The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is a small weekly means-tested grant for college students of £10, £20 or £30. It was brought in by the Labour government to provide an incentive for the most disadvantaged school students to stay on in education. It costs £560million per year. Money well spent? This is what the leaders of the three main parties had to say about it…
The Tories – Prime Minister David Cameron
Supports EMA? Yes
Labour – Ed Miliband
Supports EMA? Yes
Lib Dems – Deputy PM Nick Clegg
This party election broadcast doesn’t specifically mention EMA. But I found on the website The Student Room a comment on EMA written by Nick Clegg in September 2010. In it he says he would scrap EMA bonuses (a £100 bonus giving to EMA recipients if they go to all their classes and perform academically) but that it’s important for ‘fairness’ that weekly EMA payments are maintained –
“EMA bonuses have been stopped, allowing us to pay the weekly EMA to more young people. We think that is the right way to distribute the money at a time when big reductions are needed in public spending. In terms of financial support beyond 2010/11, we’ll be considering longer term arrangements as part of the wholesale review of public spending that is being conducted this autumn. With the nation’s books in such a bad state we now have to look at every single pound Government is spending to make sure that absolutely none of it is wasted, making sure we use it in a way that reflects the things that we, as a society, believe in. That includes greater fairness in our education system.”
Supports EMA? Yes
So, they certainly used to think EMA is worth the money. And the stats back them up. In a poll commissioned by UCU in which 713 EMA recipients were questioned, 70% said they would drop out of their course if the grant was withdrawn.
Here we have seen the leaders of the three main political parties – three privileged white men – standing up for the most disadvantaged school students in the country. We’ll see what they really think and who they really stand up for in the Commons tomorrow…
I drafted my post on NetrootsUK yesterday before I had read Sunder Katwala’s article for Liberal Conpiracy. In this post, Sunder refers to my intervention in the opening plenary as follows:
The argument “we must have complete unity – and we will get there on the basis of everybody agreeing with me” will be futile, whether it is made by Alan Johnson, Brendan Barber, Caroline Lucas, Sunder Katwala, Laurie Penny or indeed SWP-style perspectives, perhaps captured by the passionately anti-Labour speaker from the floor, who lambasted Labour as a complete sell-out over Iraq and everything else, before saying “Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us”.
Now, a few clarifications:
1. I am not a member of the SWP. I am not affiliated with any political party. Nor do I think being a member of the SWP should be a put-down.
2. I have advocated the need to respect our differences in my post today, in my previous blog post, to anyone who has spoken to me throughout the duration of the movement, and I will continue to do so until the end. This is because I believe in pluralism.
3. In the plenary, it seemed to me like everyone was singing from the same hymn-sheet, ‘join Labour.’ As Sunder has pointed out in his reply to Guy Aitchson, his approach was more nuanced than this (you can read his response here).
However, I wasn’t directly replying to Sunder’s comments. I was replying to someone in the audience who stood up and said ‘we should all join the Labour party,’ after someone else in the audience had said we should join Labour. I challenged this statement because I don’t agree that is the way forward. I don’t want to go into the ins-and-outs of what I think about Labour here, as I will reflect more thoughtfully on that in another post. The point I want to make here is that we should be given the space and support to hold different views. I was perfectly entitled to stand up and question the assertion that we should join Labour. The round of applause I got (the loudest in the plenary) suggested many others agreed with me.
Sunder’s argument is that he accepts difference and he writes, “disagreement with respect is going to work better where we can disagree on the basis of what people are actually arguing, rather than to caricature or misrepresent arguments.” So why try to dismiss my views as incoherent, SWP-type rhetoric? However, Sunder has admitted that characterising me as an SWP member was a mistake. I’m glad he has recognised that it’s inconsistent to advocate pluralism whilst trying to dismiss my comments in this way. He has argued instead that his issue is with the content of my comment. So…
4. This is what I actually said (although I’m basing this on my poor memory so if there is video footage and someone can send me the link that would be great): “Why should we vote Labour? All of us here marched against the war on Iraq and they completely ignored us. And it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but child detention and the 10p tax… And where is Ed Miliband? He’s shown no support for the student movement and he hasn’t provided any kind of opposition in Parliament. Left unity is important. But Labour doesn’t represent us. We are representing ourselves. We have our own campaign and if Labour want a piece of it, they can come to us.”
5. This is what I meant – On Iraq, I meant that Labour ignored popular opinion, so why should we trust them to listen to and represent protest movements now? I brought in child detention and the 10p tax to highlight Labour’s anti-left-wing policies (I should have also mentioned tuition fees). I questioned what Ed Miliband is doing because he hasn’t shown any support to the movement and hasn’t represented our views in Parliament at all. I said that left unity is important because I believe that factionalisation could be the death of the movement, as I have stated elsewhere. But unity doesn’t mean joining the Labour party. If Labour wants that to be what unity means they have to show some interest in the protests, show that they care about what we’re saying and doing, recognise us, support us, and prove to us we can trust them to actually take our anti-cuts stance onboard rather than to co-opt and dilute it. And I stand by all of this.
Sunder has pointed out that he wants to reject two types of view: ‘everyone must get behind Labour and Labour’s plan’ or ‘anybody who joins Labour is part of the problem, not the solution.’ I agree. I’m not saying that anyone who joins Labour is part of the problem. But in that meeting no-one was saying anything about Labour’s mistakes and short-comings. It was part of the debate that needed to be brought to the group’s attention. I’m not going to dismiss anyone out-of-hand that joins Labour, but equally they shouldn’t dismiss me for not wanting to join Labour.
One final point… Many people came up to me during the conference and thanked me for what I said because it was exactly what they were thinking, and they were glad I had the confidence to say it. We talked in the session on gender equality about the intimidation women activists receive online just for daring to speak out. I am not suggesting any of Sunder’s comments were intimidating, but I want to point out to everyone that if we are going to encourage more women, people from disadvantaged groups and people who are under-confident for whatever reason to get involved, singling individuals out for critique is not the way to do it. I think we should all bear this in mind.
Inspired by the success of the American movement Netroots Nation, UK blogs and organisations False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, and the TUC, amongst others, decided to organise the first NetrootsUK conference. The aim was to harness the power of the progressive left blogosphere and online anti-cuts activism.
The conference was a great opportunity for activists to share ideas and tips, and to network in person. After discussing the day with other attendees, I would like to share some suggestions:
1. Scrap plenaries – the first session of the day was a plenary (the whole conference sits in the main hall and listens to speeches). The speakers were Brendan Barber (TUC), Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos), Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Nigel Stanley (TUC), and Clifford Singer (False Economy). These sessions are designed to clarify the aims of the conference and inspire the participants for the day ahead. However, it had exactly the opposite effect.
The anti-cuts and student movements have been exciting because they are the voice of the people. For too long young people, pensioners, people with disabilities, those on benefits, have felt ignored and shut out from mainstream politics and from the public conversation. Starting the day with a panel of big-name ‘experts’ rather than the people who are getting out there and making change happen was not inspiring, but disempowering.
2. Representativeness – There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Digital equality: how can women get engaged online.’ What was supposed to be a talk about getting women engaged in online activistism (which as Laurie Penny pointed out was pointless because women constitute the majority of bloggers and tweeters) turned into an extremely interesting discussion about tokenism. One of the speakers pointed out that all of the sessions at the event included ‘one token woman’ on the panel and the only all-female panel was in this designated “women’s issues” forum. Then two black women in the audience said they felt ignored because they hadn’t even had a token session or panel member.
Lisa Ansell, made the point that the cuts will disproportionately affect women, the disabled, black people and ethnic minorities, and people in the North, so rather than making these niche issues, they should be at the core of what the movement is doing. There should be activists on gender, disability, race and from marginalized communities embedded throughout the panels in the next conference. I realise this is hard to organise, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, it’s important.
3. Participation – The plenary sessions: a panel on the stage with audience members looking up to them with minimum participation, as I have said, is disempowering. The workshop sessions varied on this. Some were largely panel-led, others were more discussion-led.
Of course, there is a place for getting expert advice. For example, there was a lunchtime event led by Chris Coltrane on internet security. Having a discussion-based session on this would probably not be helpful, as the aim is to learn a skill from someone who knows it.
However, other workshops could have been more discussion-based. Where this is possible I think it should be encouraged – it breeds inclusivity, empowerment and ownership by everyone of the event. In discussion sessions the layout of the room could be addressed. In UCL Occupation meetings we did this by setting the chairs out in a circle, so it wasn’t some people at the head of the room telling the rest what to do, but a group working together. Also, other procedures could be considered, such as the consensus model, where the aim is to get as many people to participate as possible and all ideas are discussed openly.
4. Don’t become London-centric – It made sense to have the first conference in London, because that is where the organisers are based. However, in order for this movement not to become London-centric and alienating, the next conference should be held elsewhere.
5. Accepting our differences, learning lessons, not creating divisions – In the opening plenary after hearing several audience comments that we should join the Labour Party, I got up and asked ‘why should we join the Labour Party?’ The aim was not to alienate myself from those who think getting Labour onside is the way to move forward, but to show that there are other views out there. We all have different opinions and we should have the space and support to discuss them, especially at events like this. As I have argued before, there will always be differences of opinion within a social movement. It is better to discuss them and get them out in the open, than to let them fester and rot the movement from the inside.
And it is in this spirit that I am writing this blog post. NetrootsUK was a great event. I met some brilliant people, heard some inspiring talks, learnt a lot and we built in-person rather than online solidarity networks. This is all really positive stuff. But in every event there are lessons to be learned. That is what I want to highlight here in making these suggestions. We shouldn’t get too bogged down in criticising each other, but rather focus our anger and energy against our common enemy – the Coalition government’s neo-liberal agenda. However, constructive criticism can help make the movement stronger and more effective.