Local Elections Debrief

Now that the Local Elections have safely come and gone, with steady gains by the Conservatives across the country, I feel compelled to write a little on my own experience of it all.

I stood as a candidate of the Conservatives in the Lenton and Dunkirk ward of Nottingham City Council. The ward is one of only five double member constituencies in Nottingham, the other fifteen being triple member. It is fairly large for its small population, encompassing extensive industrial and agricultural territory. There are two lines of axiality - one north/south, the other north-east/south-west - a radial from the City Centre. The residential areas of the ward are something of a 'decayed suburb', their former glories somewhat dimmed by the cruelty of time. I know of many older folk who still think of Lenton, especially ‘the drives’ of New Lenton, as a place for the well-heeled in society. However, a number of factors have sent Lenton slightly down the pipes in recent years.

The one cited by most local residents is students. The University of Nottingham, driven by badly structured government funding, has been compelled to massively increase 'student recruitment' recently in order to stay afloat in the global market for higher education. Extra students could not be accommodated on University Park - the traditional site of the university community - so instead have increasingly housed themselves in the nearby residential areas, especially Lenton, given its convenient location half way between the city centre and the University Campuses. More students equals more transience equals fewer lasting social relationships equals the degradation of community atmosphere (put extremely simply). Students may bring disposable income, but they also bring, in some cases, a certain lack of respect for their environment. They also displace families thus reducing the number of children and therefore the number of schools. In the same way, other facilities common and essential to family-centred communities become attenuated and disappear, thus accelerating the existing trend.

Second is the crime problem. This is to some extent linked to the student issue, but not in a particularly significant way - it is more a problem of lack of police and community presence. It is compounded by a phenomenon imparted to me by a local who wished to remain anonymous - the heavy surveillance in neighbouring Meadows and Radford is apparently so intensive that Lenton is a natural intermediary for criminal association, exchange and drug traffiking.

Third is the greater mobility of our times. Those who may have lived in New Lenton forty years ago now own cars and commute into work from more distant suburbs such as Bramcote, West Bridgeford, Clifton and neighbouring villages. (This is a factor common to other parts of the city also and one which hampers Conservative efforts across it.) Without a substantial middle-class element, Lenton has become an area that is thought of as existing to be driven through, rather than to be lived in. It has in some ways become an anonymous suburb on a map, rather than the vibrant and individual town it once was.

Dunkirk is smaller than Lenton, but has all of the same problems, if not more so given its position adjacent to University Park.

All is not lost though. Urban renewal already feels within the grasp of the area. From my extensive street-pounding on the campaign, I decided that the single greatest thing that could be done to improve Lenton would be attention to gardens. So many front gardens are casually used as rubbish tips; neglected and ignored by owners, causing an eyesore to the passer-by, a headache for City Sanitation Authorities, and a nightmare for wildlife and biodiversity. Gardens do not have to be high-maintenance, and if done properly can be such a joy for both the resident and the wider community.

It must be said that I have developed some rather concerning assumptions also in the course of the campaign. For example, whereas in the past I would tentatively associate medium and large houses, pretty gardens and freshly polished cars with Conservative votes, I can now assert such a correlation with scientific assuredness. We met some very interesting people on our canvassing trail, my favourite being a wonderfully graceful old lady who told me “I‘ve been a Conservative all my life, dear, and I continue to be so.” That was heart-warming after a long days’ hard graft. We also met a fair share of oddballs - for example the man in Dunkirk who on receiving one of our flyers waited until we were coming back down the other side of the street, then emerged from his house screwing up the paper, throwing it at us and shouting “Shame!”.

Hamish, my running mate, and I did not expect to win Lenton and Dunkirk. With a Labour majority of around 380, it would have taken a 30% swing to win the seat. Such a swing projected nationally would leave the Conservative party with a parliamentary majority of 580 and Labour with a rump of 14 MPs! So as you can see - not likely! Nevertheless, we gave Labour a good run for their money. Their administration of the city, which has lasted for decades now, has committed some big mistakes. Not least amongst these was the ridiculous redesign of Nottingham’s famous market square - the largest in England, and a source of tremendous civic pride. Not only did the revamp cost over £6 million (£600 per slab) it was also late, leaving the people of Nottingham without a public space for two years. Further to this is the ongoing record for crime in Nottingham. It s claimed that this has gone down, yet Nottingham remains stigmatised as ‘Shottingham’ and has one of the worst records for crime in Britain. 50 police officers have been dropped from City Beats since Labour took power. Finally, Nottingham, predictably, is over-taxed. A 75% rate rise in four years is not acceptable. Nor is it sustainable. Conservative campaigned on a platform of no above-inflation rises in rates. However, we perhaps should have gone further and promised rate cuts. On other fronts, it is indisputable that Labour have not made a complete hash of things - the city is run reasonably in some respects - bus services for example.

The Labour incumbents who we were up against had the great advantage of long-service on their side. Having been councillors for 13 years, Messrs Trimble and Mir were much more well known than the other candidates, though tellingly neither of them are local, both living outside the ward. It was quite amusing half way through the campaign to have another David Trimble (this one from Northern Ireland) announce his defection to the Conservative Party.

It must be said that campaigning in other wards was just as, if not more rewarding that doing so in our own. We spent much time in Wollaton East and Lenton Abbey ward, the one incorporating the University Park Campus and Jubilee Campus, with the candidates, Elaine and Gerry. Certainly the larger the campaign group, the more enjoyable the experience - going round in a group, it felt like none could defeat the conquering army of Conservatives, whilst pegging it on one’s own was very dispiriting.

The count on May 3rd was fascinating and was definitely the highlight of the campaign. All the parties were out in force, wearing a sea of rosettes. Lenton and Dunkirk, being small and having a very low turnout (23% - though it was 19% last time, and the lowest polling district turnout was on University Park at 5%!), was the first ward to be counted. This gave us both the quick confirmation that we definitely had lost, and the opportunity to go round the other wards’ tables helping out and getting an impression of the city-wide result. This was of course not good though. It quickly became clear that we had not done as well as expected, let alone well enough to win the city, or even dislodge Labour from overall control. In fact, the election in Nottingham was disastrous for us. Rather than lose councillors, Labour actually made gains (albeit from the LibDems and not us). Their’s is a frighteningly efficient electoral machine in Nottingham. They really got their vote out on the day. Our team were left with ‘sore feet and heavy hearts’ in the words of our great Federation Chairman, Cllr Dick Benson.

The final result in Lenton and Dunkirk was:
Lab Zahoor Mir 600 ELECTED
Lab David Trimble 640 ELECTED
Lib John Lubbock 169
Lib Marc McLoughlin 118
Con Edward Keene 261
Con Hamish Stewart 265
Green Andrew Black 193
UKIP Christopher Sneap 56

The vote for all three main parties dropped by c.100, reflecting, I imagine, general discontent with the party system. These votes went instead to Greens and UKIP, the former of which did well to push the Lib Dems into fourth place.

I do not regret standing. Indeed, it was an honour to be selected by the Conservative Party to represent them in this election and it was an experience I will never forget. The feeling of comradeship between candidates is great, the tension in the air on polling day electrifying. It is said that once a politician stands for parliament once, they develop a taste for it and can think of little else than standing again to win. Perhaps this is true, though on a far lesser scale, for councils. I certainly know I’ll be doing it again at some point soon!

NUS Conference 2007 from a Conservative Perspective

NUS Conference this year was held 27th - 29th March at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool (which aren’t actually gardens at all, but rather a series of halls and drinking dens). I approached the conference an unashamed sceptic of the NUS. Earlier in the year, I had made strenuous efforts to make my Union (or ‘Constituent Member’ in NUS-speak) leave the national union (though in the end we decided to stay in). I had a great number of preconceptions about the NUS, some of which were justified by conference, others less so. In the latter category was my greatest pre-existing objection to NUS membership, namely its unreconstructed, unreconstructable nature - the resistance of its structures and institutions to change and reform. With the benefit now of a range of conference experiences, both generic and specific, (but chiefly the decision of conference to overwhelmingly support motion 701 for an unrestricted external governance review) I am ready to accept that the organisation does in fact have the capacity to change itself for the better in substantive ways.

This report will consist of two main sections - first a chronology of the proceedings of conference, together with my own impressions and analysis thereof, followed by some more holistic reflections on the event as a whole.

Conference stated late, but was eventually opened by Gemma Tumelty, the National President, who made what can only be described as a strikingly self-abasing speech. In her own words, “NUS has failed” - an almost unbelievable statement for someone who has been president for the best part of a year already. Yet she hammered home the theme, by listing the ways in which NUS was falling short of the expectations of members and the standards of sister unions in other countries. Inevitably, this flagellation did have a political purpose, namely to justify a mandate for comprehensive changes and to dissuade conference from passing anything too radical. Perhaps partly as a result, the a-radicalism of the conference was such that the lead faction of the ‘radicals’, Student Respect, was in uproar by the end of the week, proclaiming the ‘death’ of the NUS. Fortunately, nothing of the sort has occurred - rather, NUS may well have taken on a new lease of life by shedding the absurdity of yesteryear, and beginning the slow process of remodelling itself as something very different both to the NUS that Respect wants to create and to the conception of NUS which resides in the public consciousness. Tumelty also acknowledged the good work done by student organisations beyond the ken on the NUS and outlined a willingness to work with these groups, thus humbly recognising that the NUS does not and will never have any claim on universalism in the student world, given the diversity therein.

Having mentioned ‘the radicals’, I should elaborate on my analysis of the notorious NUS factions. It is safe to say that by far the most efficiently organised factions were Student Respect and Labour Students, though both groups lost out in various elections to independents and other lesser factional groupings. Conference very quickly seemed to polarise around these two main factions who respectively represented the lead ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’. Where the former wanted marches, mass action, militancy, solidarity with national unions in Greece and France, revolution, and universal living grants, the latter advocated a vastly more pragmatic program of parliamentary lobbies, financial restructuring, governance review, and a ‘Keep the Cap’ priority campaign. Very loosely, Socialist Students, FOSIS (Federation of Student Islamic Societies) and ENS (Education Not for Sale) grouped with Respect in the ‘radicals’, where UJS (Union of Jewish Students), LDYS (LibDems), CF (Conservatives), and newcomers ’Not for Politics, Just for Students’ (again loosely) grouped with Labour in the ’moderate’ group. The former block drew mainly from Manchester, SOAS, Goldsmiths, UEL, Staffordshire, Bradford ,and UWE - the latter drew from Imperial, Bristol, Sheffield, Nottingham, KCL, Reading, and the NEC. Initially, my own allegiances led me to instinctively label these groupings respectively as ‘Alliances of Madness’ and ’Alliance of Sanity’, though for the purposes of this report, I will aver from such partisanship. In many ways, the radicals were in fact the conservatives of the conference, given the NUS’ undeniably radical heritage. In other ways, the moderates were the conservatives, with an agenda inspired by pragmatism and punctuated by perceptive insightfulness. Suffice to say it pleases this delegate greatly to see such a desperate scramble for the attainment of genuine conservative credentials.

Disappointingly, the host body (Blackpool City) waived their greetings, though we did enjoy the attentions of Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, in the sororial greetings section. Mr Barber, the quiet and hard working Unionist who has been noted recently for forging stronger links with Cameron’s Conservative Party, spoke eloquently about students in work and the mutual benefits of NUS-TUC collaboration in this growing field.

Unfortunately, this delegate missed a chunk of the proceedings on Tuesday afternoon having had his credit card swallowed up by an unfriendly cash machine near Central Pier. I spent a good hour or so trekking round Blackpool speaking to an eclectic mixture of Tourist Information officers and Barclays Bank employees, all of whom were very accommodating individuals sufficiently sympathetic to the plight of a young NUS delegate as to allow reasonably rapid resolution of my distressing and inconvenient dilemma. I should note here that the NUS-provided map of the city was extremely useful for this little expedition, the only shortcoming thereof being that parking symbols were the same as those for public conveniences. Thankfully, no cars were seen driving through the walls of the gents in town, but this may explain the unusual smell emanating from Blackpool Central NPC. I was back on conference floor by 3:30pm in time for the start of the motions. In all, I was on conference floor at all times that conference was open, with the exception of the above stated case, two short trips to the pavilion on the Thursday, and two short visits to the little delegates’ room.

The first set of motions to be discussed in the order paper were the membership and steering motions. These were the most ‘technocratic’ and procedural motions of conference, all being submitted by either Steering or Rules Revision committee, with most presented by two giants of the NUS; Rob Park (sadly not re-elected later in conference) and Keith Underhill (gladly re-elected with a resounding majority from his devoted body of supporters - chants of “Keith - Keith - Keith” filled the hall). Intriguingly, and not a little amusingly, a few of the motions that Steering Committee put up were defeated in a slightly immature manifestation of conference’s capacity for petulance and rebellion.

Next came the finance committee motions. Through the course of these, and the subsequent finance committee report, I came to the inescapable conclusion that finance committee, and the office of the national treasurer, are the two institutions which alone have held the National Union together for much of the last few decades. Their pure statistically-driven sanity and cold, unbending rationalism are just the thing that NUS requires to anchor it firmly in the real world. Their report confirmed my suspicion that, despite the best efforts of the Treasury, the NUS is in a horrific financial situation. The only year in living memory not to be sullied by a deficit running to hundreds of thousands of pounds was the one in which the old head office (the proverbial ‘family silver’) was sold off without a corresponding re-investment in real estate. In the words of the outgoing treasurer, “if trends continue, [NUS] jubilee celebrations will turn into a memorial service”… “NUS has got to get real” … “the current system is flawed.” In theory, the governance review will create long-term solutions to some financial problems.

By this stage, conference was one and a half hours behind schedule - a problem that seems to be symptomatic in the national union. Tumelty had mentioned in her opening address the problem of time-wasting and inefficiency. This warning was vindicated throughout conference, with much of the agenda missed, the last two thirds of it comprehensively rearranged, and barely half of the motions discussed. Many pointed to this not as a factor of time wasting proceduralism, but of the insufficient time allocated for conference. Before 1991, there were two conferences per year, each five days long. We now have one two day conference. It has been suggested that this minimalism is designed to concentrated more power in the hands of Steering Committee, who were blamed (mainly by the radicals) for excessive bureaucratism. The reason is more likely to be finance committee’s determination to restrict unnecessary spending. Surely finance committee’s greatest wish, and one not entirely incommensurate with the objective of NUS reform, would be the wholesale abolition of conference, and its replacement with a more powerful NUS Council. Perhaps because of my self-confessed membership of the ‘political elite’ of NUS, but also out of a concern for the political and institutional character of the Union, I personally would not favour such a move. This is not to say though that conference itself does not need to be democratised. Even simple things like the filming (for YouTube?!) of conference would improve the accessibility of the NUS.

The education policy zone report gave the two education VPs a chance to shine. Ellie Russell, VP FE certainly did so, with a very assured performance which thoroughly deserved the vote of thanks offered her by the VP Education, Wes Streeting. His speech, the first of many to conference over the three days, was also confident, but was clearly just a warm-up, as it lacked the ease and co-ordination of his later deliveries. Content-wise, the two spoke of achievements in lobbying over the past year, with particular attention to the new FE White Paper, the first since the early 1990s, into which much NUS input had been made.

During the break between sessions one and two of conference, I took the opportunity of going to the fringe meeting for the group mentioned earlier, ‘Not for Politics, Just for Students’. This meeting, in the Galleon Bar, was a bit of a shambles, with no organised chair or pre-arranged structure, but it evolved reasonably naturally. Dave White, Sheffield Union President, was introduced and spoke well for five minutes about the aims and objectives of the group. Ben Ullman, Bristol President later gave good answers to questions on the philosophical justification for the new formation. Amusingly enough, the one and only Gemma turned up half way through and did a bit of heckling from the back of the room, before agreeing with Ullman and White that their objectives were the same - a very encouraging sign of commitment to reformism! Hopefully NfP, JfS, which looks rather idealistically toward the abolition of all factions, will not be a flash in the pan affair, given the involvement of a significant number of union presidents-elect - of Imperial, Bristol, Durham, and Sheffield, to name just a few.

A new innovation at conference this year was the so-called ‘access breaks’. These were ostensibly intended for the relief of the distressed and disabled. They were however comprehensively abused by a majority of delegates despite the repeated warnings of Steering Committee. Later in conference, the Disabled Students Officer also got up to complain about the abuse. I learned in the process of his speech a new word - disablism, meaning discrimination on the basis of disability. Yet still, whenever a fifteen minute break of this type was called, it would inevitably take much longer that fifteen minutes to get all those who subsequently left conference floor back on to it - this was another source of delay.

By the end of day one, I was exhausted, but for some reason, I still stayed up until 1am playing Hearts with fellow delegates, eventually getting to bed over 20 hours after getting up the previous morning. The hotel we stayed in was very nice, with en suite rooms, a bar, sea views, satellite TV, and friendly staff. In fact, all the locals of Blackpool that I interacted with were friendly. The hotel gave us hearty breakfasts each morning, which was just the ticket for a hard day’s conference.

Day two saw a return to the education motions, of which conference passed items to make education funding a priority campaign, against means testing and to make applications personalised. There were also a couple of debates about universal living grants - a line pushed by the aforementioned radicals, but rejected by conference on the advice of NEC on the basis that such a campaign was impractical and unrealistic. I entirely agreed. As a matter of interest, of the votes that I can remember which way I went, I voted for 203, 204, 205, 206, 207, 301-4, 401-3, 501, 503, 504, 504a, 506, 510, 510 c-e, 601, 701, 701 a and b, 801, 801c, 802, 803, 804 and 805 a, against 201, 202, 502, 505, 510 a, f and b, 701c-e, 702a, 705c, 801 d and 805 c, and abstained from votes on 801a, e and b, and 805.

The elections began in earnest on the Wednesday, with elections for President, Vice-Presidents, and Committees. Of the three presidential candidates, Gemma Tumelty was the most sane and moderate, with Buckland and Owen splitting the loony left vote between them. Tumelty defined herself as “Not the right wing candidate - the right candidate.” Perhaps however it is time for her to accept that within the context of the NUS, she is most assuredly right wing, along with plenty of others who would in the real world self-define as anything from revolutionary socialist though social democrat and conservative, out to libertarian and beyond. Gemma won by a landslide. For National Secretary, Independent Brown beat Respect Baig 538 to 193. VP Welfare was closer, but only between two Labourites, with Respect’s Clare Solomon a distant fourth. Commiserations should go to Richard Angell who, despite a high-profile campaign, lost to fellow NEC member ‘Ama-zing’ in the race for VP Welfare with 284 votes to 455. Even in the VP FE election, Respect lost to a ‘real world’ candidate, 73 votes to 23. Hopefully the repeated annihilation of the radical block, in both elections and motions, will ultimately drill into them the seeds of understanding which may one day flower into more enlightened worldviews. We can but hope. National Treasurer was a hard one to call, with perhaps the strongest field of candidates of the night. Both Dave Lewis from Reading and Sam Rozati from Essex were outstranding candidates, though in the end the former won by jut five votes - 356 to 351. VP Education felt like a replay of the presidential election, with the sitting incumbent, Wesley Streeting, utterly destroying his absurd opponents, ENS’ Woods and Sussex Union President Dan Glass. Glass made the most bloodthirsty speech f the night, stating that “Our society will not be free until the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat.” Such a charming, well adjusted fellow he was. The predictable result: Streeting, 480, Woods, 97, Glass, 91.

Much as I would like to go through every motion discussed and dissect the whys and wherefores of each, I fear there is neither the strength of will within me, nor the commitment of my readership to merit such a gargantuan exercise. I will simply put it that there were more motions discussed, some good, others bad, which were passed and rejected more or less accordingly.

Conference closed at 2pm on the Thursday with a final address by the dear leader, President 06-08, Gemma Tumelty. Some stayed for fringe meetings and leaving speeches; this delegate got the first train back home to Nottingham, but looks forward to conference ‘08.

Ultimately, the fuel that conference runs on can be summed up in one word: emotion. The most accomplished and proficient speakers know that to win an argument, one merely has to win the feelings of the delegates - logical rationalism has little to do with it. Fortunately, it seems that this fact has now been twigged by both ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the NUS, providing a more level playing field. Indeed, I myself would now feel confident in arguing for almost anything up on that podium, provided sufficient time beforehand to formulate the appropriate duration of empty platitudes, tired clichés, monotonous sound bites, and well-worn set phrases. The reality of this conference-nomenclature is such that an attentive delegate could have great fun simply by paying ‘conference bingo’ - a Mars Bar for every fiftieth time the speaker mentions ‘a campaigning, winning union’ or ‘a fair, free, and funded education’.

I was struck by how efficiently chaired and organised conference was, and how few breaches of the peace there were inside the hall. Particular credit must go to Kat Stark, the NUS Women’s Officer, who chaired for the duration of the Tuesday afternoon session and did so in such a way as to be an exemplar to future chairs of conference. Her time-keeping was especially commendable.

I began this report with a statement about the most significant aspect of conference that had changed my mind about the NUS. I will finish with the converse of this - the most resounding affirmation I received of any preconception. It is said by some that NUS suffers from a surplus of political correctness - an over-obsession with getting words ‘right’. I would not entirely agree - there are many elements of PC-ness that are simply borne out of politeness, generosity, and gentleness - all good virtues in their own right. However, it must be acknowledged that there is another, more sinister side to the PC creed, namely, vindictiveness. It has sadly become a knee-jerk reaction amongst almost all NUS-involved minority groups that whenever someone says something they vaguely disagree with, the motivation for the statement is put down to a ‘phobia’ of their particular group. Wild accusations of racism, homophobia, islamophobia, disablism, xenophobia, and chauvinism were bandied about far too recklessly by delegates. Moreover, such is the conflation, amongst some, of personhood with ideology/religion/sexuality that almost any criticism of such abstracts is automatically interpreted as some sort of frontal assault on the humanity of those who hold to such identities. This creates a very negative climate of fear in which abstracts cannot be discussed for fear of interlocutors being labelled as ‘x-phobic’ and associated stigmatisation by a self-righteous radical. NUS suffers from an imbalance between awareness of rights and responsibilities. Sectional rights, whilst important, become a burden on the harmony of the wider community if iterated with repeated and aggressive emphasis. Surely an objective of a Union encompassing such a diverse range of backgrounds and lifestyles should be to help build a stronger holistic community - to strengthen the bonds between all people and seek shalom (lit. the peace of the city). As it is, NUS insists on the preservation of ‘safe space’ at conference in which, theoretically, all groups can peacefully co-exist. Unfortunately, it is clear that this is a hollow, false, and artificial peace, with different factions huddling together and hordes of factionally-aligned protesters and flag-wavers immediately outside the ‘safe-space’ ever ready to start chanting threatening mantras, thrust their partisan literature into one’s hand, and foster a climate of, if not fear, then anxiety. It is commendable that NUS makes efforts to deal with what is a difficult situation by putting all delegates into regional blocks, thus splitting up factions, and attempting to foster a united sense of identity behind geographical rootedness. However, this needs to be taken further I believe - and if it is, could prove a beacon to the rest of society. It was the failing of the twentieth century that we lost so much of the tradition in our institutions - and thus respect for them. I long to see the twenty-first become that in which we rebuild the platoons, little and big, of that society, such that we may be a nation of people living lives together, rather than in sectionalised ghettoes. Humanity cannot live solely under the artificial peace of a democratic state-system, for it is in their nature to seek community as well as democracy. NUS has the chance to start building that national community again and therein to foster real respect, and real peace, and real solidarity, not just amongst students, but amongst all the peoples those students interact with, and will age to one day become.

NUS, for all its faults, is a true British Institution - it is a vital landmark of our national political life. It adds colour and vibrancy to the student world. Its leaders have committed themselves to seek change and reform - the evolution needed to sustain our national union. NUS has potential to do a lot of good, so long as good people stay engaged with it and involved in it. This is not to say it is right for everyone - many unions justifiably remain beyond the realms of affiliation. From what I have seen though, NUS is here to stay, for some if not all of us at least. We will watch with interest where the new strain of moderation will take it is years to come.

Praise must go to Ian Wiggins, Nottingham's Delegation Leader for a very proficient approach, congratulations to Be Pringle, our new local NEC member, and of course thanks to ll of those who elected me in the first place to represent my peers at Nottingham.

Labour defeated by money

With the Conservatives ending their periodof debt with a spectacular series of big donations and Labour straddled with £23mn of yet-to-be-paid loans, it is looking increasingly possible that Labour will be defeated not by politics but by money. The lack of faith in its ability to retain government will push donations, already low, to the brink of disaster. Brown Bear forsees a Labour Party desperately putting off a General Election until the last possible moment in 2010, scrabbling for money and hammered by Conservative derision as illegitimate and lacking in mandate. There will be no money left for any of the slick PR that has won such overwhelming majorities for Labour in the past, and the entire movement will be disspirited and unmotivated. It will be a sad end to a sickening regime.

Students' Unions in Revolution

The students' unions movement has, it is fair to say, been through a lot over the last few decades. Most have witnessed a change in core values from the political to the commercial, as driven by the greater spending power of modern students and their correspondinly lesser concern for higher matters. Many now operate more as small mightclubs or bar chain operators than mass-protest organisations. Should this worry us? Should it cause alarm and despair. Well - it obviously doesn't, but this is largely because most still write any mention of an SU off as a crazy group of leftie radicals playing at being real politicians. The reality is that Students' Unionism is now a multi-million pound business with complex and significant remunerative staff structures.

Some will say it can only be a good thing that Unions have on the whole dopped the crazyness, and taken on instead the much more practical role of student-orientated business empires. But such a move has its perils not least in that with the development of non-student staff infrastructure, the organsation takes on a different form - one that comes with institutional self-interest and the danger of losing the Union of students, by students, for students. Instead, students begin to be seen as an impediment by their own organisation; and sidelined as such.

Correspondingly, the membership of Unions has become de-communalised and has lost touch with itself. There no longer is any campus community, merely a huge and attenuated student body, a low proportion of which will have any contact or involvement with 'their' Union during the period of their study. As a result of this disconnection, the democratic deficit grows wider and wider, with voter turnout at even the most important annual elections falling to single figure percentages, thus leading to a group of Union Officers whose claims to representativeness are a nonsense.

Both of these trends lead to what I would like to term the 'playground' thesis. Both University and Union employees are lead to think of students as passing irrelevances; convienient anomalies that satisfy the illusion of democracy and choice to the casual observer, despite being powerless to make a real difference either to the plans of the University or those of the Union's commercial imperatives. Oh for the days of sit-ins and real protests!

Universities and Alumni

We have known for many years that our Universities are slipping behind those in the New World, essentially because of one thing: money. US institutions measure their cash flows in billions, whilst we are stuck in mere millions. Though this disparity is partially because US students pay for their own education instead of getting the government to do it for them, this does not fully explain the huge differences in spending power, assets and endowments. Rather, it is alumni donations that keep the best universities a mile out of the red. However, most British Universities are yet to wake up to this fact, instead maintaining their focus on the immidiate term profit margin. They cannot afford to keep thinking like this in an increasingly globalised University market. If British Universities are to survive as key global players into the next century, they will have to adopt a new approach to education - one that reverses the present trend of seeing Universities as a degree-granting machine which undergraduates enter one end and exit the other three years later with a piece of paper. If Universities and Colleges want to use their graduates as a source of support and cash after graduation, they will have to work much harder at improving the 'student experence'. Students who do not have a good and welcoming time at study will be unlikely to feel retrospective loyalty to their institution after they leave. If their education really is just reduced to a process, where is the motivator to give back to such an inhuman and sterile process?

Brown Bear's advice to Universities is to start by working at accomodation for students. Residences are increasingly characterless in their design and construction, and thus less and less conducive to the development of community within them. The lack of small communities within the University as a whole leaves the University itself unable to create a wider community atmosphere and makes the University hierarchy a distant and technocratic one. The little platoons of society are what keep society itself intact. From this natural starting point of students who are co-located, Universities can move on to invest in all other areas of their identity creation mechanisms.
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A Lazy Mind

It was recently mentioned to Brown Bear that this practise of blogging may addle the mind and lessen its rigour in the field of intellectual enquiry. This argument certainly has merit. Without the looming precense of another who will themselves rigorously assess one's efforts, those same efforts are without the element of motivation necessary to uphold certain normative standards. Moreover, there is less of an imperative to improve one's style, technique and range without an assessor advising, cajoling and spurring-on at regular intervals. To a degree, the device of peer-evaluation serves these ends - but it can never reach the qualitatively different regulatory bar of an overseer, tutor or mentor. If deprived of this sort of relationship infusing my blogging, how many other spheres of life will be subject to similar slackening in the absense of idealising objective standards? This is indeed a worrying concern, but one that has obvious solutions. Though the supply of respected and superior minds with whom to engage in a process of self-improvement may be limited, and though the structures needed to enforce oversight may be deficient (witness the University tutor system!), there will always be the abstract ideal of betterment in living and a better approach to work as realised in the example of Christ, to aspire towards. The challenge is bearing this in mind at all times, in all places, whether blogging or not.

This Weather

Brown Bear has had a paticularly enjoyable day given present climactic circumstances. Where many seem to revel in the sunlight and indeed travel thousands of miles just to get a little more of it, Brown Bear on the other hand dislikes the sun, in general. Certainly there are times at the end of winter when summer sun is appreciated, but on the whole, a gloomy day is more favoured than a sunny one. There is something very pleasing about a cloak of greyness and a whiff of mist. In fact, a grey day prompts reflection and philosophising - it enhances one's sense of personality and difference in an otherwise unattainable way. Just as the sun brings out our social sides and engenders extoversion, so the shadow of gloam gives peace and solemnity. Perhaps Brown Bear is himself a solitary figure at heart.

The Forgotten Politics of Identity

We are frequently reminded, whether in media, news items or personal experience, of the rootlessness and transience of modern society – the lack of definition to our lives and the consequent apparent pointlessness of life itself. As old identities have been worn away and as the rural/urban alternatives of pride in place have given way to a directionless cosmopolitanism; as mass abandonment of organised religion has proceeded and as a common morality has been replaced by liberal permissiveness; as patriotism has been branded nationalistic and xenophobic and as ancient mores have been eradicated by a junta of political correctness; as the concept of equality has been applied with the absolutism to destroy difference and diversity of character, many find themselves as individuals cut asunder from society, rather than persons in a tactile and warm social context, with no real or meaningful connections to any institution, person, group or ideal; islands in a sea of indifference, drifting and alone. These problems have given rise to an alarming level of social instability, with violence, crime and suicide all rising to unprecedented levels – but this does not have to be the case. The primary concern of all British governments until now has been almost everything but identity; military, economic, financial and petty political concerns have all materialistically clouded a growing malaise which cannot now be ignored as it once was. The most important aspect to socio-political live often is the most overlooked, the most taken for granted. This is the case with identity politics, which will only now be ignored at our collective peril.

A person’s identity may comprise many levels. The more levels, the more rooted in society the person often is. I use the term ‘person’ rather than ‘individual’ deliberately, as the latter implies an innate isolation. The less levels of identity, the more ‘individualistic’ (and shallow) the person usually is. While identity does not comprise the totality of personality, it is nevertheless the major constituent thereof. Identity ranges from the ephemeral (e.g. being an inveterate biscuit-eater) to the sublime and absolute (e.g. holding a certain faith). However, the most fundamental (and thus, by aforementioned logic, most ignored) is family. Our names are family-derived and constitute the most common designation for our selves. Recent trends to give (and take) increasingly abstract and non-traditional first names (Paris, Apple, Speck, Sistine, Coco, Banjo, Rumer, Peach, Scout and Tallulah Belle, to name a few) indicates a deep, frustrated dissatisfaction with this most basic identity; a lack of pride in the names of one’s ancestors and forebears. Equally, the trend not to take the name of one’s partner, while more an issue for feminist debate, is another sign of failed familial relations.
On a wider basis, we are all familiar with the widespread afflictions in family life – divorce, acrimony, single parenthood, pregnancy outside wedlock, disposal of the elderly, disrespect for authority and age, and indiscipline in children and youth. Yet rather than take the necessary steps to resolve these circumstances, we maintain governments that only nurture them, providing ‘judgement-free’ subsidies to wrongful, socially harmful states of living via the state welfare apparatus. The once laudable system of tax breaks for married couples and income support for children has been degraded by means testing, reduced by bureaucratic inefficiency and even inverted by the dogma of political correctness and by moral vacuity. Ironically, the tax breaks system laid the foundation for these latter ills as it provided the justification for state meddling in the domestic and relational affairs of the people. Never has there been a firmer case for wholesale government withdrawal from this sphere of public policy, such is the dire state it has left our once-great society in.
The strong nuclear and extended family is the building block of communities. It sustains, comforts, protects, nurtures, socialises, heals, cares and provides for us – all better, faster, more lovingly, more receptively and more personally than the state and its minions could ever hope to. Yet we have allowed the nuclear family to collapse and the extended family to virtually disappear altogether. Only through a sustained non-state policy of public debate, publicity, principle and resolve can this situation be rescued and the family refounded. Political leaders must show backbone themselves if the backbone that is family is to survive the a-human disaster of postmodernism.

Identity politics extends to all sectors of society, not least to children and young people. The socialisation of the young within an identity-centred framework is crucial to their future commitment to that framework whether conscious or sub-conscious. It is said that a happy worker is a good worker. What then makes a happy worker? More specifically for the field of education, what makes a happy pupil/student-worker? Good teachers? An enjoyable course? Attractive, unspoilt buildings and sites? Pleasant co-workers? Open spaces for recreation? Surely all of these things are important, but what good are any of them if the pupil/student feels no sense of belonging and is bereft of multilateral human connections? The ruthless ‘government money’-driven drive at expanding educational facilities and the ‘pfi-businessification’ of the entire education process in Britain has left us in the worst of both worlds structurally (capitalist ruthlessness plus governmental unaccountability) and has created a system where ‘learners’ are treated as cattle; to be force fed mass-produced syllabi that are usually thoroughly inappropriate to the individual in question and where the ‘teachers’ care little, if at all, about the success of their charges. They are told to identify with their pupils - but more important surely is for the pupil to identify with the institution, to take pride and dignity in it, to care for it and be a true part of it. Only then does school cease to be prison, does university cease to be debt and drudgery and do both become not only a privilege, but also a holistic social experience.
Schools and universities where there is as little ‘contact time’ between teacher and pupil/student as possible cannot become foci of popular loyalty, nor can they act as accommodating and well loved second homes, as the body politic is inevitably split into factions that care little for one another. Many features of institutions offering excellent identity have wrongly become associated with elitism – houses in schools, and colleges in universities, pastoral and spiritual care, oddities and eccentricities, discipline and manners, and a respect and desire for wider learning, to name the main players. To take the first item, houses/colleges; try as we may, such delineations as ‘Class B’ and the ‘hall of residence’ will never be made to fulfil the role in a person’s heart that a fuller and more comprehensive organisation can. Houses and colleges can bear the ages behind them – with history, tradition and customs, for the initiate, comes a rootedness in the past – a transcendental connection with those that have come before who, though never met, are known. Where there is no such culture, there is no such affection for the institution and it becomes a mere designation to be discarded whensoever its initial purpose becomes redundant (thus in turn disenfranchising the next generation from a lack of reciprocal attention from their antecedents). Of all fields needing identity application, education is paramount, as this is the stage at which young personalities develop. The age of comprehensive (i.e. grey, statist, monotonous) education has categorically failed these personalities.

The most important identity on a political level that people may feel is to their geographic location. In an age of movement, both national and international, when one can travel to the other side of the world in a day and leave one’s country in hours, let alone one’s locality, the erosion of place has, of all identities, been most profound; most devastating. Yet most of us, despite our itinerant nature, do maintain a place of permanent residence or do have a majority of family in the area of original inhabitation. This space provides potential for identity that must be seized. The village/town, county, region and nation are all viable levels of historic identity bound up in place. The government can help to encourage these by reforming government around these foci of popular loyalty; handing power to counties, hundreds and parishes, encouraging patriotism, flying the flag with pride, and reforming regions around historically legitimate identities (e.g. Northumbria, the Midlands, the Home Counties, the Welsh Marches, Wessex, Cornwall, London and East Anglia in England). However, there is a limit to what can be achieved by state action. The real challenge is to communities themselves. A strong and close-knit community offers innumerable advantages – from small and friendly locally run businesses to more frequent and greater charitable donation (a far more meaningful, just, and efficient means of redistribution than state taxation), but the best recommendation is the home that community provides; the identity it confers.
This leads us to the question of European identity. As we base so much sub-national identity on location, can we also base supra-national identity on this geographic model? The answer is a definitive no. Though we may share the basic western civilisational values with ‘Europe’, there is none of the same cultural ethos. It is for good reason that the ‘Ancient Israelite model’ of the nation state has been the dominant political unit for five hundred years – the cultural norms that it embodies are the first and foremost loyalty that the average person feels: to language, religion, culture, law, historical experience, and historic leadership. To illustrate, an Englishman can reasonably happily move from Somerset to Derbyshire, but it is a qualitatively different matter for him to move to the Saarland, or to China, for that matter. Any attempt at supra-national identity-creation (and indeed political integration) makes far more sense along cultural lines – in Britain’s case with the core Anglosphere nations in North America and Australasia. It is with these counties that we share most of the norms discussed as relevant to the nation and in these that we share the strongest bonds of understanding and commonality. We are uniquely blessed that our forebears managed to reproduce our nation (not once, but twice) on a continental scale – to cut loose these cultural offspring from our global family in favour of nations that have oftentimes sought to subjugate us in the past is madness.

Lastly, we must consider the hierarchy of identity. If you are asked the straight question “What are you?”, by a friend how do you respond? Aside from banalities and absurdities (few would respond “A human” or “A solid”), we are inclined to think in terms or various different categories; nationality, religion, ethnicity, etc. Different categories will hold different meaning and different levels of importance to each of us, but should this concern us? Should we worry if one defines himself primarily as ‘a Christian’ and another as ‘a Briton’? In a liberal democracy, thankfully not. However, we must be clear on the separateness of political and personal identity. Though the political is personal (and vice versa), it does not constitute the sum. All nation states have the right to demand what we shall refer to as the ‘Primary Political Loyalty’ of their citizens and subjects. This right comes with the co-requisite responsibility to protect those that openly swear loyalty to the nation state, its head and institutions, its traditions and heritage, from those that would seek, through their higher loyalty to an alternate political body or ideal, that nation’s destruction. The state’s only ward against such as these is deportation, else it shall perish through apathy and the seizure of the opportunity inherent in legal occupation by the interlopers. This is no nationalism – this is a very simple and obvious patriotism. If two or more groups co-exist with separate Primary Political Loyalties, democracy will suffer from the lack of a demos and social schisms will only widen and deepen, leading to a situation irreconcilable within one state mechanism.

Identity provides common purpose, loyalty, and feeling. It is the foundation of all human happiness and is the only sure means of institutional flourishing. It is a more useful social security than welfare and a more trustworthy adhesive than force, humanitarian ethics, or monetary incentive. It can and must be harnessed by governments, business, academe and the world at large if we are ever to build the great society.
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The State of the Church in the UK

Wow. Big topic. Well. Let's see.

The largest church remains the Church of England, with approximately a million 'regulars' and about a million and a half to two million more non-regulars who may turn up once a month or just once a year for festivals of the church like Christmas. Of course, both of these figures have been declining in the past hundred years and a majority of the latter, and a significant portion of the former, is composed of 'Sunday' Christians who see church-going primarily as a social ritual, rather than a chance to gather together as the people of God and worship the creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Nevertheless, many, and ever more Anglican churches are once again spiritually alive - these churches form the only reliable source of fluid income for the Anglican communion and as such are at once despised and needed by the liberal elite of the church.

There are four main factions in the Anglican church - Liberals, Evangelicals, Charismatics and Anglo-Catholics, or traditionalists. The majority of recruits coming up through the ranks of the clergy are Evangelicals, which bodes well for the future of the communion. The popular conception that all the elite of the church are liberal mavericks on the scale of 'Bish Rich' in Oxford or wooly flip-flopping academics to the bumbling degree of Rowan Williams would do well to note the growng cadre of Evangelical Bishops - Nazir-Ali in Rochester and Tom Wright in Durham being the most senior examples. The key problem facing the Anglicans is the rigidity of the structure in place - a structure designed for a national church in which there is at best a limited concept of congregationalism and only a very nascent system for provision of acceptable hierarchies.

Thanks to more flexible structures, many free churches are in a better situation - though the simple multiplicity of them can be an organisational hinderance. The black churches (which sadly are very distinguishable due to significant self-segregation) have combatted this by very effectively networking amongst themselves and forming larger, wider unions and associations. As a general rule, it seems the older the church, the less healthy it is. A simplification yes, but a suitable general observation. The methodists, for example (one of the oldest freebies) are in particularly poor shape. Then again, it is all down to individual congregations. Wider generalisations are misleading.

The Political Compass

This is the political compass. I have taken the teston occasions, but am never really satified with the results. Why? Mainly because I feel the questions are poorly constructed, often failing to differentiate between state and society, conflating the two to take any notions of collectivism or communitarianism as inclinations of statism. Brown Bear will now take you, dear reader, on a romp through the world of the Political Test. All the questions asked come with the options to agree, disagree or do one of these 'strongly'.

Q1. If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.

Strongly Agree. Brown Bear has a big problem with TNCs insofar as they operate on the principle of division between ownership and management. When the sole demand of the ownership (i.e. shareholders) is the to increase share value - and this demand is made without contextualisation in the ethical implications of management operations, those operations are prone to abasement and morally dubious decision-making.

Q2. I'd always support my country, whether it was right or wrong.

Disagree. This sort of unquestioning loyalty resulted in the abomination of the first world war. While it is true that in most situations, under democratic systems, the citizen or subject is under a moral obligation to follow orders, the question itself does not make provision for such democracy or for due process.

Q3. No one chooses his or her country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it.

Disagree. Again, this question is ambiguous, but I will take 'country' in this context to mean nation-state. One may not choose the nation, but once socialised into it, one may legitimately take pride in it. This pride is called patriotism and is essential to democracy. It must crucially be distinguisedfrom nationalism which rather than taking pride in national difference, seeks to enforce its own characteristics on other nations, often by resort to the use of coercive force.

Q4. Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races.

Disagree. Whilst it may be true that different ethnicities have different emphases and common attributes (e.g. Afro-Carribeans tend to be able to run faster), there isno basis on which to assert that we have 'many'superior qualities. Brown Bear would say we have different qualities, some of which may tend to be superior, others inferior.

Q5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Disagree. This is a classic assertion of realist politics which sees all relationships in terms of power struggle. Brown Bear, as an idealist, avers that this is not the noble approach and to deal justly and righteously with anyone or any state requires a mode of thought that is thoroughly moral and upright.

Q6. Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.

Agree. International Law is not perfect and often fails. Surely in the vast majority of cases, it will prove justified, but in the 1% of cases where it breaks down, nations must be ready to perform the right action even if it isn't necessarily the legal action.

Q7. There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment.

Disagree. Certainly there has recently been an increase in the dumbing-down of informative media, but this does tend to be limited to the channels that cater for mass appeal. Thanks to the freedom of multi-channel broadcasting, high standards of documentary and reporting are maintained for the enquiring and intelligent viewer.

Q8. People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality.

Disagree. This seems a question of very British origin, given our obsession with class. However, far as the obsession may reach, Brown Bear is sceptical of the probability that an English smallholder will have more in common with a French counterpart than his native overlord. Ultimatley, the two Englishmen both live in the same country, have shared history and geneology, have similar festivities and participate in common social experiences and rituals. They live under the same institutions and speak the same language. They are subject to the same laws and taught by the same clergy. They are one nation, united by experience, undivided by economic vindictiveness, strong in a communal solidarity.

Q9. Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment.

Disagree. Unemployment is one of the greatest indignities men must bear. It irrelevates him in the eyes of society and marginalises him, leaving self-esteem and pride of person overthrown. The economic implications of inflation are important, but the social implications of unemployment are greater.

Q10. Land shouldn't be a commodity to be bought and sold.

Strongly Agree. As one nation, we are all stakeholders - equal stakeholders - in the country given us by God Almighty. This common ownership is best expressed in the free-holding of land by families. People can grow very attached to pieces of land and places; and this attachement is entirel natural. It is a facet of the massive human potential to form bonds and relationships with others and with abstract concepts like state, institutions, ideologies and objectives. To reduce this cornerstone of identity to an economic calculus, thrown to the tender the mercy of corporations and profiteers, is to debase it utterly.

Brown Bear will stop here for now, content tht he has given his audience an insight into the workings of his political mindset. Perhaps when short again of immidiate blogging material we will return to the next ten questions in ...THE POLITICAL COMPASS...