Liberal Democrat activists revolt against free schools

Proof that the Lib Dems and the Tories remain two very different tribes.

Lib Dem activists have flexed their muscles and passed a motion opposing the coalition's free schools agenda and the expansion of city academies. As a new YouGov poll showed that the majority (65 per cent) of party members consider themselves left-wing, it was a reminder that few Lib Dem activists approve of the government's reform plans.

The vote is largely symbolic, as the Academies Bill has already been passed by parliament, but it's a warning that the Lib Dem grass roots will do all they can to block "free schools" on the ground.

Speaking for the party leadership (Nick Clegg gave the debate a miss), Sarah Teather may have attacked plans for a boycott as "illiberal" (about the worst charge in the Lib Dem lexicon), but her appeal largely fell on deaf ears.

The lightning speed with which Michael Gove piloted the bill through parliament ("with a speed and urgency normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation", said the Lib Dem councillor Peter Downes) offended many, but there was also a more profound critique of Gove's masterplan at work here.

Downes warned that free schools presented "a threat to the stability, fairness, viability of our educational system", and lambasted the idea "that the principles of the marketplace can be applied to state-funded education".

The defeat isn't significant enough to spoil Clegg's big day, but here, if needed, was proof that the Lib Dems and the Tories remain two very different tribes.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.