Gove's handling of exam reform shows his contempt for devolution

The Education Secretary has offered no meaningful consultation to his counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Education is all about building bridges", according to the US author and journalist, Ralph Ellison. By contrast, the English Education Secretary, a former journalist himself, appears keener to burn, rather than build, educational bridges across Britain. The announcement last week that the Education Minister in Wales had requested a re-grade of Welsh pupils’ English GCSEs prompted an incendiary response from Michael Gove, who accused his Celtic counterpart of "political interference" in the exam system and disgracefully suggested that English employers might reasonably disregard or devalue the qualifications of Welsh job applicants as a consequence.

The charge that others are politicising the education system is, coming from Gove, risible. The GCSE saga, which began with his mid-summer leak to the Daily Mail on the return of "O-level style" exams, and which culminates later today with an announcement already trailed through the pages of the Mail's Sunday sister, has been political from start to finish. The leaks, the pressure on exam boards to revise grade thresholds and, worst of all, Gove’s refusal to do the right thing by those pupils disadvantaged by the subsequent downgrading and, like Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews, order a re-grade: all have been political in their method and motive.

How could Gove ask for a regrade, when to acknowledge the unfairness would undermine his political narrative of falling standards, grade inflation and the imperative for reform? Labour accept that reform is needed and we will judge his prescriptions when they evolve from press copy to policy proposal, but it cannot be right for him to play politics with pupils’ futures – especially those sat at the boundary of the C/D grades, whose next steps in life may turn on a percentage point or two. And, if the press reports are correct, it cannot be right either to revert to a 1980s style, two-tier system - a system that failed so many in the past.

Though the most important aspect of this shambles is the impact on the students involved, the row is notable for the approach to devolution that it exposes in the modern Tory party. Never convincingly enthusiastic about devolution, which emerged in the aftermath of the 1997 election and the Tories’ eclipse in Wales and Scotland, Conservative attitudes towards the settlement appear to be hardening once more.

The Prime Minister’s electoral appeal for a "Respect Agenda" between respective administrations now seems long forgotten, as Wales and Scotland (less so admittedly, now the prospect of a referendum looms closer) are mined by Tory ministers for selective statistics and cheap-shot comparisons that might deflect criticism from their own inglorious records. The most glaring example of this has been the persistent recourse of the Prime Minister to such selective statistics on the funding of the Welsh NHS, as a stock response to criticism of his dismantling of the service in England. The reality, as the National Audit Office recently recorded, is that spending per person in Wales exceeds that in England (£1,900 v. £2,017pa). But this detail is lost as respect gives way to political expediency.

The GCSE affair has raised this disrespect agenda to a whole new level. The leaks in the summer came totally out of the blue for ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland who, though education is devolved, have a shared responsibility for the GCSE qualifications - their design, management and maintenance. However, there was scarely a phone-call and certainly no meaningful consultation between Gove and his Welsh or Northern Irish equivalents.

What does it tell us that a Scottish Tory, ensconced in a London Department whose writ does not run in Cardiff or Belfast or Edinburgh, should show so little respect for the opinions or actions of the devolved administrations? Two things: first, that the Conservatives have abandoned all pretence of being a "One Nation" party; and, second, that short-term political advantage for a floundering Tory party is increasingly set to trump good government in the national interest.

Labour, the party of devolution, remains determined to act in the national interest, of each of the nations and regions of the UK and of Great Britain as a whole. Developing and deepening democracy in the UK requires that devolution is respected when different administrations, whatever their political stripe, take different decisions that they believe to be in the best interests of the people they serve. It also requires closer collaboration than we see at present between the different administrations, especially in areas of public services where there is overlap, mutual interest or reliance, shared markets, resources or challenges. Funding for social care or higher education are two such areas where collaborative reform and mutually agreed frameworks might afford significant benefits over the discrete solutions that apply at present.

The actions of Gove, undermining collaboration and fuelling pressure for unilateral reform of exams at 16, runs counter to such logic and forces Welsh Ministers to contemplate the break-up of the three-nation system. In Wales, Leighton Andrews has openly conceded such a scenario may now be "almost inevitable".

Faced with these concerns, Gove has two options. The first, responsible and respectful, would be to reach out to his counterparts and to work, collaboratively, towards solutions that might benefit pupils in both Wales and England. Of course, Wales might still decide in future, based on evidence and ambition, that a unilateral solution is preferable, despite risks of transferability and novelty, but they would do so out of choice rather than in response to arrogant force majeure. The second is to carry on as before, ignoring Welsh concerns, disrespecting different decisions on funding or priorities, and seeing devolution as just a means to score cheap points at Westminster. On the strength of this week’s performance, I don’t hold out much hope that Gove will pursue the tougher, former route, and that his crass actions will continue to strain the bonds that hold Britain together.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

Education Secretary Michael Gove with new education minister David Laws. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.