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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.