Luke's Notes

Sussex Stories 3: The Smith Years 1998-2007 Part 1

Continued from Sussex Stories 2

New Labour, New Britain

In May 1994 the Labour leader John Smith died. I bumped into my colleague Stephen Driver on the stairs at work very soon after and we were speculating on who would be the new leader. I said Gordon Brown, but he said no no it'll be Blair. Stephen left Sussex but I bumped into him soon after at a Ralph Miliband memorial conference at the LSE, I think it must have been about 1995. Blair, by then leader and looking likely to become Prime Minister at the next election, spoke at the conference. Stephen and I sat watching, with a brooding Alastair Campbell standing next to us in the aisle. We compared notes and it turned out I was writing a book on social democracy and Stephen was writing one on New Labour. We decided to pool our resources and write one on New Labour together. We thought there was something interesting going on beyond just electoralism and marketing, although there was a fair bit of the latter too.

We started with a 1996 warning shot in the journal Renewal, an article entitled 'Beyond Equality and Liberty: New Labour's Liberal-Conservatism' about a drift away from economic egalitarianism and towards moral conservatism in the Labour Party under Blair. In 1997 we followed up with 'New Labour's communitarianisms' in Critical Social Policy arguing similarly that the Labour's communitarianism was changing from economic and egalitarian to more social and conservative.

By election day in May 1997, we more or less had a draft of a book ready. Blair's victory was momentous. I had been 15 when Thatcher came to power and had lived under the Tories until I was aged 33 in 1997. I was very sceptical about Blair, but the Tories were out, Blair was young and dynamic, I couldn't help feeling euphoric despite all my doubts. On the 2nd of May, the day after the election, Stephen and I sent a book proposal around publishers and unsurprisingly we had lots of interest. In the end, we chose Polity Press. We waited for a few months into Labour's early days in government to check if we needed to update anything. Then in 1998, the book New Labour came out. I think it was the first academic-authored book on New Labour. In 2002 we followed up with a second book, Blair's Britain.

It was difficult for us to take a definite line on New Labour as Stephen and I differed politically. He was basically a social liberal and economic liberal. I was an old-style Bennite left-winger. I had joined the Labour Party in 1982 at the first possible opportunity, the day of my 18th birthday. Michael Foot was leader and I was a very active member until the late 1980s under Neil Kinnock's policy review. I always took the line I could not be a member of a party whose policies I could not defend when canvassing and I left then. I rejoined when Corbyn was leader and left again when Starmer replaced him. I was more critical of New Labour from a left point of view and I think Stephen was more sympathetic. So Stephen and I gave a wide array of possible interpretations of New Labour in our books without committing ourselves to one.

We got invited to conferences and seminars to give talks, from India to Canada, Brussels and all over the UK. One event we were invited to, in 2005 I think, was a visit to the UK of a delegation from the Chinese Communist Party. All sorts of luminaries were there, including the bruiser John McTernan, a political advisor to Tony Blair. We said lots of things to the delegation about policy under New Labour but the Chinese delegation kept coming back to the same question: 'How does Mr Blair maintain discipline in the party?'.

I got invited twice to speak at meetings in Brussels of politicians, political advisors, and academics. I was given the task both times of providing a left critique of New Labour. One was a Policy Network (a pro-New Labour think tank) conference in 2011 which mainly consisted of centre-left politicians and advisors. In my talk, I argued that the left needed to play down growth and put more emphasis on environmental concerns, and shift from an anti-immigration stance to one that argued for the benefits of immigration. It went down badly with my audience. The former Prime Minister of Denmark was there and the former Labour minister Liam Byrne chaired my session. He was the one who left a note for the incoming Conservative government saying there was no money left. That was about as high as my direct contact with elites ever went and I don't think they were on board with my talk. But Anthony Giddens, who had written on climate change by then, said, to the side, that he agreed with what I had said and a couple of passionate left-wing women MEPs from, I think, France and Germany, also said they agreed. My daughter came with me and we stayed a few days and did some tourism in Brussels and Bruges. We were in a bit of a bubble and on the way back on the Eurostar I couldn't work out why all the papers were running articles on Steve Jobs. Eventually, I twigged he had died while we were away. Soon after, Policy Network asked me to write a chapter for a book they were publishing. When the proofs came back all the bits where I expressed left-wing views had gone. What were they expecting when they commissioned me to write for them? They claimed it was a mistake. I later found out from an insider that they did sometimes make such 'mistakes'. I got the missing parts put back in.

The other talk I gave in Brussels was at a seminar in 2012 where there were two speakers, the other was a Belgian government minister Paul Magnette. He represented the centre-left perspective and gave a slick talk on the way forward for the left. I obediently fulfilled the allocated role I was given of being 'critical, very critical, very very critical' as the chair of the session put it. The audience was a small one of MEPs, European parliament civil servants, and political advisors. Several of them came up to me afterwards and had questions, asking for reading and such like. One Irishman told me (rightly) that I talked too fast. These were my first two visits to Brussels as an adult and it was a strange place, where English was the main language as you were out and about, the people in the city centre were from all nations, and if you had been parachuted in you would not have been able to guess what country you were in, all a product of being the base for the European parliament. It was a day trip this time and on the early morning train from London there were MEPs and European parliament staff, and in the evening when I went back many of the same faces.

I spent an amazing and memorable few days in Calcutta in the early 2000s where I gave a talk about the Third Way at an EU-funded conference on democracy and governance. I met some lovely people and the organiser, Surendra Munshi, still keeps in touch. Papers from the conference were published as a book. I also went to a small retrospective on New Labour some time after this. Neil Kinnock was there and also Shirley Williams, former Labour Cabinet minister and founder of the SDP who had been a major political figure during the years I became interested in politics. I still write occasionally on the Labour Party.

The end of the interdisciplinary system: The Thrill is Gone

The university started to feel a bit New Labour too - Sussex's old social conscience but mixed with an increasing emphasis on notions of business efficiency. In 1998 a new Vice-Chancellor (VC, university CEO) was appointed. Alasdair Smith came from inside the university, a professor of economics, a Pro-Vice Chancellor (PVC, deputy to the VC) and former Dean (head of school). He was to continue in the role until 2007. It felt promising to have a VC who knew the university and was coming up from the ground. He was someone who was willing to talk to students when they set up a protest camp outside his building. Later VCs were not interested in dialogue with student protestors. Mary Stuart was a PVC under Alasdair. She had a nice personal touch. She was very encouraging and supportive to me and later became a well-regarded VC at the University of Lincoln. Alasdair's wife Sherry Ferdman worked at the university as a lecturer and I liked her a lot. I worked with her, if I remember correctly, on study skills materials for students, which there were not a lot of in those days. Another PVC was Evelyn Welch, now VC at Bristol University. I later found out that she is Florence Welch's (of Florence and the Machine) mother and every time Florence comes up in conversation however hard I try I can't help blurting out 'I know her Mum'.

But it turned out that Alasdair's experience of the university had not generated affection for its structures. He proposed abolishing the interdisciplinary school system and replacing it with conventional departments. To his credit, he created a campus-wide email group, that I think everyone was on, to discuss the proposals. Such openness to wide consultation was not continued under future VCs. In my school, I think I was just about the only one who contributed regularly to this email list, in my case on the side of interdisciplinary structures and against the changes. This led some to believe that my school was against the reforms when, in fact, there was probably more support for the reforms in my school than in the others in the arts and social sciences. At the end of the email debate, I sent a very short message to the group along the lines, if I remember the nuances right, that at the start, quoting him, Alasdair had said the changes were not a threat to interdisciplinarity, but at the end, quoting again, said he hoped everyone would move on from interdisciplinarity.

The old system was ended. There was mass migration of staff around the university so we could be co-located in departments. The sociologists were brought together in one place. Interdisciplinary schools were ended and courses that had been lovingly created for them were terminated. I managed to save my course on 'The Death of Socialism?' (with a question mark) by persuading the Centre for European Studies and Politics to host it. They kindly continued to do so for another 20 years. It was a popular, lively course and I loved teaching it.

One person who was aghast that a course he had carefully constructed was due to be lost was Glen Newey, a political philosopher. His course was a brilliant and unusual one on 'Political Persuasion' and he could not believe all his work on this would just be swept away. I can't remember if it got saved in a new unit. Glen always reminded me of Vyvyan from The Young Ones. He had an office near mine and he was devoted to high academic standards, like all good philosophers. I visited his house in the countryside once or twice and met his kids and got to know his wife Linda. Glen would get anxious before seminars about them going well (I did too) and afterwards would get worried if just one or two students did not seem to be fully on board in the classes. I told him you can't please all the people all the time. Glen had a blunt manner, and was scathing about the powerful and privileged. He was unconventional, funny with a black humour, kind-hearted, and popular.

Of course, there were reasons for the changes, and I have mentioned previously some of the limits of the interdisciplinary school system. Nothing is perfect. People were still able to do interdisciplinary work when the university changed to a departmental system. But staff no longer rubbed shoulders day to day with academics of many different disciplines. Students' experience of other disciplines, and especially of interdisciplinarity (which is qualitatively much, much more than multidisciplinarity), was radically curtailed. Interdisciplinary courses more or less disappeared. Sussex lost what made it unique, different, and special and it merged into the homogeneous mass of UK universities, not so easy to pick out as a radical and unusual place. It was very sad. I didn't know then things would get much worse as the next years rolled on. But I also didn't know that as far as structures that support interdisciplinarity go this was not the end of the story. I'll come back to that in the last of these Sussex Stories.

Alasdair played a big part in the creation of the successful medical school at Sussex. The building created for the school did not really fit in with the campus architecture and he later said that he was sorry he had not taken a more hands-on role in keeping an eye on how it developed. He attracted controversy for supporting the introduction of top-up fees and for attempting to close down (or restructure) the Chemistry department, because of thin student recruitment. A high-profile national campaign to save Chemistry was launched. Alasdair had to go before a parliamentary committee to defend his plans. He was not helped by the fact that one of those involved in the campaign was a Nobel prize winner, Harry Kroto, once a member of Sussex Chemistry. Sussex still has a chemistry department. When I was HoD, the Dean position above me became vacant and Alasdair asked me if I was interested. I said that being Head of Department (as I was then) was high enough in management for me.

When Blair decided to introduce top-up fees - where students contributed £1000 a year to their fees - I was conflicted. I had always felt uncomfortable about working-class people funding, through their taxes, what were predominantly middle-class students to go to university. It felt like a regressive tax and the grumblings of Sussex Porters on this issue hit home for me. So, while unconvinced, I had some sympathy with top-up fees, for these egalitarian reasons. Some people said it would be the start of a slippery slope to students having to pay all their fees. I was unconvinced this would happen. It was not the only political misjudgment I have ever made, showing that academics who specialise in politics should not always be relied on for political analysis.

There was a large do at the Brighton Dome when Alasdair retired as VC. I have always thought you should judge people by what they do, not what they are like as personalities 1-1 or in public, and so I should have been pretty negative about Alasdair for dismantling the interdisciplinary structures. But at the last minute, I decided to go to the party.

Leader of the Pack: Head of Department 2002-5

In 2001-2 the chair of Sociology, Jennifer Platt, went around the department consulting staff on who they thought should succeed her as subject chair when she retired. One day she came knocking on my door saying that I had come out as the top (or least bottom) choice. I took a bit of time to consider it. My ego overrode my doubts and I agreed to take it on. I started in August 2002, aged 38. In later years any meaningful consultation with the department about who should be Head (HoD) disappeared and the position was simply assigned from above by the outgoing Head in discussion with the Dean or Head of school above them. One year we were taken by surprise when we were just told someone had been appointed as HoD on the basis no-one else wanted to do it. If we had known this was going to happen others would have been willing to take on the role.

Similarly, when we were allowed a new post, what our criteria for the post would be was discussed by members of the department and I continued this approach when I was Head. On one occasion I found out that the Dean above me had just bypassed me and the department and told HR what kind of new post for us was to be advertised. I was livid. I was able to contact HR in time and get the job withheld on the basis that I, the Head of Sociology, and the department as a whole, knew nothing about the job specs that had been drawn up. In later years department members were no longer consulted about criteria for a new post. Heads of Department or School would decide what kind of post would be advertised and the rest of us would just be told. It was not only undemocratic; it also bypassed lots of on-the-ground expertise which the decision-making would have benefitted from.

While I was HoD there was an attempt by one disgruntled Dean to organise a meeting of Deans and other managers while Alasdair Smith was away in China. It sounded like some sort of mad coup attempt and I'm not sure the meeting even went ahead.

During my term as Head we made a number of appointments, many women. Women became the majority of the department for the first time. After this period, we had some great young working-class women joining the department. On appointing committees I sat on at Sussex, many beyond Sociology, I felt that confident middle-class women were well looked upon. It did feel to me that working-class women had to do more than others to get where they got to. We were still all white. It would take a long time before that changed. Years later Alana Lentin got a new job in Australia and there was a discussion about what sort of person should replace her. Alana and I argued that we should have someone who could keep up her race teaching in the department. I felt every sociology degree should have courses on class, gender, and race. I was pretty shocked that no-one else other than us two thought keeping up race teaching should be a criterion.

After one year as Subject Chair, as the new departmental system kicked in, the role was redefined from Chair of the Sociology Subject Group to Head of Department. One day I heard loud banging on my door, drilling and hammering. I didn't know quite what to do so I sat it out. When it stopped I tentatively crept forward to open the door and saw a large 'Head of Department' notice had been attached.

When I was HoD, if something was not getting done by the person who was supposed to do it, I just did it myself. It made me popular but it also took its toll. I got a reputation for answering emails soon after they arrived. It was put down to impatience. But the truth is I was getting 250 emails a day and building them up to reply later was just not viable. It took half a day just to read them and, where needed, reply, before the next batch then started piling up.

During this period the theoretically anti-neoliberal Dean of the School, proposed an end to seminars in the first year. Teaching for this group would effectively be lecture only, to cut costs. It would have meant students going through their first year with no seminar group discussion, not just educationally bad but also bad for well-being and integration. Thankfully, this was resisted and a compromise was made where seminars were kept but reduced from two hours to one. Sociology student reps rightly wanted us to do more and suggested allocating money from other budget headings to the hourly-paid teaching budget so we could keep up the 2 hours seminars. But the budget was a school not department one that we did not control and the finance officer at school level would not sign off on teaching claims from non-teaching budgets. What I could not say publicly at the time was that I was massively overspending on the hourly-paid teaching budget by several times over our pathetic limit and it was getting signed off. This was until it was spotted that we had gone way over budget and I was hauled before the Dean who told me to stop. I said if I stopped it would mean doubling the teaching load of regular academic staff to cover the teaching I was using the budget to pay for. I didn't hear any more of it.

While I was HoD a delegation of students came to see me to say students in the department were submitting plagiarised essays and what was I going to do about it. We knew this was happening but in those days it was difficult to detect or prove. This changed later when online plagiarism detection tools were introduced. But while difficult to prove plagiarism, it was possible to try to prevent it from happening. I was invited on to a university plagiarism working group and we organised advice to students on avoiding plagiarism and what the consequences could be if they did it. I was sent out to give talks to students about this. An opposite problem was some staff putting students through horrible plagiarism processes when they were basically just guilty of poor referencing; what they had done did not meet the very carefully worded university definition of plagiarism. I was criticised for being soft on plagiarism and setting a bad example when I would not support some of these cases. But it wasn't me being soft (and I did report plagiarism myself on some occasions). The problem was staff who got on their high horses about careless referencing but did not take care to read carefully what the actual plagiarism definition and rules were, so causing students very avoidable trauma.

Ruth Woodfield was a confidante and valued supporter during my time as HoD. She looked after our part in the national research assessment exercise every department had to go through, an enormous and huge responsibility for a process I was averse to. It was a relief she did it for us and I tried to be supportive. I didn't have much faith in the 'REF' (Research Excellence Framework), the external research assessment process. When I submitted a book to the exercise, it came back afterwards and it was clear from the signs of use that only the first chapter or two (of 13) had been looked at by the reviewer. I discussed the REF with some sociologists who were on assessment panels and they gave diametrically opposed views of the same sociologists' excellence at research or lack of it. There was nothing scientific about it. One academic at another university that I visited served on a REF panel. He had massive boxes of books and articles piled up to read and evaluate. He admitted he only had time to scan parts of some of them. But putting together our submissions and our case was an art, and the bit the assessors did read thoroughly (at least I hope so) was our submitted document. This is what Ruth handled carefully and professionally.

One job I loved as HoD was presenting the sociology graduates on the stage at the graduation ceremony at the Brighton Dome. I would announce the name of the student and then they would walk over to the Chancellor Richard Attenborough for a handshake and sometimes a few words. Attenborough's daughter had studied sociology at Sussex. She sadly died in the terrible 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Attenborough (very reasonably) made similar speeches at every ceremony. One story he loved to recount to the parents and students was about when he had visited a village somewhere in Africa and asked the poor inhabitants what they most wanted in life. Affecting a sob and a wavering voice he reported back to the parents and students in the arena, after a dramatic pause, that what they had said they wanted most was '...... education'. The response was always a big 'Aaah' and a ripple of applause. One year when I was guiding the graduating students over to him on the stage he looked over and winked at me. It was one of the most exciting things that has ever happened in my life.

We gave a couple of prizes for the best overall mark and the best mark for a dissertation and I would read the names of the winners out on the stage at graduation. Over time I came to hate these prizes. For every winner there were people who did not win. Many people, for social or psychological reasons, had less chance of winning one, and the prize just rubbed that in. One year I proposed abolishing them but I don't think there was much, if any, support for that.

I nominated the Head of Widening Participation (WP) one year for a university award and she was successful in winning. The award was presented to her at the graduation ceremony with her family in attendance. The main reason I nominated her was that she was just great at her important job. I also felt WP was not valued and high profile enough at Sussex and I wanted to raise its visibility. I also nominated an hourly paid tutor for such an award and again she was successful in getting it. I met her and her Mum at the graduation ceremony where it was presented. Again, I thought she deserved it but also wanted to raise the profile of hourly paid tutors who seemed very taken for granted at the time and had terrible contracts.

Jumping ahead slightly: in 2008 I nominated Miss Dynamite for an honorary degree and to my surprise the honorary degrees committee invited her to accept the degree. I gave these reasons for proposing her: "Miss Dynamite (Niomi Arleen MacLean-Daley born 1981) grew up the youngest of 8 children in Archway, North London, wanted to be a teacher or social worker and had a place at Sussex to study Social Anthropology. However, she chose to pursue her successful career in the UK garage music scene, coming through Pirate Radio. She became an articulate voice for young people in the UK, outlining reasons for their alienation from politics and speaking out against gun crime. She was in So Solid Crew before going solo and performed at Live 8. As a solo artist, she recorded ‘Mr Prime Minister’ about Tony Blair and other songs featuring social commentary. When she won the Mercury Music prize in 2002 she donated the £20k prize money to the NSPCC. She is a supporter of Make Poverty History. She is well-regarded in the anti-war and feminist movements. She has sung against the Iraq war and for the Stop the War Coalition. She has performed for Rock against Racism and in South Africa at a Mandela event raising awareness of Aids. She has sung about absent fathers and parental responsibility and spoken out against gun crime. She is a young black woman and role model who has played an important public role contributing to development, progress, and change in society." I said this fitted in with Sussex's critical and radical traditions.

I felt she was deserving of the degree, because of her broader social stances, as well as because of her contribution to music. I also thought it would do no harm for Sussex to recognise the achievements of a young black woman. However, it had to go through the school and the Dean said we should only be nominating people from establishment spheres and argued for ruling her out. I thought it should be about what you had done, regardless of what sphere of society you were in. A senior member of Anthropology said she was too young and that people should have been around for longer before getting such a degree. I felt it should be about what you did, not how long you had been around to do it. I honestly think, like the Dean, he just felt someone from popular culture should not be recognised. But I got enough support for the nomination to go ahead. I heard nothing about it for a while and when I chased it up was told Miss Dynamite had not responded to the offer of an honorary degree. It seemed odd as she did later accept an MBE so was not averse to accepting honours. One of those opposed to her nomination had a habit of intervening surreptitiously in things that were not going how he wanted, in order to get his way. He'd once asked for an electronic version of a document I was sending to the management and said he would pass it on himself. There was no reason for him to have an electronic copy during its route up to the centre and he was so adamant on insisting he was not going to alter it en route that I felt that was exactly what he planned. I wondered if the offer to Miss Dynamite had ever actually been made. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

One student who never got as far as his graduation was one of my personal tutees, Felix White. Lecturers were all personal tutors, the first port of call for students with academic or welfare issues they wanted to discuss. The role was later to cover academic issues only, personal or welfare issues being handled by professional counsellors. About 2005 Felix came to see me. He said he played in a band and they'd been offered a record contract and had the chance to go on tour. He didn't feel this would be compatible with being a university student. He was gentle and polite but in a quandary about what to do and asked me for advice. I said to him he had the choice of being a rock star or getting a university degree. It was a no-brainer in my view. My advice, I said, was to take the chance of being a rock star. I'm not sure it was what he was expecting his university tutor to say. But he proceeded to do exactly that. His band was The Maccabees. They recorded 4 albums and split up in 2017. Sometime after he left and made it with the band I saw him walking round The Level, a park in Brighton near my house, and he nodded and said Hi. By that stage, he was quite well known and I'd assumed that everywhere rock stars went they would be mobbed by adoring fans. But he was walking around seemingly quite anonymous that day.

Towards the end of my time as HoD, I was invited to Birmingham University to give a paper. I didn't really want to go. I didn't have anything to present. But I was persuaded and I put together a not-very-good cobbled-together talk which, to my surprise, later got published. When I got there, myself and some of the staff from the department gathered in the HoD's office. Then suddenly all the staff except for the HoD walked out in unison leaving just me and the Head. I didn't know what was going on. It was like there had been some pre-arranged signal. Then the HoD, a charismatic and energetic professor, came over, sat next to me, where I was seated with one leg crossed over the other and grabbed my foot (yes, my foot). He looked me in the eye intently and said he was moving on and they would be advertising for a new head and they would like me to apply. I love Birmingham (not a phrase you hear that often, but I do). I went there as a child to visit family and have been numerous times since. But I didn't want to end as HoD in one place to then do it again. And I still was loving Sussex even if my devotion had taken a bit of a battering. I was flattered but did not apply.

Strangely one or two people who had been daily smiley visitors to my office, full of goodwill and interest in me while I was HoD, stopped coming almost exactly on the day my term of office as HoD ended. The HoD role is all-consuming and you were then paid about £1000 extra a year to do it, barely any compensation for the scale of what is involved. I spent the money on getting my house refurbished, by a friend Jim, a colourful and likeable character, and husband of one of my PhD students. After the three-year head term finished you got a term's research leave to catch up on lost research time. I had lost pretty much all of my research time for three years and a term did not really enable me to even catch up. It took me quite a while just to get back in the zone of academic thinking and writing. Later on, one head of sociology suddenly and unilaterally, without any department discussion, changed the post-HoD study leave period from one term to one year at the point when their term as head finished.

When I was HoD my teenage son was living with me. He had to listen to my post-work rants. I'm not sure he was listening but it was very therapeutic anyway. When I finished as HoD everyone told me how grateful they were for all my efforts and that I would never have to be head again.

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Contents and Introduction here.