Liberal jottings: my take on the week’s big events

by Stephen Tall on November 6, 2015

This is my third weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Blind chance

Here’s a paradox I’ve often pondered – why are so many Lib Dems who support name-blind job applications against external assessment of children in schools? What’s the link, I hear you ask. Okay, let me explain… Lynne Featherstone did a great job over many years highlighting the need for applicants’ names not to be disclosed on job applications to avoid employers’ bias (inadvertent or otherwise) against individuals, especially those whose gender and, in particular, race is evident from their name. There’s a stack of evidence demonstrating that equally qualified candidates are less likely to get called for interview if, for example, they have a non-white-sounding name. Increasingly, companies are going further, introducing ‘CV blind’ methods so that applicants are interviewed by panels who know nothing about their educational backgrounds. Of course, none of this is a guarantee against discrimination – after all, race and gender cannot be hidden at interview – but it does get closer to eliminating bias, conscious or unconscious. A good thing, yes?

The same principles apply in schools, too. Educational researchers like Daisy Christodoulou and Professor Rob Coe have been have been busily pointing out that teacher assessment is biased against disadvantaged pupils (overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds) and tends to re-inforce stereotypes, for instance that boys are better at maths. “Teacher assessment is biased not because it is carried out by teachers, but because it is carried out by humans,” notes Daisy, carefully. Tests, by contrast, are equalising – pupils sit the same questions at the same time under the same conditions – especially when marked blindly. The value of this external assessment was, thankfully, formally recognised by Lib Dem conference in 2012, but there are plenty of Lib Dems who knee-jerk still against tests (Willie Rennie was the most recent I noticed). I was the last generation of Oxford applicants who sat the old-style written entrance exam, something for which I was very grateful when I pitched up for interview on my lonesome as a shy, Liverpool comp-educated 17 year-old and saw a coach-full of polished ‘n groomed Etonians draw up outside – whatever happened when we faced the college tutors, I knew there had at least been some objective assessment of our potential.

University challenges 

I was also pretty much the last generation to attend university pre-internet — a single email terminal served the entire college . But it’s not that, or even the fact that I was among the final year of students to receive a maintenance grant, that makes my time there seem distant. The increasing stifling of free debate — whether it’s the ludicrous student-led attempt to ban Germaine Greer from speaking or university leaders pulling the plug on conferences on spurious grounds — is entirely at odds with what I valued most about my salad days: the exposure to new people and ideas (some brilliant, some barking), which challenged my own inevitably narrow and juvenile perspective. Sometimes the debate re-inforced my views; othertimes it transformed them. I arrived a socialist and left a liberal. But the idea that I or my peers should have been protected from that range of experience on the off-chance we’d be upset is shockingly patronising. “You find me offensive?” quoth Eminem: “I find you offensive for finding me offensive.” Censorship is never the answer, no matter how well-intentioned the censor thinks they are.

Déjà vu all over again

The debate continues to rage — which Labour politician said of the party’s 1983 manifesto that it was “the longest suicide note in history”? It’s been variously attributed down the years to Denis Healy and to Gerald Kaufman. But, via the fascinating @MajorsRise Twitter account, I this week learned it was apparently coined by Peter Shore. A certain Jeremy Corbyn was elected that year: I’ve every confidence his 2020 manifesto will provide stiff competition for the soubriquet.

Poppy appeal

Please don’t report me to the poppy-police, but I haven’t yet bought mine. The outrage-mongers were out in full force this week. First, Sienna Miller was decried for not wearing one on BBC1’s Graham Norton show (the story was of course accompanied by a rent-a-quote MP, this time Tory Gerald Howarth: “There can be no excuse”). Then David Cameron was ridiculed after his office photoshopped a poppy onto his official picture — a silly PR gaffe, I suppose, but scarcely worth the pasting he was given (ironically by many social media warriors who’d added ‘twibbons’ to their own profile pics). Back when I was a councillor in Oxford, the local paper used to publish an annual list of who’d attended the city’s Remembrance Sunday parade (or not). So let’s be clear: commemoration services and wearing a poppy are utterly and completely voluntary acts.

But I don’t remotely buy the view which I see touted around that the poppy “now is a symbol of militarism”. Perhaps it is for a minority (but, then, the union flag is also co-opted by fascists and I see no reason why the rest of us should cede it to them). For the vast majority of us, as research by British Future has shown, its significance is appropriately solemn: “The commemoration should just be a remembrance for those who lost their lives, and a reflection on an important part of Britain’s history”. That’s the spirit in which I’ll be wearing my poppy; whether you do is entirely a matter for you.

Our Jules in the crown

No surprise that Conservative home secretary Theresa May is reviving the snoopers’ charter to increase state surveillance (albeit with some improvements). Because terrorists and paedos, as per. No surprise either that, for all the talk of new politics, Labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham is supporting these plans — though I guess that means there’s a good chance he’ll take the opposite position by next week. My biggest sadness, though, was seeing this rather plaintive tweet from ex-MP Julian Huppert, whose expertise was so valuable in the last parliament: “Fantastically annoying not to be in the Chamber right now to quiz Theresa May…” It wasn’t just Cambridge’s loss on 7th May.

Beware the zeal of the convert

‘Christians put their friends off Jesus’ reports The Times, quoting private research for the Church of England which found that 59 per cent of people “did not want to know more about Jesus Christ” after speaking to a practising Christian about their faith. An Anglican spokesperson was clear about the lesson to be learned: “some people go about this well and some go about it badly and we need to know how one does it best”. I’ll call this the Parable of the Good/Bad Canvasser and leave it there for your own private reflections.

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