Thursday, 9 December 2010

Habits Die Hard As Left Continues To Lose Winnable Arguments

Keir's noticed something since the Coalition took control of the State. We on the Left cannot help sticking to habits, some older than others, and losing arguments that are entirely winnable.

I give you two very different cases:

Exhibit A: The recent protests against the increase in tuition fees.

Exhibit B: David Lammy's recent piece about Oxbridge elitism.

Keir has discussed Exhibit A before. The national day of demonstration, branded "DEMOlition" by the NUS, was a day of great potential. Here we had over 50,000 people on the streets of London protesting against one issue. And the argument was sound: by increasing tuition fees to £9,000 a year, the Government was ending aspiration for countless young people from poorer backgrounds up and down the country. It was also an argument which most people would sympathise with. Indeed, most people in parliament itself sympathised with it until May. Yet this day of demonstration turned into disorganised chaos as out-of-control protesters proceeded to storm and vandalise Conservative Party headquarters. From my point of view, the argument was lost that afternoon at Milbank. Effort has been made since then and peaceful occupations of University campuses combined with things like actions on NUS President Aaron Porter within those occupations have restored some order and reasonableness to the protest. But it was too late.

The fact that the vote was passed in parliament by just 21 votes shows that this was entirely winnable. Abstainers and a few backbench LibDem MPs could have beaten the fee increase. I don't buy the standard, "oh those politicians never listen" response. The fact is the protest, the movement, the lobbying... none of it was organised or powerful enough. The NUS, as Keir has argued, missed the opportunity to organise a truly meaningful and effective demonstration. There were methods it could have used but the Union was not organised adequately. This incoherent, disorganised, factional left-wing response is an old habit. It has lost this argument.

Exhibit B showed the how another, slightly more modern, habit can also lose us arguments. David Lammy's article, put simply, argued that Oxford is elitist. Very few people would dispute that. However, because of a sneaky piece of spin, Lammy's argument was forgotten within hours. It turns out Lammy had used what Keir would consider misleading language. The sub-heading of the article reads:

"One college has not let in a black student for five years"

On the day of the article's publication, Lammy tweeted a few stats relating to "black" students and teachers. Fine. But then within the article, Lammy says:

"The picture on race is no better. Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year. That is not a misprint: one student."

Keir, like many others among the Twittosphere, was livid. One! But we had all been fooled. It was probably our own fault that we didn't think to question that "British black Caribbean" criteria and Keir certainly felt a fool when, just a few hours later, a fellow blog exposed the real stats about black entrants to Oxbridge. And it turns out Lammy had also misled when he said the Universities had been "obstructive" when responding to his inquiries about these stats: Oxford University had published the information on its website.

Here we see a newer, but still ingrained, habit: spin. And Lammy's point was lost as soon as it became clear he had spun and misled with his language. For the rest of the day, the debate among bloggers and Twitteratti was about the stat spinning and misleading language, not Oxbridge elitism.

Two completely winnable arguments, both lost.



  1. The shame is, I would really like to see a meaningful debate about why relatively fewer black students than white students get into Oxbridge. But the debate was derailed by me and Lammy arguing about the fact that he couldn't be bothered to hire a staistician so made claims from data that didn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

  2. Exactly. There is a big problem with the elitist admissions. But the way it was argued ended up diverting focus. Also gives ammunition to those (few though they are) who agree with admissions policies.