Michael Gove is guilty of hypocrisy over the Labour heckler

Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled" is at odds with his support for free speech.

Education provided a rare flashpoint at the Labour conference after a Year 11 pupil addressing delegates was heckled from the floor. When Joan al-Assam, a pupil from Paddington Academy (established by the last Labour government under the Academies programme), praised the arts programmes offered by her school, a woman in the audience shouted: "They do that at comprehensives too you know".

The intervention was immediately criticised by other delegates, with one woman responding, "Leave her alone", while the girl, apparently unfazed (hecklers are part of political life, after all), continued with her speech. But that didn't stop Michael Gove issuing a press release calling for the heckler to be "expelled" from Labour. He said:

Heckling a schoolgirl because she goes to an academy is disgraceful. But it also shows the real face of Labour – a party where aspiration and achievement gets booed. Stephen Twigg needs to condemn this and the culprit must be expelled from the party [emphasis mine]. This pupil is a credit to her school and proof that we need to expand the Academies programme.

It's a demand rather at odds with the Education Secretary's previously stated support for free expression. During his much-lauded appearance at the Leveson inquiry in May, Gove declared:

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time

Hear, hear. But judging by the response of Gove and other Conservatives to the heckler, she should have been frogmarched out as Walter Wolfgang was when he shouted "nonsense" at Jack Straw during the 2005 conference. Of that incident, David Cameron declared: "it lays bare the full absurdity of the Orwellian New Labour project". Indeed it did. But isn't there something similarly "Orwellian" about Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled"?

The test of our commitment to free speech is that we grant it to those with whom our disagreement is at its strongest. It is one that Gove has failed.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said the heckler "must be expelled from the party". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.