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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.