The abolition of EMA played more of a role in the riots than its creation

EMA helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out.

Perhaps it was wrong to except much of a Telegraph article that begins with "in my day". Brendan O'Neil, who describes himself as someone who wages a "culture war of words" against prejudice and misanthropy, claimed that the Education Maintenance Allowance [EMA] scheme provided a rock star lifestyle to teenage recipients, regardless of the fact that 80 per cent come from families whose household income is below £21,000 a year.

Of course there will be those who misuse any payment scheme - the MPs' expenses scandal is one obvious example. However, other than anecdotal evidence, there is no proof that the level of misuse of EMA is endemic. In fact, any research into what EMA recipients actually spend their money on has consistently shown that "Young people who were receiving EMA were more likely than other groups of eligible young people to be making a contribution to housekeeping costs, transport and books and equipment for school".

So far, so Jan Moir. More worrying were his other claims. Apparently EMA caused the riots. How you ask? By creating a "new state yoof (sic) gang" filled with a "sense of entitlement and disrespect for local community and parental authority". And by failing to put a "strong, moral case for the importance of education" to working class pupils.

The sad truth is that, if anything, EMA probably helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out. Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from the one report the government tried to use to justify the abolition of EMA. The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, was not actually about EMA but instead barriers to education. In June, its author, Thomas Spielhofer, gave evidence to parliament in which he said the government "misinterpreted" his report and that he "opposes" EMA's abolition.

The poll of 838 recipients of EMA, cited by the government, found that 88 per cent of them would like to continue participating in their course regardless of financial incentives. What this really showed, according to Spielhofer, was the level of resilience and commitment among those teenagers who wanted to stay in education. He compared it to pensioners receiving free bus passes - many would still like to use buses if they didn't receive them. But, naturally, their use of that service would be affected by their ability to pay for it.

As Spielhofer went to lengths to point out to the select committee, there were no supplementary questions about whether they would have dropped out without the payments due to the cost of studying. When that question was asked of EMA recipients earlier this year, 70 per cent said they would be forced to drop out if they lost their EMA. It was probably no surprise, therefore, that the very next month the education select committee published a report that said the government "rushed" its decision to scrap EMA.

Brendan O'Neil offered not one strand of evidence showing EMA caused the riots. If anything, those teenagers who told journalists its abolition influenced them had more proof. Despite Michael Gove on Newsnight protesting that EMA has not yet been cut, he and others forget that those planning to start courses this September may not be able to without prior knowledge of their funding. According to research by the University and College Union, 40 per cent of EMA recipients would not have even started courses without the payments.

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for violence and many recipients of EMA played no part in the riots. But it's clear that the abolition of EMA, not its introduction, was to blame for the actions of some.

James Mills is campaign director of the Save EMA campaign.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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