Liberal jottings: Stephen Tall’s weekly notebook

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.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Mick Taylor 6th Nov '15 - 7:45am

    Perhaps more people should consider wearing a white poppy to signify their respect for those who gave their lives but utterly rejecting war as a solution today. If we don’t stand up for peace then futile militarism will continue.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Nov '15 - 10:25am

    You are right about the 2020 Labour manifesto, but personally I think the taboo of not wearing a poppy on TV around this time of the year should be maintained.

    I’ve never asked anyone why they aren’t wearing a poppy and I don’t judge people in the street not wearing one (I only got mine yesterday), but when I see someone on TV without one I do want to know why they aren’t wearing one.

    It’s not just about previous wars, but today’s veterans: “Your Royal British Legion poppy helps us to provide thousands of modern veterans, Service men, women and their families with vital advice and support.”

    And I am afraid if someone rich doesn’t want to support them I will think slightly less of them. A white poppy is a better idea than a non-poppy, but I still think a red poppy is better for today’s veterans. Remembrance Sunday is similar when it comes to maintaining this tradition – it’s as much about today’s soldiers as the ones from history and I think we should maintain these traditions.

    Best regards

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Nov '15 - 10:29am

    PS, peer Jenny Jones has a good idea of wearing a red and a white one – at least this way she is supporting veterans as well as making a statement of her beliefs.

  • ………………….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……………….

    Perfectly put… I wear my poppy as a reminder of individuals, not nations…I donate mindful of a nation where the plight of the needy is of less and less consequence to government….

    O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
    Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
    Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made – ”
    And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

  • Richard Underhill 6th Nov '15 - 11:57am

    Labour’s 1983 manifesto was “the longest suicide note in history”?
    A Labour MP did a double-bluff and proposed that all the motions which had been passed by the Labour conference should go into their manifesto, which was agreed, hence the length.
    There is open speculation that he will not be Labour leader in 2020. He can do brevity, as we see at PMQ.

  • Geoffrey Payne 6th Nov '15 - 1:56pm

    A long article with much to reply to and therefore an incoherent list of replies. Why not subdivide the article into smaller pieces?
    I would like to reply to tests.
    I may not be directly replying to Stephen’s point, but there are issues around tests.
    First of all too many judgements are made on tests given to children who are too young. Children should be permitted to have a childhood first before they take tests that impact dramatically on their life chances. Probably by 14 it is OK, but I would defer to the experts before coming to my own conclusions on this.
    I do not know if it is still the case today, but entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge were unfair because private education institutions were better able to prepare their students for these tests by giving them mock exams. If that no longer applies today then it is not such an issue, although tests are often one off events and the marks could vary between tests if more were taken. So tests have their weaknesses.

  • “Theresa May is reviving the snoopers’ charter to increase state surveillance”

    Be interested to know where the new bill actually allows for increased surveillance over and above the existing powers and practices – or is this simply knee jerk mud throwing?

  • Paul Walter me too. But in my case I don’t like the little pin you have to use to attach the poppy to one’s lapel. I worry about whether it will end up on the carpet and one of the children will step on it as they tend to walk barefoot in the house. Even when the poppy stays on, it gets crumpled when the coat is hung up or draped over a chair etc. and then it seems disrespectful to have a crumpled poppy, skewed at an angle.

    But wearing one of the fancy sparkly metal ones, which I do own, seems a bit inappropriate.

  • Update to my post of 6th November…….Although I have bought a poppy,I will NOT be wearing it this year…The reason? In protest at the Royal British Legion’s decision to prevent Merchant Navy Second World War veterans from taking part in this year’s Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.
    This is ‘a kick in the teeth’ to civilian seafarers who had played a pivotal role in the conflict – and who suffered a higher proportion of deaths than any of the armed forces.
    This year the Royal British Legion withdrew the invitation for their participation. It appears that they have been excluded to allow the event to be “more entertainment-focussed”….
    In WW2, a total of 2,426 British merchant ships were sunk and 30,248 merchant seafarers lost their lives. More than 12,200 merchant seafarers died in the First World War and 13 British merchant seafarers were killed during the Falklands War.
    At the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill said that it could not have been won without the Merchant Navy and the merchant seafarers who ran a one in four chance of death in freezing water or flaming oil, or from attacks by U-boats and aircraft, served with remarkable bravery and sacrifice…..

    As an ex-MN officer I take the decision by the RBL as a personal affront!

  • I do feel that the military top brass are using the rash of 100th, 70th and 75th anniversaries of !st and 2nd World War events to try to ensure their reputation does not go down the tubes along with Tony Blair et al.This is, of course, in defence against criticism over Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, but also the disastrous outcome in Libya after intervention there. They do not like public criticism, and they will do anything to avoid it. I think every opportunity, including the recent hype in remembrance events etc, is being taken to make it as uncomfortable as possible to act and speak out in a liberal manner against this. If people search for a definition of “political correctness” it is right here!

  • SIMON BANKS 8th Nov '15 - 9:36am

    OK, here’s a reaction to Stephen’s post which isn’t about poppies.

    He’s absolutely right about unconscious bias affecting children in school and right that tests offer a partial corrective. However, in expressing surprise at Liberal Democrats who oppose or want to limit the prevalence and impact of tests, he blithely ignores other arguments.

    First, tests are not neutral on equality issues because they reflect dominant cultural biases. And so, to some extent, they should, since education does aim to fit children for a particular society, while Liberals also hope they’ll fit in enough to be effective in changing the society. But tests reflect blindness to particular types of intelligence and assumptions about important and unimportant skills and knowledge that may not even accurately reflect society’s needs as they are, let alone as they may become; and such biases can disadvantage males or females, or different ethnic groups. That is not, of course, an argument against tests, just for treating them with some caution and trying to make them more inclusive.

    Secondly, schools dominated by the push to do well in tests are narrow. Anything that doesn’t contribute to good test and exam results is squeezed out – and that’s often something important. Tests are not good at testing the ability to think for oneself, precisely because assessing that is inevitably rather subjective.

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