Has Labour abandoned the fight against Gove's school reforms?

Westminster seems to have signed off on education reforms. But the grassroots haven't.

I have just had a chance properly to catch up with Andy Burnham's speech to the Labour conference and was struck by the line that:

Free schools and academies can embody the comprehensive ideal.

This doesn't seem to have been much noticed but it is a fairly clear indication that Labour will not pick a fight with Michael Gove on the question of local authority control over schools.

Shortly before Burnham spoke I chaired a fringe meeting on schools policy where shadow education minister Kevin Brennan was on the panel. When quizzed about the government's plans, Brennan, like Burnham, carefully navigated away from any pledges to reverse the structural changes that Gove is introducing.

He all but acknowledged that a Labour government would accept the mass expansion of academies and the creation of free schools as a fait accompli by the next election. (Note also that Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of importing failed free market ideas into the health service in his leader's speech. He could have made the same argument about Gove and schools - but didn't.)

By contrast I was very struck at the Liberal Democrat conference how much hostility there was to Gove's plans bubbling away under the surface. I came away with the distinct impression that many Lib Dems, including a number of MPs, are not reconciled to the free schools agenda. They feel licensed to attack the NHS reforms and wonder why they can't be just as vocal on education. (Answer: because Gove's stuff was much more clearly sign-posted in the coalition agreement.)

But one thing the Lib Dem leadership needs to remember is that free schools and academies -- even more than the NHS changes -- take money and therefore power away from local authorities. And local authorities are where most Lib Dems have conducted most of their politics in recent memory. Clegg, who came up through the European parliament, might not have noticed this stealthy assault on his party's base, but the members certainly have.

Westminster seems to have signed off on free schools and academies. I'm not sure Labour and Lib Dem grassroots got the memo.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.