Monday, 28 March 2011

Coalition in Crisis? Again? Maybe.

 My perusal of the news websites this morning uncovered several interesting facts around an underlying common theme. Noticing that, and realising that this blog hasn't returned to its favourite topic of "What are the Lib Dems thinking?" in a while, I decided to dig around and take a closer look. The stories were: Chris Huhne lambasts anti-AV Conservatives over the way they're conducting the referendum campaign; Chris Huhne is rumoured to be eyeing up the leadership; the party's left-wing base is getting more vocal; Nick Clegg is considering rebranding the party and resurrecting the word 'social'; Labour are convinced a No result in May will liquidate the Coalition; and the Conservatives are working out concessions to give Clegg to stop that happening.

 Are the Liberal Democrats preparing to throw a suicidal tantrum? As I've blogged before, walking out of the Coalition just isn't a good idea - but that is seldom enough to stop any party's grassroots doing something they have their heart set on, and the signs are there that the Liberal Democrat left might be plotting to do something foolish. 

 First, lets look at Chris Huhne's attack on the anti-AV Conservatives. Before beginning, I should point out that I'm personally embarrassed by the anti-AV campaign so far, and if it continues in its present vein it is unlikely I will do anything more to support it than give it my vote in May. Instead of focusing on the fact that AV will give us more coalition governments, with all the backroom deals and excessive minor-party power that that implies, they have instead simply gone on a scaremongering rampage. There is no reason for a newborn baby to be on an AV poster, really. While you can make the case that in a time of economic stringency we shouldn't be spending millions on something like this, that isn't the argument of somebody convinced of the demerits of AV. If we beat it this time and it comes back during the boom years, what do we say then?

  However, public attacks on the Conservatives also make sense if Huhne is starting to stalk the leadership. In addition to boosting his media profile, it will fire up the party base and demonstrate that he hasn't had his 'head captured' by being in coalition. As the cuts continue to bite and the grassroots grow ever more restive, a Huhne leadership challenge could pose a real threat to Nick Clegg. Clegg certainly thinks so, as he's trying to find 'good news' to be associated with and - if the Telegraph is to be believed - even considering a wholesale rebranding of the party to try to re-establish its left-wing credentials (I'll get to that). However, I feel that he might have less to fear than he might think. 

 The risks of a Huhne leadership are obvious. Having your leader in a marginal seat is avoided because the risk of a humiliating decapitation is so great - and Eastleigh is nothing if not winnable by the Conservatives. Additionally, as I addressed at some length in my analysis of Vince Cable's 'nuclear option' comments, playing hardball with the Conservatives and risking the coalition - let alone withdrawing from it entirely - is to invite electoral decimation, not to mention the risk of permanently discrediting both the party and the concept of workable coalition government in the minds of an entire generation of voters. After all, the coalition agreement only included a referendum on AV - the LDs have no moral case for withdrawing if they lose the referendum. There is always the risk that the party grassroots won't realise this, but I can't help but feel that Huhne is probably politically savvy enough to realise the risks.

 Now, the rebranding. Honestly, I'm not convinced that Nick Clegg is that desperate or that shallow. Changing the party name will fool very few, and again probably risk alienating those voters the Liberal Democrats still have, the pro-Coalition ones. It's hard to even work out what name they'd choose. The most obvious is the Social Liberal Party, although the Electoral Commission might not permit it as I believe another party (that ended up being called the Social Liberalist Party) tried it at some point. The Social and Liberal Democrats? Uninspiring. The Social Democratic and Liberal Party? Has a nice ring, as long as it never plans to stand in Northern Ireland. Whether they like it or not, the party is currently bound up in being the Liberal Democrats. Even when making the transition from oblivion to electability, the Labour Party never changed its actual name. The Conservative Party only changed its name to Conservative & Unionist when it merged with the Unionist Party. Name changes in British politics are rare, and the memories of the electorate long. A change of logo and image could work, if handled well. Apparently Clegg is considering replacing the dove with a set of scales, to represent social justice. 

Works better than you'd think.
 In short, for all the hype about the crisis facing the coalition, I think its more durable than many suppose. Liberal Vision carry the under-reported statistic that polling indicates a majority of the country is still behind the coalition. In an unusual reversal of their usual positions, Simon Jenkins has taken a sensible line on the probable impact of Saturday's protest, leaving Nick Cohen to write the left-wing wishful thinking that its going to bring down the government. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships have shown themselves to be (on the whole) remarkably good at operating a coalition and keeping their back-benches in line. We just need to trust that the Liberal Democrat leadership can stay disciplined, united and not indulge dissentient fantasists amongst their grassroots...

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Right is Getting it Wrong on Student Politics

 In my last post, I touched the way that Labour Students engage with student politics. While the direction of the article led me to focus largely on the negative consequences, there is a big positive in that they engage at all. I mention this only in that the way that Labour - and the Liberal Democrats, for that matter - treat their youth organisations stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Party's abysmal approach to its own, which has left Conservative Future as an anaemic, seemingly toothless organisation compared to its rivals on the left.

 As an illustrative example, let us compare engagement with the organisations on a national level. Both Labour Students and Liberal Youth can get 300-400 people to a full-blown conference, in the Liberal's case twice a year. At these conferences the executive is held to account and motions get debated and voted on. Now, CF don't have a conference or the ability to set policy, so lets use the only figure we have for comparison which is the last executive election. If clicking links isn't your thing, I can tell you that just over 170 people voted overall, and considerably less for several of the races. 170. These people didn't need to go anywhere, they didn't need to pay for travel or accommodation, or find a free weekend in their schedules to attend a conference. They had to send off for a ballot paper, get it, and send it back with some crosses on. Such is the state of Conservative Future.

 Why are we in this position? In my opinion, its because Conservative Future is not a very exciting or empowered organisation, and the party likes it that way. After all, a large paper membership allows us to boast of being the largest political youth organisation in Europe whilst avoiding the effort and potential problems involved in an autonomous political youth organisation. The result is a culture where CF almost instinctively avoids engaging with student's unions and the NUS, leaving their vast budgets and position as the 'voice of students' uncontested in the hands of the left.

 Looking back at the history of Conservative youth movements, the reason the Conservative Party is wary of autonomous youth movements is evident - the Federation of Conservative Students. The FCS, or 'Maggie's Militant Tendency' as it was otherwise known, was an extremely autonomous, extremely active student organisation. The problem was it also provided a platform to very, very right-wing people who were then associated with the party nationally - the infamous 'Hang Nelson Mandela and Other Terrorists' t-shirt being the most famous example. Back then the Conservative Party operated parallel youth organisations (I have no idea why), and so whilst the FCS was shut down and replaced by the Conservative Collegiate Forum in 1986, it cast a long shadow over its sister organisation, the Young Conservatives.

 William Hague's amalgamation of the Young Conservatives, CCF and Conservative Graduates into Conservative Future in 1998 helped to further suck the life out of the conservative youth movement. The party never supported the efforts of its students to counter the NUS, so they stopped trying. Similarly, it showed at best very little interest in students unions and supporting candidates running for positions, so again the culture died off in a lot of places. 

 This is a shame because getting involved in student politics isn't nearly as insurmountable an obstacle as many conservative students think. In the Manchester student union elections last month, we got four councillors (up from one the year before and zero before that), and if CF had the same ethos about student campaigns as the Labour Club we'd have got seven or perhaps eight. Many Conservative Future university branches have the numerical strength to form strong campaign teams, which can deliver not only union positions but also NUS delegates, and even one or two Conservative delegates per university makes a fair bloc.

  Provided it could be prevented from indulging in FCS's excesses (and this isn't the Eighties, I imagine its doable) an autonomous student organisation would be good for the Conservative Party. Being an active presence on campus attracts more publicity and is more effective recruitment than a lonely Fresher's Fair stall, also offering more to students than a group of drinking buddies who occasionally go leafleting together. Engagement also helps to train young conservative activists, honing their communicative, presentational and political skills. Finally, it starts to challenge the left for control over the institutions that claim to speak for all students, and represents right-of-centre students to those bodies.

 The problem, perhaps, is that there isn't an independent student Conservative organisation, distinct from CF (as Labour students are from Young Labour). CF covers every Conservative member from (I think) sixteen to thirty-something, so its membership is too diverse to coalesce around student-centred goals.  Conservative Future's Wikipedia page describes its aims as "to encourage Conservative Party values and assist in local and general elections". That is all well and good, and nobody is denying that young Conservatives should be engaged in such activity. But that should not be the be-all and end-all of what the Conservative Party youth movement has to offer. If the party believes its own rhetoric about empowering ordinary people and sharing responsibility, it should practise what it preaches and place some trust in its students.

What we preach.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Initiation or Incubation? Left-Wing Leaders and Student Politics

I recommend to all of you Bagehot's excellent article about a 'Policy Forum' Ed Miliband recently attended in Nottingham. Reading it, it bears a striking resemblance to Tory Bear's infiltration of David Miliband's Movement for Change last September, and shares similarities with my own encounter with Ed Miliband's leadership campaign in January. Although the size and mood of each meeting is different, the thing to note is that in all cases the Miliband in question is insulated from contrary opinion, often by means of a discriminatory entry policy or some other artifice.

What led from that observation to this post is that this is not a practice restricted to the national leadership. Young Labour and Labour Students both have a reputation for having ferociously anti-competitive political cultures, where most elected positions are stitched up beforehand and usually uncontested. This might not be true, but given the way that Labour's current crop of leaders try to confine themselves to friendly audiences you can see why people might get the impression that they weren't acclimatised to hostility as student politicians.

It would be a grave injustice to try to single Labour out, however. Nearly all the Labour Students I know all manage to combine centre-left or left-wing politics with a distinct lack of sociopathy or aggression, and I count many of them as friends. If an anti-competitive culture does exist, they at least restrict it to their own organisation. Other elements of the university left do their best to ensure that the entire student union is completely hostile to dissension and right-of-centre ideas, as personal experience has taught me.

Such an element.

Recently, at the University of Manchester Student Union election results night a group of various hardline left-wingers formed an aggressive, chanting mob that surrounded, shouted and spat at perceived class enemies in the ranks of the students, including myself. One Labour student, who tried to intervene with the argument that it was wrong to chant about putting certain students on fires after guillotining them, got assaulted by somebody who had just won an election.

Another, much less serious example would be the 'occupation' of the Universities of Manchester Conservative Future meeting by a half-dozen such people who tried to disrupt the meeting and imprison us in the room. A more long term example would be the newspaper articles you might have seen cropping up here recently that I wrote for The Mancunion, UMSU's student paper. I've wanted to write for it since I started university, but it took me two and a half years to develop skin thick enough to do so.

In general, left-wing groups within the university often serve as a sort of ideological feedback loop, largely immune from outside influence while they reinforce and amplify the convictions of their members, and we can see these same traits in evidence when it comes to the leadership of major left-wing institutions such as the Labour Party. Contrast this with the behaviour of centre-right leaders. Cameron Direct involved David Cameron fielding questions live, from an unfiltered audience, on any manner of topics. From what I know of Ed Miliband he would struggle intensely with any similar activity.

I can contrast Miliband perhaps even more easily with Nick Clegg, who came to speak at the university when I was in my first year. He didn't have his people sift the crowd, and he answered with a remarkable degree of frankness all manner of questions. One notable example was a planted question about the then-new Liberal Democrat campaign, "Homophobia is Gay". The question was of the common sort asked by somebody itching to take offence. Rather than pandering to the prejudices of the room, as I expected, Clegg brushed it off and told the questioner to "get a sense of humour". All in all, a fine performance. It is precisely the sort of open-to-all question and answer session that Ed Miliband would pretend to hold two years later.

One is drawn to wonder about a link. In many ways, throwing something at a police officer or going on a march is a lot easier than facing off against an articulate opponent of your ideology and viewpoint. More than any other party, Labour actively engages itself in student politics, to the extent that disputes over sabbatical candidates for union elections can be settled by central office.

Beyond that, the people who go on to become the General Secretaries of trade unions, or the spokespeople for certain public- or third-sector organisations, also grow up in this environment, where decisions are often taken via a bizarre series of painstakingly inoffensive hand-gestures known as 'consensus'.

Does this lead to a leadership corps raised in a left-wing bubble-world, unused to debate and the cut-and-thrust of adversarial politics, often guilty of pandering to a party base of, to quote Bagehot, "economic flat-earthers" and highly uncomfortable outside a controlled environment? One can't help but feel that it does.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Long Live the Kings

 For Libya and other middle-eastern states emerging from the long-term rule of various strongman presidents and 'Brother Leaders', the advantages of casting their new states in the form of parliamentary democracies framed by constitutional monarchies are obvious. Obviously this is only really feasible in states that have a monarchy to restore: Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Yemen all do, whereas Tunisia does not (Algeria theoretically has the French monarchy, heh). The idea of restoring a monarchy can be hard to envision, especially from a Western perspective where it can be viewed as a step backwards. But bear with me, it makes sense.

 Flag of the former Kingdom of Libya, now adopted 
by the National Transitional Council.

 If we examine the men who have led Egypt, Libya and Yemen until now, a definite pattern emerges. Hosni Mubarak held the Presidency of Egypt for almost twenty years from October 1981 to February 2011, and he had been grooming his younger son Gamal to succeed him. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been President of Yemen since the country's foundation in 1990, and was President of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) from 1978 to 1990. He too had been planning on having his son succeed him in office. Muammar Gaddafi has served as leader of Libya (under two faintly ridiculous titles, Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and latterly Leader and Guide of the Revolution) since 1969. As with the others, he has politically active sons that are mentioned as potential successors.

 What we see is the practise of de facto absolute or at least active monarchical rule, disguised by republican trappings. In a political culture unused to democracy and without well-established and confident institutions to operate the requisite checks and balances, presidential democracy over-concentrates power in the hands of a one-man executive. If that man is also Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that only exacerbates things.

Flags of the former Kingdoms of Yemen (1918-62), Egypt (1922-53) and Iraq (1921-58).

  The great advantage of a constitutional monarchy is that it encourages a less personality-driven, more pluralistic democracy at the same time as de-politicising the head of state. A Prime Minister, drawn from and answerable to the elected legislature of a parliamentary democracy and at the head of a cabinet government, is far less able to accumulate personal power than a President. A legislature-focused democracy aids the development of a party system that can provide a much wider circle of people with access to ministries, as opposed to having ministerial positions subject to Presidential patronage. Making the head of state a non-political monarch also means that no party in the parliament has an interest in turning the head of state into a powerful executive position once it is held by an ally, as they might with a theoretically 'ceremonial' President.

 Constitutional monarchies can also provide a stable framework for the transition from one administration to another, one of the major hurdles faced by fledgling democracies. After the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, it was the re-established monarch that oversaw the transition to democracy, faced down an attempted military coup in 1981 and has since worked diligently to ensure the proper functioning of Spain's democratic institutions. As an institution and embodiment of a state, a monarch can command more respect than a President and provide continuity between one government and the next, whilst also serving as a check on the absolute power of any Prime Minister or government. The stability and order of a monarchy can also be attractive to conservatives who might otherwise feel threatened by reformist governments, and lessens the appeal of reactionary parties and movements.

King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in 1963.jpg
Zahir Shah, King
of Afghanistan.

 The West's aversion to monarchy has been more of a hindrance than a help in our recent endeavours in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan. When we toppled the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001, Zahir Shah - the King deposed by Mohammed Daoud in 1973 - was still alive. He was also very popular, and attractive both to conservatives and reformists. There was a popular movement of Afghans to re-establish the monarchy (although Zahir himself was at best reluctant to resume the Crown), or at least to make Zahir Shah head of state. However, America forced him to step aside in order to ensure that Hamid Karzai was made president. 

 What we got from that arrangement is a corrupt government of dubious legitimacy and with no emotional resonance with the Afghan people, and the necessary concessions to conservative opinion ensured that Afghanistan became an Islamic Republic (it had in the past been simply the Republic of Afghanistan). Zahir Shah also had a proven record when it came to western aspirations for Afghanistan, as he oversaw the introduction of the 1964 Afghan constitution which enshrined civil and women's rights, free elections, parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage, all within the stabilising framework of an increasingly constitutional monarchical system. The fact that American turned down this heaven-sent candidate to lead post-war Afghanistan in favour of Karzai demonstrates how a blinkered aversion to monarchy can be a severe hindrance to western efforts to democratise and liberalise these states.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

How do a people simply 'decide' to overthrow a regime?

Perusing the Daley Dozen led me to this post on Jim Murphy's blog. As a firm hawk when it comes to Libya I disagree with Mr Murphy and Robert Gates on a lot, but this post isn't about my approach to the war in general. Rather, it is to allow me to express my distaste and frustration at a certain attitude one often hears from anti-war sympathisers. To quote Mr Murphy:

"Gaddafi is a tyrant, but it is up to the people of Libya to decide what happens next in their country and not for any single foreign government."

This attitude of 'let the Libyans sort it out' can be read one of two ways. The first is the sort you hear from isolationists, and carries undertones of 'screw them, who cares?'. That is an understandable, if not brilliant, attitude to take. But one also hears this argument a lot from left-wing and dove sources (Mr Murphy is at least one of those), and it makes a lot less sense coming from them.

Sure, it smacks of the wonderful post-imperial world of respect for nation states and aversion to western 'imperialist' involvement in the internal affairs of foreign countries, which must seem superficially enticing to some. But think about it a little harder and you run into the realisation that, when it comes to well-armed dictatorships and effective police states, the idea that the Libyan, Iraqi or any other people can simply 'decide' what happens next in their country is palpably absurd. The mechanism by which they might make such decisions is called democracy, it is the absence of democracy that defines dictatorships, and it is dictatorships that we intervene in.

So what if Muammar Gaddafi's army does storm Benghazi, after shifting to a focus on infantry and irregulars to counter-act the effectiveness of the allied airstrikes in neutering his armour and airforce. As his troops round up the Libyan People's Army and their supporters and then murders them, does that represent the "the people of Libya deciding what happens next in their country"? If the regime is nothing more than a house of cards and the people have had the capacity to choose to replace it for the last forty years, does this transform them from its victims into its partners?

Setting aside any other consideration, the idea that the subjects of a dictatorship can simply 'choose' the destiny of their country without western help is insulting to its victims. If you want the west to play no major role in assisting the people of Libya towards fairer, more representative government then that's fine, but please don't try to make out you're doing them a favour.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Mancunion Article: The Soft Bigotry of Lowered Expectations

Published in The Mancunion, issue of 14/02/11

Seeing Michael Gove on Question Time on Thursday (13/01/10) was illuminating. Even one of my Labour friends was drawn to comment that it was “the best QT performance I’ve ever seen from a Conservative.” Amidst this sterling performance, the most interesting by far was the vigorous debate between Gove and some audience members over the new English Baccalaureate (henceforth EB). It was an exchange that highlighted not only Mr Gove’s inspirations and principles but also shone the spotlight on the ideological malaise that has so undermined the British education system in recent decades.

The theme taken up by a quintet of teachers in the Question Time audience – and endorsed by Labour-sympathisers on the panel – was that the EB represented a ‘narrowing’ of academic focus. Diane Abbot stated that the EB meant that its constituent subjects (which are English, Mathematics, Sciences, Foreign/Ancient Language and History/Geography) would be perceived as a ‘tier one’, and that this was a bad thing. I can think of nothing else that so clearly demonstrates how out of touch Labour has been on education. Does Diane really think that there is a majority in the country that doesn’t think that English, Maths and Science warrant special attention? Mr Gove, at one point, reeled off a list of figures from the international league tables showing how the standard of education in the UK relative to the rest of the world had slumped during the last ten years of Labour government. If Diane is any indicator, there would be no change from that course were they in office now.

However, even more worrying than Labour’s position was that taken by some of the teachers themselves. One particularly striking example serves as a suitable illustration. A female teacher in the audience suggested that young women from underprivileged backgrounds “might not be able to have the confidence to take on an academic subject”, and that these teenagers would subsequently feel “like they’ve been pushed to the bottom of the heap”. This attitude, if representative of a substantial proportion of the teaching profession, should be of great concern to Gove and anyone else responsible for educational reform. What it suggests, is that if a child doesn’t have the self-confidence to think they can succeed in an academic subject, then that should be accepted and the child directed to whatever courses their low self-esteem leads them to selecting. Instead of pushing children to work harder and achieve good grades in rigorous and valuable subjects, this approach risks further undermining the core academic subjects that lie at the heart of a well-rounded education.

This latest mutation of ‘trendy teaching’ is hugely detrimental to helping a child recognise and fulfil their true potential and thus to social mobility, which has stagnated over recent decades. The courses selected for the EB (aside from some quibbling about what constitutes a legitimate humanity) are broadly those that are widely recognised as being intellectually rigorous, socially useful and valued by employers. Children are ill-served if they are mothered through school without being properly informed of the value of these subjects, and the underlying assumption that children from poor or troubled backgrounds aren’t up to an academic education represents the soft bigotry of lowered expectations, at the very least.

I was an under-achieving student for most of my school career, crippled by a lack of belief in my own abilities. The probable course of my life was changed forever when I was lucky enough to get into one of Buckinghamshire’s Grammar Schools. There, the teachers were supportive but firm, and never ceased to both encourage me to achieve what they recognised as my potential and to upbraid me when I failed to achieve the standards they knew I could. I was also lucky enough to have parents of a similar cast of mind. Under their tutelage I managed to pull my grades around, achieved excellent A Levels and have since gone to a good university. I could never have done that had my teachers passively accepted my own pessimistic assessment of my capabilities.

Those claims made by Mr Gove’s opponents that this government is placing too much emphasis on a narrow band of academic achievement do not stand up to scrutiny, for the government is both re-opening and re-imagining the old technical colleges and via the Free Schools program, relinquishing the micro-managerial power that Labour sought to assume over schools and putting resources and emphasis into the long-neglected trades and professions. Of course it is not bringing back Grammar Schools (a policy that I, and others of all political stripes who were lucky enough to attend them lament) but a supportive and constructive yet firm teaching environment is not conjured or banished by the presence of an entrance exam. The Education Secretary must accompany his structural reshaping of our education system with a vigorous challenge to the entrenched attitudes within the teaching profession that do so much to sell children short. No student who is ‘spared’ an academic education and then fails to be all that they could have been has cause to thank their teachers.

Mancunion Article: Oppose Lecturer Strikes

Written in to accompany and oppose a pro-strikes article in The Mancunion, issue of 21/03/11.

Do you ever wish you had less contact time, or that the university spent less money on you? A lecturers strike is a direct contact hours cut that diverts money away from students. If that sounds appealing, then you should consider supporting any and all industrial action taken by the University and College Union (UCU) over the coming months. If not, then you should oppose industrial action by lecturers, and so should the representatives you elected to defend your interests in the students union.

I’ve defended tuition fees on these pages before, and those interested in reading that argument can find it on The Mancunion’s website. Instead of repeating myself here with another examination of the structural problems with higher education funding, I’ll look at whether a strike could work, and whether the costs of a strike, let alone the costs of a strike winning, are worth it for students.

Before I go on though, it is worth remembering that the reason for the drastic restructuring of the way that higher education is operated and funded is that the previous Labour government vastly increased access to higher education to people from diverse and often disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. The days of free higher education and one to one tutorials where the days when the percentage of school-leavers going to university was in single figures, and that narrow strata was largely wealthy. Tuition fees are the price we pay for access in any realistic scenario.

So would a strike actually work, and would the cost of its success be worth it in reward for students? The normal way a strike operates is simple: labour ceases to work, thus stopping the production of product. Without product to sell, the company loses profit and risks losing its customers to other, still-working companies. This doesn’t translate very well into the university model, because the university takes your money at the beginning of each year and once you’re signed up to a course it is very difficult to simply drop it and up sticks to another university. Thus short strikes – i.e. strikes a student could support without it (usually) having a serious impact on their studies – are hugely unlikely to work. The university already has your money, and you’re not going anywhere.

A longer strike might deliver some results, but what then? Obviously, a long strike is hugely detrimental to students in terms of contact hours and teaching. The chances of a lecturer strike actually overturning or reversing government policy is minimal. Worse still, the result of any vaguely realistic victory is the preservation of a pension timebomb that will do more than any government or university cut to sabotage the future of higher education.

Final-salary pensions such as those offered through the USS are a model that has been almost completely abandoned in the private sector because, with an ageing population and greatly increased life-expectancy, they are completely unsustainable; a lot more retirees are living a lot longer than they did with final salary pensions were introduced. The maintenance of such schemes in the public sector is a major reason that improvements in that sector in the last decade are not even close to being commensurate to ballooning costs. In short our university, like everyone else, can no longer afford its current pension scheme.

If one accepts that the phasing out of final-salary pensions is inevitable if you don’t want to bankrupt the university (which would be bad for students, obviously) then negotiating new terms for new entrants is vital. If we don’t renegotiate pensions, where does the money come from? The University could levy the money through higher fees, which even under Browne remain capped well below the necessary price, and/or it could cut back in modernisation and investment programs. Put bluntly, it could substitute long-term investment in developing resources and facilities to fund what amount to straight short-term costs (and a long-term disaster) in the form of a completely unsustainable pension scheme.

As a humanities student myself, the situation is particularly dire. My contact time is minimal, and every lecture and seminar covers a whole area of a module that we won’t come back to again. Missing topics and losing precious contact hours not only wastes the money that I have already paid for them at the start of the year, but narrows the range of material upon which I can be assessed and reduces my opportunities to learn. Why on earth, then, would I support a strike?

If you support lecturer strikes as part of a wider struggle against right-of-centre government, then this article isn’t for you. If you think the university can improve provision, widen access and modernise facilities while maintaining low fees and inflated labour costs, I hope you find the end of the rainbow in time. But if you want to protect your contact hours, see the university spend on long-term investment in facilities and resources, and avoid needless deterioration of contact hours and education quality caused by inefficient spending that doesn’t benefit students, then you should oppose any strikes by lecturers, and your students union should support you.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Unionişti: Dilettante Speaks to the Romanian Ambassador

With the Student Union elections over (I was handily defeated by the incumbent, alas) I can now get back into the normal swing of university life, writing and cracking my dissertation. Although I have already written an article on why students should oppose lecturer strikes, it is appearing in the student paper and so won't be on here until next week. However, yesterday evening (14/3/11) the Manchester Debating Union played host to the Romanian ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Dr Ion Jinga, on the subject of "Romania and the UK: Strategic Partners in the European Union". I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions, including one on the little-commented upon phenomenon of Romanian unionism.

Romanian Ambassador to the UK, Dr Ion Jinga, meets NI leaders
Dr Jinga meeting McGuinness and Robinson, from here.

Before continuing, some brief background into what unionism in Romania actually is. During the interbellum period between 1918-1939, Romania was substantially larger than it is today - scroll down this article for a map of the territories held by the Kingdom of Romania during this period. After the Second World War, much of what had previously been Russian Bessarabia was carved off by the Soviet Union into the Moldavian SSR, within which the Soviet Union promoted a 'Moldovenist' policy, emphasising the supposed ethnic and cultural difference between Moldovans and Romanians.

Since the advent of glasnost in 1988, there has been a movement for the reunification of the two countries. Unionişti - and this is one of the few places I've found where 'unionist' is actually a term of identification outside the UK - argue that Romanians and Moldovans are one people, and speak one language. Some of the successor parties to Moldova's democratic movement hold this view, as do a minority of the general population. True to their heritage, the Moldovan Communists also adopt the Moldovenist position. In Romania unionism is much more mainstream, with nearly half of the population supporting union and just over a quarter opposed. Other questions, as to whether or not Transdniestr should be included in any union are also debated.

Potential union of Romania, Moldova and Transdniestr.

With this in mind, when the time came for questions from the floor, following the ambassador's address, mine was this: "Do you think that Romania has a special role to play in guiding Moldova into the European Union, and do you think that Romania and Moldova have a future as two member states, or one?"

Some of the Romanian students I spoke to afterwards considered this the best question of the night, which I found a little flattering. Dr Jinga's answer was illuminating. He outlined the help given by Romania to Moldova's accession efforts, and the continuing support that Romania will offer those efforts. One aspect he highlighted was "the translation of acquis chapters", which led on to his analysis of the differences between Romanian and Moldovan - "They made a Romanian-Moldovan dictionary, but all the words were the same".

Despite what I judged (although being a diplomat, he obviously avoided confirming anything) to be personal unionist beliefs, Dr Jinga appeared pessimistic about the prospect of union in the short term, although he did say that he couldn't speak for what might happen in "Eighty, one hundred years time".

At the informal reception and buffet held after the main speech, I had the opportunity to accompany somebody from the student paper who was conducting an interview with Dr Jinga, and ask a few more questions. The first of which was: "What is Romania's attitude to the expansion of the European Union, particularly with regards to the accession of your near neighbours, Turkey and the Ukraine?"

A subject dear to my heart, particularly with regards to Turkey. Happily, Romania's stance is very much in accordance with the UK's, and firmly in favour of Turkish accession to the European Union. This surprised me rather, as I had always assumed that it was countries close to Turkey that would most object to her joining the union.

The Ukraine was more interesting, with Dr Jinga emphasising Romania's role in the Eastern Partnership. From what I could make out, Romania's position is that if the Ukraine chooses the path of EU membership, Romania would support its entry, but there appeared to be doubt on his part as to whether or not Ukraine would take that course. However, the ambassador emphasised that even if this weren't the case, it was important to support open and democratic government in one of the EU's largest near-neighbours.

The Eastern Partnership and the European Union.

Mention of the Eastern Partnership led me to my final questions, the first being: "Do you think that Romania has an active role to play in NATO, and that in the wake of the conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, NATO has a muscular role to play in the Caucuses?"

As regards Romania's future with NATO, Dr Jinga emphasised Romania's current active commitment to NATO endeavours, including sending troops to Afghanistan. For the caucuses, he indicated that NATO did have a role to play but was at pains to point out that NATO was more than a military organisation, and that it could be active in offering development help and assistance to the caucus nations without war.

As I was nearly out of time and I hadn't pinned him down on Romania's position on Georgia as much as I'd like, I put in one last parting question: "Would Romania support Georgian membership of NATO?"



Hopefully I'll be able to flesh out the answers when I get hold of the dictaphone recording of the interview, so expect this post to be edited at some point in the near future.

One thing that is worth commenting on separately is now wonderful it is, as a unionist, to go to a talk such as this about the European Union. A large section of Dr Jinga's main speech was entitled "What can Romania give to the European Union?", and consisted of a long list of cultural and commercial products, heritage and strategic advantages that justified Romania's position within the union. Given that in my line as a unionist blogger I often talk to nationalists of the "its Scotland's oil" variety, hearing somebody talking proudly of all the things their country can offer a union is a refreshing change.