All posts by melissabenn

HOW TO LIFT A HEART: THE JOY IN PROTEST AND SEEKING POLITICAL CHANGE

How do you define or promote something as elusive as happiness? Most of us might tick the box marked “cheerful” on Wednesday morning but could well consider ourselves crashingly miserable come Sunday afternoon. And suppose we can empirically establish contentment over a longish period, how do we unpick the underlying reasons for it? A happy relationship or a triple-lock pension? A course of mindfulness or a handful of supportive friends?

Lynne Segal gives us her take on the matter straight off. The world is a place of “unbearable pain and sadness”, the experience of melancholy is an important part of an authentic emotional life. As for the official emphasis on happiness, it is insultingly limited, dishonest and functional. “We need to resist the happiness imperative beamed down at us from every other billboard. . .” In Segal’s view, “radical happiness” involves us in an enterprise very different in scope and far more meaningful: the seeking of
political change, and with it the experience of solidarity and collective joy.

Scathing of the ways that the happiness industry has played into official narratives, Segal is particularly critical of influential figures such as Richard Layard, Tony Blair’s so-called happiness tsar, who chose to “ignore the effects of structural inequality on the emotional distress it measures” preferring instead to consider emotions in the context of Gross Domestic Product, then compounding his intellectual and political sins by promoting the widespread use of the quick-fix remedy Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Instead of Layard, she says, we should all have been listening to British epidemiologist Michael Marmot who “convincingly researched the quite devastating effects of poverty and inequality on social misery generally, and individually psychic health in particular.”

It is a feature of all Segal’s work that when she decides to tackle a subject – be it the history of women’s experience of heterosexuality, the rise of essentialist feminisms or, most recently, the politics of ageing – she examines it from every conceivable angle. She always makes me think of someone picking up a stone on the beach and turning it, with infinite exhaustive care, this way and that. Here, then, she gives us trenchant chapters, complete with plenty of historical and theoretical readings. She takes on the decline of carnivals, festivals and other expressions of communal joy (the spontaneous gathering of those “without institutional power” is always threatening to the powerful) as well as our changing understanding of depression, noting the sinister link between a rise in diagnoses for serious depression and bipolar disorder, and the discovery and marketing of drugs for treating them. “Within ten years of the launch of Prozac, around 10 per cent of Americans over the age of six were taking anti-depressants, including almost one-in-four in middle age.”

But it is also a feature of Segal’s intellectual work that she weaves in her own personal experience in order to illustrate her broader political points, particularly in her chapters on the perils of sex and love. It’s important to be reminded of the history of feminism’s hard work in uncovering women’s genuine sexual and emotional needs, but fascinating to eavesdrop on Segal’s reassessment of her own experience of the Sixties, a time in which many “women’s sexual confidence… was paper-thin, my own included”, or of how, within relationships, she so easily becomes “unbearably jealous”.

Ultimately, Segal has an important argument to make – one that derives, inevitably, from her long years as a libertarian, feminist and political activist. It is in working, with others, for broader social change, that we find deeper meaning in our existence. Or as Hannah Arendt put it: “No-one could be called happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”

This faces Segal with the bleak times in which we live. Trump, Brexit, austerity – all lend themselves to atomisation, inwardness, a kind of reckless misery. Segal is sharp on the continuing popularity of dystopian fictions, one sign of the way in which neo-liberalism’s discontents have entered our collective soul, and how difficult it is even to speak of utopia – or utopias – in today’s political climate. Once upon a time, the term involved the setting out of blueprints for alternative societies, end goals for a better world. Today, she argues, “utopia” is best understood as the tenacious continuance of a strong desire, a “longing for… the improvement of the human condition”. How, she asks, paraphrasing the cultural critic Raymond Williams, can we succeed in “making hope practical, rather than despair convincing”? How indeed.

For Segal, the rise of new social movements, here and around the world, is profoundly cheering, as is the recent dominance of the left within the Labour Party: changes that restore the faith of those, like herself, from older, once more politically hopeful and active generations.

It is fascinating to read Segal in conjunction with Riot Days, Maria Alyokhina’s gripping account of her arrest and imprisonment as a member of Russia’s Pussy Riot collective. Written in a lyrically fractured, cut-and-paste style, it’s a bit like having Kathy Acker cooing at you in one ear and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn booming at you in the other. (Acker’s recent biographer Chris Kraus provides an enthusiastic cover endorsement.)

For westerners, the Pussy Riot phenomenon feels a little hard to interpret. The group seems like something out of the Sixties, science-fiction and the milder end of top-shelf porn, all at once. Certainly, the women mixed amazing courage with surely a massive dash of naivety in deciding, in February 2012, to perform “Punk Prayer” (“Mother Mary, banish Putin!”) in Moscow Cathedral. Alyokhina seems oddly surprised at their arrest, oddly stoical about their sham trial and subsequent two-year prison sentence.

Things turn worryingly sinister when Alyokhina is sent to The Zone, a penal colony in the Urals, and goes on hunger strike so as to win small daily concessions for herself and other female prisoners. It might not be anyone else’s idea of radical happiness, but here she comes to the sharp, if desperate, realisation that her actions are significant “not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest. A narrow sliver of a right, in a huge field of injustice and mistreatment. But I love this sliver of freedom.” Even under the harshest possible conditions, she experiences the euphoria of mutual aid and unexpected friendship.

In both these books, so strikingly different in style and content, we find an eyes-wide-open recognition of similar phenomena: the harshness of the world, the risks and fallibility of politics and other human beings. Yet by the end, both these activists somehow manage to convince and console us. Human solidarity matters, and endures. The joy it engenders can be intense. Change can come. As Segal concludes: “One way or another simply being together strengthens us.”

Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy
Lynne Segal
Verso, 352pp, £16.99

Riot Days
Maria Alyokhina
Allen Lane, 208pp, £16.99

This piece first appeared in the New Statesman in January 2018

From the archive: A Class Act

He’s a good storyteller, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and he tells a particularly good story about the Lost Missionary: a few years ago, a confused old man kept ringing the Institute of Race Relations, of which Sivanandan is the director, but nobody knew what he wanted. The caller muttered something about wanting to help people, to give aid to those in need, yet he was so obviously in need himself. Eventually out of pity, one of the staff invited him in.

The moment he walked into the room, Sivanandan strode towards him and warmly embraced him. “Of course, I recognised him immediately,” he says now. “He was a famous missionary who had done important anthropological work in India.” The story tells as much about the embracer as the embraced. There is the fact that Sivanandan immediately recognised a bowed-down old man for the noble human being he was. Then there is the instant recall of the content and significance of the missionary’s work, both practical and intellectual. Finally, there is Siva’s kindness – that simple embrace.

But the moral of this tale goes deeper. For it tells us something about a fraternity – not quite secret but never fully understood by those who judge success by material wealth or professional achievement – which devotes itself to the cause of others. There is nothing religious in Sivanandan’s value system, for his is a militant vocabulary of class and racial struggle, a political language inevitably more radical than the Christian’s. But that day the Lost Missionary came to the institute, both men recognised and appreciated a kindred spirit.

Here, all resemblances end. For if time has been cruel to, or at the very least neglectful of, many who dedicate themselves to the interests of others, it has been kind to Sivanandan, or Siva, as he is known to friends and enemies alike. He may not be as well known as many other post-war black intellectuals and activists, but later life has brought him recognition from a wider audience, praise from beyond the circle of the politically committed. Activist, speaker, essayist and latterly novelist, he is now considered one of the most powerful radical voices writing on race, politics, culture and class in Britain over the last 30 years.

Many of his essays are considered classics, from his loving, empirical account of post-war black politics, “From Resistance to Rebellion”, published in the early Thatcher era, to his more recent analyses of the labyrinthine workings of the new globalism. As an essayist, Sivanandan is in a class of his own: his wit, clarity and moral authority place him in the company of the exalted writers of the genre.

At the unlikely age of 73, he published his first novel, When Memory Dies, a turbulent Tolstoyan account of three generations in his native Sri Lanka, which won both a Commonwealth Writers prize and the annual Saga award, given to first-time black authors. One of its earliest champions in manuscript form was his friend and admirer John Berger, who believes that “it takes nerve to stay so close to the substantial reality of those who have suffered such pain and hope. It is a wonderful novel which will undoubtedly last.”

Much of Sivanandan’s work, marginalised in the years of Thatcherism and an answering left politics of compromise, is finding a new relevance. He has written extensively of global trade and economic injustice; this week the World Trade Organisation, which he describes as “international government for multinational capital, skewed in favour of the rich,” met in Seattle.

For a long time, the institute was a lone voice on the perils of European racism and the claims of refugees and asylum seekers; now the world has woken up to the re-emergence of European fascism, and the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has come in for hard-hitting criticism.

Another strand in the work of the IRR and Sivanandan – focusing attention on the spiralling number of black deaths in police custody, and racial beatings and killings – has received new legitimacy from the findings of the Macpherson enquiry and recent coverage of the deaths of Ricky Reel and Michael Menson. The politics of institutionalised racism has come to the fore of public consciousness.

If Sivanandan is not as famous as some left-wing figures, it is because he has always kept himself apart from and at odds with mainstream culture. His novel aside, he has published no books: for many years, his essays had a samizdat quality, circulated as dog-eared photocopies, the focus of intense political dispute. (They have since been collected and published in two volumes.)

He has never held an academic post. For the past 27 years he has been director of the Institute of Race Relations, an independent campaigning and educational organisation, which has survived largely on scraped-together grants. He rarely appears in the broadsheets or on radio or television. According to the playwright David Edgar, a friend since the mid 70s: “He has a legitimate fear of what happens to those who become incorporated. He is very aware of the way black politicians can become media figures. It is part of his essential incorruptibility.”

But one can see the harried TV or radio researcher not knowing quite what to do with this neat, wiry Sri Lankan septuagenarian socialist who cannot talk for three sentences without quoting TS Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But politics, rather than personal style, may ultimately be the reason he remains largely unheard. He has retained an unswerving and wholly unfashionable commitment to the causes of class, anti-racism, socialism and internationalism. Edgar says, “What marks out Siva, and the institute as a whole, is this holding on to a class point of view. He feels that somebody has to stand up for the black underclass. No-one else is doing it with any weight.” Rare among the European left, he has made no compromise with market forces or media power. This gives his work a “rare purity”, says John Berger.

The IRR is an anonymous building on an anonymous street corner in London’s drab, rather dispiriting Kings Cross. Inside, it is like any other efficient voluntary organisation or cheerful charity. There is an impressive, well-ordered library. Volunteers work at computer terminals, staff make tea, swap jokes, hand out biscuits. Jenny Bourne, Sivanandan’s wife – they have been together for 29 years, although they only married in 1993 – and herself an acute political writer, hands him messages, fields phone calls, plies waiting visitors with tea. Today it is an Indian Marxist who has delayed his flight for three days in order to talk politics with the old maestro. A security camera is clearly in evidence. There is always the danger of fascist attack.

At the centre of the institute is Sivanandan. Now nearly 76 and still a keen tennis player, he could easily be 10 or 15 years younger. Berger says: “One cannot really talk about him without reference to his unflagging energy. There is something so warm about him. He is very fraternal and maternal at the same time, yet he is as spontaneous as a kid.” He still radiates what Edgar described as a kind of “aggressive impishness. There is something almost overwhelming about his personality.”

Sivanandan tells the story of his life as a potent mix of history and the present, emotion and intellect, loving people, hating what people do. Born in 1923 in Colombo, capital of what was then Ceylon, his childhood was dominated by the “towering figure of my father , all five foot two of him”. Originally from a peasant background, his father had risen through the ranks as a postal clerk until his support for a junior employee led him to be demoted and sent to a station where malaria was rife.

“But he was always taking care of the people he had left behind. Eliot talks about those who ‘have had the experience and missed the meaning’. That is a mortal sin, but it was not my father’s.” Father and son were estranged for many years when Sivanandan, a Tamil, eloped with a young Sinhalese Catholic girl. “He was a terrific man, my father, but he had his prejudices. I used to send money home but he set it aside because of the marriage.”

When Memory Dies gives some flavour of the young Sivanandan’s life and internal conflicts. In colonial Ceylon, a young man of no visible means had either to toady to rich relatives in order to rise up the hierarchy or endure the indignity of teaching. Sivanandan taught briefly, and then went into banking. Even now, he sounds richly amused by the young man he was, the haut bourgeois lifestyle “drinking Becks beers in fluted glasses, importing silk shirts from Hong Kong. But the first ever meeting of the union of bank clerks was held in my house.” In the 1958 Sinhalese riots against the Tamils, Sivanandan, dressed as a policeman in borrowed khaki shorts, waving a gun emptied of bullets, saved members of his family from a baying Sinhalese crowd.

But the sectarianism and hatred he saw sickened him. “What really affected me was when a friend betrayed me, beat the shit out of me, and even my eldest daughter began to talk disparagingly about the Tamils.” Coming to London, he walked straight into the Notting Hill anti-black riots of the same year. One would hardly believe the coincidence in a novel; 30 years later, Sivanandan described this turning point for the young immigrant. “The Sinhalese-Tamil riots there, white-black riots here. And I knew then I was black. I could no longer stand on the sidelines: race was a problem that affected me directly. I had no excuse to go into banking or anything else that I was fitted up to do – yes, fitted up. I had to find a way of making some sort of contribution to the improvement of society.”

His wife and three young children joined him from Sri Lanka but the marriage did not survive. He talks of this personal failure as a tale of love twisted by a complex mix of clashing temperament, religious conflict, racism and material pressure. “All five of us lived in one room in Bayswater. At home, I had been a bank manager and here I was a tea boy in Middlesex library. My wife, who had not had to work before, was a typist on £11 a week, I was getting £10. Then there were tensions over her religion. I couldn’t stand the intolerance of Catholicism. She couldn’t stand my unreliability, I was a pain in the arse. I had a temper. I couldn’t stand people riding roughshod over me.”

Sivanandan was left to bring his children up alone. “I didn’t even know how to cook when my wife left. Bringing up the children alone made a woman of me.” But it was a period of intense suffering. “At night, after I had put the children to bed, I would sit, writing in my notebooks, listening to Schubert and Mozart – that angelic anguish! – I would drink, smoke my pipe, cry. Then I would take my poetry volumes down from the shelf and read.”

In 1964, the now-qualified librarian was taken on at the august and impeccably liberal Institute of Race Relations, then based in patrician Jermyn Street, Piccadilly. Philip Mason, its director at the time, wrote later of the “shy, inarticulate figure” that their new chief librarian presented. But Dipak Nandy, then the only Asian on the institute’s council, and later a senior executive on the Equal Opportunities Commission, remembers him differently: “Siva was obviously much much more than a librarian. He was an intellectual in his own right, hobbled by the restrictions of having to work in such an outfit. All of us had to think carefully before we spoke.”

Nandy recalls that there was something of “a Prospero and Caliban relationship” between Philip Mason and Siva. “Mason regarded himself as a great, benevolent, father figure, who had plucked this unknown young genius out of obscurity and given him a place in which he could flower. Until the end he had this incredibly patronising and paternal attitude towards him.” Nandy also remembers the Sivanandan of this period “as surrounded by a gaggle of young women who absolutely worshipped him”.

Originally a branch of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the IRR was funded by big business: Shell, Nuffield, Rockefeller and Ford among others. In 1990, recalling the seismic split that came 1972, Sivanandan said: “The IRR was supposed to be devoted to the objective study of race relations, here and elsewhere. But after the 1962 Immigration Act it began to take the government’s view that controlling immigration was necessary to improve race relations. Most of the early studies looked into Africa and other newly developing countries with a view to seeing how business could invest there.”

In 1972, Sivanandan and his allies led a coup against the old guard. Their plan was to create a new IRR, “a sort of think-tank, a think-in-order-to-do-tank for black and third world peoples”. As Stuart Hall has written of that period, “few know how he simply hijacked the institute from under their very noses; took the material resources (books, journals, pamphlets, filing cards and connections) which he had helped painfully to accumulate, packed them up, and walked out with them_ transferring them to a less salubrious and less respectable part of town”.

It was then, in his early fifties, that the public career of Sivanandan truly began; the writing, the speaking, the link with grassroots campaigns, the highly publicised meetings with Black Panthers, the analysis of both racism, government immigration policy and resistance to it. Many of his essays first appeared in the austere quarterly Race and Class where, as the film maker Colin Prescod has recorded, their impact was huge: “There is a generation of black British community activists who emerged politically in the heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, for whom Sivanandan is possibly the most original influence in their lives.”

The early essays included “From Resistance to Rebellion”, his dense account of black movements in Britain from 1958 to the early Thatcher period, and the enraged study of colonial influence, “The Liberation of the Black Intellectual”. Then there are the political haiku – miniature character and political sketches on significant figures in contemporary black history such as Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson.

Like many great essayists, Sivanandan’s best work is always a form of attack. Many credit him with the demise of racism awareness training, fashionable in many liberal and left-leaning authorities in the early 1980s, which he demolished in his essay “RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle”. His 1990 essay, “All that Melts into Air is Solid”, a stinging attack on the trendy betrayals and selfish limitations of the new left gathered around the once-popular magazine Marxism Today, remains one of the most substantial and influential attempts on the left to halt the drift towards consumerism and compromise.

David Edgar, who achieved the almost impossible feat of staying close to both Marxism Today and the Institute of Race Relations, says now: “The crucial thing was that he challenged that old left model of the world. Siva was one of the first writers to analyse the change from manufacturing to a post-industrial economy in the west. Clearly he was on to the epochal nature of that shift. Unlike others, he always looking at post Fordism and globalisation from the perspective of what he calls the periphery, the place where capital is at its rawest and most extravagant, and where the cutting edge of the class struggle may now be.”

Suresh Grover, organiser of the Stephen Lawrence campaign, and a national coordinator of the new National Civil Rights Movement, first came across Sivanandan in the mid 1970s when, as an Asian teenager fleeing the beatings of skinheads in Lancashire, Grover walked straight into the bloody politics of London’s Southall. For him the power of Sivanandan’s work, as writer and speaker, is that “he thinks like an activist. There’s a brutality in this writing that reflects the brutality on the street. Had Siva been writing on the Lawrence stuff, there wouldn’t be the vacuum that there is after the Macpherson enquiry. Apart from that in small political groupings, the only real debate is going on in the home office.”

But Sivanandan has had his bitter critics. For many, particularly those working within the official race relations industry, his politics allow no room for new configurations of the world, or political compromise. He has been described as a Marxist but says: “I do not call myself a Marxist. For me, Marxism is not an ideology but a method of analysis, a living dynamic that needs to be constantly updated, a way of apprehending reality in order to change it.”

Among younger academics, his work is criticised for remaining untouched by the great modern discourses, in particular psychoanalysis, cultural studies and feminism. As one prominent black academic, who did not want to be named, said, “There is no doubt that his work was seminal in the 70s and 80s. But he has had nothing new to say for years.”

Sivanandan has never hidden his distaste for the political values of an emerging black middle class. He says now, “You know there are two racisms. There is the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills. Middle-class black people, they have the CRE, community relation councils, pundits, the whole bloody works, there’s an infrastructure for them. But the racism that kills – the Stephen Lawrences, Ricky Reels, Michael Mensons – they don’t have anyone. And that is the racism I am concerned about. I have always spoken from and to that constituency and they trust us at the institute. Maybe there’s a price to pay but the position of trust makes it worth it.”

The commentator on race affairs, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, recalls: “Siva’s earlier work was incredibly important. It really changed my life. But he has not accommodated the changes that have taken place in society and in all of us. One area he has misjudged is the importance of a cultural and religious identity, for both black and white, as opposed to a simple political identity. He probably finds it deeply depressing, as do I, but that’s how it is.”

But not all mainstream black figures see Sivanandan as refusing to move with the times. Sir Herman Ouseley, outgoing chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, met Sivanandan in the late 70s and was immediately impressed by him. He believes the IRR has learned how to reach out: “They have made their work accessible to a wider audience. They have opened up to a new technology, a new market in a populist way. I admire their tenacity working for peanuts and in difficult conditions, linking academics and abstract work to grass roots struggles and campaigns.” Of Sivanandan he says tactfully that “he has retained all his principles but he’s a little more patient with people who don’t see eye to eye with him”.

Certainly, the institute has been assiduous in its attempts to draw in a new generation of activists and widen its educational and political audience. How many 76-year-olds will appear on the next Asian Dub Foundation CD (out next spring), even if it is to talk over a track about refugees, the IMF and globalism? Race and Class, a quarterly offshoot of the IRR edited by Sivanandan, has drawn in some of the most significant political and intellectual thinkers of the post- war period. Those who have sat on its editorial working committee or council include John Berger, the scholars Basil Davidson, Cedric Robinson and Edward Said, and Orlando Letelier, Allende’s ambassador to the US, who was subsequently assassinated. Contributors have included Noam Chomsky, EP Thompson, Jeremy Seabrook and Angela Davis. Sivanandan himself is explicit about being a political writer, even in his fiction. In an interview with the Voice newspaper he said, “If you read my political stuff you’ll find it is creative – I hope my creative writing is political – I don’t separate the two.” He has frequently said he is not a novelist, just a storyteller.

But many of his admirers are drawn to his very writerliness, a quality perhaps heightened by quite conscious tensions within Sivanandan between politics and representation, style and substance. This is the man, after all, who employs Eliot’s Wasteland in the service of an argument about race, class and the state, who invokes Keats to illuminate the struggles of the black intellectual, marooned between coloniser and the colonised.

Berger says: “It is as if there are always these other beings in him – Siva the poet, Siva the political person, Siva the storyteller, Siva the host – all constantly surveying Siva the thinker, to check that he never slips back into simple politics. He is like someone who works with steel, always tapping a scythe to check the quality of the steel. A good scythe has that special zing.” David Edgar says he was drawn “to a mellifluous quality in his writing. I am particularly fond of those grand Johnsonian sentences, full of balance and structure. There is something Augustan and very elegant about his work.”

Sivanandan is working now on a group of short stories, to be published next year under the title Where the Dance Is. One of them is an elaboration of that anecdote about the Lost Missionary, using the bare bones of the tale to explore the human need for commitment, to give back to the societies from where we come, to make a contribution.

But these are not just stories about politics, they are also about London: “Nobody writes about places like King’s Cross, the shit, the streets, the drugs, the Portakabin policing, the big hotels for the American tourists.” Some of the stories were begun decades ago, when he was still training as a librarian, writing on the underground between his home in Finchley and Piccadilly Circus. “Then they were just small things, with a twist in the tail. Now I have to put the body in them, and some have changed out of all recognition.”

But there is no chance that at this late age Sivanandan will retire into life as a writer pure and simple. “I love working on my short stories, because when they come right they are such jewels. But then I come here to the institute and read reports such as Nick Davies on education or see Blair speaking, and I’m right back in the struggle. For me, politics is very visceral. You read a lot of writers and you can see, they don’t feel imperialism, they don’t feel injustice. While I get a gastric ulcer…” He bangs his chest with a balled fist. “You see, I feel it all, my politics, my hatred of injustice. I feel it right here, in my solar plexus.”

Life at a glance: Ambalavaner Sivanandan

Born: Colombo, Ceylon, December 20,1923.

Education: St Joseph’s College, Colombo; University of Ceylon.

Married: 1950 (three children, Tamara, Natasha, Rohan), marriage dissolved; 1993 Jenny Bourne.

Employment: Variously as banker, teacher, teaboy, librarian, editor and writer; director of the Institute of Race Relations 1972-;

founded journal Race and Class 1972.

Consultancies: World Council of Churches, Greater London Council, UN Commission on Human Rights.

Publications: A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance (Pluto, 1982); Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (Verso, 1990); When Memory Dies (Arcadia, 1997).

Prizes: Commonwealth writers (Eurasia region,1998).

• A World to Win; essays in honour of A Sivanandan, is published by the Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, King’s Cross Road, London WC1X 9HS. When Memory Dies is published by Arcadia Books.


This piece was first published in The Guardian on December 4 1999.

There’s still a lot of work to do – but let’s hear it for the NES

There could well be at least a couple of years before another general election, certainly if the beleaguered and divided government has anything to do with it. And while Labour has committed itself to continue to campaign over the summer, there is an equally important job to do in the months and years ahead, which is to build on some of the bolder ideas to emerge during the election.

The crisis in school funding was at the heart of last June’s campaign but, as we see from concessions made by the government in the weeks since, and the re-appointment of the sensible and emollient Justine Greening as education secretary, the Tories now recognise that they urgently need to do something about the pay and conditions of public sector workers. Besides, it is highly unlikely that the next election, whenever it comes, will be fought on the same issues in the same way. Context is all.

All the more reason, then, to develop one of the most potentially significant proposals to be floated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, that of a National Education Service (NES): the joining-up of disparate elements of education from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education, free at the point of use. Corbyn himself has trumpeted the idea since his election in 2015 but not much solid detail emerged during those two years; nor did it over the course of the election campaign itself, with commentators concentrating on the headline issues (the Labour plan to abolish tuition fees) or giving the entire Labour offer short shrift on the grounds that it was not radical enough.

Whether this last claim is fair (and I would argue both that it is and it isn’t) there is room for a much broader, bolder vision. During the Adonis-Gove years official ideas about ‘education, education,education’ have dangerously narrowed, with government increasingly focussed on the secondary years where it has trumpeted a diluted version of the grammar school/public school curriculum to be implemented by dangerously under-resourced state schools, harried professionals and, indeed, non-professionals. In higher education, the values of business have come to dominate and distort the business of learning to the benefit neither of students nor academics. More broadly, I also wonder whether progressives have become so desensitised by years of Gove and co. that they now self-censor even their own best hopes and dismiss out of hand this idea of a cradle-to-grave education system, animated by a richer, deeper purpose, to be run in a different way?

Revisiting the fine detail of the Labour party manifesto on education, there are lots of positive proposals – beyond the tuition fee plan that got everyone talking (and subsequently changed the political weather) – on the need for high-quality early years provision, proper school funding, re-investment in further education and apprenticeships but no real indication of the bigger picture, particularly the framework in which all this might be made possible, affordable and publicly appealing.

Yet talking these past weeks to senior figures in education, many hitherto sceptical of Labour, I was struck by how quietly impressed, even enthused, they were by the idea of an NES-style vision, particularly now Labour might be in a position to take these ideas into government. There has long been a feeling among the more progressive teachers and leaders that Labour has not had a distinct ‘take’ on education but has been too timidly reacting to, and reshaping, radical right ideas.

Certainly, there could not be a more favourable time for the development of a new vision – one that is, in the words of a senior leader, “rooted in the idea of ethical service with the re-professionalisation, and trust, of teachers at its heart.”

As yet another academy chain is criticised for alleged financial mismanagement, even Gove’s most enthusiastic supporters must now recognise that the market-driven policies of the last decade have pretty much run into the ground. Free schools and mass academisation are no longer considered the cure-all for social or educational inequality; parents are beginning to rebel against a narrow curriculum, too much testing and rogue school admissions systems; and there is unease about heads of multi-academy trusts earning two or three times more than the prime minister, while teachers’ pay has crawled up just 1%. More generally, there’s a feeling of a vacuum in authority and policymaking at the heart of government, particularly after the failure of May’s grammar school initiative.

For all this, we need a lot more detail about the structures that would underpin the NES. Interestingly, there is little talk from the Labour frontbench about a return to a seventies-style relationship between school and local authorities but the party might consider an intelligent remodelling of the “middle tier”, based on successful experiments like that in Hackney in London where the Learning Trust took over education services and turned around the troubled borough, and the council now holds together academies and maintained schools in a locally accountable frame. At the same time, some of the famed freedoms of academies and free schools, which so often give them a dodgy advantage in the chaotic schools market, should be removed. And given the multiplicity of confusing labels, it is not time to call all schools ‘schools’ and give them the same rights and freedoms?

Add to this, the need for more intelligent school accountability ( further reform of Ofsted basically), a coherent system of initial teacher education, curriculum, qualifications and assessment, and a fresh discussion on the character of mass higher education in the mid-21st century.

It’s a massive job and not one that can be completely achieved while in opposition. Government, should it come, will provide its own drivers, confidence, resources, personnel and, almost certainly, new pressures. At the same time, Labour needs to show sensitivity to a teaching profession that is exhausted by constant change and little real support, in terms of pay, workload and official rhetoric.

But what the tuition fees master stroke showed is that the party recognises, for the first time since 1997, that education can only be a vote winner if it connects with popular aspiration and discontent, and that the voter facing ‘offer’ has to concentrate, not on indigestible detail about structures, but on what really matters to parents and teachers and school leaders, whether that be more music, drama and art in our schools (something on which the shadow education secretary and the new chief inspector of schools broadly agree), sabbaticals for teachers or the restoration of adult education.

The NES framework also offers Labour a unique chance to forge a genuinely comprehensive vision. One of the lessons of a country such as Finland is that high-quality non-selective education not only transcends political divides but can unite and even come to define a nation.

Again, the moment could not be more propitious. Significant sections of the centre-right are now implacably opposed to the 11-plus, and last month’s Sutton Trust survey on perceptions of social mobility shows that the public supports high-quality teaching in comprehensives (not a return to grammars) as the best way forward to both bridge gaps between better-off and disadvantaged children, and to foster the talents of the academically able.

But Labour needs more vigorously to trumpet comprehensive success – drawing on the example of individual schools as well as those countries, such as Finland and Canada, that deliver well for all – and to find the courage to back plans to phase out the damaging selection that remains in a quarter of all education authorities.

If Labour now wishes to make the NES a project that draws in widespread support from beyond the party, it should initiate conversations with the numerous groups and individuals with the expertise and enthusiasm to help. Part of its future success will depend on to what degree it can build a consensus around its proposed reforms within those parts of the profession and the educational world that are broadly well disposed towards the party (of course, many will remain implacably hostile) as well as enthuse the public with its ideas.

Given the leadership’s evident talent for campaigning, why not a series of meetings in every big city and town (and yes those all important marginal seats) around the country? These could ask the public to both celebrate the many brilliant aspects of our state system and offer their own ideas for reform.

NES roadshow anyone?

This is a revised and expanded version of a piece that first appeared in The Guardian on July 18th.

Brought up by a blackshirt

Just a couple of years ago, Fascist in the Family might have been greeted as no more than an interesting addition to the ever-­expanding genre of family memoir: a child’s unflinching account of a wrong-headed, right-wing father set against the panoramic backdrop of the divided domestic politics and international conflagrations of the first half of the 20th century.

Francis Beckett couldn’t have known it – these 396 densely packed pages must have been years in the making – but this publication comes at a political moment that subtly changes our reading of the particular history he describes. Today, in our world dominated by the hard men (and women) of the new right, the book reads more as a chill warning. British fascism of the pre-war period grew out of similar soil to Brexit, Bannon and Banks, including the cruel slashing of state benefits, a paralysing crisis in the labour movement, the false lure of nationalism, the rise of the extreme right on the Continent and the vile scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities.

John Beckett entered the Commons in 1924 as the youngest MP on the Labour benches. Within a few years, he had “become the most extreme, most newsworthy left-wing Labour rebel of his day”, known for his provocative speeches and outrageous tactics. He was a talented speaker, offering “fireworks and crudity” to working-class audiences across the country, an ingenious and indefatigable organiser and an energetic and successful womaniser. His impatience with the Labour and trades union establishment, combined with an irrational and uncontrollable anti-Semitism and reflexive nationalism, led him to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where he became the head of propaganda.

At first worshipping the charismatic Mosley, a man with whom he shared the ability to stir up a crowd, Beckett soon came to distrust the high-handed, aristocratic BUF leader as a vindictive narcissist. He broke away to form the anti-Semitic National Socialist League with figures such as William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and A K Chesterton (a distant cousin of the better-known G K), and later the British People’s Party (BPP).

In the words of his only son, Beckett’s political career ended in “the squalid wastelands of neo-Nazi politics”, earning him four years’ internment during the Second World War and a bleak form of social exile in the postwar period. Francis, an impressively dispassionate biographer, is also well placed to unearth the twisted roots of his father’s anti-Semitism: he reports that John’s adored mother, Eva, was almost certainly Jewish, a fact he kept hidden all his life.

Fascist in the Family is a salutary reminder that the British far right failed in part thanks to the catastrophic misjudgements of its leaders. Compare the political trajectories of Oswald Mosley and John Beckett to those of Clement Attlee and Hugh Dalton, who were roughly contemporaries but in the labour movement. Attlee and Dalton survived the years of Labour wipeout after Ramsay MacDonald’s national government of 1931-35, the Depression of the 1930s and the politics of appeasement without caving in to unprincipled populism, and went on to pilot the greatest Labour government of the 20th century as prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer, respectively. By that time, John Beckett was a social outcast because of his fascist activities, and Mosley a hardened has-been who failed to win any significant electoral support.

No wonder that Francis Beckett exhibits a certain wistfulness about “what might have been” for his father, politically speaking, especially given his early close association with the quiet young Clement Attlee. Beckett helped Attlee to win his first seat in parliament, and the two men shared lodgings and long talks. Having left school at 14, he admired Attlee’s “erudition and wit”, and retained an affection and respect for the future prime minister all his life, an admiration he clearly passed on to the young Francis, later Attlee’s biographer.

John Beckett’s story is also a reminder of the ties that existed between the anti-Semitic, extreme right and some English aristocrats. Struggling to find paid work and regain a modicum of respectability after the war, and desperate for his only son to have the public-school education denied him, Beckett relied on the protection of eccentric upper-class allies such as the Duke of Bedford, who bankrolled the BPP.

At one level, this is the story of a human being with great talents and charm but alarmingly poor judgement in just about everything from politics and people to class and money. The author’s mother, Anne, was driven to a nervous breakdown by her common-law husband’s fascist buccaneering, misconceived financial schemes and the near-constant house and school moves inflicted on her and the children.

Just 19 when his father died, Francis reserves perhaps his most savage verdict for the secret service, and one operative in particular, Graham Mitchell of MI5, who was responsible for watching his father’s every move. Mitchell’s secret memos, only recently released, are as “revolting as anything I have ever read”. The author notes, with satisfaction, that Mitchell’s own career ended in disgrace when he came under investigation as a Russian spy in the mid-1960s.

This is a gripping account of a singularly tragic political life: a tale of parliamentary elections won and reputations lost, of passionate oratory and violence at public meetings, of intense love affairs and ruptured friendships, of family tenderness and the dreary, unending shame of living as a social outcast in perpetual penury.

It is also a skilled high-wire act, keeping an uneasy faith with a loving parent, right down to the last, heartbreaking paragraph.

“He was not reliable or truthful or sensible, but he was talented and lovable and passionate . . . with a sort of honesty at his core, and though he is identified with hate, he was capable of more love than he knew how to handle.”

This can’t have been an easy book to research or write. Thanks to Beckett’s intellectual and emotional honesty, however, it offers a fascinating insight into the complex personal origins of the politics of hatred, as well as a timely reminder that some of our most dangerous public figures possess uncommon human appeal.

Melissa Benn is the author of “What Should We Tell Our Daughters?” (Hodder)

Fascist in the Family: the Tragedy of John Beckett MP
Francis Beckett
Routledge, 396pp, £75/£16.99​

This piece first appeared in the New Statesman on June 11 2017

Contentious claims in Tory manifesto promise

There was something almost sci-fi about the Conservative manifesto launch. A sea of cabinet ministers, packed into what looked like a cross between a cattle shed and a car park, dressed in various shades of blue, listening to the navy-clad prime minister intone on her favourite themes of this election. Strong and stable with everything, basically.

There was very little about education, from the podium at least, bar some references to a “Great Meritocracy” and the wholly uncontentious promise of a ‘good school place for every child’ (what politician could promise anything else?) More frustratingly, the manifesto itself yields not much more detail on the possible shape of our school system over the next five years.

On the two issues that have come to dominate education over the past year – funding and the threatened return of selection – we were offered intriguing concessions and a stubborn lack of clarity respectively. Funding first: clearly the government has been worried by the rising chorus of public concern concerning cuts to school budgets and the potentially devastating implications of the Fair Funding formula, particularly in areas like London where relatively generous levels of funding have achieved such good results over the past decade.

The Conservatives get round this by pledging to axe free school meals for primary school children (offering them Brexit – sorry, I mean breakfast – instead) and redistributing the rest to make up funding shortfalls.

On the face of it, it’s quite a canny move, suggesting both responsiveness to public concern and, perhaps, a recognition of disquiet on even the centre-left about the original Lib Dem policy of free school meals for some primary school children, and Labour’s plans to expand it by putting VAT on private school fees.

Even so, the funding pledge is not generous as it looks, given that the cut in free school meals accounts for only £650 million, and £3 billion is money already allocated for growth in pupil numbers.

On selection, we get remarkably little bar the return to some contentious guff about ordinary working families. “We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as 11.”

That simple statement alone is, of course, important. If May wins on this manifesto, any possible rebellion by Tory MPs, and peers of all political stripes uneasy at the plans for more grammars, will be robbed of legitimacy. May can (finally) claim that all-important public mandate to reverse decades of cross-party policy.

Extraordinary, though, that we learn so little about the various “conditions” that will apply to these new schools, bar an uncontroversial promise to allow more children in a little later in adolescence. It is tempting to think that there is still a lot of behind-the-scenes wrangling going on as to whether the government should adopt the “old-school” model of grammars, favoured by Tory MP Graham Brady and co, or introduce some kind of quota system to ensure greater numbers of poor children can access selective schooling.

My guess is that the Brady faction has won out, judging by the manifesto claim that “official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary working-class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake compared to non-selective schools.” In effect, this is the government claiming the existing 11-plus works well enough – even though, officially, the definition of an ordinary working family is still out for consultation.

Despite this inconvenient fact, the government happily deploys it here, and has said in the past that an ordinary working family is any family that brings in up to a “median income adjusted for housing costs and family size”. Such a vague claim needs urgent statistical unpacking. It should also not obscure the now well-proven facts about grammars and social class, most recently teased out by research showing grammars are great for the ‘properly rich’ and terrible for the ‘properly poor’.

Apart from that, there is a push ahead with the – again, highly contentious – Green Paper proposals to make independent schools and universities take on the running of some state schools.

Finally, a promised review of school admissions (oh, if only Labour could have pledged the same!)It’s not clear what the Tories have in mind here. Lotteries are sternly ruled out, despite being the only more-or-less-workable mechanism yet devised to deal with the more glaring imbalances of the postcode issue. As to what else May and co have in mind, we can only wait, warily, and see. But it’s bound to be strong and stable.

A version of this piece appeared in the TES on-line on May 18th 2017.

How to make the world a better place

The announcement of the general election coincides with the 50th anniversary of the May Day Manifesto. Here left thinkers and writers have their say on what a 2017 version of the famous manifesto might look like.

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Terry Eagleton:

‘As a 24-year-old Cambridge academic, I was lucky enough to be involved in the writing of the May Day Manifesto of 1967. It was a genuinely collaborative project among a range of leftwing intellectuals of the day, a bunch of whom descended on Raymond Williams’s cottage outside Cambridge to cobble together a powerful indictment of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. EP Thompson scribbled away in one corner of the living room, Stuart Hall discussed neocolonialism in another, while Ralph Miliband phoned in from the LSE. The general air was one of tweeds and pipe smoke. There were no women, a fact that even the most dedicated militant of the day would not have found in the least strange.

It would be hard to muster such an impressive bunch of socialist minds today. The intellectual left is thinner on the ground than it was. We have lost almost all the leading figures of that historical moment – though lost them to death rather than to apathy or apostasy. The political climate of the time offered more opportunities for the left as well. One year after the manifesto was published, student revolt swept across Europe, while the United States was plunged into the twin crises of civil rights and the Vietnam war. Today across the Atlantic, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

The manifesto never had any strong roots in the working-class movement. Yet it intervened eloquently on its behalf, calling for a Labour government that would work for real socialism. It has taken half a century for that demand to be realised, however partially and precariously. Only a decade or so on from the manifesto, the labour movement was on the back foot, savagely assaulted by Thatcherism and by an ugly new form of corporate capitalism. These were onslaughts from which it has never really recovered. A May Day Manifesto for today, then, would need to put the rights of working people at its centre. It would also need to insist that the UK is never in a position to take any action that might result in the incineration of millions of innocent people.’

Ken Loach

We will reverse the privatisation of our public services and major industries. There will be no private contractors or outsourcing in the NHS. Railways and road transport will again be owned by us all and an integrated transport system will be established. The Royal Mail and the utilities – water, gas and electricity – will be re-nationalised. Compensation will be set against the profits taken from these industries and services. Democratic control and new forms of common ownership, such as co-operatives, will be encouraged. The market has failed. We intend to sustain the key elements of the economy and the public services through collective ownership in our common interest.

Jeanette Winterson

I’m an advocate of the basic income for all. Scrap the personal allowance and give everyone a graduated income. How about £6,000 a year at 18, offsetting either higher education bills, or giving kids the chance to leave home, rising to £10,000 a year at 21. High earners still get it, but it attracts tax relief if gift aided in full. Fund it through an income tax levy and higher corporation tax. Make it a point of national pride, like the NHS. Anyone not in paid work, but receiving the basic income, will have to do Community Exchange – a number of hours a week contributing to their community. The point is to make us all feel part of society, giving and receiving. We have to break the binary of the haves and have nots. A basic income, with obligations, can do that.


Reni Eddo-Lodge

The left needs a new vision on race and tackling racism. Step one: take our lead from the people most affected by it. Step two: a total moratorium on giving in to white resentment. No more conceding to the right’s agenda. No more “controls on immigration” mugs. Be honest with the electorate about the real threat to all of our jobs – it’s not grabby immigrants but automation. Our vision for the future can counter the right’s narratives of hopelessness, because the point of progress is to leave the past behind.

Howard Jacobson

If we are to fix the politics, we have first to fix the culture. When people get their “facts” from Facebook, their idea of debate from Twitter, their understanding of human nature from fantasies and their ability to parse a promise from nowhere, you can’t expect them to act in their own best interests, let alone their country’s. A little of the good old unashamedly moralistic well-read secular socialist religion of the 1950s is what’s needed – Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart. Remember when we were naive enough to lambast advertising, lament the loss of a literate working class, and even – whisper it who dare – look back longingly to the “organic society”? Well, we can’t manufacture a togetherness no one any longer feels. But we can try to stimulate the national debate in language drawn from deeper wells than whodunnits and WhatsApp. So free copies of Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, Orwell’s Essays, and the complete works of DH Lawrence will be distributed to every household in the land.

Melissa Benn

One of the biggest questions for the left today has to be the fast vanishing state, how we defend it and rebuild it in modern form. This means moving beyond desperate defence of each punitive cut and closure to making a sane and passionate case for high-quality public services paid for out of the common purse, allied to an intelligent blueprint as to how this might be done now – not how well Attlee managed it in 1945. For many on the modern left, raised to take key aspects of public provision for granted but steeped in the go-for-it individualism of the last three decades, arguing for a collective anything risks sounding old-fashioned, even sloppily sentimental, in this mean-minded age. But we have to do it, as well as put in the really hard, unglamorous slog required to rethink public services and institutions and their relationship to income, inequality and tax.

There is another interesting angle to this, not touched on by the original May Day Manifesto: the revolution that has taken place in women’s lives over the past 50 years allied to the stripping away of public services, especially over the past decade. This is fast opening up a yawning gulf of care at every stage of life. Raising children is now extremely expensive and stressful. In a development that no one could have foreseen, many older women are drowning under the weight of care for elderly parents, partners, spouses and grandchildren. It is also downright immoral how little we pay carers. Watch out, then, for a new revolution led by an army of deeply exhausted, highly articulate women.


Tariq Ali

The graph of history is never linear, but often twisted and broken. There is no automatic road to progress. We are going through a period of disillusionment, despair and cynicism during the course of which a huge vacuum has opened up. The capacity of humans to inflict damage and suffering on each other and the environment shows little sign of abating. As reason deserts us and the defenders of the status quo turn their eyes away from the writing on the wall, an old-new right emerges in different continents: Trump in the US and Modi in India.
The mantra of privatisation as the only possible solution to the crisis is still invoked regularly by elite opinion makers almost everywhere. That this dogmatic obsession is wrecking living conditions seems to have little impact on our rulers. Health services are under siege by private companies with politicians on their payrolls. A rational solution exists but is blocked by the dictatorship of capital. To take one example: the NHS in Britain. It’s short-sighted to think that this can only be funded by more taxes. The postwar politicians who created the NHS missed out on an important corollary: a state-owned pharmaceutical industry that would stop the grotesque profits of big pharma from crippling a nationalised health service. It has worked well in some parts of the south. Why doesn’t the north follow suit? It would help to drastically reduce the costs of public medicine. For this to happen the cancer of privatisation needs to be rooted out.


Shami Chakrabarti

Purple is the new red. The moment is right for the left to champion its feminist credentials and future. There can be no significant improvement in the lives of women across the world unless there is greater economic equality. Feminism can no longer be adopted like an accessory or as some kind of niche or not-quite-political, non left-right issue. Women are at the bottom of the pile in too many aspects of life in the first and developing worlds and the rate of progress is far too slow. Austerity is a war on women, whereas fairer corporate taxation can allow for the kind of targeted investment that can free them from poverty, inequality and insecurity.

Jacqueline Rose

Open the borders – to mean, not just policy, but principle or ethic (as in the old, and long discarded, idea of an “ethical foreign policy”). So, for example, no quota on unaccompanied minors and children, no discrimination on migration between Europe and its others – a distinction we are hardly in a position to make given the UK is about to leave Europe. Such a policy would also have to include other political constituencies such as transgender which cross sexual borders. Above all, therefore, it must state its commitment to opening the borders of the mind, and to the values of critical thought currently being stifled by the costly, inefficient and soul-destroying bureaucratisation of learning across the entire educational sector.

George Monbiot

If no one’s vote is to count for more than any other, no one’s money should, either. Here is what a fair political funding system might look like.

Every party would be allowed to charge the same membership fee – perhaps £20. The state would match it with a fixed multiple, and that’s it. Any other funding would be illegal. If a party wanted more money, it would need to attract more members. Period. Funding referendums is even simpler: the state would provide an equal amount for the campaigns on either side.

A general election would cost us around £50m: scarcely a rounding error in national accounts. The cost of the current system runs into trillions: endless crises caused by the power of those who have money to spend. Let’s dethrone the billionaires, the corporations and the union funders, and ensure that politics belongs to us.

Stefan Collini

We shall legislate to make it illegal to use the terms “wealth creators”, “business-friendly” and “flexible labour market”, except in the form of jokes. We shall lead an international campaign to outlaw bullet points. We shall compel all those who propose “economic growth” as the overriding goal to add a statement explaining that this actually means an increase in exploitation, a reduction in social justice, probable harm to the planet, and the neglect or suppression of important human purposes. Anyone caught referring to citizens, passengers, students and others as “customers” will be subject to an on-the-spot fine. We shall abolish the word “incentivise”.

Katrina Forrester

For the authors of the May Day Manifesto, the Labour government’s doctrine of “modernisation” obscured the true dynamics of what they called the “new capitalism”. Today, the modernising centre helped cause our crisis, too, and everywhere we face a bleak choice between more of that cause or its rightwing symptoms. To build something better for the long term, the left should go back to basics, and invest in renewing an old politics based on the thing we all still do: work.

On this May Day – International Workers’ Day – work is different. More of us work in social care or in service than we used to. As economies de-industrialise and populations age, hospitals replace factories. Work doesn’t reward us like it once did, and in Britain we work longer, less productively and for less money than many in other countries do. Technology threatens to eliminate certain jobs, and makes others insecure. Instead of dreaming of a future beyond work, we need now to try to change how we value the employment there is. Feminists fought to make visible and valuable the work that women do in the home that keeps society running. One of our aims must be to make the work of the future – from the care work we’ll need to the green jobs we’ll want – valuable, too.


Owen Hatherley

For the writers of the May Day Manifesto, as for the wider New Left, there was an assumption that certain gains made in 1945 were here for good. One of those gains was that a significant amount of housing had been taken, seemingly permanently, out of the hands of landlords and speculators, via municipal housing. The problem they faced in the 1960s was how bureaucratically controlled this non-market accommodation was, with only the most minimal democratic control from residents, and draconian rules about what colour you could and couldn’t paint a door. In the 2010s, our problem is completely different, because that advance turned out to be wholly temporary. Unlike “affordable”, “social” or “key worker” schemes, municipal housing was intended to be universal, and for 35 years has been under continual attack. Private renting, in hugely insecure circumstances is increasingly dominant in the big cities. So any manifesto today would need to make two commitments. The first is to return to unambiguous, publicly owned council housing, available to everyone who wants and needs it, rather than those with the time for housing co-ops or the wherewithal for community land trusts. The second is to build the sort of democratic structures of collective ownership that the New Left rightly found lacking in the 1960s. Architects, planners and activists will need to think about how to build places that can feel genuinely public, and that can be changed and transformed by the people who live in them.


Lynsey Hanley

Comfortable, affordable housing with security of tenure is both a need and a right, yet that need and right have been taken hostage by successive governments who have treated our housing stock as a tool to keep the economy from crashing. The creation of a National Housing Service to meet housing needs – to oversee new housebuilding, planning, repairs and to guarantee genuinely affordable rents – would be as significant to public health as the NHS is to individual health, in terms of reducing stress, improving living conditions and preventing exploitation. It would also, over time, serve to reduce the iniquitous gap in resources between those who have bought and profited from their houses and those who have no wish or ability to do so.

Richard Eyre

A desire to share a common purpose is not a sentimental virtue. Our institutions are all imperfect but they are the only instruments of society that represent the belief – the hope if you like – that we’re capable of working together. The most important of our institutions is the NHS. We should stop privatising it and introduce a progressive hypothecated health tax. That’s the only way everyone would understand that the amount of tax they pay relates directly to the amount they earn and to the service they receive. We should scrap Trident, mothball the Vanguard-class submarines, decommission the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, cancel the US F-35 fighters, ensure that defence procurement remains on budget and increase support for weapons of happiness: arts, sports and education. A tectonic shift in education could erode our political immaturity, our insular attitude towards Europe and our paranoia about our national identity. It could change attitudes to class, to the state, to each other and to ourselves.

‘Articulating the need for resistance’

Michael Rustin

The May Day Manifesto was independently published in 1967 from my flat in Primrose Hill, under the editorship of Stuart Hall, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, leading figures of the first New Left. The initiative had been proposed to them by a group of younger activists who had been greatly influenced by them. Its 70 signatories included Terry Eagleton, Ralph Miliband, RD Laing and Iris Murdoch. Its initial impact led to its republication in extended form by Penguin in 1968.

The manifesto was in the first instance a response to widespread disappointment at the failed promise of Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964. What had seemed at first to be a spirited challenge to the decayed structures of Conservative rule from 1951 to 1964 had turned after only two years into a political retreat and into a version of “austerity”, with the government abandoning most of its radical goals.

This was a manifesto conceived more in the tradition of The Communist Manifesto than along the narrower lines of election manifestos of the mainstream political parties. It offered an analysis of the condition of an entire social system and of its potential for development, where party manifestos had become little more than shopping lists of “policies” to be enacted through legislation.

The manifesto, as May Day publication signified, was explicitly socialist in its perspective. It sought to rescue and renew the idea that the purpose of the politics of the left – Labour and beyond – should be to further the long-term transformation of capitalist society in a democratic and egalitarian direction. Its argument was that this purpose was being eroded and forgotten within the Labour party. Instead, the Labour government had become the advocate of accommodating what the manifesto saw as a “new capitalism”, in which the powers of government and the state were to be used not to transform the capitalist system, but to make it function more efficiently. The idea of “modernisation” would acquire a renewed ideological potency in the programme of New Labour 30 years later, from which the idea of socialism had disappeared.

The object of the manifesto’s critique turned out to be more fragile and vulnerable to crisis than its authors had believed. During the 1970s, there was widespread industrial conflict, hyperinflation and a state of affairs that some characterised as “ungovernability”. The war in Vietnam, which the manifesto had characterised as a project of imperialism, ended after all in the Americans’ defeat. The manifesto was thus prescient in identifying the tensions within the “new capitalism”, and in articulating the need for resistance to this system, even though the enormous upsurge of resistance, which begin in 1968, took its authors, and many others, by surprise.

What the May Day Manifesto was unable to do was create a political agency that could be effective in this situation. As a means to greater democracy, it proposed electoral reform, which has still not happened. The political lessons of the 1970s crisis, and the new mobilisations needed to find an escape from its impasse, were learned more effectively by the “new right” – the Thatcherites – than they were by the left. From the 1980s, the dominant regime of capitalism has been not one of technocratic, corporatist compromise, but of unrestrained neoliberalism, in which a financialised, globalised capitalism has met little opposition to its power. But what politically can be done about this system, and where agencies for its transform ation are to be found or built, is no less challenging a problem than it was for the authors of the May Day Manifesto of 1967.

This piece was first published in the Guardian on Saturday April 29th 2017

Women and power: what now?

In a recent lecture the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard cogently argued that public ­attitudes to women in power have altered frighteningly little over the centuries. Even though there has been a shift as a minority of women have climbed to positions of greater public and corporate influence over the past few decades, the hostile treatment meted out to figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Caroline Criado-Perez would be familiar to the creators of Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone. But this dep­ressing lack of change now needs to be set against the astonishing rise of new forms of female protest, with millions of women galvanised globally to rise up against the new misogyny and the old injustices.

The obvious challenge is how to channel this explosion of popular feminist energy in order to defeat the burgeoning forces of populism decisively. The worry is that feminist protest will be self-limiting, drawing its life force from women’s deep, almost instinctive familiarity with outsiderness: the same “exteriority” to power (stemming from both outer hostility and inner reluctance) that Beard sees running throughout history. It could be, she suggested, that women today are already exercising a novel, network-based, collaborative form of power, one that relies less on individual notoriety and risk.

Such themes lie at the heart of these four books, all very different from each other, published to coincide with International Women’s Day – proof at least of the presumed commercial buoyancy of the new feminism. Each tackles the question of power: how and why women lack it, how they might take it, how to personalise it and even, in one case, how to refuse it. What fresh insights and resources of hope do they offer? Quite a lot, I think, and often within a tough, but refreshingly realist frame.

Everywoman announces itself, like its author, the Labour MP Jess Phillips, in a blast of “no-nonsense” noisiness on the cover. There’s loud black and red lettering, and a picture of Phillips in an arms-crossed, lips-pursed pose of bemused self-defence. The book, we are assured, is all about trusting her to tell us the “truth”. This, after all, is the woman bold enough to tell Diane Abbott to “f**k off” and Jeremy Corbyn that if he failed to keep his promises she would stab him in the front, not the back: a warning somewhat mitigated by attacks on Corbyn now being something of a national sport.

Wisely, Phillips – an MP only since 2015 – puts Labour divisions largely to one side. In fast, furious and often funny prose (Every­woman really does read as Phillips speaks), she recalls her own unusual journey from wayward Birmingham teenager to domestic violence campaigner to parliamentary champion, particularly of women’s interests. She paints a vivid picture of the price of public life for women, from “paternalistic shushing” and constant anxiety/abuse about our appearance (“I urge you to think about the men and boys you know. Are they knockouts?”) to multiple online threats of rape and mutilation and, in Phillips’s case, an understandable nervousness about conducting constituency surgeries after the murder of her friend and fellow MP Jo Cox.

For all that, Phillips is determined to encourage women to stand up and stand for office – and even to “relish your unpopularity”. If we really want politicians that look like “us”, she writes, then the public has to accept that it won’t be getting perfect people. She writes honestly about her brother Luke’s drug problems and her own screw-ups, in and out of politics, and in one lovely passage she anatomises human imperfection in general: “Everyone I know has something dark in their lives or in their family history . . . Our lives are full to the brim of stuff we wish we hadn’t done and people we really wish we could forget. It shouldn’t control our futures; it should only enhance them.” Amen to that, especially if it encourages even one reluctant woman to try her hand at public life.

Catherine Mayer has gone a step further than most women fed up with the “skewed” status quo. She started her own political party as a kind of dare after a debate held during the 2015 election campaign. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) draws its populist power in part from its media connections (Sandi Toskvig, its highest-profile supporter, occupies a position close to that of national treasure), the continuing frustration of millions of women at the failure of mainstream politics to address their concerns – and now Trump terror.

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women is a companion piece to the WEP agenda: its aim is to sketch out Equalia, as Mayer calls her promised utopia. An engaging and sharp journalist, she updates the case for equality with fresh research and insights into the sexual politics of everything from domestic life and new technology to cinema and the boardroom. She also gives us a candid insight into the WEP’s attempts to make itself a truly intersectional party, as well as its internal debates on transgender questions, pornography and prostitution.

But who exactly, I wonder, is this weighty book aimed at? Won’t those who are drawn to Mayer and the WEP already have a good grasp of the issues and be perhaps more interested in activism than in a broad roll-call of gender injustice? Mayer has an answer to this, too, which she elaborates in one of her later chapters, on Iceland. This small nation is, in its own way, a pioneer of gender equality, a movement kick-started by the extraordinary “women’s day off” in October 1975, when Iceland’s women downed domestic tools and showed, in 24 hours, how much the country depended on the hitherto invisible labour of women. The WEP is planning a similar Women’s Day Off strike for the UK in 2018, a brilliant idea for an action that someone should have organised years ago.

I suspect that Jessa Crispin would give short shrift to Phillips or Mayer, with their belief in working inside the system and making men partners in change. But then Why I Am Not a Feminist is a provocation, a hand grenade of a publication, as its opening epigraph makes clear: “A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger.”

Crispin takes as her role models second-wave feminist outliers such as Shulamith Firestone and Andrea Dworkin (the often reviled and long-neglected Dworkin has become a heroine for a new generation) and targets what she calls “universal feminism”, from consumerist to corporate variants. But the book was presumably written before the definitive rise of Trump, and so Crispin’s hostility to shiny, successful, insider feminism already feels like a tussle with a disappearing past. Naming no names, she reviles women who “line up behind female politicians, their support thrown behind them almost solely because they share a gender”:

Despite a long history of supporting military intervention, I watch women talk about these politicians’ natural diplomacy and how they’ll keep us out of war . . . Despite a long history of money grabbing and corruption, I watch women talk about these politicians’ sense of fairness and economic justice.

In Crispin’s world-view, women who take political power are bound to corrupt their own ideals, taint their own principles. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the eternal puzzle of why conservatives are more successful in promoting female leaders. Women on the right, with their belief in the power of capital, monarchy, nation and authority, have fewer internal ethical barriers to breach in order to exercise power, at least as it exists today.

Crispin has acute insight into the narcissism of so much “self-empowerment” guff and the blind alleys of “outrage feminism”, on and offline. But there remain odd notes in her provocation, such as her refusal to name names or make specific references, leaving her lurching from one generalised complaint to the next, like a tipsy bar bore. Very occasionally, she touches on a real-world example, as when she rightly criticises the summary hounding out of Professor Tim Hunt from University College London after he made a series of ordinarily silly remarks about women in science.

There is also something unsettling about Crispin’s tone in the chapter “Men Are Not Our Problem”, where she tells her potential male readership: “I don’t give a f**k about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.” Yet later, in that same chapter, she avers that “softness, vulnerability, nuance, compassion and care . . . are absolutely vital qualities that [women] should not be ashamed of”.

What does Crispin ultimately demand? Inasmuch as she spells out what she stands for, as opposed to what she abhors, it is a form of communitarian solidarity, a concern for peace and justice and fairness for all, a refusal to worship at the shrine of money. I may be wrong but I think we used to call this “socialist feminism”.

If we are to believe a recent Vogue profile of the novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be just the kind of feminist of whom Crispin disapproves. Her high-fashion collaboration with Dior on the creation of a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt was much paraded during Paris Fashion Week 2016. Did this project represent selling out or reaching out? Unsurprisingly, Adichie ­robustly claims the latter.

And now here comes another ­attractive, marketable commodity from Adichie – the slight but beautifully produced Dear Ijeawele, a succinct and lyrical manifesto for the next generation embodied in 15 (very pragmatic) “suggestions”, addressed at different points to Chizalum Adaora, the baby daughter of her close friend Ijeawele, or to those who are raising her.

In some ways, Adichie, a Nigerian writer who divides her time between the United States and West Africa, embodies the intersectionality and inclusiveness of modern feminism. Her critique of Igbo traditions and other Nigerian customs has not a whiff of apology about it, at the same time hinting at some startling differences in class relations, as when she urges her friend to teach her daughter that “the household help is human just like her” and that she should “always greet the driver”.

Dear Ijeawele reminds us that, in the history of feminist writing, it is often the personal and epistolary voice that carries the political story most powerfully – think of Sheila Rowbotham’s groundbreaking Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World of 1973, or Oriana Fallaci’s Letter to a Child Never Born (1975). It also reminds us that not much is new. Adichie touches on many of the enduring maxims of women’s liberation, mingling this with a more contemporary, tough-it-out realism. Marriage, she urges, should never be presented as an achievement for a girl (but “romance will happen, so be on board”); gender roles should always be questioned; language matters; ­difference should be respected; sex should be discussed, often. And, in a direct echo of Phillips, she warns that women must firmly reject the snares of likeability.

For me, the most powerful sentence in the book is its simplest, and comes in only the third paragraph. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urges Ijeawele to remember to transmit to her daughter “the solid unbending belief that you start off with . . . Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. Not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.”

Such an assertion does not directly answer the problem Mary Beard posits about women and power. Yet there is no doubt that if we raised all of our daughters to believe completely that they “matter equally”, to trust what they feel and think and to worry less about how they look and come across, we would soon find new ways to challenge the multiple injustices and indignities that still limit, and even wreck, so many women’s lives.

Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth by Jess Phillips is published by Hutchinson (242pp, £14.99)

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin is published by Melville House (153pp, £12.99)

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! by Catherine Mayer is published by HQ (352pp, £20)

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is published by Fourth Estate (66pp, £10)

FROM THE ARCHIVE: ‘YOU’RE WICKED, YOU’RE INSANE’

Sitting in his warmly furnished living room in Regent’s Park, in central London, Nicholas Mosley evokes an air of elegant bohemianism. A celebrated Booker-nominated novelist, winner of the 1990 Whitbread prize for his richly experimental Hopeful Monsters, he is also a skilled memoirist and has worked as a scriptwriter for the film directors Joseph Losey and John Frankenheimer. Now 86, he has just published a new novel and another memoir.

Educated at Eton and Oxford University, sustained by a private income, a baronetcy inherited in middle age, Nicholas has an air of quiet authority and detachment typical of the well-cushioned upper class but an effervescence all of his own. Almost as soon as I sit down, he says, “It’s very fashionable now to say one has had a terrible life. But I have had a rather good one.”

This lightness of spirit is all the more remarkable when you consider his background. For Nicholas, the eldest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and half brother of formula one boss Max Mosley, is not just a member of one of Britain’s most renowned and controversial public families, he is that most dangerous of creatures – a writer in, and about, the family.

The Mosleys have been back in the headlines of late. Images of Oswald, strutting down London streets in his black shirt, have resurfaced following the election of two BNP MEPs in June. Max Mosley shot to unwelcome prominence last year after being caught engaging in S&M sex games, and subsequently taking on the News of World over intrusion into his privacy. Last week, he agreed not to stand for re-election as president of motor racing’s governing body. This all followed the tragic death of his eldest son, Alexander, 39, in May from an accidental drug overdose.

Of all Oswald Mosley’s children, Nicholas most clearly rejected his father’s rightwing politics while at the same time acknowledging mixed feelings about those close to him. Yet, in the end, Oswald Mosley chose Nicholas to be his official biographer. The resulting two volumes, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale, both published in the 80s, offer a candid account of Mosley’s private and public life, which went down well with reviewers.

But the wider Mosley family, including Max, were incandescent. After initially praising the book, privately, Oswald’s second wife, and Nicholas’s stepmother, Diana, told the press it was “the degraded work of a very little man … It’s all very well having an oedipal complex at 19, a second-rate son hating a brilliant father, but it’s rather odd at 60. Nicholas wants to get his own back on his father for having had more fun than he’s had.”

Max, meanwhile, circulated a dossier of the most damaging reviews, suggesting, says Nicholas now, that “I had deliberately set out to destroy our father. He also said, in effect, that I would die dishonoured, (that) no one would be interested in my dismal love affairs or unread novels.” He has wondered since if all this passionate resentment was “a mark of the family’s own reluctance to look at any truth about my father?”

The half brothers did not speak for decades, and it is only in recent months that there has been a rapprochement. Nicholas says, “When all that sex business happened, I felt so sympathetic to him, I thought he behaved so bravely [in respect of the court case]. I wanted to write to him and say, ‘I haven’t heard from you for 30 years but good luck’.” He did not, he says, because he was worried that someone might intercept and misinterpret the letter.

“But I did write to Max and Jean when Alexander died. To say how terribly sorry I was. Verity [Nicholas’s wife] and I went to Alexander’s funeral.

“Then Max pretty well flew straight off to Paris for hours of tough formula one negotiations,” he adds, with a noticeable trace of brotherly pride,

Nicholas treats other family ruptures with the same thoughtful levity. He also fell out with his brother Michael for 20 years, over something neither brother can now recall. They are back in touch and have met up. “It seemed crazy not to,” he says, adding, with laughter, “of course we got on terribly well”.

Nicholas’s childhood was, from the beginning, marked by distance from family. The main figure in Nicholas’s young life was his “darling nanny”. His mother died when he was nine. His father was a rather jokey figure, always hamming it up, fond of teasing wordplay. “But he did not want to involve us in his politics, even when he was in the Labour party [during the 20s]. And we never saw him in a black shirt, ever.”

His father became embroiled in fascism when Nicholas was still in his teens. How did he deal with Oswald’s infamy? He answers without hesitation: “I was saved from being a fascist by going to Eton. And I was saved from being an old Etonian by having a fascist father. “Eton was full of people from the wrong side, as it were. It didn’t worry them. When my father was imprisoned for his far-right political activities, people might pass me and say, ‘Hard luck about your father’ and that would be it.”

He says the same about the army, in which he saw distinguished war service: “It didn’t matter a damn if he was in prison, defying the logic of the war. I was in the army. And I was an officer.”

Nicholas has fond memories of “freewheeling conversations about politics, philosophy and the meaning of life” with his father, particularly during the war period, when Oswald was interned at Holloway prison.

But father and son clashed when Oswald returned to active politics after the war, standing for election, on an anti-immigrant ticket in Notting Hill, west London in the late 50s when he started “acting like an insecure racist with a virulent chip on his shoulder”.

Nicholas, then “at the height of his Christian enthusiasm”, went to his father’s offices to tackle him, on both his politics and a family matter. “I was full of passion but I didn’t know if I was trying to save his soul or my own. When eventually I was let into his office I said to him, ‘You are being wicked. You’re being insane. Just as you were in the 1930s.'”

Nicholas also told Oswald that he was a lousy and vindictive father. “I had expected a thunderbolt to descend, but my father just said quietly, ‘I will never speak to you again.'” They did, but not for many years.

Oswald was serially unfaithful to Nicholas’s mother. “He had no guilt or perhaps he simply couldn’t feel it. His two passions were politics and the pursuit of women.” And Nicholas did get “a little talk” from his father when he was a young man, implying that “infidelity was OK as long as it was only with married women. It was all very Jane Austen.” Nicholas laughs now, “because really it was all about money. You couldn’t ruin an unmarried girl’s chances by sleeping with her.”

But he adds, more thoughtfully, “while my father treated [his affairs] like a game, I took it all terribly seriously.” This seriousness is evident in his own recent memoir, an exploration of his creative, religious and emotional life after leaving the army. He begins to see that he is repeating a pattern in his father’s life, making both his first and second wife unhappy with his twin obsessions: work and other women.

It is only in his second marriage, to Verity, a woman 20 years younger, that Nicholas finds some kind of durable contentment, although even here he is abrasively honest about the marriage’s conflicts, including one isolated incidence of violence on his part.

Verity is equally straightforward. When I arrive to do the interview, she says briskly: “Well I will leave you two alone. I am likely to quarrel with everything Nick has to say to you.” Yet Nicholas looks up at her with something approaching adoration.

Nicholas has five children, but, understandably perhaps, writes less of his own life as a father. It is one thing to be scrupulously truthful about an already infamous public parent, quite another to drag one’s children into the story.

At the close of our interview, he tells me how moved he is by how apparently “faithful and good” the marriages of his own children are, and how he admires them enormously.”I don’t think I was a good father. I did have all these infidelities. But I like to think I was always honest and open. Children become aware of family troubles anyway. But they can learn: either these can become crippling, or not all that important in time, if confronted.”

This piece was first published in the Guardian in 2009.

Why don’t more schools focus on public speaking? Discuss

It’s Monday morning and the start of a year 7 English class at Highbury Grove school, a large comprehensive in north London. The students have been played the soundtrack to a film and hands are creeping up as they are questioned about the role background music plays in setting the mood.

Answers are tentative, but as the pace picks up, their vocabulary strengthens with discussion of “foreshadowing” and “transition” and “perspective”. Encouraged by their young hipsterish teacher, Lewis Green, who tells them that “just because I challenge you it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means I want you to explain more”, their answers become longer and more eloquent. By the end of the class, well over half the pupils have their hands up, bursting to speak.

An ordinary, lively English lesson? Not quite. Hardly a word has been put to paper. The emphasis of this lesson, in a school in which 70% of students are in receipt of pupil premium, is on speaking skills. The approach is based on the work of consultant Martin Robinson, author of two books that attempt to bring classical principles to modern comprehensive education, surprise hits in recent years.

Robinson, who advises Highbury Grove, says: “It is important that young people develop educated opinions, that is, opinions that emerge after exploring and weighing up different sides of an argument.” Robinson believes an educated 18-year-old “should be able to respond to gentle interrogation and not worry when they get to the point of not knowing, relish it even because they can explore and find out more”.

This week sees the launch of a campaign, the Oracy Network, to raise the profile of public speaking in the national curriculum, backed by the English Speaking Union (ESU) and involving, among others, Peter Hyman, founder of School 21 in east London and an enthusiast for the cause. Too many schools still don’t seem to know about the benefits of encouraging pupils to be confident speakers, or haven’t integrated oracy into other parts of the curriculum. A new studypublished today by LKMCO thinktank, reports that provision is patchy. “Few schools evaluate the quality of pupils’ verbal contributions in lessons, or communicate with parents about the quality of these contributions.”

The report says 57% of teachers say they have not received training in oracy in the past three years, and 53% would not know where to look for more information if they needed it.

For Duncan Partridge, of the ESU, the government’s much-criticised 2013 decision to remove speaking and listening assessments from GCSE English grades has proved both “a threat and an opportunity”. “It’s a threat because schools in the current climate don’t tend to concentrate on what isn’t being assessed. But it’s an opportunity because students taking GCSE English will still get a separate speaking and listening certificate, which gives schools a chance to develop their oracy work.”

Boy in class with hand raised

Nick Gibb may quibble – the schools minister was reported to have described attempts to develop classroom speaking as “encouraging idle chatter [pdf]” – but evidence of the link between oracy and higher attainment is firmly established. Neil Mercer, of Cambridge University, who has researched the subject, says: “Children who were taught the art of reasoned discussion significantly improved their scores in maths and science. They also increased their scores on Raven’s progressive matrices test, a standardised psychology test of non‑verbal reasoning.”

According to a paper by the influential Education Endowment Foundation, pupils who participate in spoken language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over a year, and such interventions are listed among the top 10 most effective methods of improving teaching.

But what of that daunting distance between research and practice? How do you persuade sassy adolescents wedded to their smartphones to become persuasive public speakers?

Tom Sherrington, headteacher of Highbury Grove, and the school’s director of oracy, Andrew Fitch, approach this with gusto. Commonsense rules for speaking are pinned up around the school, urging pupils to mind their slang and reject double negatives. A soapbox project runs through years 7 to 9 for which every student has to deliver a three-part persuasive speech to an audience that includes parents. “Of last year’s year 8, 192 out of 198 did their public piece and there were some fantastic contributions,” says Sherrington. Sixth formers must give an oral presentation as part of their extended project qualification.

Students reluctant to give a formal talk are encouraged to build up their arguments through one-to-one discussion “doing it again and again until it’s better”, says Fitch, who is also co-coach to England’s winning World Schools Debating team, sponsored by the ESU.

But it’s not only students who need encouragement says Sherrington: “Teachers often think, they don’t have time. There’s so much content to get through. We tell them it’s not an add-on, it’s part of the pedagogy.”

Fitch adds: “There’s a lot of learning where students don’t actually have to verbalise concepts but it’s useful.” He describes teaching An Inspector Calls, when a student couldn’t say the word “vigorously”. “He knew the word perfectly well, he just couldn’t get it off the page.” Fitch made him repeat it until he could.

Sherrington has a similar story about a year 7 maths class where pupils were finding it hard to say “denominator”. “They were using substitute, vague terms like the ‘numbers at the bottom’.” He adds: “Every year group has its particular challenges. With some older pupils, it’s not the speaking out that’s the problem. They can be confident, cocky and loud, feel obliged to act up a bit. So I say to them: ‘Your challenge, guys, is actually to play it straight.’”

At Highbury Grove the experiment is in its early stages. But watching that year 7 group, hands stretched high by the end of the lesson, it’s also not difficult to believe, as Fitch says, that “students adapt quickly if they know speaking is something expected of them right from the start.”

This piece first appeared in the Guardian on November 8 2016

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston. New characters join Rowbotham’s crowded and complex tableau, among them another emigrant – the fierce autodidact William Bailie, a Glaswegian basket-maker enmeshed in a loveless marriage and with six children – and Helen Tufts, the only American-born person in the tale.

But the politics, too, seems more abstract: less connected to grass-roots struggle, more prone to high-flown theorising, with several gathering round the flame of Liberty,
the journal of Benjamin Tucker’s philosophical and individualist anarchism. Helena Born becomes an enthusiastic cyclist and wearer of the modern, freer fashions; in later life Tufts, her young American protégée, moves towards more conventional single-issue agitation, while Bailie becomes a gradualist socialist, immersed in schemes for water purification and social housing. Always an honest chronicler, Rowbotham does not shy away from the racism, anti-Semitism and nascent authoritarianism, for instance, that sit uneasily alongside Born’s high-flown Whitmanesque reflections and outspoken feminism.

As the author notes, “attempting to explore the motivations of the famous who declare themselves is difficult enough; pursuing the relatively unknown is far more testing. For even when their deeds are on record, their subjectivity is not.” Newspaper and census records supply the often intriguingly bare facts, but the writer is helped by a stream of stories, novels, poems, articles and essays written by the chief protagonists, including a slim book of essays published by Born herself, which Rowbotham first came across in the British Library in the 1970s and which triggered her interest in these interconnected stories.

Inevitably, some characters are more opaque than others. Why did the highly talented feminist and novelist Gertrude Dix abandon the busy, bohemian milieu of Bristol and London to travel thousands of miles to raise a family on an isolated Californian ranch with Robert Nicol, a man whom (it seems) she hardly knew? Rowbotham can only speculate that it was lust that took her across the globe and sheer grit that kept her there, yet there is a melancholy to Dix’s fate that one cannot quite shake off.

Rebel Crossings is a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative. In many ways, it develops the themes of Rowbotham’s more recent work, from her acclaimed 2008 biography of Edward Carpenter (a man who clearly had a huge influence on most of these rebel lives) to her exploration of the “utopianism of our adventurous foremothers” in her last book, Dreamers of a New Day. Certainly, she handles the multiple ideological threads of the period with an admirably light touch.

But the book’s appeal lies, ultimately, in its illumination of character. At times, it reads like a great mid-19th-century novel, an intricate and absorbing tale of a group of intense individuals who pursue their “inner promptings”, often to the bitter, impoverished end. It is impossible, finishing this book, not to feel a debt of gratitude to so many of them for the boldness of their thinking, their activism and their defiance of hostile convention; and to Rowbotham, too, for bringing their hidden stories into such detailed, sympathetic view.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (512pp, £25).

This review was first published in the New Statesman on January 12th 2017