Derbyshire Miners Industrial Day Release Students 1983.
Especially concerning politics I have always had a commitment to the dialectics of debate.
Approaching my 21st birthday (and for the following four years) I wrote 29 letters to the Sunderland Echo and the Northern Echo in discussion with people such as the Chairman of Dorman Long on the issue of steel nationalisation and to the Secretary of the Durham Area Communist Party with a heading “Russia, with its privilege class, isn't Socialist”. Then some three months after my first letter I joined the Labour Party in order to participate in an essay competition on “Nationalisation” being run by Mannie Shinwell our local MP. I manage the second prize.
I have always been keen to encourage and develop the holding of Labour Movement Discussion meetings.
At the age of 24 I went to study Politics and Economics full-time at the Ruskin College in Oxford, which in those days was for adults without formal qualifications. Lectures were followed by questions from students, seminars involving fuller discussions and weekly tutorials were held to discuss our written essays with tutors. After two years I then gained the qualifications to study Politics and Philosophy full-time at Hull University where similar methods of study took place. I came to appreciate the claim made way back by John Stuart Mill that the person who only knows their own side of the case, knows little of that.
Then for 21 years I mainly taught classes of trade unionists via the Sheffield University Extramural Department – especially coal miners, steel workers, railwaymen and classes of various shop stewards. The only shortcoming of these being that few women ever attended. A typical course would last over three years. A tutor would normally take a year's weekly class over 24 weeks, being with a class from 10am to 4pm each day. Sharing the coffee breaks and the lunch time period with students. The classes worked when the students were encouraged to involve themselves fully in debates and produced regular written work. Tutors got to know their students well and could draw people fully into debate as they came to appreciate their understandings and views on issues. It was fully the dialectics of debate. Any indoctrination by tutors would have been entirely inappropriate.
Depending upon their circumstances and commitments, numbers of such students went on to study at Adult Education Colleges such as Ruskin. Numbers of others became local Councillors, NUM branch officials, social workers or voluntary helpers for worthwhile causes. The very first class of South Yorkshire Miners I ever taught included a future MP, a future MEP and the NUM Branch Secretary at Cortonwood where the 1984 miners' strike emerged. It is a pattern we miss.
In time I also taught Philosophy on evening classes ran by our Department for adult students who had no formal qualifications, but were seeking places to study full-time in higher education especially at Sheffield University itself. Those who progressed via our range of classes were to achieve better degree results via Sheffield than the average normal intake. Our Department was also the only one with school inspectors and I was impressed when one of them took a full part in a discussion in one of the seminars I was running. I went on to become the Director for these courses, which unlike the Trade Union classes drew in a majority percentage of female students.
When I became an MP from 1987 to 2005, my pattern of the dialectics of debate came under something of a challenge. Procedural arrangements, whipping and Government control of the main agenda became the order of the day. This probably shaped my fairly regular rebelling against Tony Blair. But there were other openings for me to pursue. Select Committee work looks into different sided issues . I went for matters such as European Legislation and developments in Northern Ireland which gave plenty of scope for fully-fledged debates and are key areas today. Then parliamentary colleagues (some from other than the Labour Party) could be contacted to be drawn into official or unofficial meetings to discuss concerns about Derbyshire County issues, Civil Rights for Disabled People, Electoral Registration and other matters. Then there were plenty others initiatives by others that could be followed, such as concerns to protect remaining and former coal mining communities.
I have always been keen to arrange for Labour Party Discussion Meetings. Shortly after arriving in Dronfield 50 years ago I became the local Constituency's Political Education Officer. Then under different hats helped to arrange many debates in Dronfield under the umbrella of its Branch, a local Fabian Society and the modern ILP - Independent Labour Publications. I have just finished a 12 year period as the Dronfield Labour Party Political Education Officer covering over 130 discussions in that time – including one on the exact day itself of the 120th anniversary of Keir Hardie and others meeting to found the ILP. Such meetings are now being continued by others.
I am very much aware that today we have a new technology where discussions take place on web-sites. There seem to me to be two problems we need to tackle. First, those using comment boxes far too often make crude opposing comments, rather than seeking to enter into genuine and meaningful debates. It is rather like people just farting at each other. Monitoring by the operators of web-sites can contain this type of activity, but only a growth of serious initial contributions and similar forms of responses can deliver their potential. And it is a potential that related discussion meetings (under the dialectics of debate) need adding to.
There are also educational needs to incorporate the type of avenues I stressed above into our modern era of a changed technology.