Miliband's education plan for "the forgotten 50 per cent"

Labour leader promises new vocational qualification and implicitly contrasts his schooling with Cameron's.

Education is one subject we've heard little from Ed Miliband on since he became Labour leader, with his party allowing Michael Gove to define the terms of debate. But that will change today as Miliband uses his conference speech to outline his plan to meet the needs of those he calls "the forgotten 50 per cent". The Labour leader will pledge to introduce a new vocational qualification - the Technical Baccalaureate - for those 14-18 year olds who do not intend to go to university, contrasting this with the Tories' focus on a "narrow elite". As a condition of the "Tech Bacc", all young people will be required to study English and Maths until 18. Miliband will say:

For years and years, our party has focused on those young people who go to university. And that matters. But it’s time now to focus on those who don’t go to university. The young people who are too often the forgotten 50 per cent. We cannot succeed if we can have an education system which only works for half the country.

In the 21st century everyone should be doing some form of education up to 18, not 16. That gives us the chance and the obligation to develop a new system from 14 to 18, in particular, for vocational qualifications. I want a curriculum that is rigorous and relevant with English and Maths up to 18, not 16, culminating in a new technical baccalaureate at 18 based on gold standard qualifications.

I want ours to be a country where kids aspire not just to go to Oxford and Cambridge but to excellent technical colleges and elite vocational institutions. We need to do what we haven’t done in decades: build a culture in our country where vocational qualifications are not seen as second class certificates but for what they can be - a real route on and up to quality apprenticeships and jobs.

In addition, he will vow to build a new system of apprenticeships for young people to go into after they are awarded the Tech Bacc at 18. This will involve giving businesses control of the £1bn budget of the Skills Agency, introducing a new "Fast Track" for apprentices, similar to that already in place for graduate civil servants, and making it a requirement for all large firms with government contracts to provide apprenticeships. The plan is an impressive riposte to those who have criticised the lack of policy detail from Labour and who have despaired at the party's failure to offer a rival vision to Gove's. Of the Education Secretary, he will say:

He has got contempt for vocational qualifications.  He even got rid of those like the engineering diploma that had the support of business. And he has nothing to say about education beyond 16.  He is stuck in the past, offering no vision for the 21st century.

There is a choice of two futures for education. The Tory plan for an education system designed for a narrower and narrower elite. Or our plan.

More contentiously, Miliband will also implicitly contrast his comprehensive school background with David Cameron's Eton education. Referring to his schooling at Haverstock in north London, he will say:

I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds. I still remember the motivation, the inspiration from some amazing teaching. It was a tough school, but one with order, because of the scariest headmistress you can imagine, Mrs Jenkins. My school taught us a lot more than just how to pass exams: it taught people how to get on with each other, whoever they are and wherever they were from. I will always be grateful, because I know I would not be standing here today as leader of the Labour Party without my comprehensive school education.

In response, we can expect the right to accuse Miliband of adopting a "class war" strategy, while others will observe that his intellectual upbringing, followed by spells at Oxford, Harvard, the Treasury and in the cabinet, was hardly typical of the ordinary voter. But with one poll recently showing that a significant number of voters believed he was educated at Eton, Miliband's desire to highlight his more conventional schooling is understandable. The Tories' political ineptness, from the abolition of the 50p tax rate to Andrew Mitchell's haughty disregard for the police, also means that such a strategy is no longer as risky as it once was. Indeed, it feels entirely appropriate.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband speaks at his party's annual conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.