Coalition backtracks on primary school sports cuts

The Schools Sports Partnership will no longer be scrapped, but will still have its funding reduced.

The coalition's ill-conceived plan to scrap the School Sport Partnership has been partially reversed. Elements of the SSP will remain until at least the 2012 Olympics, after Michael Gove attempted to scrap the scheme back in November.

But the news is not all good.

The programme will still suffer heavy cuts: central funding will be reduced and staff will be sacked.

The compromise comes after pressure from high-profile athletes, such as the diver Tom Daley and the former heptathlete Denise Lewis, who criticised the scrapping of the scheme.

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (that's Hunt, Jim Naughtie), lobbied from within cabinet against scrapping the SSP. He argued that cutting the scheme before the Olympics would damage the idea that London 2012 would increase public participation in sports.

Though not quite a U-turn (it could perhaps be labelled an R-turn, with the coalition heading off in a new, slightly less damaging direction), the coalition's handling of the SSP has been less than exemplary.

David Cameron had previously labelled the scheme a "complete failure". In one of the Prime Minister's less fine moments at the despatch box, he said:

The number of schools offering rugby [sic – Cameron meant Rugby Union], hockey, netball and gymnastics actually fell under the previous government.

What Cameron failed to mention was that this negligible drop (of between 1 and 5 per cent) was more than compensated for by a huge uptake in less orthodox sports that did not involve chasing a ball around a field.

As Des Kelly pointed out in his fine demolition of Gove's plan to scrap the SSP:

Cameron . . . blithely ignored the fact that the number of state schools offering Rugby League, football, athletics, cricket, tennis, basketball, cycling, golf, badminton, table tennis, volleyball, canoeing, archery, fitness classes, mountaineering, rowing, sailing, judo, karate, boxing, lacrosse, squash, equestrian sports, triathlon and even skateboarding, dance and orienteering had gone up.

In other words – no doubt thanks to a very dodgy brief – Cameron gave an extremely misleading impression of the SSP.

Before the SSP, each state school offered 14 sports on average – now they offer 19. So what if people play a bit less Rugby Union? The important thing was that the SSP worked: kids did more sport and got to try new things.

That the scheme will be reduced is not a good thing. But a limited SSP is better than no SSP at all.

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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.