As news breaks that Bonkers Boris is seeking to become the Conservative candidate in next year's mayoral election I can only reflect again on how vast will be the Tory task of unseating Ken Livingstone. As I've argued elsewhere, Johnson's high profile will at least generate a bit more interest in the contest. But it's the measure of how desperate Cameron's gang have become that their best hope is to lose noticably. On the radio this morning, Tory London Assembly member Robert Blackman repeated his party's standard mantra about Livingstone: "He comes across as a cheeky chappie but he's been a disaster for London." Blackman didn't go into detail, though. London Tories rarely do. I'm sure Mayor Livingstone has done things I'm not happy about, but offhand I can't seem think of any that really matter. I doubt I'm alone in this. I hope Johnson becomes the Conservatives' runner. But even if he does I expect the Tories to lose resoundingly.
I've just had a chat with Dr Samantha Callan, author of the family breakdown section of Breakthrough Britain, the vast report by Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice into our Broken Society, as it now semi-officially being called. The media is concentrating on its recommendation - which David Cameron has welcomed - that marriage should be incentivised through the tax and benefits system to the tune of a £20 a week for all married couples. The argument, of course, is that married couples stay together for longer than do cohabiting ones, which means that marriage is more stable than cohabitation and that this stability enhances the wellbeing of both spouses and their children. Chris Dillow makes a neat critique of the incentivising argument to advance its opposite, which is that marriage is an effect rather than a cause of such wellbeing - in other words, if you're from an economically affluent, stable social background you are more likely to get married, rather than "the direction of causality" being the other way round. These are known as "selection effects", and I have no doubt that they are highly significant. But here's an interest passage from an earlier paper by Samantha Callan:
"The ‘selection effect’ argument says that the healthier, wealthier and less violent will marry anyway, so why reward the ‘naturally advantaged’? However, although there will always be some selection effect it does not explain all of the difference between marriage and cohabitation. When regressions are carried out in statistical analysis to strip away this ‘natural advantage’, marriage is shown to have an effect in and of itself."
Talking to Dr Callan confirmed that she does not discount the importance of other factors in influencing how successful a relationship is - she readily accepts that the partnerships of the most affluent co-habiting couples last longer than those of the poorest married couples. She still insists, though, that marriage is a force for stability in its own right. What her argument seems to boil down to is that the public declaration involved in marrying, and all the planning and paraphanalia, that goes with it has the useful effect of concentrating minds. To me, this is the most persuasive case that can be made for marriage over cohabitation. But is it strong enough to justify a government actively supporting marriage as against the present one's line of supporting children, whatever sort of family they are part of? I'm still to be convinced. It does, though, give added force to a well known saying as it applies to starting any kind of relationship - look before you leap.
David Cameron's newly-appointed communities shadow is a Muslim woman who campaigns against forced marriages. Read more about her here and see her debating one of those motormouth Al Ghurabaa creeps on Newsnight.
In New Statesman, Peter Wilby argues that David Willetts's now famous speech about secondary school policy under David Cameron was unusually intelligent for a politician, not least for recognising that children's social backgrounds have become so diverse that selection at eleven is more unfair than ever. Yet Wilby believes Willetts avoided including arguments that would have made him even more unpopular with his own party rank-and-file:
"Willetts's analysis is incomplete in three respects. First, the chief source of diversity [in family backgrounds] is family money: largely because of 17 years of Tory rule, the poor became (relatively) much poorer, the affluent became (relatively and absolutely) more affluent. Second, selection was never class-neutral: in the grammar schools' heyday, the chances of a middle-class child being selected were one in three...those for a working-class child one in seven, and far less if the home was unskilled working-class. Today, according to research on areas that have grammar schools, the chances of a clever child from a poor home getting selected are not much better than half those for other clever children. Third, significant social mobility never existed. Rather, the first three or four decades after the Second World War saw an unprecedented and unrepeatable change in occupational structure. The number of professional jobs grew rapidly, allowing those from humble backgrounds to move up. That expansion has slowed at the same time as many more women from middle-class backgrounds have entered professional careers. In other words, a working-class child could once ascend the occupational ladder without a middle-class child climbing down. That is no longer so. If politicians really want high social mobility, they must, as one sociologist has said, arrange for more middle-class children to fail."
This has got me thinking even more about the main parties' intensifying enthusiasm for increasing social mobility, which goes hand-in-hand with their eagerness to be associated with social aspiration. The argument seems to be that by creating more opportunity for the aspiring to get on, greater dynamism will be generated within society resulting in more economic vigour, growth and so on. I'm getting round to being cyncial about all this. Of course, I'm in favour of children from hard-up or just plain ordinary homes having the same chances to flourish and lead fulfilling lives as every other kid. And I can see how this might benefit the nation. But might the concentration on social mobility be a rather narrow policy goal, given that there's only room for a diminishing minority to ascend the social scale in the first place? Wouldn't it be better to aim for something broader, such as greater social tranquility, stability or equity? And what is meant by "aspiration" anyway? If it means only a desire to own four televisions instead of three, do such values really represent progress?
Today, The Guardian gives the Mail On Sunday columnist space to air his view that Blairism, far from being the successful result of Labour moving to the right politically, has simply been the triumph of the left by other means, both culturally and economically, and that Cameron is part of the same trend:
"Those who were once represented by the Labour right and the Tory right are the only losers from this smooth pact. The new establishment's plans are based on the belief that, denied a voice in parliament or in broadcasting, these ancient forces of conservatism offer no threat and can be ignored. Even if Labour loses the next election - which is by no means sure - Mr Cameron can be trusted not to turn back the clock by a single second. Paradoxically, the danger to Blairism is far greater if the Tories lose, and greater still if they lose badly. For if the Tory party flies apart in a shameful, hope-crushing fourth defeat, the great disenfranchised millions of ex-Labour and Tory voters - who still dare to have rightwing ideas in a nation ruled by liberals - may take the opportunity to find a common cause against the centre in whatever new movement results."
It's his particular take on the "liberal elite" thesis (they've taken over everything, the true values of the nation have been silenced and betrayed and so on). Though not persuaded by this theory, it fascinates me for two reasons. One is that it's a reminder that Blair's critics from the left have failed to give him credit for the amount of money his governments have put into public services or for endorsing many cultural values they cherish, such as women having careers and gay rights. The other is that it asserts that there's a vast, unrepresented quantity of British voters (and non-voters) who long for lower taxes, a smaller state and withdrawal from the EU and whose moral values are much like those that prevailed in the 1950s. Does this group really exist in any numbers? And if it does, what is its potential significance?
I've just listened to David Cameron's irritable interview on Tuesday's Today (8.10) about the great grammar school controversy. The whole kerfuffle is so bizarre. Why are Tories shocked and enraged by a policy that Willetts had put in place a year ago? Why did John Humphries take lines of attack - "you're all toffs", "you're picking a fight with your own party", "it's your Clause 4 moment" - that are trivial compared with important questions raised by David Willetts's speech such as what would happen to the large numbers of children likely to be excluded from a future Dave Wave of academies or what the implications might be of, in Willetts's words, "making it simpler to open a new school within the maintained sector"? The Tories' claim on education is that their measures would enhance social mobility - the emerging obsession of both main parties as confirmed by this article by shadow ministers Greg Clark (charities) and Jeremy Hunt (disabled people). But would they? I spent this morning with Kent County Council's Tory cabinet member for education. He had some interesting thoughts on all this, which I'll be writing up tomorrow.
If you pop in at Webcameron - hey, it's a "pop-in" sort of place - you can see Boy Dave at a Hull secondary school, talking to pupils and teachers. Today, his education spokesman David Willetts has officially dropped the Tories' support for "a grammar school in every town" - something he's been preparing to do for a year. His reason is that grammars no longer improve the life chances of as many children from poorer homes as they once did.
On The World At One an academic has fleshed this out: kids from poorer homes who get to grammars really kick on, but the problem is that very few of them get in in the first place. Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trurst argues that grammars can still enhance social mobility if they are "democratised" by helping kids from council estates improve their chances of passing the eleven-plus. The Tories' solution, though, is to expand the academy programme as a way of raising standards across the board and enhancing opportunity in the process.
Would this have the desired effect? It might for some. But critics of existing academies claim that their heads engage in covert selection, in part by having high exclusion rates which create more space for desirable students. And Cameron is majoring on discipline - he wants heads to have "the absolute right" to exclude disruptive pupils. Well, ill-discipline in schools is a big problem. But what would these Tory priorities mean for pupils from poorer homes who would not be thought desirable by newly-empowered heads in new generation academies?
Seems to me that those most in need of a socially improving education might easily end up even more firmly on the scraphead than they already are; and that when Cameron and Willetts speak of wanting to see more opportunities for kids from poorer backgrounds they may only really be speaking of a minority of such children. What would become of the average and the undesirable from poorer homes in Cameron's "socially responsible" Britain?