britain.

    The answer is not to abolish, punish or undermine excellent educational institutions, but to spread their benefits without diluting their character. There is nothing any progressive should object to in a programme designed to democratise access to the best.

    As R H Tawney argued, it is a positive social good for there to be schools wholly independent of the state in character, curriculum and governance, “on the ground that their existence is favourable to initiative, experiment and the diversity of educational type”. And indeed, the existence of public schools, while it may have perpetuated privilege, has also protected educational standards. Because these schools have preserved curricula and opted for exams, insulated from meddling politicians intent on driving down standards to create the illusion of progress.

    The academies and free schools programme – started by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis – has given state schools the independence over character, curricula and governance long enjoyed by public schools. With one important exception. They are democratic. Inclusive. Comprehensive.

    And they are also contributing to an improvement in standards in state education. Sponsored academies are improving faster than other comparable schools, even as all state schools are showing sustained improvement. And the longer they have been open, the better the results.

    The academies and free schools programme has, as Andrew Adonis noted, allowed 16 formerly fee-paying schools to enter the state system since 2010. They maintain their operational independence and high academic standards while becoming genuine community schools.

    The academies and free schools programme also allows the great public schools to create models of themselves in the state sector – as Eton has done with a new state boarding school, and Eton, Brighton College and Westminster have all done with new sixth-form provision.

    The United Church Schools Trust, originally a group of wholly fee-paying schools, now runs a chain of state schools, and livery companies such as the Mercers’, which used to operate only public schools like St Paul’s, now run superb state schools.

    The Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling.

    Of course, there is more – much more – to do. That is why last week I outlined plans to help state schools poach great teachers from private schools, use the rigorous exams and curricula hitherto restricted to the private sector and move to a longer day, in line with public school practice, to make it easier to offer superb extracurricular activities.

    I want our state schools to be able to compete on equal terms with private schools, so that a visitor to either would find them indistinguishable.

    Of course, this ambition is a threat to some in the private sector. There are, unfortunately, some heads in the fee-paying sector who still hope to preserve their schools as islands of privilege and try to curry favour with educators in the state sector by sneering at the academies programme as an exercise in creating exam factories, and by criticising attempts to inject more rigour into state education as the rule of Gradgrind.

    But this curious, attempted alliance between the ultra-reactionaries of the private sector and their imagined friends in state education is a chimera. Not least because a growing number of leaders in state education – especially those leading the most outstanding schools – know the academies programme gives them the opportunity to prove their superiority over the reactionaries within the private sector.

    And they also know the academies and free schools programme gives them the chance to work hand in hand with the very best private schools. And the momentum for collaboration is growing. Tony Little’s leadership in proclaiming the moral imperative of schools such as Eton doing more to help poorer students; Richard Cairns’s leadership in getting Brighton College to work on terms of equality and partnership with great heads in the state sector like Joan Deslandes, and Andrew Adonis’s leadership in helping schools like Liverpool College and King’s, Tynemouth into the state sector, all point the way forward.

    There may be an irony in an Old Etonian prime minister potentially presiding over the end of the exclusivity of the public school system and making English education truly democratic. But then it was an Old Haileyburian prime minister who established the National Health Service and the modern welfare state.

    The history of our public schools, as the account of their foundation proves, is a story rich in surprises. Let us hope the next chapter is a happy ending.

    Michael Gove is the Secretary of State for Education

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    When inspiration fails, brute organisational force can still carry Labour over the line.

    Lynne is uninspired by Ed Miliband. “He’s not doing much for me,” says the 40-year-old Mancunian, wrinkling her nose as if tasting something unexpectedly spicy. She’s still voting Labour: “My dad would never forgive me otherwise.” The father who polices Lynne’s vote died last year, making it all the more important that his wishes be honoured. “We’re Labour,” she explains. “Always Labour.”

    Constituencies such as Wythenshawe and Sale East, where I met Lynne in a high street café, don’t often change hands. As the New Statesman went to press, the seat was expected to be held by Labour in a by-election. There was speculation in Westminster at the start of the campaign that Ukip might snatch the seat, appealing to working-class voters who felt betrayed by the Blair and Brown governments and who hate Tories with ritual passion. On the ground, though, Nigel Farage’s partisan brigade was no match for Miliband’s mechanised infantry.

    There was Ukip sympathy on the streets of Wythenshawe but ancestral loyalty and sheer organisation won it for Labour. The local party knew where their voters lived and how to mobilise them. Ukip’s team came to the area without intelligence and had to hunt supporters at random.

    In the activist trade, they call it “GOTV” – “get out the vote”. It is unglamorous but effective. In 2010, Labour held more seats than it deserved, given the collapse of the party’s national vote share. It wasn’t hidden affection for Gordon Brown that averted annihilation. It was the machine, getting to the right people in the right streets.

    That factor will be even more important in 2015. The Conservatives will outspend Labour. They will have the balance of newspaper backing, skewing the terms of debate on big issues – the economy, immigration, welfare – against Miliband. But the Tories’ campaigning muscles have atrophied in seats that David Cameron needs for a majority. The Conservative leader’s relations with his activists are notoriously poor. Even his allies accept that he is uninterested in the politics of stuffing envelopes and fetching biscuits. The Prime Minister has always had staff for that sort of thing.

    Miliband is steeped in the operational mechanics of Labour, both because he loves his party and because events have demanded it. The scandal of a dodgy candidate selection in Falkirk last year bounced him into serious structural reforms. The terms on which trade unions participate in Labour affairs have been rewritten. The plan will be ratified at a special conference on 1 March. At its heart is the ambition to turn ordinary union members from accidental party donors into consenting Labourites.

    Miliband’s allies are pleased with the way this has turned out. The risks were that he would be denounced for caving in to union bosses or bankrupting Labour. Neither charge is currently sticking. It can now plausibly be said that the party’s ranks will grow while the Tories shrivel. Crucially, the reforms also open the way for Labour to access data that unions have jealously guarded – names, addresses, phone numbers, emails. That GOTV gold mine is the real prize.

    Yet Miliband’s interest in a Labour grass-roots revival pre-dates the Falkirk fiasco. Since 2011, Arnie Graf, a 70-year-old US expert in “community organising”, has been training local Labour parties in pavement politics. Miliband is evangelical about Graf’s work. He imagines it standing alongside his party reforms as proof of a commitment to open, inclusive politics. Not everyone in the party is convinced. Few question the intent. The worry is that, when time is tight and resources scarce, “organising” people of unknown allegiance is no substitute for knocking on the doors of voters who will reliably turn out for Labour.

    As the general election comes into view, disputes over campaign priorities are becoming venomous. When Graf’s immigration status was queried on the front page of the Sun recently, the assumption in Labour circles was that it was a “red-on-red” attack, briefed as part of some turf war in Labour’s Westminster HQ at Brewers Green. The building is said to seethe with multiple rivalries, exacerbated by the appointment of Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, as “chair of general election strategy” and Spencer Livermore, a former Downing Street adviser, as “campaign director”. Their authority over the machinery has been declared, say insiders, but their control is not established. “Brewers Green is a shambles,” says one senior party figure. “At least we’re still organised on the ground.”

    A persistent cause of anxiety at every level of the party is the absence of a simple story to tell sceptical voters about why Britain needs a Labour government. Miliband’s speeches about structural economic injustice are crystallising into a cogent governing philosophy but for digestibility they don’t rival the Tories’ bite-sized rhetoric: Labour broke it – we’re fixing it.

    With each passing month, the prospect of a breakthrough recedes, making the race tighter and Labour’s prospects ever more dependent on Nick Clegg’s failure to woo back his old supporters and Nigel Farage’s ability to poach Tories. It won’t be one general election so much as a bunch of specific elections, each with its own complex four-party dynamic. “It’s going to come down to scrappy, inelegant, dogfighting in every constituency,” predicts one Labour campaign official. “It won’t be poetic.”

    That isn’t the battle Miliband wanted. In his ideal campaign, he is the healer, uniting a divided nation. He wants to inspire hope, not just scrape together enough votes from tribal loyalists and Lib Dem defectors to sneak over the threshold of No 10. He doesn’t have much choice. When inspiration fails, brute organisational force can still carry him over the line.

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    On universal credit, and Nimco Ali’s campaign to have FGM recognised as what it is – child abuse – rather than a quaint tradition.

    Remember Universal Credit? It was once a flagship policy but now it’s hidden away in the government’s attic, like Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. A large measure of the blame must go to Iain Duncan Smith’s “faith-based policy” approach, in which he put his fingers in his ears and refused to listen to anyone who warned about the problems that such a huge IT project might encounter.

    Is something similar happening with schools? At the core of the accusations made against Michael Gove by Ofsted’s head, Sally Morgan, and its chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, is the charge that the education minister is an ideologue, not a pragmatist: he knows that all his reforms have been successful and does not need disabusing of this notion on the occasions when pesky evidence interferes.

    To understand how the Department for Education rolls, go back to 2010. The legislation to allow “free schools” was “railroaded” through parliament, in Ed Balls’s words, and prompted a rebellion from Labour and some Lib Dems, who asked for more time to scrutinise it. Then the contract to start the initiative was given to the New Schools Network, the sometime home of Gove’s confidant Dominic Cummings. It got £500,000 without any other organisation being invited to bid for the contract, with Cummings emailing: “Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!” (You can only hope Cummings never had any involvement with the literacy curriculum.) By casting school reform as a crusade against “the Blob”, Gove has boxed himself into a position where any criticism is dismissed as pinko pleading. Even for those who support his policies, that should be worrying.

    Secret knowledge

    More evidence of my thesis: for 16 months, my friend Laura McInerney – a former state school teacher who is now doing a PhD on free schools at the University of Missouri – has been trying to extract information on how applications to start a free school are assessed. She believes, not unreasonably, that knowing more about which applications succeed is a useful thing. It would help both those who want to set up schools in the future and those who want to study why some have succeeded and others (such as al-Madinah in Derby) have failed.

    She made the request through freedom of information laws and was denied, with the department arguing the information “would allow opponents of free school applications to attack applications more easily and could undermine local support”. She appealed to the information commissioner, who ruled in her favour, saying there was a “strong” public interest case in taxpayers knowing what decisions governed the allocation of £1.1bn of their money. The DfE refuses to budge. The case goes before a tribunal soon, at which Laura is not entitled to legal aid and plans to represent herself. Having known her for more than a decade, I wish Michael Gove’s lawyers the best of luck.

    Stamping out abuse

    I’ve started talking about women challenging the government so I’ll go on. The word “inspirational” has been comprehensively debased but there’s no other word to describe Nimco Ali, the British-Somali co-founder of the anti-FGM charity Daughters of Eve. She talks about vaginas more than anyone else I know (which is saying something) and has fought hard to have FGM recognised as what it is – child abuse – rather than a quaint cultural tradition like wearing lederhosen or morris dancing.

    The campaign has cost her friends (one accused her of “selling her soul” to the west’s “c***-obsessed culture”) and generated rape and death threats. But it has also been successful: as we go to press, the Department for International Development is launching a five-year programme to combat FGM in ten “priority countries”. Given that British girls are often taken abroad to be “cut”, that’s good news for people at home, too.

    Mother killers

    Last year, I joined Nia, a Hackney-based charity focusing on violence against women, as chair of the board. Like Laura Mc­Inerney, its chief executive, Karen Ingala Smith, wants information. She has asked the government to record every female death that is a result of male violence (as a woman, you are more likely to be killed by a husband or partner than anyone else).

    In the meantime, she is doing the work herself: for example, she has found that, in the past two years, 33 women have allegedly been killed by their sons, while Home Office data suggests the figure is ten a year. The list makes grim reading: “battered with metal fireguard and slit throat”; “strangled”; “multiple injuries and decapitation”. None of these deaths made the news, nor did the underlying trend.

    Cruise control

    To end on a happier note, my favourite story of the week is that of the union boss Bob Crow, shamed by the Daily Mail for going on a luxury cruise while London Underground staff go on strike. Undaunted by photos of him on the beach captioned “the lobster-red baron”, Crow pointed out he’d booked the luxury cruise … from an ad in the Mail.

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