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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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