Labour’s plan to defeat the Tories on prisoners’ votes

A tactical alliance between Labour and the Tory right could force David Cameron to backtrack.

David Cameron recently said that being forced to give prisoners the vote made him "physically ill" and he is likely to be feeling even queasier today.

The news that 28,770 prisoners will be given the right to vote, including 5,991 prisoners convicted of violent offences and 1,753 inmates convicted of sexual offences, has inflamed the Tory right and the tabloids.

It has also provided Labour with an opportunity to attack the Tories from the right for the first time since Ed Miliband became leader. The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, who served as Miliband's campaign manager during the leadership election, said:

This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.

MPs on all sides of the House and the public are right to be angry about this decision. But they should also be angry at the manner in which it was announced – sneaked out on the day parliament broke up for Christmas.

Labour now has a chance to outflank the Tories on this emotive issue and to form a tactical alliance with Conservative backbenchers, as many as 40 of whom are prepared to vote against the government.

The party plans to table a smart amendment restricting the right to vote to prisoners serving up to one year in jail. Under the coalition's plans, all prisoners serving up to four years will win the vote, including sex offenders. It is this that has so aggravated the Tory back benches. The government is legally required by the European Court of Human Rights to end the blanket ban on prisoners but it is still free to set its own limit.

One of the Tory rebels, Philip Davies, tweeted today: "Outrageous stats today show 28,770 prisoners would be given the vote – including 6,000 violent offenders and 1,700 sex offenders!"

Under Labour's plan, these prisoners, who typically serve sentences of more than a year, would be barred from voting. Several Tory MPs including Davies have already pledged to vote for the opposition amendment.

If he wants to avoid his first Commons defeat, Cameron would be wise to back down and agree to a one-year limit. After U-turns on free milk, school sports and, most recently, Bookstart, it looks like prisoners' votes will be next.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times