The Croydon Assembly last Saturday (6 June) was a great success. The Cedar Hall at Ruskin House was full and, with workshops in the morning and a plenary in the afternoon, it was more a day for debate and deliberation than a time to sit back and listen to leading figures on the Left give us their views on the way forward after the General Election. Two of the key speakers, Philipa Harvey, Chair of the NUT, and Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS, nevertheless, gave us plenty to think about.
Philipa Harvey, a classroom teacher in Croydon until she began her term as NUT President, described the folly of over-testing and over-examining school children. While Labour must share some of the blame for this, it is the Tories, driven by their pathological distrust of the teaching profession and fuelled by the knowledge that their kids are taught under a different system (i.e. privately), who have pressed this to the extreme. Children, Philipa explained, are now to be tested from the age of four. Yet the most successful education system in Europe (Finland), has one exam when kids complete their education and no formal testing.
The immense personal courage displayed by Mark Serwotka as he continues to battle for his public service members under continuous attack by the government while waiting for a heart transplant can only fill one with admiration. It makes a mockery of the ‘honours’ to be ‘bestowed’ on the great and good in the Queen’s Birthday Honours tomorrow. How disappointing that so few of those offered gongs and titles have the integrity to decline them; how disappointing that so many people who, until then we respected , lap them up while disingenuously claiming that they did so on behalf of their colleagues or their organisation. It was, however, on this occasion Mark’s views on the forthcoming EU referendum that attracted attention. Mark invariably talks sense, so it was something of a jolt when he argued that the forthcoming referendum would be a distraction for the Left and we should not get entangled in it.
It is certainly the case that the trade unions will be split over continued membership of the EU while the Labour Party under any likely new leader will support continued membership even on the existing terms. Cameron’s strategy is clearly to obtain some cosmetic changes to these terms, probably no more than restrictions on who can claim welfare benefits. This, he hopes, will be sufficient to buy off any revolt within his own party. Those on the anti-EU wing of the Tories and UKIP will concentrate on the free movement of labour within the EU, a line that would have some logic if it were accompanied with restrictions on the free movement of capital, but without this it will tend to degenerate into xenophobia and racism. The big issue for workers is, however, their powerlessness within the EU due to the almost total absence of democracy and the corresponding influence of Big Business within its structures – an influence so great that TTIP can apparently be rammed through regardless of any opposition workers within the EU can mount. But do these difficulties mean that the Left and, in particular, the Communist Party can afford to turn its back on the EU Referendum?
Seamus Milne argued in the Guardian on Thursday (11 June) that what has been happening in Greece demonstrates that the case for radical change in Europe and a break from anti-democratic and corporate-controlled structures cannot be abandoned to the Right. Who is correct over this, Mark Serwotka or Seamus Milne? I would tend to back Mark against Seamus nine time out of ten. This, I think, is the one in ten exception.