Joining, leaving and then maybe rejoining a political party. Part 1

When I was wee, it was simple.

There was only one party that supported Scottish independence: the Scottish National Party.

My parents were both members of the SNP and I can recall my first bout of political activism.

It came during the 1983 election campaign. My older sister had been given a task by her teacher to draw an election poster and her group had to draw one for the Conservatives. Something didn’t sit right with 10-year-old me. The Conservatives were the party of Mrs Thatcher and she was not for Scotland. I knew this because that is what my Dad said.

I asked my Mum what party she supported and she told me the SNP, and I got to work creating a poster that said: “Vote for Scotland, Vote for the SNP”. It had a wee Saltire on it too and was a country mile better than my sister’s efforts in support of Mrs T.

This cemented an interest in current affairs that hasn’t left me since. Four years later I was handing out leaflets for the SNP in my local area in the 87 election campaign and then staying up late into the night watching the results. Several modern studies jotters laced with SNP mentions and slogans later and I was in the party itself. Now 16 I could join and did so after a public meeting featuring Jim Sillars in Castlemilk.

What followed was a 7 year period of handing out leaflets, canvassing and going to meetings and social events. The high points were the places visited and the people met. The low-points were the lost elections and the failed campaigns.

One event stayed with me the most and has had the deepest impact. With many others I helped form a human shield to prevent Sheriff Officers from entering the home of a woman to then hold a Poinding for Poll Tax debts.

The woman in question was a lone parent and she had barely anything in her house. Net curtains kept the weather out and no doubt Peter was robbed to pay Paul. Her poverty was laid bare. It was only out of necessity that she had opened her home to us but she was as generous and welcoming as it was possible to be in the circumstances.

This was the reality of our politics. Here was the target of the ‘Community Charge’ – the poorest in our community.

The whole situation summed-up why I was an activist: to work in solidarity with others to bring about a society that did not see such poverty nor such attacks on the poor.

That solidarity was with people in my own party, in other parties and in no party.

So what changed?

Me. I changed.

I have always known that political parties are umbrella groups of people with similar but not the same ideas on how the country should be run. I wanted a break as I felt that I could no longer campaign and ask people to vote for something I myself could not guarantee I’d back.

The drift had started long before this at a Special Conference in Govan in Spring 1991, when the party abandoned its Poll Tax non-payment campaign. Through a topical resolution at a conference the campaign ended but:

Conference reserves the right to launch a new non-payment campaign if the Government reneges on the promises made in the House of Commons that the new scheme will conform to the principles of fairness and ability to pay and will contain rebate arrangements to protect people on low incomes.

That ‘new scheme’ was of course the fair and based upon ability to pay Council Tax that still remains with us today.

Much of this was simply down to my own political development.

I had grown up politically inside a party and was to an extent partly bounded by defending its stance on any given issue – as well as being bounded by my own naivety.

Taking a break necessitated not renewing my membership. This decision was personal not political. I felt that retaining a party card meant that it would be too easy to fall back into activism and that was not for me at that time. I didn’t leave with any hurrah, nor any intention of joining another party.

That break has continued now for almost 18 years.

In that time, many of the people I campaigned with, laughed with and got drunk with have stayed and are now at the top or near the top of our government.

My former colleagues now increasingly feature in my lessons as their pictures and names are appearing in the web pages, exam questions and news articles that my pupils access.

Am I jealous of their success? No, not one bit. I do admit to taking some pride though in what they have achieved and will no doubt go on to achieve.

I have thought about rejoining them at different times but have not done so.

Yet.

The first question is over the extent to which one compromises one’s own principles and world view to sit under the umbrella again – and to ask others to join us.

Also, to what extent does taking a party card actually help achieve those things that we want in society? People’s views on this seem to have changed following the referendum, and the immediate response would be that it takes more than simply holding a membership card.

Unlike when I was wee, the SNP is no longer the sole pro-Independence party, nor does it hold any monopoly on a commitment to social justice.

Finally, does ‘owning-up’ to a party political badge mean that our words and deeds become tainted? [Well, they would say that because they are a member of Party X]

That’s for Part 2. Whenever that comes.

Prophets of Rage

“You’re quite hostile.”

“Hey man, I gotta right to be hostile, ‘cos my people are being persecuted.”

Public Enemy: ‘Prophets of Rage’.

“Just how does spouting hate speech about the opposition highlight the new [and better] politics you say you wish to establish?”

From a tweet of mine the other day:

Perhaps too often I am sarcastic – and too sarcastic at that.

I appreciate that sarcasm per se and my own sarcasm (usually an attempt at humour) is not always a nice thing.

Similarly, satire when done well, can be brilliant at exposing the pompous. It can reduce those we fear to figures of fun. It can go awry too.

During the referendum campaign we had much discussion of the CyberNat – the keyboard crusaders who were online to counter the media bias and stick it to the ‘No’ side. In my view, much of it was exaggerated but I accept that there were some examples of shocking online abuse to be found. [NB. The worst I got called was a ‘porridge gobbler’ from someone who suggested that Scotland was owned by the UK.]

We are now not only in the post-indyref period but also are in the period pre-indyref2.

How then, is that new Scotland, that presumably folks are still seeking, going to be won?

Will rage at the continuing injustice and inequality around us help?

To me, it depends on the target of this rage and the tactics used.

I recently saw a post about Kezia Dugdale that highlighted the first three letters in her surname.

Is this the new Scotland? Is this satire? Is this the level of debate in our society?

Are the people we wish to persuade in a future referendum simply to be blasted as ‘Red Tories’ because they still value their membership of the Labour party?

Surely, the best way is to focus any rage we have on developing a consensus for a better Scotland? Let our anger motivate us to find the solutions to the complex problems we face rather than resorting to sniping at others.

The challenge for the political parties that have ballooned in size since September is to channel the energy from their new recruits into positive optimism.

I do wonder though that when the digital activists move from campaigning on a cause to campaigning for an individual political party will we see that positivity?

Significant Others

Once again I have the honour of having a column printed in TESS. You can see the published version here: https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6450353

Recently I visited the National Museum of Scotland with my now 3 year old daughter and her 3 month old sister in tow. As we whizzed around I tried to take in the marvels that have helped shape the nation we are and our place in the world.

I wondered what things taking place over the course of my young daughter’s lives will find their way into such museums. Will our soon-to-be obsolete phones, and still uninvented technologies, be joined by some of our attitudes?

Will we see racism, Islamophobia, homophobia or ‘poverty porn’ confined to the past?

Despite commitment, action and progress, we have a long way to go.

In September, 9 local authorities revealed nearly 1,000 racist incidents involving primary school pupils had been recorded since 2011.

The real figure is likely to be much higher.

One of the councils reporting was my own, Fife, which post-Macpherson launched the ‘A Mixed Fife, A Richer Life’ campaign. This was to highlight and challenge racist community attitudes and was a campaign I was proud to support.

Yet, at the same time, I was teaching pupils in an S1 modern studies course that a same-sex partnership was just as valid a family relationship as a heterosexual one. This of course breached the offensive Section 28/2A.

Anti-racist legislation is clear. Further, our parliament has passed laws allowing my daughters to chose whom they wish to marry – regardless of sexuality. Yet, are our schools safe places for LGBT youth? Would a pupil or even a teacher coming out face respect or ridicule or worse?

Would our institutional response equate to the stance we take against racism?

Our curriculum aims to develop in pupils: compassion, wisdom, justice and integrity. Our teachers are committed to the value of social justice through the GTCS standards.

However, the recent success of certain political parties in England challenges the values that we wish our young people to demonstrate and our teachers to promote.

Moreover, recent Ipsos MORI research showed that the British people make wrong assumptions about key public policy statistics.

These include a vast overestimation of the proportion of the British population which is immigrant (24% compared with an actual 13%) or Muslim (21% as opposed to the real figure of 5%). The overestimation of the extent of unemployment was also marked (estimated as 24% when in fact it is only 7%).

They are much more likely to see these things as ‘problems’.

I have no doubt that such misconceptions are fed by tabloid frenzy and political pandering.

These misconceptions are likely to also be prevalent amongst young people too.

However, is a pupil that suggests there is ‘too much’ immigration guilty of racism and a victim of bias? How many pupils stigmatise those claiming benefits – yet live in deprived communities? How many pupils have no faith yet show ‘concern’ over the apparent size of different faith groups and its implications?

Many of the young people we now teach have grown up in a society where media and pundits have demonised immigrants, asylum seekers, followers of Islam and the poor.

To challenge this, in my view, we must go further than point to our values.

Our young people can only be helped to identify and challenge the inaccuracies in the media and the inequalities in their communities if they have the tools to do so.

That can only come through having a much greater part of the curriculum devoted to achieving this – with appropriately qualified and motivated staff to teach it.

As LGBT Youth Scotland recently campaigned https://www.lgbtyouth.org.uk/shh, it also requires us collectively to no longer be silent on such matters.

Stand Up For Yourselves

The following is the original draft of an opinion piece that was published in TESS

For background it was written on the Sunday before the Independence Referendum – and before so many people decided that a route to maintain their activism was in fact to join a political party.

I am grateful for the honour of being published.

“it’s times like these you learn to live again
it’s times like these you give and give again.”
 
Foo Fighters “Times Like These”
 
 
The recent referendum campaign motivated many people perhaps for the first time, to think about political action and to take part.
 
From posting their thoughts online to posting leaflets through doors, many teachers developed a taste for participation. They have discussed the sort of economy and society they want to see and have translated that into action.
 
Participation has given many teachers huge and positive energy.
 
As a trade union activist I see an irony and an opportunity.
 
The irony is that many of those teachers engaged in shaping the future of Scotland are not involved in defending their own working conditions nor in shaping the future of Scottish education.
 
The referendum saw 97% of Scots registered to vote and turnout [expected to be] well-over 80%. This was down to the idea that this time votes would have an impact; and that the referendum mattered.
 
TESS recently noted that purdah prevented schools from holding referendum-related events for their pupils. In so doing it did a potential disservice both to these young people and to democracy. Schools are seen as essential to developing active citizenship in our pupils. Yet, are our schools and the way that they are run offering teachers the opportunity to develop as active citizens?
 
We need to support and challenge school managers to fulfil their responsibility to operate in a collegiate manner.
 
We will never develop responsible citizenship in pupils let alone the other three capacities, if we do not develop them in teachers too.
 
Teachers themselves however need to challenge where there is a lack of workplace democracy. They must also challenge when professional learning is denied or when bureaucracy gets in the way of learning and teaching. 
 
The opportunity I see is that if teachers become active in their trade union they can do these things and ensure that schools put learning and teaching at the centre of what they do. Teacher action is needed to push for better conditions at a local, national and global level too.
 
The point of a trade union is to take collective action to better the working conditions of their members. Teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions. Yet neither can improve through teacher apathy. Each trade union can only be as strong as its members allow it to be through their interest and involvement.
 
Those of us active in trade unions have to create opportunities for members to participate. We must also develop member confidence that their involvement will have an impact and that it will matter.
 
This can only come through trade unions themselves educating and activating their members.
 
Too often we have had a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. It’s been enough to organise an event and assume (or rather hope) that people would come along.
 
It’s no longer enough.
 
We need to find new ways to engage with members and for them to engage with us. This includes the online participation that so many are now involved in. As I argued in TESS before: “If people are spending increasing amounts of their time online, it is into this space that organisations have to move. Failing to do so may mean failing to maintain relevance.”
 
The challenge for us is to strengthen ourselves to defend our conditions of service and to achieve the best for our pupils.
 
To do this trade unions need to create the conditions for members to become active and to ‘give and give again’.

 

The Risk of Independence is Worth It.

We get up every morning and take risks.

We drive in cars that kill thousands each day but risk it to get to work

We leave our children in the care of others and risk what might happen if there is an accident.

We lock our doors and hope that nobody breaks in – but still we leave the house to go out.

We risk using electrical devices that could shock us – or even kill us.

We do all this and more because the ‘risk’ is that to fail to do so is to limit ourselves and our lives.

Starting a new nation would be a huge risk but we are not starting from scratch. We are not starting a new nation, we are seeking to build a better version of the one we have.

Yes there is uncertainty but where is the certainty with a no vote?

Where is the guarantee of stopping/reversing the funding cuts that hollow-out services?

Where is the certainty of removing nuclear weapons and not fighting illegal wars?

Where is the certainty that we will see social justice?

If we want certainty – if we want a better future we either exercise power over ourselves and create that which we would desire or simply leave it to the uncertainty of the judgement of others.

I’ll vote yes because I believe that we can make a better attempt, with more chance of success at social and economic justice with independence.

Party politics is irrelevant; it’s about power who has it and what they do with it.

What Twitter Means to Me.

Was asked recently what Twitter meant for me. Here is what I said:
For me, Twitter is many things. It is a Personal Learning Network that has put me in touch with educators from around the world. I have learned from some of the soundest minds in learning ranging from classroom teachers to academics – and more.
Through Twitter I am linked with teachers, journalists, politicians, trade unionists, writers, pundits and professors, old friends and the President of the United States of America.
Many of the teachers I follow blog about their teaching and the learning in their classes. Others have roles in leadership or management. Twitter is the conduit to them through the links shared.
Have a question about a teaching strategy, a resource or an article? A simple request in a tweet can in moments spread around the world with many people offering solutions, links and support.
It offers a connection with ideas and with people. Though that connection has at times been camaraderie of pain, more often it has been one of hope. Twitter shares success and things that inspire. Teachers also share: the things that have gone wrong; the things that worry them or the things that stand in the way of doing their best for their pupils.
Teachers can take a more active role in pursuing support to improve what they do and the impact that it has on their pupils. Twitter facilitates this via the links made, shared and sent and through the #Teachmeets and #pedagoo events that have sprung out from them. These bring the virtual links into the real world and make them even stronger.
If anything, the problem that people face is one of curating the best and most relevant links, blogs and articles. Twitter links to an almost limitless online library.
For organisations, Twitter is to me something that they must embrace. If people are spending increasing amounts of their time online, it is into this space that organisations have to move. Failing to do so may mean failing to maintain relevance.
The energy shown by many recent popular movements are inspiring. Long-standing organisations can use twitter to similarly inform, involve and inspire their own members.
Still, we have to respect that in many democratic organisations participation requires turning up to meetings and events. New forms of organising will take time to blend with and enhance the old.
We must remain vigilant to some of the destructive and harmful behaviours to which twitter has led. Cyberbullying is real. People are clearer on how to capture and report hostile or abusive messages but employers need to protect their staff from abuse.
Yes an individual teacher may contravene their employers’ code of conduct with a shared picture or comment, but managers cannot and must not over-react. In my own local authority, we are developing support for the victims of online abuse and those to whom it is reported. We need to get the balance right.
I’m a Twitter optimist. The opportunities for help, support and learning that it gives far outweigh any disadvantages.

Solidarity With Those Fighting the Privatisation of Basic Education

Remarks in Support of Motion M
SSTA Congress May 2014

Congress notes with alarm the increasing trend towards the privatisation of the provision of basic education in some countries
 Congress pledges the solidarity and support of the SSTA to Education International and those others resisting such changes.


Fife District

As I am sure Congress will be aware. 3 weeks ago over in the Nigeria, Boko Haram abducted over 200 school girls.
But you may not know that since 2009 the Nigeria Union of Teachers has seen 171 of its members killed by the same group.
You may also not know that in central Nigeria, primary teachers are currently on an indefinite strike.
Their demand: a promised but undelivered minimum wage of only $112 – per month.
They have been on strike since last October.
From Wednesday to yesterday, Nigeria’s schools and government offices were closed.
Closed to enable a high level of protection but not for school girls or their teachers.
But for visiting foreign dignitaries attending a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Abuja, the capital city.
The Forum featured sessions on how education systems in Africa can ‘benefit’ from the role of the Private Sector.
Session include ‘How …innovative public-private co-operation models [are] accelerating investment in crucial services.’
Featured speakers include think tanks dedicated to the privatisation of public education systems in the US and agencies that only this week agreed a deal that will see the privatisation of Nigeria’s power sector.
The session was facilitated by one Gordon Brown – he of Public Private Partnership fame.
This commoditisation of public assets is not unique to Nigeria, nor indeed the power sector.
In 2013 Education International reported on trends in freedom of association and in collective bargaining in the education sector since 2008.
In those countries affected by the current crisis, there has been a marked reduction in education budgets with crisis used to justify pro-market reforms.
There has also been a marked increase in the casualisation of the teacher workforce and a reduction in collective bargaining.
In  Senegal the government is recruiting huge numbers of volunteer and contract teachers. Undermining both the quality of education provided and the representativity of trade unions.
In Poland it has become easier for local authorities to save money by handing over the running of small schools to private providers.
Similar moves have been seen in Hungary.
In Spain, huge budget pressures have seen: Cuts in staffing levels, increases in class sizes and further privatisation.
In the USA there has been a drive for some time in many states to reduce or remove collective bargaining from teachers.
In some states it is now illegal for a trade union fee to be deducted from pay checks. In others, collective bargaining is limited to negotiating a wage rise up to the rate of inflation.
There has been a drive towards linking teachers’ pay to standardised test scores and the ending of teacher tenure, and the creation of privately run but publicly funded Charter schools’.
The prospects seem bleak and could get far worse.
Currently, the EU and the USA are negotiating over what is called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. 
It’s a free trade agreement negotiated behind closed doors with no democratic accountability.
It’s intended to make foreign investment less ‘risky’ for multinational corporations.
This would be done through ending tariffs on trade, opening up markets and much else.
We should be concerned over much of this but especially at the introduction of investor-protection.
As this would allow private companies to sue governments they perceive as threatening their investment.
We already have a taste of this.
The German government decided to phase out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster.
Swedish Energy Group Vattenfall is suing them for €3.7 billion due to potential lost profits!
A Canadian firm is threatening to sue Romania for $4billion in damages. 
Why?
Because Romania’s parliament voted against allowing them to create an open-cast gold and silver mine in the country.
Such attacks are not solely reserved for far-off continents and countries.
In England free schools are publicly funded but:
do not have to employ qualified teachers;
do not have to follow the National Curriculum;
can set their own pay and conditions for teachers.
Already some companies are seeking permission to set-up and run such schools on a for-profit basis.
There is also an increasing involvement of the private sector throughout Higher education. 
This potentially opens the door to multinational involvement in education.
If so, are we to see governments sued for preventing profiteering?
The question for us is are we immune?
Education is devolved and may give some protection.
For now but waiting is not good enough.
But I suggest to you that we have a role to play to promote a different vision of public education.
A vision that puts pupils before profits.
A vision that rejects public education as a for-profit venture subject to the whims of corporations.
A vision of properly resourced schools, with qualified teachers. Teachers that benefit from collective bargaining.
I ask that we spread that vision and extend our solidarity to those around the world who share it.

I started off by talking about the girls kidnapped and the teachers killed in Nigeria.
Neither they nor the education they seek should be a commodity to be bought and sold.
Please support the motion.