Friday 22 July 2016

Forthcoming books

Laugh Out Loud Joke Book (Scholastic) Sept 1 
[It is what it says it is: a joke book]

Who Are Refugees and Migrants? co-written with Annemarie Young (Wayland) Sept 22
[a non-fiction book for schools]

Jelly Boots Smelly Boots (Bloomsbury) Sept 22
[a new book of poems for children, illustrated by David Tazzyman]

What is Poetry? (Walker) October 6
[a book about how to write poems for children, parents and teachers]

Zola in Norwood (Faber) jan 15 2017
[a book for adults about Emile Zola in England and his last couple of years in France]

Barking at Bagels (Andersen) Feb 2 2017
[a short ‘chapter book’ for early readers, illustrated by Tony Ross]

Uncle Gobb and the Green Heads (Bloomsbury) Feb 9 2017
[a sequel to Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, illustrated by Neal Layton]

Siegfried Sassoon thinking about aerial warfare in 1932

Just came across this poem:

Thoughts in 1932

Alive — and forty-five — I jogged my way
Across a dull green day,
Listening to larks and plovers, well content
With the pre-Roman pack-road where I went.

Pastoral and pleasant was the end of May.
But readers of the times had cause to say
That skies were brighter for the late Victorians;
And " The Black Thirties" seemed a sobriquet
Likely to head the chapters of historians.

Above Stonehenge a drone of engines drew
My gaze; there seven and twenty war-planes flew
Manoeuvring in formation; and the drone
Of that neat-patterned hornet-gang was thrown
Across the golden downland like a blight.

Cities, I thought, will wait them in the night
When airmen, with high-minded motives, fight
To save Futurity. In years to come
Poor panic-stricken hordes will hear that hum,
And Fear will be synonymous with Flight.

The self-employed and 'migrants'.

I have been self-employed since 1973.
This means that I've been out and about actually or metaphorically looking for fees, or short-term contracts to earn a living.
This is a highly individualised activity.
In some of the work situations, I might find myself in intense co-operation with small groups of people over relatively short periods of time but the actual point of contract is very individual.
No matter how analogous this kind of self-employment is to waged or salaried labour, it isn't the same. It's not inferior or superior. It's just different in this crucial matter of the point of contract.
I've noticed that several times (possibly more) when people are interviewed on TV or radio about 'immigrants' and they ask the person to identify what work they do, it is clear that such people are sometimes (note 'sometimes') self-employed e.g. people on market stalls, or people in the building trade who are often paid on a job by job basis, sometimes cash in hand. 
1. The government is doing all it can to get people out of waged labour (with accompanying state benefits) and on to self-employed status. This is one the ways in which the government 'reduces unemployment'! It's nothing of the sort. It's just juggling categorisations so that it looks this way.
2. The most extreme view of self-employment is that it brings you into 'competition' with everyone else! Everyone is potentially your enemy! That's to say, anyone or everyone could in theory do what you do and possibly go to the person who pays your fees or arranges your contract and say that he or she could do the same as you for less money. It is only through some effort of mind that a person can overcome this view of the world as your competitor. it requires a counter-ideology.
3. In the situation of migrants from anywhere (another side of town, another region, another part of the UK, Europe, the world) who are prepared to negotiate a fee or contract for less than you, then it's true they 'undercut' you. Elsewhere in the waged and salaried sectors I've been at great pains to point out that I believe a) workers can't undercut wage rates because they don't fix them b) governments have made enormous efforts for decades and in particular since 2008 to freeze wages, as evidenced by what e.g. Nick Clegg stated the Coalition had done up until 2015 c) the destruction of jobs is done by the movement of capital about the world (e.g. destruction of Ford's Dagenham) not by migrants.
4. With the self-employed sector expanding (see above) there is great potential for racist groups and parties to absorb self-employed people into their ranks, who appear to be 'workers' (in the sense of waged and salaried people) who say they are being 'undercut' or even that 'immigrants depress wages' (when they mean 'fees' and 'contracts') and who have absorbed the 'compete with everyone' ethos and direct it exclusively at the particular kind of migrant they don't like (as opposed to a 'migrant' from the next street, the other side of town or another part of the UK.
5. This is a re-run of pre-fascist situations in Germany and France where fascist organisations were able to draw on support from what the French left have called 'les garagistes' - the little self-employed garage owner who sees both organised workers (who might make the one or two guys he's employing demand more wages) and bosses of big factories (who fix the prices of the goods and plant he needs) as a threat.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Why they keep going on about Corbyn and 'leadership'?

Many months now of mainstream media people, Blair's warlords, several sundry ex-leading members of the Labour Party who voted for the Iraq War, PFI and who failed to nationalise the railways or build council houses all saying that Corbyn is not a leader.

Several possible interpretations of this:

1. Corbyn represents a permanent and irritating criticism of what they've all been saying and doing for the last 10 years.

2. They all work to some kind of cardboard cut-out template of 'The Leader' - the kind of thing you used to be able to buy from Woolworth's when I was a kid. The problem for them is that Corbyn doesn't fit the template. In fact, the template comes from a weird mutual chit-chat between right wing politicians and the media. The media give marks (quite literally in the case of the Guardian) for 'good performances' by leaders while political parties do what they can to mould their leaders to fit what the media give good marks for. Cameron was rude, clich├ęd, snobbish, racist (remember the 'bunch of migrants' and the sneer at 'Indian dancing' and the support for Goldsmith's islamophobia  in the London mayoral election?) but of course, with the help of speech-writers, had a glib turn of phrase - all this while he and his government have been taking money away from low income people to pay for the recession and bank crisis.

As Corbyn doesn't fit the template, then he can't be 'The Leader', they say.

3. Another possibility is that whatever Corbyn is, says or does, if they hope that if they keep on saying 'Corbyn's not a leader' enough people will believe them. This is part of a very old idea: if I say something, it'll happen. Or something else: people will believe that being the template 'Leader' is what we need to make our lives better. Do we? Do we need glib, smooth-talking, fibbing people like Blair or Cameron?

4. I'm dead keen that there should be a good team of people, popular in their party, popular in the country, good at helping each other, good at explaining things, good at pointing out how the system as a whole is rigged to enable the rich to defend their wealth, create yet more wealth at the expense of the non-wealthy and the poor. At present, 172 Labour MPs, ex-Blairite warlords and sundry miffed New Labourites are doing everything they can to prevent this team emerging and strengthening itself.  They fear that such a team will emerge and are trying to crush it. I don't find myself yearning for someone like Blair or Cameron to 'lead'. Far from it.

How do the rich take money from the poor? Here's one way.

If you look hard enough in what people in government say, they will explain exactly how they wage class war against the poor and working people in general.

Greg Hands, ex-Chief Secretary to the Treasury once explained that the banking crisis led to what he called the 'great recession' and 'misery to millions of families'.

Now we could stop right there and ask why? Why should a banking crisis cause the rest of us 'misery'? Shouldn't it simply and only involve bankers and/or extremely rich people taking a hit? After all, these 'millions of families' going through 'misery' didn't actually cause either the 'banking crisis' or the 'great recession'.

But it seems from Greg Hands' statement as if somehow people like him have had nothing to do with causing the 'great recession' or indeed any of the 'misery'.

Now let's call to mind what Nick Clegg, one time deputy PM. Here's how the BBC wrote about something he said in 2015:

"The deputy prime minister said public sector workers had made a "huge contribution to balancing the books" over the past six years, saying the "uncomfortable but unavoidable" curbs on pay had helped saved £12bn."

This was what the Tory-LibDem government did. In face of the banking crisis they took money away from public sector workers to the tune of £12 billion.

This is nothing else but class war. It is the government helping the extremely rich, super rich, move on from the banking crisis by taking money away from the lowest paid.

Those of us who support Jeremy Corbyn want this sort of thing to stop and the very least to claw back some of this lost income.

Thursday 14 July 2016

Theresa and Philip arrive and enter 10 Walford Square: debts!

Exterior 10 Walford Square

[Theresa and Phil enter Number 10.]



Are you coming in, Phil, or hanging about out there?

Interior 10 Walford Square


Bloomin’ ‘eck, Tezza, look at these pictures. All right geezers.


All bar one.

(she looks down and sees envelopes on the mat)

(Close up, envelopes)

Gawd, bills! He’s only gone and left bills.


Sheesh, the cheek of it. Well we’re not paying, Tezza.


Look at this! It’s bloomin’ trillions. He’s just split and left us with this. What a scam.


I thought you said George sorted it.


Yeah, that’s what we said down the Vic but it don’t mean it’s true.


Now what? Where’s George?


I dunno. Don’t ask me.


But, look Tezza, we haven’t got the readies to pay this.


I know, I know but the point is, we don’t. Wonga will sort it. And if Wonga won’t sort it, I know...[pause] something else.





[she winks, and does gesture of a printing machine printing out notes]


[whistles jokily]

And to think George and Dave was going on and on about Gordon dumping on us and now it’s them.


Shhh, we can’t be seen saying that sort of thing. We keep face, here, Phil. We manage, we sort.


What? With Boris in the house? No one’s going to be fooled with that, Tezza.


You know the one about the tent, Phil. Better in looking out, than out looking in.





Another incredible Shakespeare manuscript discovery concerning one Johnson and Boris the Clown

The Court, a cloister:

[Various Lords, Ladies and scribes pass to and fro

Enter Johnson disguised as Boris the clown]

Johnson [as Boris]:

Whoops, my liege, nil desperandum,

for that which is England, is England

and forever may she be,

hah! is not the dusky foreigner at our necks?

[aside, as Johnson]

They do not know me as pretender

to the throne but think me ‘Boris’, simple Boris,

a bumpkin, a poltroon who doth forget what he knows

and knows not what he forgets.

[Several scribes pass]

[as Boris] Fa la la la

In, out, in, out,

go I,

in the flicker of an eye

am I not,

the leader who leads

and next the leader who leaves?

Exit, Brexit

next, it vexed it.

Oh my ladies

have I fexed it?

Lady May:

Methinks there is method in this madness

Yon clown doth bear strange resemblance

to Johnson, late departed of this place.

Might I not have need anon of that one?

[Exit Lady May]

[in another part of the cloister]

Scribe 1:

What think you, all?

This Boris hath many a good jest

Scribe 2:

A chest more like.

Scribe 3

And were his jests that fine

many a chest would he fill

Scribe 1: I follow ye not.

Scribe 2: Nor me.

Scribe 3:
Nor me.

Scribe 1: You follow not yourself?

Scribe 2: Much as this Boris!

Scribe 1: Hah!

Scribe 2
: Hah!

Scribe 3: Hah!

[Exeunt scribes]

[Johnson as Johnson]


Afric lay beneath the rule of Albion

Were they not days of greatness

which if Afric were not a foolish child

would beg and plead for us to return

to rule once more bringing peace

contentment and the rule of law

hah! and doth not the lowly savage

now appear in London taverns?

I will to Lady May and offer my services






Shakespeare: new manuscript discovery: 'Campbell' talks to 'Mandelson, Jowell, Kinnock, Reid...'

Here, on its own, the incredible discovery:a piece of writing that is definitely by Shakespeare from one of the history plays.  It’s only a short passage.The speaker seems to be someone with the name: 
"My lords, welcome to this goodly tavern
here in hiding can we make plans tonight:
you Mandelson, Jowell, Kinnock and Reid,
remember though our hands be drenched in blood
from wars too foul to mention now or ever,
we can rely on papers bearing news
to gloss o’er what crimes we have commit;
instead will they invite us - or Jack Straw
to give wise counsel on matters more grave:
how what’s noble is betrayed by Corbyn
he, like the worm who doth dig deep inside
the holy sepulchre that is our party
bringing withal a multitude, a mob,
a swinish troop of people, old and young,
who dare to say our place in history
is sullied by that war we do not mention.
Ye, great lords, who speak for the nation
yea though of late, undermined cruelly
by this foolish soft-cheeked smooth-tongued Chilcot,
and tonight, my lords, forsooth must we swear
an oath to remove yon upstart Corbyn,
yea, by any means - be they fair or foul.
Were ye not set up above the people
as Lords and Barons and Baronesses
to tell the people what is best for them
and place at the helm a golden Eagle...?"

..and here the manuscript is torn.....
Remarkable document....

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Evening Standard talks about debt. This is serious.

Anthony Hilton: Central bankers peddling dangerous medicine

It is generally a mistake to assume that because someone is in charge, they know what they are doing.
David Cameron called the EU referendum without thinking through what would happen if he lost; the leaders on the other side — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage — equally gave no thought to what would happen if they won. 
It is not just politicians we should worry about, however. The same can be said of technocrats, many of whom wield as much power.
This list comprises many business leaders but, most of all in today’s world, it also includes central bankers.
For the past eight years, we have by and large assumed these figures of authority knew what they were doing, even when they pursued ever more extreme and experimental policies — always with the best of intentions, but with no real idea of how they might pan out.
Unlike politicians, however, bankers are prepared to admit — at least to each other — that they don’t know for sure what they are doing.
One might think this would be of considerable interest to the world at large, but no one paid much attention last time it happened. 
Luckily, one who did was Hans Hoogervorst, the one-time Dutch politician who now chairs the International Accounting Standards Board.
In a speech earlier this month, he drew attention to the reservations expressed by Jaime Caruana, general manager of the Bank for International Settlements — the central bankers’ club.
Caruana said with refreshing honesty: “At this stage, we don’t fully understand the implications of low or even negative interest rates for the financial system and the economy as a whole.” 
Think about that for a moment. If your doctor said before administering a drug that he did not fully understand how it would affect your system, either for good or ill, would you take it?
If an architect proposing to build something as dramatic as the Shard or the Walkie Talkie said he did not fully understand the effect the various stresses would have on the structure he had designed, would he be allowed to build it?
If an airline said its new planes did not have an airworthiness certificate, would it be allowed to fly them? 
Clearly, central bankers operate to different rules. It is not as if we do not know some of the negative side-effects of ultra-low interest rates, which are at the core of current unconventional monetary policies.
Hoogervorst even quotes the 82nd BIS annual report, which talks about how low rates increase leverage in the system.
The 2008 blow-up was a classic credit crisis caused by the excessive build-up of debt in the economy. But thanks to low interest rates, leverage today is now even higher than it was then.
McKinsey has done the sums. In 2007, the combined worldwide debt of households, governments, corporations and the financial sector was an astonishing 269% of global GDP.
By the end of 2014, it was an even more astonishing 286%. Add in the unfunded pension liabilities of various governments round the world, which Citigroup estimated in March to be $78 trillion (£59 trillion) for the 20 leading OECD economies, and the overall indebtedness of the world’s economy today comes to more than 400% of global GDP.
As Hoogervorst says, it is hard to see how this is going to end well or how these obligations can be met in an orderly fashion. 
There are other problems. Cheap debt allows crippled businesses to survive as zombies. That can ease the pain of recession for a while but it should only be temporary.
There comes a time when it would be better if they were laid to rest so everyone can adjust and move on. If this does not happen, recovery takes much longer.
There is a social cost, too. Unconventional policies such as quantitative easing fuel asset-price inflation in stock markets and property.
This contains the seeds of future instability and, with expensive housing in particular, can have huge negative consequences for society, accentuating inequality and intergenerational unfairness. London housing is now 50% higher than it was before the 2008 crash.
“To be in bubble territory again so soon after one of the worst credit crunches in history defies common sense,” Hoogervorst says. 
It can even weaken the system it is supposed to strengthen. Persistently low rates are putting extreme pressure on the business models of banks, insurance companies and pension funds — in effect making them potentially insolvent.
Banks can’t charge enough on loans to cover their costs. Pension funds and insurance companies can’t get a return on their investments high enough to generate the money they need to fulfil the promises they have made to past customers.
They still have enough reserves to keep going but it is an open question as to how many more years they can go on before the strains become impossible to ignore. 
All this is out there and is widely understood in the financial world. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has alluded to it.
Yet it has not stopped many in the markets looking eagerly towards the Bank of England monetary policy committee, which starts its two-day meeting today with Carney in the chair, in the hope it will cut rates even further. 
We need to be weaned off unconventional monetary policies because the more we have of them, the less effective they have become.
But the markets are like an addict — they want another fix even if they know it is slowly killing them. 
The MPC decision will be announced tomorrow and, while it is finely balanced given the uncertainty the referendum result has piled on an already faltering economy, the arrival of a new Prime Minister may make  a difference. 
The Government and the Bank are trying to create the impression of competence and a return of stability. Greeting a new Prime Minister with an immediate cut in interest rates hardly conveys respect, and might be seen as an unhelpful kick in the teeth. 
In contrast, given the uncertainty over the long-term effects of these policies, delay might be no bad thing.

What I read last night

Is there a peer in the house? 
is there a Labour peer in the house?
Is there a Labour peer who voted for the war 
in the house?
We need a Labour peer who voted for the war
to appear on TV now.
We need a Labour Peer who voted for the war
to talk about a disaster and a catastrophe
We don’t need a Labour peer who voted for the war
to talk about why the war was a disaster and a 
We need a Labour peer who voted for the war
to talk about  the disaster and catastrophe
that is Jeremy Corbyn

And here they come 
running and skipping 
up to the TV studios
delighted to talk about the disaster and catastrophe
that is Jeremy Corbyn
delighted to not talk about the disaster and catastrophe
that was the war,
and we at home watch TV
delighted to hear them
because they are peers of the realm
we sit on our sofas doffing our hats 
and thanking these Lords and Ladies
Barons and Baronesses
grateful to them for warning us off
Jeremy Corbyn
who it can be said, just quietly, no fuss: 
did not vote for the war
and who says that the war 
was a disaster and a catastrophe. 

Amazingly, this was all foreseen by William Shakespeare. 
I want to announce tonight an incredible discovery:
a piece of writing that is definitely by Shakespeare
from one of the history plays. 
It’s only a short passage.
and it ends rather abruptly. 
but I couldn’t resist bringing it to you.
I’ve copied it out word for word.
The speaker seems to be someone with the name 

Campbell speaks: 

My lords, welcome to this goodly tavern
here in hiding can we make plans tonight
you mandelson, jowell, kinnock and reid
remember though our hands be drenched in blood
from wars too foul to mention now or ever
we can rely on papers bearing news 
to gloss o’er what crimes we have commit
instead will they invite us - or Jack Straw
to give wise counsel on matters more grave:
how what’s noble is betrayed by Corbyn 
he, like the worm who doth dig deep inside
the holy sepulchre that is our party 
bringing withal a multitude, a mob
a swinish troop of people, old and young 
who dare to say our place in history
is sullied by that war we do not mention. 
We, great lords, who speak for the nation
yea though of late, undermined cruelly
by this foolish soft-cheeked smooth-tongued Chilcot
and tonight, my lords, forsooth must we swear
an oath to remove yon upstart Corbyn, 
yea, by any means - be they fair or foul.
Were ye not set up above the people
as Lords and Barons and Baronesses 
to tell the people what is best for them 
and place at the helm a golden Eagle...??? 

...and here the manuscript is torn..... 

Remarkable document....

Saturday 9 July 2016

It was a race: could Blair get the vote through before Blix found there were no WMDs

The race between Blair and Blix
I know these things are very bureaucratic and tiresome but it's worth re-reading what it was exactly that MPs were asked to vote on when they voted for the Iraq war. It was that Saddam Hussein's regime was in breach of a UN resolution; and, because it hadn't been possible to secure a second authorisation from the UN, the UK government could use 'any means necessary' to remove Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. (see below). 
Blix (and Chilcot) are quite entitled to say now that a) the WMD hadn't been found and b) with more time, they could prove this. The point is that what Blair and Bush really feared by this point was that Blix would NOT find WMDs, in which case, the only case for war was 'regime change', and that on its own would be even harder to win at the UN or at home in the UK or US. 
Those of us who took part in all the demos and lead-up, I think we can remember all this...but it tends to get submerged under much more stuff. I can remember thinking, this is a race: between Blix NOT finding WMDs and Blair getting a vote through on going to war to 'eliminate' these non-existent WMDs.
There was no other reason for getting Blix et al being pulled out of Iraq. The Blair-Bush axis wanted war, they were going to do all it took to get war, they got war. 
British Parliamentary approval for the invasion of Iraq was given by the elected members of the British House of Commons to Tony Blair's government on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in a series of two votes, on 18 March 2003.

Friday 8 July 2016

Wages push down immigrants (and everyone else)!

This is an attempt to think through the phrase 'migrants exert downward pressure on wages' using Marxism in the context of how workers, migrants, governments and employers are today.

1. Workers sell labour power. Employers (and/or owners) treat this as if it were a commodity. Employers buy it. Workers sell it. The price of that commodity is what everyone else calls 'wages' or 'salaries'.

2. However, labour power is not like most other commodities. It is not inert like a sofa or a fridge. It is always in a relation to how it can be used by capital (that's to say the money that owners of businesses have to play with in running their businesses). That's because labour power helps produce capital. Capitalists hire it for that purpose. It can help produce capital and go on doing that because it is a living thing.

3. Capitalists are in competition with each other. They have two main responses to that:

a) invest in machinery to improve speed of production and/or cheapness of production and/or quality of production

b) pay workers less. (It is this competition between employers that is one main explanation for a 'downward push on wages'. The competition drives them to cutting costs.)

plus c) perhaps spend less on r and d for a while, perhaps spend less on marketing.

4. Capitalists make calculations about how much to pay workers and they always do this in relation to their capital. If 'how much to pay' is 'too much' (ie in relation to other businesses) they'll go bust. The only problem fixing how little they can pay are workers' resistance and/or their starvation. But the key point here is that it's capitalists fixing the rate, not workers.

5. Capitalists in modern economies do not work purely 'laissez-fair'. They work in tandem with governments. Together they exert a 'downward push on wages'. Governments and outfits like the CBI make this quite clear in their statements and have been doing this for decades.

6. If a country's regime or government is repressive enough, it's actually possible to pay workers very little even if there is a shortage of labour. I'm pretty sure (from memory), this happened in the post-war period in fascist Spain.

7. Workers - especially where trade unions are weak or complicit with governments - have no means to fix wages or 'exert downward pressure'. Even if there are thousands of extra workers, at the very best, all they can do is stand about in job centres hoping for work.

8. A crucial example of 'downward push on wages' ie wage-fixing has been 'austerity', done by the government (as employer) which helped fix wages for everyone else. This wasn't a result of 'supply and demand' but a result of the government acting on behalf of capital facing a) a crisis in credit and b) underlying this, a crisis in their ability to make profits out of the workers in called 'rate of profit' or 'profitability of labour'.

In 2015, Nick Clegg said that the government had recouped £12billion by exerting 'downward pressure on wages' of public sector workers. Andrea Leasdom has said this week that she would like it to be possible for small businesses to not pay the minimum wage. Again, this would be government exerting 'downward pressure on wages' and nothing to do with migrants. Or, the legislation which permits 'zero hour contracts' - this is a perfect example of governments acting with employers to exert 'downward pressure on wages' and has nothing to do with migrants.

9. When Marx was describing the relationship between capital and labour it was in a situation in which governments had little or no power over wage rates. His comments about the pressure coming from the 'reserve army of labour' (ie the unemployed) have to be put in the present context where governments and employers working in tandem have so much power to act on behalf of the owners of capital.

10. Many - not all - migrants will take jobs which have been fixed on the lowest wage rates. What we have to remember is that these lowest rates weren't fixed by migrants. They were fixed by governments acting in tandem with employers e.g. on fixing the minimum wage. So, many - not all - migrants find themselves in the lowest paid jobs. Rather than saying 'immigrants push down wages' we could say, 'wages push down immigrants - and in the process, everyone else's wages'!

11. The only solution to this from the perspective of fairness is to support active, strong trade unions for all.

12. Meanwhile we have to remember that whatever pressure is put on public services by sudden changes in population (ie by more people turning up at the point of provision in e.g. hospitals or schools) has to be put in the context of the free movement of money (capital). The crash of 2008 has caused millions worldwide to be thrown out of work. (That came about as a mix of capitalists' reaction (ie closing down businesses) and governments' attempt to pay off debts by cutting social services.) That wasn't caused by immigrants. It was caused by the freedom of movement of what workers help produce: ie 'capital'. The response by governments to that movement has been to cut public services. That's a government 'putting pressure on public services' not migrants. Meanwhile, many migrants are themselves working in the public services - thank goodness!

13. So long as there is freedom of movement of capital, it should be a minimum demand that there should be the freedom of movement of labour.

14. To sum up: it's employers who exert downward pressure on wages. They do that because they are in competition with each other. This makes them cut costs (ie pay workers less) partly because they have to increase costs through investment in new technology/automation etc. Governments act in tandem with employers to help them 'cut costs' ie pay workers less. Governments also exert downward pressure on wages through austerity programmes which were devised to take money from wage-earners to pay for the debts - much of which was caused by financial speculation. (This cure may just be a pretext for exerting downward pressure on wages for the bigger reason that employers are in difficulty making profits while having to spend so much on new technology in order to compete with each other.) Governments also cut public services. Public services are in effect a form of payment or pay-back to us in terms of our standard of living as paid for through our taxes. So cutting public services is a form of downward pressure too. It comes from government not from migrants.

15. But of 'the law of supply and demand'? This is something that people reach for as an explanation for what is really a set of decisions that people make. In fact, it's become almost mystical, some kind of invisible force, like gravity. Supposedly, if you apply this law, when labour supply goes up, wages will be 'forced down'. Therefore, import immigrants and wages will go down. Notice I said, 'wages will go down'. How? People have to put wages down. Who does that? Governments or employers or both acting together. They make the decisions and do it. We've seen over the last 50 years, a constant government-employer push to keep wages down. They announce 'freezes' and 'restraints'. They cut services (ie sack workers) thereby exerting the biggest downward push of all. They create 'zero hour contracts' which is a cunning way to exert downward pressure on wages. 

16. Instead of going along with a 'left-wing' argument about immigrants exerting 'downward pressure on wages', the left wing argument should be pointing out how e.g. austerity, zero-hour contracts, cuts in public services are what cause 'downward pressure on wages' and cause pressure to increase on our public services - same goes for plans like Andrea Leadsom's for abolishing the minimum wage.  These mechanisms are all devised to make it easier for 'capital' (businesses) to make profits. 

More on why the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test isn't really about 'raising standards'.

We all struggle with new terms or new terminology. If you introduce me to a new machine using some new technology that I haven't come across before, I will struggle to remember it.

Children are asked to understand and remember new terminology (new to them) all the time. Sometimes they are asked to learn it before they understand it. It seems to me that it's really useful for all of us (but children in particular) if new terminology fits the thing or the process being described. A poker pokes the fire. A cooker cooks. Terms like that are very handy and easy to remember.

Now when it comes to grammar, some of the terms are very old and clearly don't fit as neatly as 'cooker'. An 'adverb' is a great term for describing something that does things to 'verbs'. But it also does things to adjectives, other adverbs and whole sentences, say the grammarians. Not such a great term, then.

In the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test, there are some terms that are not only not particularly helpful, some are long, complicated terms often using Latin as their origin: like 'subjunctive'. There is nothing immediately 'sub' or 'junct' about saying 'If I were you, I wouldn't do that...'

(Let's also remember that the only reason why children aged 10 and 11 have to spot a subjunctive in the GPS test is because Michael Gove overruled the grammarians and said that it must be in the test. This would be like Jeremy Hunt overruling Medical Schools by saying that they had to include alchemy. Let's also remember that most grammarians regard the subjunctive in English as being 'residual' ie very old and not much of it left - at least not enough of it to be too interested in it as being an essential thing for children to be able to spot. For example, the 'if I were' construction is now only a 'variant' for 'If I was...'.)

One of the hardest terms for children to get hold of on the GPS test is the 'present perfect progressive'. For the children I know, it doesn't seem very 'present', 'perfect' or 'progressive'. These words don't seem to them to describe what they're looking at when we say, 'He's been biting his nails for the last half hour.' It may be 'present' but there's a bit of 'past' in there too. (Nothing in the descriptions of grammar are anywhere near as binary as is made out. It's the pressure to be 'right/wrong' for test and exams that makes them binary. Then again, there doesn't seem to be much that's 'perfect' about it. And whatever 'progressive' means, it doesn't seem to be much to do with this. In fact, for all my life, up until the GPS I've been told and have called these kinds of verbs 'continuous'. Someone somewhere decided to change their name to 'progressive' and so that's that. Many teachers will remember how the word 'connective' was taught, then junked. In 20 years time, some of the terms being taught now will have changed again.

Grammarians can of course explain in great detail why it's called a present perfect progressive but that's quite another thing from whether most children will get it, in the context of all the other 50 terms that they have to learn!

So, what is being paraded by Nicky Morgan as 'raising standards', isn't raising standards at all. It's foisting on to young children, concepts that are difficult enough for adults to get hold of, remember and use in exam conditions as a form of 'train spotting'. They are all the more difficult because the words used to describe the 'type' or 'thing' don't immediately seem to relate to the thing itself. This isn't raising standards. It's being obtuse. Or difficult for it's own sake, as being difficult is a virtue.

It's at this point that I suspect that a kind of puritanism or calvinism comes in here: the harder or more  difficult something is to learn, the more 'virtuous' we are. The more 'industrious' we have to be to 'get' it, the better person we are. I'm pretty sure that this particular idea - which goes back to at least the 16th century -  is one of the main motives behind what Michael Gove imposed on the school curriculum and, in particular, in relation to language, grammar and writing.

Thursday 7 July 2016

No, Nicky, these tests are not better

Many teachers, researchers, parents and children have said that the Grammar, punctuation and spelling test (formerly 'SPaG' now 'GPS') for Key stage 1 and 2 :

involves too much preparation and squeezes out of the curriculum time that could be spent on exploring language through experimenting and practising with many different kinds of reading and writing;

is skewing what it means to 'write well' so that it now means 'include specific grammatical features' like 'expanded noun phrases' - it is quite possible to write an absurd, pointless 'expanded noun phrase' or a non-expanded noun phrase that is delightful, eye-catching, surprising, interesting or exciting;

some (not all) of the grammatical terms are too difficult and/or unreliable and/or inconsistent - e.g. we say when talking about functions that a 'noun' can be a 'subject' or 'object' but by the same system, a 'verb' is a 'verb'! There is no function name for it in GPS that is equivalent to subject and object;

it skews a view of language towards a view that language is about abstract rules and away from looking at language-in-use, used by real speakers, writers in relation to real listeners and readers;

it skews a view of reading and writing away from saying that 'meaning' is important towards saying that reading and writing are about obeying these grammatical instructions;

the kind of grammatical knowledge required may be appropriate for older pupils but for many of primary age it is not only too much but also too difficult conceptually e.g. defining and non-defining relative clauses; or the fact that the terms are overlapping in confusing ways e.g. a relative clause is a type of subordinate clause but there don't seem to be any other kinds of subordinate clause (according to GPS) (there are, but not in this test!);

the GPS test is flawed because some of the questions have more than one answer; some questions are seemingly about right/wrong matters when in actual fact, language-in-use shows us that it is not a matter of right/wrong but of style (e.g. the Oxford or serial comma), or of very varied use (e.g. in the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses);

grammarians themselves are in genuine disagreement over what the test tries to show is a 'fact' (e.g. preposition or subordinate conjunction heading a subordinate clause using 'after', 'before', 'until');

some of the questions are not grammar, punctuation or spelling but arbitrary and invalid tests (e.g. synonyms and antonyms) leading to absurd questions as in 'what is the antonym of 'fierce'?' (nb the marking criteria is reported to have said that 'timid' is not an antonym of 'fierce'!). Even so, the idea that a word, taken out of context, has a specific meaning for which there is an 'opposite' or 'antonym' is an absurd and misleading idea about how language works;

some of the questions have different parts leading to the fact that you can be mostly right yet receive no marks - this means that the test is at times 'not valid' in measuring whether children know things or not;

the test as a whole was not devised to teach children grammar but to test whether teachers could teach this particular skewed and narrow form of grammar - it's to measure 'accountability' (see Bew Report 2011);

the grammatical knowledge required by these tests is spawning hundreds of pre-test booklets some of which have errors or have used slightly different terminology;

the terminology itself is at times confusing and much disputed by grammarians themselves - words like 'command' or 'exclamation' are used in a highly specific way, specific only to this system and yet in the questions on the test, candidates are asked to exclude the usual ways in which such a word is used: e.g. excluding 'you must go out' as a 'command' ie the child is required to leave their usual sense of the word 'command' outside. Again, something that as adults we can do, when given the instruction, something not very easy when you're a child, particularly when 'distracted' by a construction using 'must';

absurd and incorrect 'rules' are being invented by the people devising the tests in order that the questions produce right and wrong answers only e.g. when a GPS test determined that the word 'bright' could not be used as an adverb. Professor David Crystal pointed out quite clearly that it could and such constructions have been common in English since at least Shakespeare's time;

many people from the world of editing, translation, writing, journalism are reporting that they do not understand why their 6 or 10 year olds are having to learn descriptions of language which they, as practitioners haven't needed to know e.g. 'fronted adverbial';

because there is no full rationale for this scheme of work, a term like 'fronted adverbial' is supposed to be just accepted by teachers and pupils as a 'fact'. In fact (!) it's problematical. At the very least, there is a problem in that some 'fronted' phrases are clearly 'adjectival'. Children learn 'adverbs' and 'adjectives' so why are they learning 'fronted adverbials' and not 'fronted adjectivals'? What so special about 'fronted adverbials' that they need to be singled out? 'Fronting' may well be an interesting aspect of language to explore (there's a lot of it in poetry)  but it's not just a matter of being 'adverbial';

each one of these issues would be slightly problematic but not disastrous. It's the accumulation of all them (and others, no doubt) that is the real problem.

Who or what helped Blair at the time?

1. I learned history at school as a series of events that began, continued and ended. Before the event there were causes and after the event there were consequences. What's overlooked here is the possibility that things don't always or necessarily 'begin' or 'end' ; the 'causes' framework nearly always overlooks movements in the states of mind of populations unless that state of mind is directly reflected in action. Actions are 'causes' but flows in a population's states of mind are not, apparently.

2. We talk of the Iraq War as being an event with a beginning middle and end but the Iraq War for the UK began when Britain decided that the Middle East was part of its remit, at the very least from the time Britain started drawing up frontiers and bombing people there. The Iraq War hasn't ended. When the media ask if Blair or the US took into account the consequences or the aftermath of the war, this lets the US and the UK off the hook. The 'aftermath' is the war. Whether the war was to eliminate WMD and/or remove Saddam Hussein - there was (and this is always the case) no war without aftermath. The Project for the New American Century (and its followers) said the aftermath would be a new wave of democratic states in the Middle East (who would also be compliant to US rule). So they did 'plan'. It's just that their plans didn't pan out. And these plans are part of the war.

3. Another way there is no beginning, middle and end is the way the media handled it all. Imagine if a Chilcot committee examined what the main mass media outlets said about Iraq from 2000 to, let's say, 2010. Very few of us in the UK have ever been to Iraq. Where do we get our news from, how do we know what's going on? We rely on these outlets to tell us. So when we make a judgement to oppose or not oppose a war, it is largely based on what we read, watch and listen to as dished up by the mass media.

Let's have a fantasy-moment: imagine if the country had come to a standstill in the lead-up to the Iraq war. It really wouldn't have been possible for Blair et al to have gone ahead. I've seen reports which suggest that Blair was at the very least nervous about getting the House of Commons vote which in turn partly depended on how much against the war, was the British public as a whole.

The fact that we were millions is great. However, if we had been multimillions we might have stopped Britain joining in. The fact we were't multimillions is at least partly due to what the media were saying or doing.

So, what were they saying and doing? Mostly, they were justifying and echoing what Blair and Bush were telling the public as well as doing the job of vilifying and sneering at those of us who opposed, as if to say, 'Don't join that lot, they are secret admirers of Saddam...' etc etc.

This is part of history. It's part of how Blair was at that time a 'winner'. But, with all the focus on decisions made in Blair's head ('my judgement' etc) the flows of history, get marginalised. Prior to the war breaking out - and ever since - there's been a battle of ideas, battle of views, in which the main media have had a huge part to play.

I don't imagine that the BBC, ITV, Mirror, Sun, Observer, Times, Telegraph, say, will be running big self-examinations on 'what we said and when' and 'how we might have contributed to sending British soldiers to Iraq', and 'how we might have contributed to creating the bloodbath ever since'. Maybe they will. If you see any bit of honest self-examination like that, do let me know.

4. Weasel words about 'context' do appear, particularly in relation to 9/11. John Humphrys let Blair say on the Today programme this morning that we had to remember that 9/11 had happened only a few months earlier. Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. Yet, when the war began I saw several polls which showed that people in the US and the UK thought that 'we' were going to find the people or get the people or do payback on the people who were responsible for 9/11. How did that come about? How come people were in that deluded state? Was there anything that politicians and the media said or did that encouraged that delusion? Or did people just draw that conclusion in error and really politicians and the media did their best to stop people thinking these things?

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Instructions for next Labour leader

1. Don't eat bacon sandwiches in public.
2. Check what your relatives said about the war.
3. Always wear a tie - but not if you're a woman.
4. Be normal.
5. Love Trident.
6. Say you're going to put the 'Great' back into Great Britain.
7. Love the Queen.
8. Say that we can a learn a lot from Lord Sugar.
9. Say that abolishing the House of Lords is more difficult than it looks.
10. Say that trade unions can't keep having their own way.
11. Say that banks have got a job to do just like the rest of us.
12. Remember that the band plays four notes before you come in with 'Send her victorious'.
13. Every now and then suggest that 'minorities' do something wrong e.g. talk their own language, live next door to each other. This implies that a) you are not a minority and b) you don't talk your own language or live next door to someone who's in your minority - which is not possible because you are not a minority anyway. I know this is complicated. Keep it simple: it's all about 'us' and 'them'.
14. Like sport.
15. Jumpers - weekend only.
16. Don't eat noodles.

Monday 4 July 2016

Corbyn: serious politics and geography teachers

1. Say that the Labour Party won't elect Corbyn because he's got a beard.
2. Say that the Labour Party were wrong to elect Corbyn because no one agrees with him.
3. Say that no one will vote for him.
4. Say that the people who voted Labour weren't voting for Corbyn.
5. Say that everyone in the Labour Party is against Corbyn.
6. Say that Corbyn is cracking up.
7. Say that this isn't about the Iraq War, it isn't about Trident, it isn't about breaking up the media monopolies, it isn't about fighting austerity, it's just about the fact that Corbyn looks like a geography teacher.
8. Say that this is about serious politics.

Corbyn kills flies

Today I rang the newspaper
and said, you may not remember me
but I was once someone who
helped make a very difficult decision
for this great country
I voted for war
and I was also someone who
though I didn't support Jeremy Corbyn
was prepared to give him a chance
and I did give him chance
but I'm ringing you up to say
that I'm not giving him a chance
any more.

And do you know
they were fascinated by my story.
they loved that.
they interviewed me
they asked me if I knew
any stuff about Corbyn killing flies
they said that they had this whole thing
about how he kills flies
how he says he's for peace and all that
but actually he's ruthless with flies
he sees a fly
and wham! he kills it.
Could I confirm.

I said that I had seen him kill a fly.

Next thing
the TV were round
and this whole fly-killing thing
has got really big.
And I've been in and out of TV studios
all day
talking about flies, Corbyn,
and his streak of ruthlessness.
I made that up:
Corbyn and his streak of ruthlessness.
I said
If he's prepared to do that with a fly
just think what he'd do if he was in power.

Today I rang the newspaper
and said, you may not remember me
but I was once someone who
helped make a very difficult decision
for this great country
I voted for war.