Category Archives: Academic politics

Me vs Jeremy Irons

I was quoted in London Student‘s article about Jeremy Irons telling the striking security workers who work next door to my office at the University of London to “be reasonable”.

Here’s the quote:

The Twitter reaction to Irons wading into the conflict was largely negative. Daniel Stone called his speech “utter condescension”, while Ben Gidley accused him of “whitesplaining to migrant workers”, calling his speech “appalling”. Seambreamlatte wrote: “How patronising and historically ignorant can you get”.

Here’s my tweet:


Miriam Elman: Cancelled Southampton anti-Israel conference was academic fraud

A piece in Legal Insurrection, by Miriam Elman (associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where she is a research director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration), ends with a quote from me: Continue reading

Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton Conference

I wrote this piece for Engage – read the original here. Scroll to the bottom for some updates.

In the last decade or more, working in British universities, I have witnessed the growth of a zeitgeist in which antisemitism is not taken seriously by people who, in every other way, would be regarded as exemplary anti-racists. It has become common currency among many anti-racist academics to claim that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith, that such allegations are a way of closing down criticism of Israel – a manoeuvre my former colleague David Hirsh has aptly named “the Livingstone formulation”. Continue reading

Press hysteria and UK government migration research

Simon Parker wrote a post for OpenDemocracy about the recent Home Office report on the local social impacts of migration.

The Home Office Report, Social and Public Service Impacts of International Migration at the Local Level, has generated some predictable headlines and scare stories in The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, as a recent article in The Conversation points out. But what jumped out at me after reading the report is not so much the policy implications of its findings, but the meagre evidence base from which its conclusions are drawn.

Simon makes some important criticisms of the report, and of the academics who engage with this sort of research. I wrote this reply in the comments:

Simon, this is an excellent and thought-provoking article. You’re right that the evidence base is fairly meagre. It is mostly not primary research. The primary research here is gathering the experience of local authorities (and some other agencies I think). The locality profiling is analysis of existing data, and the consultation with “experts” is basically a review of the existing evidence. However, I think the report is pretty open about its limited scope and the thinness of the evidence base, as in the statement you quote. Of course “is no substitute for a proper quantitative survey of the entire United Kingdom”, but that’s a very high bar to set, and one that much rigorous academic research could never meet.

I think the report could be clearer in setting out the methodology (e.g. disclosing the full impact statements), and I think the methodology could have been improved. I know people who responded on-line or in person had trouble with a few of the impact statements, some of which seemed loaded. For instance, I think you are probably right about the “recoil” which might have stopped some respondents from giving completely honest responses in relation to a couple of the statements. This is an effect of the polarisation and toxicity of the debate which I mentioned, which means that every statement of fact about migration is immediately translated into a “pro” or “anti” view and framed as a cost or benefit. (One problem of this cost/benefit framing is that it makes it harder to address questions around who the net losers and net gainers from large-scale migration actually are, an issue with which radical academics should be concerned – see e.g. .) But I don’t think the methodology is flawed in the fundamental way this article (and its strapline) suggests.

There is another issue you raise, which I alluded to in my piece in The Conversation but should have been more forthright about, which is how the government spun the research. I haven’t seen the government press release, which I presume the Mark Harper quotes are from. The quotes seem to me to distort the findings of the report, and not to heed any qualifications about the meagreness of the evidence base. Crucially, the quotes (and the media articles based on them) ignored the central premise of the research, which is that different sorts of migrants will be associated with different migrants. This is a very common problem in research, especially commissioned research, and academics are often compromised because of the way our work is spun.

The way research then gets picked up by the media is also always problematic. We all bring our partisan readings to the research we read. Your use of the word “admits” in this article could be one example, which assumes that the report wanted to come to negative findings: my reading is that the authors were keen to stress “positives” along with “negatives”. (Interestingly, the NHS issue is the one “positive” the Mail article notes (“While acknowledging the hugely important work carried out by foreign doctors and nurses, researchers revealed a string of pressures on the NHS”).

The impact statements, I think, were intended to highlight an extremely important point, which the spin and reportage has failed to pick up on: policy-makers and the public need to dis-aggregate the category of migrant, to show (as you note) that many groups are associated “low impacts”. The report should, however, have been clear (rather than leaving it for readers to make the connection) that those groups associated with “high impacts” are generally the groups which are smallest in numbers.

And the report does note that “migrant workers can make a valuable contribution to the provision of services and to the local economy”: opening new businesses, providing skills, filling jobs, staffing the NHS. It is true that the structure of the report, with the local economy last, does not highlight this contribution. However, the work commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee (including the report commissioned from Dustmann and Frattini on the impact of migration on the provision of UK public services (which only had “positive” findings), already covers the economy well, while service demand is under-evidenced. And I’m not sure of the value – apart from in propaganda terms – of trying to review cultural or scientific contributions to local communities.

Finally, the locality profiling is problematic in the way it uses the terms “high migration” (even though it carefully puts them in scare quotes) – which played straight onto the “toll” and “burden” narrative. But I think that public agencies and local authorities desperately need better tools to understand the patterns of changes they are experiencing, and government scientists and academics have a responsibility to help provide these. In some parts of London, for example, it is true that big majorities of births are to migrant mothers, which has a massive impact on resourcing maternity services and also shapes the perceptions of other NHS users. If our “recoil” instinct papers over this fact then we lose credibility.

Yes, we should be wary of collaborating in government research, given the way it is instrumentalised. The news articles about this report certainly gave me cause to reflect on my own complicity. But as social scientists who want to be engaged in social issues and not just write for other academics, keeping our hands clean also comes with a price.

There was a short courteous back and forth after that, which you can follow below the post.

Continue reading

Why I am not resigning from UCU

Posted at Engage. 

At the end of last month, on the eve of the congress of my trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), I wrote an article for the Dissent website Arguing the World. The article was about a motion brought by the National Executive (NEC) of UCU to boycott the Fundamental Rights Agency’s working definition of antisemitism (known as the EUMC Working Definition). In the article, I detailed some instances from the recent history of the union, including the accumulating scale of resignations of Jewish colleagues.

Since writing it, I have been surprised at the number of people who have contacted me, students and fellow academics, for whom my article articulated their own sense of growing alienation in the union. A few have asked me if I am now resigning. Continue reading

On the UCU and antisemitism: reactions

ModernityBlog, 27 May 2011:

thanks to Engage for pointing me towards Ben Gidley’s piece at Dissent, The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union. Clearly, Dr. Gidley is very knowledgeable on this topic and a pleasure to read.

Partners for Progressive Israel, 27 May 2011:

There is also a very interesting article in DISSENT magazine, available online, by Ben Gidley, an academic in London, England, which deals with overlapping themes—specifically, how his union is grappling with the challenges of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel. (See mention of this at the “Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine” [TULIP] website.) Gidley’s union has a record in recent years of being very critical of Israel, flirting with calls for BDS, and the like.

Fair Play Campaign, 30 May 2011:

Today, UCU voted to reject the EUMC working definition of antisemitism, leaving nothing in its place. CST explain why the EUMC definition is important here. Ben Gidley has an excellent piece on why this motion is so problematic here.

Rob Marchant, UCU and the siren call of “my enemy’s enemy”, LabourList, 1 June 2011:

And the subtext is crystal clear: anti-Semitism is often not genuine and raised merely to win arguments as matter of bad faith. The motion has already resulted in a number of Jewish members quietly leaving the union, as well as prompting some fine and reasoned articles from concerned academics (Eve Garrard at normblog, for one, points out the inanity of the Twister logic). As well as the depressing report of the Pythonesque debate from the UCU Congress, the arguments are laid out in, among other places, this excellent piece by UCU member Ben Gidley, which I highly recommend for its rationality and calmness, painstakingly detailing all the arguments in the case, as well as highlighting other troubling activity within the union.

The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union

Published in Dissent’s Arguing The World blog:

My trade union, the University and College Union (UCU, representing professionals in further and higher education in the United Kingdom), has its annual congress this weekend, and, under the title “Campaigning for equality,” will be debating a number of motions on racism and discrimination, including one on how anti-Semitism should be defined.

Unions need policies on such things, because union case work, on relations between employees and management and among colleagues, often involves discrimination and harassment that may be racist. At times like now, when there are huge cuts in higher education and academics are being placed under ever more performance pressure by management, harassment and workplace tensions can increase, and these issues become even more important.

But there are many difficulties in addressing racism. Continue reading