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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: We need to broaden the political gene pool

If we are serious about levelling up, we need to ensure all children have a voice

Image: The New European

If, like me, you find Peter Trudgill’s column one of the most consistently interesting elements of the paper then you will, also like me, believe that oracy should take its place alongside literacy and numeracy in the staple diet of education. We are in so many ways what we say, and how we say it. Yet, while all among you will immediately know what literacy and numeracy are, oracy has yet to achieve the same status with the public or, bar a few good exceptions, policymakers.

So it was a pleasure to take part in a conference organised by Voice 21, the charity founded by my old No 10 colleague turned headteacher Peter Hyman, and run by CEO Beccy Earnshaw, which teaches our teachers how best to develop the speaking, listening and general communication skills of children.

I was invited to speak in part because one of the central messages in my new book, But What Can I Do?, is that we need to broaden the political gene pool, and that means developing the confidence of the 93% who attend state schools, so that it at least matches the confidence of those in the top private schools, who are taught to believe that to rule is their right. Remember: Eton College has produced three times as many prime ministers as the Labour Party in its entire history. And, as I told the conference, Eton’s most recent prime minister would have struggled to get a job managing a bus depot, let alone running a country with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, had he not been born into privilege, then taught supreme self-confidence at school and in university.

It was an added pleasure to see a presentation by Professor Neil Mercer, who heads the Centre for Effective Spoken Communication at Cambridge University. He asked for a show of hands among the several hundred teachers present – who had been taught speaking skills at school? A relatively small number of hands went up. He asked them to lower their hands if they had gone to private schools. The hands left in the air could now be counted on a couple of fingers.

If we are serious about levelling up, then ensuring all children know how to use their voice in all situations where a voice is required is something we would address. Both in Scotland and Wales, they have got the message that oracy is good not just for confidence and wellbeing, but for deeper thinking in the classroom. The Scottish education system defines oracy as “listening and talking” – pretty simple – and in theory at least it stands on a par with reading and writing. Likewise, not least with Neil Mercer’s help, the Welsh government has embraced oracy across the curriculum.

In English Toryland, meanwhile, ministers have dismissed oracy as “sitting around chatting”. As with so much this government does, they talk the talk about removing the barriers that hold people back, but in their deeds, they keep those barriers high, lest power, wealth and opportunity slip from the few to the many.

But support for oracy is growing and will eventually force even this government to take it seriously. Since the launch in 2015, Voice 21 has worked with over 1,200 schools and 10,000 teachers across the UK. But the skills they teach are of benefit to all children everywhere, not just those who already have them. Meanwhile, Peter Hyman has gone full circle, leaving education to return to politics, and is now an adviser to Keir Starmer. I hope he will be banging the drum for oracy in Labour’s education offer at the next election.

If you love words and their history, and want to while away a bit of time indulging that love, go online and look up “words and phrases invented by Shakespeare.” You will be amazed how often we all speak Shakespearean. Duly inspired, I have set myself the ambition of getting a new word coined for But What Can I Do? into the Oxford English Dictionary. Allow me these idle fantasies. Sometimes, especially with this government still in charge, small wins can feel as good as big ones.

The word is persevilience. Perseverance = keeping going when things are difficult. Resilience = recovering, and emerging stronger, from setbacks. Put the two together and you acquire persevilience. We are going to need a lot of persevilience to reverse the damage of Brexit, a theme I will be addressing at Europe House next week, in the annual Julian Priestley lecture. Julian was among the first generation of British EU civil servants, rising to become secretary general of the European Parliament from 1997 to 2007. He died, aged 66, less than a year after the 2016 referendum. I doubt that even he, expert though he was, would quite believe just how big the Brexit damage has been to our economy, our strength and our standing in the world since.

I cannot pretend to believe, amid the main party Brexomertà (oh, there I go again, making up words), that reversing it is going to happen any time soon. But given the persevilience shown by the Brextremists, over decades, the title of my lecture to some extent takes inspiration from them: “What one generation does, the next can undo.”

It is weird how bad the main media organisations are at handling their own media crises, given their experience of those of so many others. Look at the mess Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has made of its legal case, costing them almost a billion dollars, with the Dominion voting machine people. And look at the Beeb’s handling of the Richard Sharp scandal.

Sharp’s piece to camera announcing his resignation as BBC chairman had the feel and authenticity of a North Korean news bulletin. Even in the manner of his departure, he underlined once more how ludicrous it was that he was there in the first place.

Of course, the other players in this tawdry drama – among them Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Oliver Dowden, Tory propagandist-cum-BBC board member Robbie Gibb and cabinet secretary Simon Case – will be hoping that Sharp’s resignation will be the end of the matter. If there is any decent journalism left in the country, they will soon be proven wrong.

I always enjoy the Sport Industry Awards, which celebrate the contribution sport makes to our economy, entertainment, culture, and so much more. It was especially enjoyable last week, given a superb film about the refugee crisis facing the world, and an appeal to sport to back the Sport Together Fund which provides grants and other support to organisations helping refugees. Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman believe they are on strong political ground with their campaign of othering against refugees as some kind of threat to our way of life. I think they may be wrong.

Burnley’s last away game of the season was at Bristol City, and I was doing the Gary Neville co-commentator role for Clarets Plus, which broadcasts our games to fans unable to be there. In addition to providing the fluent tactical analysis you would expect from someone who has played with Diego Maradona and Pelé (but never talks about it) I am always on the lookout for interesting observations that have nothing to do with the football. Here are two with which I doubtless fascinated our listeners.

First, of the 22 players and all the substitutes who took part, only one had black boots. Second, all the Bristol City players, including the keeper, wore short-sleeved shirts, and not one of them had a tattoo visible on their arms. A tattoo-less football team… surely this is unique in the post-Beckham era?

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