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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.