Anyone for tea and class war?

Examgate finally laid bare the hollowness of the Tory “levelling up” mantra, which helped them win over voters in the so-called “Red Wall” seats in the 2019 election. Was this utter catastro-shambles merely an unfortunate accident, or was it a deliberate act —the Government’s boldest move yet in a covert class war?

Looking back over the past year, there have been a string of manoeuvres that our PR firm of a Government has touted as “pro-working class”, but which, in reality, are anything but. The first of these was the mis-allocation of regeneration funding by Robert Jenrick. When the Towns Fund was unveiled in July 2019, the Government’s website told us the “£3.6 billion Towns Fund will support towns to build prosperous futures” across England, and that “Town Deals” were at the heart of the Prime Minister’s levelling up of our regions.

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Yet the National Audit Office (NAO) recently found that Mr Jenrick, responsible for selecting 60 of the 101 recipients, had directed most of the £25 million grants to Tory marginal seats or Tory target seats. Only two of the seats that received a grant had comfortable Tory majorities of 10,000 or more, one of which was Newark, Mr Jenrick’s own seat. The Tories won all of the target seats to which Mr Jenrick awarded a grant. Unfortunately, the NAO’s report came out on 21 July, the day before Parliament rose for recess, so the Government has not yet had to face scrutiny for electioneering using taxpayers’ funds. Hopefully, now Parliament has reconvened, the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Meg Hillier MP, will get on to it. Still, what sanction will they face? The Tories got the friendly headlines and the act cannot now be undone.

The second manoeuvre is a little less obvious: the ending of Freedom of Movement (FoM). Although this has always been presented by Government as the key plank of Brexit, there has never been a majority for it. Indeed, looking at polling conducted for the BBC by ComRes in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, only 35 per cent of Leavers expected to quit the Single Market and end FoM. This percentage remained remarkably firm, within the margin of error, when a Survation poll for the Channel 4 Brexit Debate of December 2018 found that 63 per cent wanted to retain FoM, and only 20 per cent didn’t, the other 17 per cent being undecided. This result is all the more surprising given the ongoing hostile environment and the Government’s attempt to blame all its domestic policy failings on immigration.

Ending freedom of movement deprives 66 million Brits of the opportunity to study, or receive mutual recognition for qualifications, work, set up a business and retire in any of the EU’s 27 or EEA/EFTA’s 4 countries. Citizens of those countries will lose FoM in only one: ours. What does it matter? It’s only the avocado-eating, Waitrose-shopping, middle classes who take advantage of all that, right? The sole benefit the working classes ever get from FoM is if they holiday in the EU. All that visa-free travel, access to healthcare through the EHIC scheme, unlimited “duty free”, delay or cancellation compensation and the right of assistance from any EU embassy. Oh, and don’t forget about free mobile phone roaming and pet passports.

Who cares? Despite the massively increased democratization of foreign travel through low-cost airlines, the poorest of the poor can’t afford to go off travelling in the EU, right?

Wrong. Working class people DO care about all that. Even if they can’t afford to do any of it today, why are they not allowed to hope to do it some day in the future? Brexit is often portrayed as a working-class rebellion, but this is another myth. The most important variable that determined whether someone voted Leave or Remain was years in education, closely followed by age. Younger working classes voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Brexiter politicians have consistently underestimated these voters, talking down to them, devaluing their aspirations. They knew FoM was far more than convenient travel: it was a route to broadening horizons, developing new skills, personal growth — in short, another avenue to social mobility now closed off by this government.

“Society…is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.”

Edmund Burke, Reflections

Government shows a similar lack of imagination when it comes to the working classes and Arts and Culture (A&C), the third field of manoeuvre against the very people they claim to champion. As with FoM, there is an aspirational dimension and it, too, is a potential avenue of social mobility for those who are willing to work hard to perfect their talents. In a recent Zoom meeting with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes to discuss Government support for the Arts, Dominic Cummings is reported to have said, “The f***ing ballerinas can get to the back of the queue!” This anecdote spread like wildfire across Twitter. It may be apocryphal, but let’s assume for a moment it’s true…

Does Cummings think A&C are elitist? If he does, he needs to watch the film “Billy Elliott” about a coal miner’s son who becomes a ballerina. Perhaps he resents the power of A&C to move us, and to change the world. Think of the films that have swayed public opinion. One of Ken Loach’s first films, “Cathy Come Home” (1966), led to a national debate on homelessness and the founding of Shelter, while a more recent film, “I, Daniel Blake” (2016), highlighted the rise in foodbank use. Or maybe Cummings is anti-A&C because shared cultural experiences can bring us together and unite us in an enduring way. Liverpool discovered this at community level in 2008, when it was named European Capital of Culture, and we experienced it at national level with the 2012 Olympics. It’s the last thing Cummings wants. “Take back control” meant him having control over all of us. Division is necessary to his (mis)rule.

The inadequate safety net during lockdown threatens this route to a better life as some facilities were forced to close for good. Grandma’s generation would say this  government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If we must put pounds and pence to it, the A&C sector contributes over £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy (eight times the size of our fishing industry) and £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, as well as sustaining 363,700 jobs (fifteen times as many as in fishing), and many of them in practical support and service roles – back stage staff, ticket sellers, cleaners, etc. Indirectly, A&C also helps attract tourists to our shores, and to boost our country’s soft power on the world stage – literally and metaphorically.

The fourth manoeuvre against the working classes is perhaps the most sinister. Despite reports from various Government bodies finding that child poverty has increased, the government and, more particularly, the Prime Minister, have simply denied it. Boris Johnson even boasted, falsely, that child poverty has declined under his leadership. The leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, took him to task at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). He quoted the report of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, which found that 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012, with a projected 5.2 million total by 2022. Still Johnson tried to bamboozle his way out of this awkward confrontation with the facts by pretending 600,000 was also a forecast, not recorded reality. Not for the first time, he hadn’t done his homework and read the report.

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It is worrying when government will even deny the evidence produced in its own reports. Grim reality is no longer important, doing something about it is no longer essential, and the government can, therefore, no longer be held to account, just so long as the public can be convinced by clever PR that the problem does not exist.

Which brings us full circle to exam results, a fiasco foretold as early as April, and the fifth in the sequence of manoeuvres this government has made against the working classes. What stands out is that Gavin Williamson and Nick Gibb were warned seven times over a four-month period by external experts, by Ofqual itself and by the Parliamentary Select Committee, that the algorithm was likely to penalise atypical students such as high achievers in low-performing schools. Why would you press on with a flawed algorithm, when you know months beforehand a likely injustice will be perpetrated on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Taken individually, these five manoeuvres are unfortunate, but viewed together they are testimony to the Government’s insincerity in its professed mission to level up the country. More disturbingly, they hint at something a great deal more sinister. Know your place, working classes. Know your place.