Lessons in class
In my September article on the impact of tuition fees and university funding (Class Barriers, Socialist Review, September 2012) I noted that "the increase in fees has not immediately translated into a disproportionate fall in applications from the poorest school leavers as many predicted", in large part due to the lack of alternatives for working class students. I also argued that "the consequences of the government's funding regime for education and for students will be severe; the protests remain a harbinger of future struggle."
It is vitally important in the context of the defeat over tuition fees to maintain a sense of perspective. In September I was only able to comment on the absolute number of applications to university. However, recently published data on university "entry rates", which measure the number of applications as a proportion of the school/college leaver population as a whole, provide an even sharper picture that may run counter to expectations.
While the number of students has fallen, this is due to a fall in the number of mature and part-time students, not 18 to 19 year old school/college leavers. In fact, the proportion of school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university this year (whether measured by postcode or free school meal entitlement) is now at an all-time high and the rising trend of applications from this group is continuing. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 60 percent more likely to enter higher education than they were in 2004.
The reasons for this have not been fully researched but the lack of jobs and the immediate pressure on family income and debt make university a "logical" choice for students from the most hard-pressed families. However, once at university they face education cuts and privatisation while their families are the most likely victims of benefit cuts, bedroom tax and austerity.
This is a recipe for local battles on the campuses in the context of rising class anger against austerity. As the student population becomes increasingly proletarianised, socialists on the campuses need to agitate around every local struggle, while making sharp ideological arguments about the crisis of the system and the centrality of the working class in transforming society.
The real spirit of '45
Ken Loach has made many great socialist films, but after seeing The Spirit of '45 I left the cinema feeling uneasy (Culture, March 2013, Socialist Review).
One problem is the film's political analysis. Most of it is a heartfelt tribute to the 1945 Labour government. That government was indeed, from the point of view of British workers, the best we have ever had. We need to fight for what remains of its legacy - in particular, to keep the NHS.
But there were also contradictions within that overall picture. Industries were nationalised, and workers' conditions often improved, but the same bullying bosses stayed in charge. And nationalisation had advantages for the ruling class, making it easier for British industry to rebuild after the war. These points are made in the film, though only in passing. But they aren't accidental. For all its wonderful achievements, the post-war government did little to involve workers in creating the new services they received. The top-down planning contained more than an echo of Stalinist "state socialism", which some Labour Party members had always admired.
A more serious problem with The Spirit of '45 is that it doesn't connect to politics today. The long account of the '45 government is followed by a short history of the horrors of Thatcherism and then - a brief mention of Occupy is the only reference to recent struggles. Socialism comes across as worthy but belonging to a world long past, to a time of miners, dockers and steam trains. It's not clear how it's relevant to 2013 - to a multicultural Britain, to the world of Facebook and same-sex marriage. It doesn't help this tendency towards nostalgia that the whole film is in black and white.
Both problems - the weaknesses in political analysis and the lack of contemporary relevance - perhaps result from how Loach has made the film. It mostly consists of interviews with former activists, and some current ones.
It's inspiring to hear articulate working class people discuss their experience of major historical events. But, because they are filmed talking mostly about their own lives, those experiences aren't put into context or linked to today.
The post-war settlement can inspire us now. But we aren't fighting to replicate something that took place almost 70 years ago. We need to remake socialism for today.