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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.