Mossbourne supremacy

The Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney is misunderstood. It is located within a severely deprived community and reserves 60 per cent of its intake places for pupils living within a kilometre of the school. It is comprehensive and it succeeds in enhancing the life chances of its pupils. But not mentioned by Andrew Adonis, Mehdi Hasan or Melissa Benn (Education Debate, 19 March) is that Mossbourne operates a banded admissions policy based on cognitive ability tests (CATs) taken in year six. It selects its 200-pupil annual intake using CAT scores to produce a balanced ability profile.

Mossbourne's triumph is in demonstrating that an all-ability comprehensive can overcome social and economic disadvantage to provide an excellent education for all. Academy status has nothing to do with it, beyond the vital power to achieve balanced admissions, which uniquely in Hackney also applies to its excellent and successful local authority community schools within the LA-wide system.
Roger Titcombe
Ulverston, Cumbria


School's out

In his enthusiasm for free schools, Andrew Adonis ("Finishing what we started", 19 March) overlooks the question of accountability. Academies may have their advantages but, for the most part, there is little parental and virtually no local authority involvement. In times of scarce resources, someone other than a remote secretary of state must have oversight of the local school system and seek to protect it from the potential ravages of the kind of competitive market that threatens the NHS.
Jeremy Beecham
House of Lords
London SW1

Andrew Adonis suggests a number of interesting ideas for improving our schools but fast-tracking talented teachers into headships "within four years" isn't one of them. Leadership capacities develop over time. Pursuing this would cause our schools harm by providing career opportunities for egotistical, "born-to-lead" types - the sort making such a mess of governing the country.
Ross A MacLennan

On academy funding, Mehdi Hasan ("Playground tactics", 19 March) is incorrect - per-pupil funding for academies is based on the same formula as for other local schools - and he doesn't paint an accurate picture of the Haringey situation. Results at Downhills Primary School have been poor for years. Last month, Ofsted found it was "failing". He is also wrong on teachers' pay and exam results. Pay is not lower in academies, and figures show children on free school meals at academies are improving more quickly than similar pupils in all other schools. Hasan claims there is a lack of support for academies but at schools such as the Ark Academy in Wembley, there are six applications per place. He fails to mention that the best academies combine superb leadership with brilliant teaching and an ethos centred on learning and success.
Lord Hill
Department for Education
London SW1

Roll with it

Alwyn W Turner writes from the viewpoint of the hero of High Fidelity who has not followed the middle-class route ("Things can only get bitter", 19 March). The point he misses is that the middle-class route is the norm. For us, the 1980s and 1990s may have brought the retreat of the corporatist state, trade unions and one employer for life. But as well as obligation and responsibility, they brought unprecedented choice and freedom. Our experience was hardly one of disillusion.
Ted Morris
Via email

Alwyn W Turner provides no evidence for his assertion that the 1992 election defeat led to a generation of Labour supporters giving up politics. He therefore falls into the trap of believing correlation equals causation.
Paul Edwards

The Reich stuff

A N Wilson cannot rescue his biography of Adolf Hitler (Correspondence, 19 March). He claims to read German; why, then, does he cite in his endnotes only books that are available in English? He would not have swallowed the fantasist Fritz Reck's claim to aristocratic or "high-born" or landowning origins if he had read Alphons Kappeler's book Ein Fall von "Pseudologia phantastica" in der deutschen Literatur: Fritz Reck-Malleczewen. Confusing the Reichstag delegation leader of the Centre Party Heinrich Brüning with the party's leader is not a trivial error, because the party leader was a Catholic priest, Ludwig Kaas, which affected the party's relations with the Vatican.

Robert Gellately's praise for Wilson's book has no bearing at all on how Wilson quoted an incorrect statistic from Gellately's book without noticing the correct statistic in the next sentence.
Richard J Evans
Wolfson College

Group think

Bryan Appleyard speculates on how events of the past 40 years might have led Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking to their anti-faith positions ("The God wars", 27 February). Fifty years ago, as a representative of the Oxford University humanist group, I collected Hawking's half-crown subscription each term. Steve's attitude to religion then was as he expresses in The Grand Design (2010). Another acquaintance from the group was the courteous Dawkins, whose attitudes then were those he expresses in The God Delusion (2006). Hawking and Dawkins rightly defend science from the ethical view each had taken up before the age of 19.
Connaire Kensit
London SW15

Crossed wires

Nicholas Wapshott is confused (Letter from America, 19 March). Whatever else David Cameron is doing, he's not "paying down British debt". The Treasury's forecast shows net public debt rising from £760bn in 2009-2010 to £1.4trn in 2014-2015. Nor is he "slashing the size of the state": Treasury forecasts expect public expenditure in 2014-2015 to be 42.2 per cent of GDP, a figure exceeded only by the last government in its final two years.
Mark Younger
London SW6

On the take

Helen Lewis lets my generation off lightly (First Thoughts, 19 March). She could have mentioned how we plundered final-salary pension schemes and enjoyed free university education but won't fund it now. Some of us feel guilty but my peers seem to have a sense of entitlement so monstrous that they are immune to criticism.
Robert Ireland
Bewdley, Worcestershire

Knickers in a twist

I enjoy the wit and perceptiveness of Rachel Cooke's TV column but I wonder if she needs to broaden her frame of reference. She claims (The Critics, 19 March) that the actor Rob James-Collier is best known for his role in Downton Abbey. Perhaps he is to a fragment of the audience but his stint as the hunk Liam Connor in Coronation Street, the Heathcliff of the knicker factory, was relished by a far broader demographic.
Andy Medhurst
Sussex University

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide