Labour has big questions to answer on education

Until there is a clear political answer to Cameron's offer of state schools that look like private ones, Labour isn’t seriously in the business of debating education policy.

One of the most memorable lines in David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative conference yesterday was this peculiar boast: “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”

It was an arresting assertion that didn’t seem quite to say what it wanted to. Privilege can only be usefully defined in reference to those denied access to it. A measure of exclusion is integral to the concept, so it cannot be universal. I don’t think the Prime Minister intended to say that he planned to hoist a few more people into the ranks of an impenetrable elite.

What he was trying to say, judging by the context, was that he would like everyone to enjoy an education of the standard that is today considered a rare privilege. A less memorable line that makes sense of the argument came a little earlier in an extended passage on Academies and Free Schools. Cameron described his plan for “millions of children sent to independent schools - independent schools, in the state sector.”

It is worth reading the education section of the speech in full (the text is here) because it contains an argument that is central to the Conservatives’ next election campaign and deeply challenging to Labour.

When you strip out some of the gratuitous union-bashing and snide digs at a 1970s caricature of the left-leaning educational establishment, you are left with an important political calculation. It is that parents are attracted to the idea of Academies and Free Schools because they think they will equip children with the kind of education, skills and confidence that private schooling has traditionally offered, only free of charge. This proposition is central to the Conservative pitch to “aspirational voters”. It assumes that the reason a small minority of people educate their kids privately is because they want to purchase a head start in life for their offspring. It assumes also that many of the rest would gladly acquire the same service but don’t because they can’t afford it. In broad political terms, those seem like pretty sound assumptions.

There are of course people who could pay school fees but choose not to educate their children privately. Some have access to brilliant state schools (often having paid the equivalent of school fees in a house price premium for the desirable catchment area.) Some consider it a point of principle to send their children to the local state school.

There is plenty of evidence showing that family background is a better indicator of future success for children than type of schooling. There is a strong case to be made that says mixing children from all walks of life in comprehensive schools is good for society and good for the individual child’s character and learning. That is pretty much the case that Ed Miliband made in his own conference speech when he advertised at length his attendance at the local inner-London comp. This was also, of course, meant as an implicit rebuke to the rarefied world of Eton College, where the Prime Minister was to be imagined in effete isolation from the gritty realities of urban Britain. (The differently rarefied world of Miliband’s upbringing at the heart of a liberal left intelligentsia is another story.)

There is a great danger for the Labour party in conflating disdain for the kind of school that David Cameron attended with the education policy he is overseeing; to think, in other words, that because many Tories are posh, their education policy is willfully and vindictively exclusive. Academies and Free Schools are state schools. The former evolved from Labour party policy, which was developed not out of some craven or treasonous urge to smuggle Conservative ideology into the party but because the Blair government had found the limits to what could be achieved in terms of raising standards in struggling schools by simply giving them money.

There are plenty of interesting arguments to be had about the merits and failings of Academies and Free Schools in both theory and practice. Does the exercise of parental choice really work as a lever for driving up standards? Does the creation of a “quasi-market” for schools somehow degrade the concept of a universal, state education? Do new admissions policies permit discreet or explicit selection by cultural, religious or ethnic characteristics and thus damage community cohesion? Does cutting back the role of local authorities diminish democratic accountability? Does Michael Gove’s model award too much central power to the Secretary of State? Etc.

But before Labour gets too bogged down in those issues, it needs a clear political response to the basic retail offer that David Cameron spelled out yesterday: the trappings of a private school, available to anyone, funded by the state.

Plainly, every academy is not going to turn into a local Eton or Winchester. Few will come close for fairly obvious reasons to do with money. The whole experiment might turn out to be an epic disaster. But in the meantime it would be naïve of the opposition to deny that the concept of a free, private-style school just around the corner is attractive to all kinds of voters – whether you call them “the squeezed middle” or “aspirational” or just plain “parents”.

Does Labour think that Cameron's offer of state schools that look like private ones is merely unrealistic or inherently despicable? Is it the ends of Michael Gove’s revolution that the opposition rejects or the means? Does it want to compete for political ownership of academies or will it gladly see them re-branded as a Conservative idea? Until there are clear answers to those questions, Labour isn’t seriously in the business of debating education policy, which will be a problem come the next election.

 

David Cameron holds out a microphone at City of London Academy in Southwark. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser