Why Gove gets a free ride from the press

The Education Secretary provides hard-pressed hacks with a steady stream of headlines.

What is it about Michael Gove? He must have some kind of special power. You wouldn’t think it to look at him – or listen to him, or read anything he’s written. Or if you’d seen his policies. (Or if you hadn’t.) And yet, here it is: his stock grows by the day, thanks to a shower of bouquets from people who seem to be otherwise intelligent enough folk. What on earth is going on?

There are people – real people – who’ll tell you that Gove could be the next Prime Minister. And they’re not joking. You sit there waiting for the punchline, and it doesn’t come. There is no punchline: Gove as Prime Minister is the punchline. Except they don’t mean it as a joke: they really can see it as a credible concept.

I can see why lifelong Tories might have much fondness for Gove: while Andrew Lansley’s health reforms see him widely vilified and hung out to dry by pretty much everyone, Gove potters along with his education reforms, taking us one step nearer Voucher Schools and privatised education, and no-one really minds. He says the right things about the 1950s and grammar schools, and everyone leaves him untouched.

But it’s as if he’s untouchable. Every day seems to bring a new initiative about schools plucked from the ether: if it’s not pompously prefaced King James Bibles, it’s counting in Roman numerals, forcing five-year-olds into phonics tests or learning poems by heart. It’s tempting to wonder there might be a Heath Robinson "ideas machine" in Gove’s office that spews out a new half-baked proposal every day to add to the ever-growing list – every single one of which find glowing approval.

Naturally, you expect your Howard Jacobsons, your Toby Youngs, to lap it all up: Toby, of course, has his own glorious Free School project to think of, and to thank Gove for. (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition in an article about education. Shoot me.) But what of others? Notwithstanding the heroic Gove demolition that is Michael Rosen’s wonderful blog, criticism of Gove in the mainstream seems surprisingly thin on the ground.

I should declare an interest, by the way. Like Gove, I am a former journalist and, like him, I’ll be working in education soon, as I’m off to commence studying a PGCE in the autumn. I’m afraid I haven’t served in the forces and I went to a "rubbish university" (as Gove’s sidekick, schools minister Nick Gibb, might put it) but somehow I still want to do it. The children of tomorrow will have to make do with this former state school scumbag instead of someone who’s proper clever and that.

By the time I get to the chalkface proper, I wonder what will have changed. One thing’s almost a certainty: Gove will have coasted along nicely with his lovely, cushy ride, never getting fiercely criticised for his plucked-from-the-air policies other than by teachers (and who cares what they think?). So the question remains: what is it about this man that enables him to elude some kind of wider scrutiny, leading to bewilderingly high approval ratings from his own party, and not a great deal of opprobrium from elsewhere?

Well, I think there are several factors. Firstly, I think he’s got the advantage of being on the front foot. He’s always talking about reform and improvement. Whether the things he’s doing will be reforms or improvements is debatable, but if he presents them as such, with full ministerial authority and the primacy of the government position, his opponents will struggle to look like anything other than stick-in-the-mud naysayers, impeding improvements for children.

Secondly, there’s a good deal of consensus between Labour and the Conservatives on education. Free Schools are a natural progression from New Labour model of Academies. It’s hard, then, to find some genuine conflict between the two main parties on the broad strokes of education policy – and with the Liberal Democrats hamstrung in coalition, you can see why Gove might get a free ride.

True, but why do his more bizarre or non-evidence-based ideas – the roman numerals, the Bibles, and all of that – get such a free ride? I think that’s down to the most important factor of all: Gove is a former journalist. In one sense there’s a rule that you don’t go after your own – it could explain why Boris Johnson is similarly praised for similar lack of achievements (and similarly touted as a future Prime Minister).

But it goes beyond that, I think. Gove may be eccentric, but he’s not stupid. He knows what he’s doing with this drip-drip of information about new wheezes and new schemes: he’s providing hard-pressed journos with an open goal. Need to natter about something on a slow news day? Oh look, a new education initiative from the 1950s. Need a wedge of quick copy when there’s not a load else about? Oh look, a new education initiative from the 1950s. And so it goes.

Gove knows what he’s doing. He’s fluffing the easy-to-please Tory grassroots and grandstanding to the sympathetic columnists, all the while providing a steady stream of underarm bowling to headline-hunting hacks in a hurry. At all of that, he’s decidedly competent, occasionally bordering on the excellent. At knowing stuff about how to educate, maybe not so good.

But since when was it about that?

Education Secretary Michael Gove waves to photographers as he arrives to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry on 29 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.