Why Labour politicans hate each other and I loved reading Melanie Phillips

Tory tensions, "cowardly" killers, and Cameron's bunny ears.

Labour has a terrible problem and it must face it. Why do its leading figures hate each other so much more than the Tories hate each other? The past three years may have looked peaceable but that’s only because the press doesn’t pay much attention to opposition parties. The old tensions between the Brown and Blair camps are never far below the surface and Damian McBride’s serialised memoirs recall the intensity of the personal hatreds that seethed during 13 years of government and, in some cases, began earlier.
 
Tensions in the Tory party are mostly based on policy and ideology, usually to do with Europe. Michael Gove and Ken Clarke don’t get along because one is a Eurosceptic neocon and the other isn’t. Yet it was always hard to pin down the political differences between Blair and Brown. And why did Brown and the late Robin Cook hate each other? Why did Brown hate Ken Livingstone (later embracing him so warmly that no man could put them asunder)? Why did John Prescott and Margaret Beckett hate Cook?
 
There were other feuds that didn’t involve either Blair or Brown but even I now forget them. Nor were such feuds new for Labour governments. The 1945-51 administration was full of them. Someone once suggested to Ernest Bevin that Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy. “Not while I’m alive, he ain’t,” Bevin replied.
 
Let’s face it, a coalition of separate parties has got along more amiably than Labour cabinets ever did.
 
Words to the wise
 
William Hague describes the terrorist attacks in Nairobi as “callous, cowardly and brutal”. I have no quarrel with “callous” and “brutal” but why “cowardly”? The word is nearly always used by politicians on these occasions. My New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a coward as “a person who shows unworthy fear in the face of danger, pain or difficulty”, which hardly seems to fit the perpetrators of the Nairobi attacks.
 
What I suppose Hague and others mean is that the terrorists shot people who had no means of fighting back. The same, however, could be said of anyone who launches a drone attack or drops bombs from the air. In reality, “cowardly” is used to counter the terrorists’ description of themselves as “armies” and their members as “soldiers”, words that carry connotations of courage and self-sacrifice.
 
But as good stylists through the ages have advised, adjectives and adverbs, being frequently superfluous, are best kept to a minimum. What happened in Nairobi was horrible enough without rhetorical elaboration.
 
National wealth service
 
Another term that politicians use – and which we shall hear often as the Tory conference gets under way – is “wealth creators”. Labour will “penalise” them, warns Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary. Yet most of the people the Tories defend from high taxes don’t create wealth, except for themselves. The financial services industry – with its highly paid bankers, accountants, advisers, consultants, PRs, lawyers and salespeople – is entirely unproductive. It is best described as not wealthcreating but parasitic: levying what amounts to a tax that, according to some estimates, adds up to 25 per cent of everything we earn. To be sure, selling financial services overseas creates British jobs and helps the balance of payments – but governments should promote better ways of earning our living.
 
Mannish Monday
 
One should mourn Melanie Phillips’s departure from her Monday-morning column in the Daily Mail and not just because, after reading her, one knew the week could only get better. Her replacement, the former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson, brings to 12 the number of men who occupy regular slots in the main section of the Mail – excluding business, sport, travel, and so on – against just four women, none of whom normally appears in the slot next to the leader, which is reserved for heavyweight political and policy issues. And this is supposed to be the women’s paper.
 
Jumping on the bandwagon
 
Pompous denunciations greeted the “bunny ears” sign that the rugby player Manu Tuilagi made above David Cameron’s head during a photo shoot at a Downing Street reception for the British Lions after their victorious tour of Australia.
 
“Unforgivable” was the common verdict of rugby pundits – many of them former players from the amateur era, when it was routine for touring parties to trash hotels – though Cameron promptly tweeted forgiveness after Tuilagi apologised. But what do prime ministers expect when they invite boisterous young men for drinks at No 10?
 
To my mind, Tuilagi’s gesture was an appropriate commentary on how politicians scramble to jump aboard any bandwagon of sporting success.
British and Irish Lions rugby player Manu Tuilagi gives Cameron bunny ears. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times