News - April 2002


25th April '02

“The rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen is nothing new. And in its current manifestation it cannot be accounted for primarily by xenophobia, anti-semitism and the "fear of the other".”

“The problem is, at root, the abandonment of working-class voters by the new socialists in France, as in its European neighbours.”

“In 1988, Le Pen, attracted 4.4 million votes. Seven years later, he received 4.6 million. Last Sunday, it was 4.8 million. What happened is that almost nothing happened over the past five years to draw working-class voters, whose conditions and life chances have continually deteriorated, away from Le Pen.”

“The rise of the extreme right, starting in the early 1980s, coincided with the jettisoning by the French left of its working-class traditions and ambitions. As the Socialist party switched its doctrine and policies to appeal to the professional middle classes and dragged the Communist party along with it (and into government), the National Front became the single largest vote-getter among workers and the unemployed.” This anyway is the opinion of Serge Halimi and Loic Wacquant writing in yesterday’s Guardian. (24.4.02)

Regular Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland is forced towards similarly unpalatable conclusions - “Progressives need to realise that a premise for much of their thinking of the last decade typified by New Labour, has now been shattered. When any centre left party drifted rightward it always comforted itself that its cores supporters would stay loyal because they have nowhere else to go. Now we know that is untrue. The once faithful can either stay at home – as they did here in June 2001 – or they can turn right. Hard right.”

“Once progressives accept that the people they used to count as their bedrock vote – urban families on low income – can no longer be taken for granted, they should ask themselves a tougher question. Why did people who might once have voted for a socialist or communist line up so readily behind a fascist?”

The absence of an alternative is of course the answer, But why then have the far-left not been in the business of providing an alternative to the both mainstream parties and Le Pen since he first burst on the national stage almost twenty years ago? What have they been doing instead?

With withering contempt Jean-Michael Helvig explains. In the election the rival Trotskyites campaigns were so self-absorbed in fighting internecine battles they omitted to even mention either Chirac - or Le Pen. Each focused instead of attacking the other for being “reformist” and “pursued the sole objective of boosting their own organisations. Very few voters actually backed their strategic vision, which remains inspired, in a pretty dogmatic way, by Russia’s 1917 revolution.” Ultimately, Helvig concludes “what characterises French leftists these days is a genetic incapacity to overcome self-interest in the name of collective efficiency”.

What irony that bog standard journalists can point out such strategic flaws in socialist thinking but the self-styled vanguards remain in total denial. The point is, daft as the left in France are, the British Left who have had the comfort of watching the working class succumb to far-right blandishments in country after country with increasing rapidity, certainly over the last few years, steadfastly refuse to take on board the lessons. Even when the BNP scored the highest ever vote for a far-right party last June, the left worked tirelessly to avoid the truth staring them in the face. The few who pointed to the implications of the upcoming local elections eleven months later were jeered and mocked. Disgracefully lefty icons like Tommy Sheridan pretended the vote for the BNP was somehow going - down. Everything that could possibly be done to sedate genuine anti-fascism was done. Yet here we are a week out from the election and the political threat offered by the BNP is front page news. Even the Sun carried a denunciatory full-page editorial. All now are convinced of the need for an ABF (any‘ism’ but fascism) style united front. Unsurprisingly, among the cheerleaders are of course Searchlight and the ANL. Not having any political solutions of their own they see solutions within the mainstream parties. But these of course are the self-same parties, who as in France, now enjoy ‘bedrock’ support only within the middle classes. Thus the solution presented by such ‘anti-fascism’ is a compound of the strategy that first allowed Le Pen and now the BNP the opportunity: the sidelining of working class concerns in favour of a centre-right consensus.

A point illustrated by the craven behaviour of the Socialist Alliance who instead of equipping itself to be a serious rival for working class hearts and minds, recently entertained a suggestion that the term ‘working class’ not even be mentioned in election literature lest it ‘alienate middle class voters who might otherwise vote socialist.’

What we see now is a situation where the liberal left are unashamedly pursuing a dual vision of a socialist future without the troublesome working class, and an anti-fascist remedy that is to all intents and purposes designed to oppose the working class. Not only does this prostitution of real anti-fascism copper-fasten the BNP’s claim to be the ‘radical alternative’ it is also unsustainable. The reason is perfectly obvious. In simple terms if the hardest pressed communities are already voting Front National, then who is left to ‘smash fascism’? A look at the map of Europe provides the answer. Everywhere the liberal left have influence, and faced by the same conditions they time and time again pursue the very strategy that allows the far-right a free run.

What’s more, this is no recent phenomenen. It was remember the liberal left that turned it’s back on the working class (‘students and ethnic minorities are the new proleteriat’) decades before New Labour was even envisaged. A price was always going exacted for this desertion. We do not yet know what the eventual price of surrender will be, but history will not be kind.


22nd April '02

An anti-immigrant current is sweeping EU

Andrew Osborn in Brussels
The Guardian

Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in the first round of the French presidential elections is far from being an isolated phenomenon. The right is on the rise across Europe and has already won power in capitals from Copenhagen to Lisbon.

Although there are specific factors in individual countries, the broader picture is that its success has been fuelled by disenchantment with the performance of leftwing governments, which have been perceived as failing to deliver on their promises. There is also growing unease about immigration and a feeling that national sovereignty is being eroded by an ever-closer European union.

In Denmark, a centre-right coalition underpinned by the ultra-right Danish People's party swept to power last November. It has drafted tough new asylum policies and cut aid to the developing world.

In Portugal, a rightwing coalition which includes the fiercely anti-immigration Popular party, led by a crusading rightwing journalist and social conservative, Paulo Portas, won power last month.

In Spain, Jose Maria Aznar won a second term in March 2000, crushing the socialist opposition and obtaining the first conservative majority since Spain became a democracy after the death of General Franco in 1975.

In the Netherlands, a flamboyant anti-immigration gay politician called Pim Fortuyn is forecast to win up to 20% of the vote in next month's general election after becoming the biggest political force in Rotterdam in local elections.

In Norway, an administration propped up by the far-right Progress party took office last October. The Progress party wants to cap immigration at 1,000 people a year.

In Italy, the rightwing media magnate Silvio Berlusconi defied international criticism last June to win power. Umberto Bossi, leader of the xenophobic Northern League, and Gianfranco Fini, leader of the post-fascist National Alliance, hold key cabinet posts.

In Belgium, the far-right Vlaams Blok party became the biggest political force in Antwerp in October 2000. It wants to repatriate all non-European foreigners.

In Austria, the anti-immigration Freedom party holds six cabinet posts in the conservative government.


12th April '02

Pay as you learn.
It's the unspoken rule of state education: if you want your kids to do well, you've got to pay for private tutors. Which is fine for the well-off middle class, but what about those who can't afford to?

Jenni Russell, The Guardian, Monday April 8, 2002

"Do you think there's much private tutoring at your daughter's comprehensive?" I asked a father. He was taken aback. "No," he said, "I don't think so. I haven't come across it. But I'll ask my daughter, if you like." A day later, he sent me an email. Headed "We are rubbish parents", it said: "I've asked Emma. She says ALL her friends are being tutored for their GCSEs, except her. We are shocked. It seems like cheating."

In London and other big cities, private tutoring is booming. It has become one of the most important, yet also unacknowledged, factors in a child's school performance. It disadvantages working-class children and undermines any pretensions to a comprehensive school system. Not only that, but it distorts the league tables of test and examination performances, which are supposed to reflect the quality of teaching in schools, and thus makes a nonsense of the government's entire strategy for raising standards.

Parents are often reluctant to admit to private tutoring, and schools would rather take the credit for their pupils' results themselves. But the anecdotal evidence is sobering. Three years ago, a quarter of the 11-year-olds at one high-achieving north London primary school were being tutored. Last year, it was one-third. This year, it's half. At another, lower-scoring school nearby, one-sixth of the top year were being tutored three years ago; this year, the number has doubled. A third school has just two middle-class children. Each has a tutor.

Ask parents in other areas of London and you find the same story. In some schools, more than half of the 11-year-olds have had at least 18 months of private tuition in English and maths before they sit their tests at 11. At other primaries, none of the children is privately tutored.

One tutor, Sarah Mills, an ex-teacher, says she feels furious when the annual test results are published and top-scoring schools are praised. "The whole thing is really dishonest. In the best schools, half the pupils are being tutored and they get terrific results. Every year, I come close to telling the local papers: this is a sham."

It's a conclusion that some disillusioned parents are reaching for themselves. Adam sends his son to a highly rated primary. He was attracted by its glowing Ofsted reports and its test results. Yet at the age of six-and-a-half, his son was bored and could scarcely read. "The school wouldn't give us straight answers; they weren't dealing with it. They just said he was doing really well, when he obviously wasn't. So we took him to a tutor, and after a year he's catching up. We'll keep it going. Because the frightening thing is, you're gambling with your child's future ... The longer I've been there, the more convinced I've become that the good marks the school gets are mostly due to the prevalence of private tutoring."

At the same school, the mother of a 10-year-old asked one teacher why the class rarely had any maths homework. "Oh, I don't tend to give homework any more, because I know that most of the children are being tutored," she said cheerfully.

The hard research evidence for this phenomenon is sparse, but it exists. Diane Reay and Helen Lucey of King's College London studied 454 top-year children at eight London primaries. Reay says private tutoring has grown exponentially: it has become almost the norm among the middle classes, and it is increasing the social-class differences in educational attainment.

A decade ago, Reay says, working-class families didn't mention tutoring. Now most of them know that it's going on, and feel that they are failing their children because they cannot provide it. Aspirational working-class parents are desperate, and many make huge efforts to find and pay for tuition. But because they are not part of the middle-class information networks, and because they cannot afford the best teaching, they get significantly different results.

Reay came across one primary school where 65% of 11-year-olds were being tutored. A significant minority of their parents spent more than £100 a week on tutoring - more than many of the black and working-class families were living on. One Afro-Caribbean mother with a low-paid husband, anxious that her eldest daughter was falling behind the rest of the class, paid for five sessions with a tutor at £20 a time. But she had four other children. When a younger child outgrew his trainers, she made the bleak calculation that it was impossible to pay for them all, and that it was pointless to try.

The primary schools have every reason to turn a blind eye to private tutoring that boosts their league-table scores. But what really matters to the parents is to get their children the best possible secondary education - either by ensuring that they will be placed in the top sets at their comprehensives, or by helping them win a place at private or selective state schools.

The hypocrisy that surrounds the issue of access to grammar schools is astounding. I once asked a parent/staff meeting at a state primary why the school did not offer children any preparation for selective tests. Everyone present, including the headteacher, found it a distasteful suggestion, and said the school believed that all children should go to the local comprehensive. A defensible principle, except that the head had her children in private schools, and every parent present either had already tutored, or went on to tutor, their children for selective exams.

"In hundreds of interviews," says Reay, "I never came across a parent who didn't want the best for their children. Working-class parents are often very frustrated and angry because they aren't sure of the rules of the game, and they don't know how to play it. So they often end up without any choice, and their children go to the least desirable schools... Choice is only a reality for those who can afford to choose."

Reay's research shows that, as a consequence, schools in London are becoming increasingly segregated along class and racial lines, with working-class and ethnic-minority children concentrated in the lowest-achieving schools, and white and middle-class children dominating in the highest-scoring ones. Despite the government's declared passion for education, that polarisation has increased rather than diminished over the past four years. And, says Reay, children in the low-scoring schools are acutely aware of it. They feel themselves diminished and demeaned by being sent to them. They struggle to avoid feeling like rejects.

Even when poorer children gain a place at a good comprehensive, the inequality often remains, because the tutoring doesn't stop. Take Fortismere school in Muswell Hill, north London. It is regarded as one of the best state schools in the capital: two-thirds of its intake pass with five good GCSEs. But local tutors are, as one put it, "deluged" with requests from Fortismere parents. It isn't unusual to meet GCSE pupils who are being tutored in four subjects.

Home Tutors, a London-wide agency based in Muswell Hill, has 1,500 tutors on its books. Its founder, Dr Karina Halstead, says that her agency does an enormous amount of tutoring for Fortismere's pupils. When she hears, annually, about Fortismere's good results, she says: "I would like to shout: 'Hang on, half the kids there are being tutored by us!' "

Reay and Lucey found that secondary schools were often unaware of how much tutoring is taking place - the year tutor at one comprehensive told them that he didn't think much of it went on. In fact, almost every white, middle-class child in the year was being coached. Parents in other major British cities report the same pattern: Stepping Stones, a national tutoring agency, says the demand is just as great outside London.

It isn't surprising that so many people are turning to tutors. Now that children are tested, formally and informally, in every year from ages seven to 18, both schools and parents are endlessly anxious about the results. So those who can afford it will step in at the first sign of a problem, fearing that overworked teachers cannot be relied on to do the same. Nor is it surprising that parents who choose to stay in the state system in the inner cities feel that the least they can do for their children is to protect them from its worst deficiencies.

But those private solutions just disguise the real inequalities in our education system. We are not ensuring an equal education for every child, even in those schools that embody the egalitarian ideal - the good neighbourhood primaries and comprehensives. Tutoring means that bright but impoverished children are being disadvantaged at every stage.

This government objects to the purchasing of educational privilege through private schools. And yet it has entirely ignored the invisible purchasing of educational privilege through the tutoring system. What can be done? We could start by publicising what is really happening. Schools should be required to ask parents, and parents should be required to say, once a year, whether their children have been tutored. Those figures could be added to the publicly available figures on schools. They would make a difference to perceptions, and they might improve the reality.

But beyond that, we should think about what this society really wants from its education system. Our hypocrisy runs deep. Why do we support an education policy that prevents poor, bright children from applying to grammar schools, when the comprehensives they end up in are boycotted by the middle classes? Why do we still pretend that we have a comprehensive system in the inner cities at all, when the latest research shows that class inequalities in schools are just as marked as when comprehensives began?

Are we prepared to provide the resources that would enable working-class children to compete on equal terms in the educational race? Or do we prefer to stay in what you might call a public-private partnership, where the middle classes take the best of the public provision and supplement it with the private - leaving the poorest just as excluded, just as educationally and socially disadvantaged, as they were 30 years ago?


A longer version of this article appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman. Some names have been changed.


8th April '02

The following is the full text of an IRA statement released this morning.


The leadership of Oglaigh na h-Eireann has taken another initiative to put arms beyond use.

This follows detailed discussions between our representative and the IICD [Independent International Commission on Decommissioning].

This initiative is unilateral at a time when there are those who are not fulfilling their obligations.

It could be argued that the IRA should not take such an initiative, but it is precisely because of this that an initiative has been undertaken, so the peace process can be stabilised, sustained and strengthened.

We fully appreciate the difficulties this causes for republicans, however the IRA is a highly disciplined and committed organisation.

This is a leadership initiative.

We are relying on the discipline and commitment of our support base and our volunteers.

We remain committed to achieving our republican objectives.

However, the securing of a democratic peace settlement is not solely a task for Irish republicans and we are mindful of the primary obligation of the British government and of the Unionist leadership.

This process can work if there is the political will to make it succeed , the IRA has once again demonstrated that will.

P O'Neill

c. RM Distribution and others. Articles may be reprinted with credit.


1st April '02

Charlotte Denny, Guardian (March 27)

Family background matters more than ever in modern Britain, economic researchers said yesterday, pointing to evidence showing that children from well-off families are more likely to become high earners themselves. The idea that Britain has become a classless society is a myth, researchers Jo Blanden, Alissa Goodman, Paul Gregg and colleagues told the Royal Economic Society Conference at Warwick University.

"The common view that anyone can make it to the top is wrong," said Ms Blanden.
"Many observers seem to think that we now live in a more mobile, meritocratic society than in the past, but where you come from mat ters more today than it did in the past."

The researchers tracked the fortunes of two groups of children, one born in 1958, the other in 1970, and found that the links between parents' and children's incomes has strengthened rather than weakened during the last 30 years.

Among the 1958 cohort, a son from a family earning twice as much as the family of another child earned on average about 13% more than his peer by the age of 30.

In the 1970 cohort, the financial advantage of coming from a well-off family had risen to 25%. Results for daughters were similar. The researchers blame the decline in mobility on the big expansion in higher education in the 1960s.

Hopes that the new universities would allow all youngsters an equal chance to get a degree have been disappointed. "The majority of beneficiaries have been children from families who were already doing well. Able children from lower income families have been excluded from the expansion of education," the researchers said. "This has led to a decline in equality of opportunity."

While Britain remains class-ridden, separate research from the across the Atlantic presented at the RES conference suggests the United States has become a more socially mobile society.
"In the US it has become less likely that a son of rich father will be rich or that the son of a poor father will be poor," said Angela Fertig.

Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002