Leader: Tristram Hunt could allow Labour to regain control of the education debate

The new shadow education secretary's eloquence and media savviness will allow him to challenge the self-confident Michael Gove.

Michael Gove can plausibly claim to be the most disruptive education secretary since the Second World War. When Labour left office in 2010, there were just 203 academy schools. There are now 3,364, and most secondaries are outside local authority control. In addition, 174 “free” schools have opened, further complicating a fragmented system.

Confronted by this pace of change, Labour has often been incoherent in its response. Having introduced academies while in government, it has been unsure whether to welcome Mr Gove’s reforms as an extension of its own plans, or to dismiss them as ideological and divisive. The teaching unions and the left have accused the party of giving the Education Secretary a free ride, while Mr Gove and the right have accused it of defending “producer interests” uncritically. Parents, most of whom merely want a good local school and are largely uninterested in dogma and ideology, have been left with the impression that Labour has little constructive to say about education.

Yet the appointment of Tristram Hunt as shadow education secretary could help Labour regain control of the debate. As an admired historian, he has an unquestionable commitment to academic rigour; his eloquence and media savviness will also allow him to challenge credibly the self-confident Mr Gove.

In his first days in the post, Mr Hunt has clarified where Labour agrees with the Education Secretary and where it differs. He was right to pledge that the party will not close down existing free schools – a move that would be unwise, given their popularity with parents, and premature, given the lack of data on their performance. He was also correct to highlight the flaws in Mr Gove’s so-called revolution. At present, the new schools, which are entirely state-funded, are located with no regard to whether there is a shortage or a surplus of places in the local authority. According to Mr Gove’s vision, standards will rise as good schools are forced to compete with better ones yet such market utopianism makes little sense when almost half of English school districts will have more primary pupils than places in two years’ time. Faced with this demographic reality, Mr Hunt has sensibly concluded that investment must be prioritised in the areas where it is most needed.

After founding the NHS, Nye Bevan is said to have declared: “If a bedpan is dropped on a hospital floor in Tredegar, its noise should resound in the Palace of Westminster.” Mr Gove’s reforms operate according to the same principle. While masquerading as a localiser, he has devised a system in which, once freed from town hall control, schools are directly accountable to the secretary of state. Even for a man of his energy and undoubted ability, this degree of centralisation is unsustainable.

The lack of local oversight has resulted in cases such as that of the Islamic al-Madinah School in Derby, where pupils were allegedly segregated and female teachers were forced to wear headscarves. In response, Mr Hunt has persuasively argued that free schools should be remodelled as “parent-led academies” with greater involvement from local authorities, increased financial transparency and accountability and a requirement for all teachers to hold formal qualifications.

In a passage that Mr Hunt will know well, Karl Marx wrote of religion: “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation, but so he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.” By seeking to salvage what is good in Mr Gove’s reforms while dispensing with what is bad, the shadow education secretary has mirrored this insight.

The Education Secretary’s desire to harness the dynamism and creativity of parents and entrepreneurs for the benefit of pupils is admirable but too often his enthusiasm has curdled into dogma, and his abuse of teachers is discourteous and wrong-headed. Now, at last, Labour is offering a third way.

New shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.