Labour comes out against Gove's new exams

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg criticises GCSE replacement as a "return to the 1980s".

Since Michael Gove's GCSE replacement won't be introduced until 2015, with the first exam papers sat in 2017, Labour's response to the reforms is more significant than usual. As Helen noted yesterday, if elected in 2015, the party could simply scrap them.

So, where does Labour stand? Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg yesterday focused almost exclusively on criticising Gove's decision to announce the changes through the Mail on Sunday, rather than parliament, a reliable sign of indecisiveness (who ever heard of a politician leaking information to the press?). But ahead of the Education Secretary's statement to MPs at 3:30pm, Twigg has issued a more robust condemnation of the plans. He said:

The problem with these changes are they are totally out of date, from a Tory-led Government totally out of touch with modern Britain. Whatever the reassurances, this risks a return to a two-tier system which left thousands of children on the scrap heap at the age of 16. Why else are the changes being delayed until 2017?
Schools do need to change as all children stay on in education to 18 and we face up to the challenges of the 21st Century. We won't achieve that with a return to the 1980s. Instead, we need a system that promotes rigour and breadth, and prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy.

While that's not a cast-iron commitment to repeal the reforms, the strength of Twigg's criticism means that it will be hard for Labour to avoid doing so. Elsewhere, Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband's consigliere and a member of the shadow cabinet, has tweeted: "I've spent 2 hours trying to find evidence to back the scrapping of continuous assessment in favour of 100% exam-based marks. No joy so far."

Update: Nick Gibb, who was schools minister until the reshuffle, has said that Labour would not able to scrap the exams if elected in 2015. Here's his (rather persuasive) explanation:

Well, [Labour] won’t be able to because schools will already be preparing for it from September 2014. They won’t be the government in 2014. If – and I hope it doesn’t happen – they win the election in 2015, schools will already be prepared and it will be too late for the government to change the policy. Schools will be already ready to teach these exams. We had the same issue when we came into office; we were unhappy with the modular GCSE English that was starting to be taught in September 2010. It was too late to change it and then we’ve seen the problem we’ve had this year because of that.

Education Secretary Michael Gove will today announce plans to replace GCSEs with new exams. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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