Teather: “Free schools must not make profit”

Children's minister highlights "dividing line" in New Statesman interview.

When I enter Sarah Teather's office, the minister for children and families is celebrating a victory over the forces of bureaucracy. The windows in her top-floor office, overlooking Great Smith Street in Westminster, open wide enough that a careless person might feasibly plummet to certain doom below. So they are kept locked. Even ministers do not have the key. But on this bright spring afternoon, Teather has, after a nine-month campaign, secured access to fresh air.

This triumph aside, the atmosphere around the Liberal Democrats' role in government is gloomy. The weekend before our interview, delegates at the party's spring conference have both supported and opposed government plans to reform the NHS in rival motions. That does not, I suggest, indicate a happy party. "It is clear that people are still uneasy," Teather concedes. "We need to work harder to make sure that they understand exactly what's been achieved."

We're supposed to be talking about education, not health, but I'm intrigued by parallels between the two agendas. The academies and free schools programme is also predicated on the belief that competition from new providers will drive up the quality of service. Lib Dem grassroots hostility to this mechanism in the NHS is well-advertised; I pick up similar suspicion regarding schools. Has Teather detected the same?

"At a Lib Dem conference you'll find people saying 'well, that doesn't feel very Lib Dem' - of course it doesn't, this isn't a Lib Dem government, it's a coalition." Does she personally believe that competition from the private sector is the best way to drive up standards in public services? "I don't have any ideological objections to the use of the private sector. The Liberal Democrats have never had any ideological objections to the use of the private sector, that's the same in health and in education." What about the prospect of companies making a profit from running schools? "That's different. That was one of the key dividing lines that Nick Clegg made clear. Free schools will not be making a profit during the life of this coalition."

Teather's main ministerial focus is on what happens to children before they reach school and one of the policies that Lib Dems are keen to promote as one of their contributions to government is a substantial increase in free nursery places - providing 15 hours of care per week to 260,000 more two, three and four-year-olds from families on low incomes. I wonder if this message has been obscured by cuts elsewhere, to Sure Start children's centres, for example. Teather insists reports of Sure Start butchery are exaggerated. "There's a lot of talk about local authorities scrapping children's centres but the evidence doesn't stack up. We still have 3,500 across the whole of England." Departmental figures, last collated in September, claim 124 centres have closed so far.

Meanwhile, proposals will shortly be announced to get parents more involved in running children's centres, borrowing perhaps from the model of school governing boards. The idea is meant to form part of a theme of parent-driven accountability. The same motive is behind new rules, due in September, that will force schools to publish how they are spending their "pupil premium" - a signature Lib Dem policy that allocates extra money for children entitled to free school meals. The idea is that greater transparency will put pressure on schools to narrow the gap in attainment between children from poorest backgrounds and the rest. "Historically they under-perform on their potential and at the moment schools aren't adequately getting to grips with those issues," says Teather. "A school can't claim to be performing well if it's leaving behind some of those children at the bottom."

The obvious danger is that any ambition to help children from poor backgrounds is sabotaged by welfare and tax credit cuts, which are due to make life substantially harder for low income families. Teather was a critic of government plans for a cap on the level of benefit any household can receive. In February, she missed a crucial parliamentary vote on the measure - a highly irregular ministerial abstention. It prompted calls from some Tories that she resign. So does she now support the policy? "I am on record as having concerns about the benefits cap, but I am also pleased to see the changes that were brought in on the back of those concerns, my job is sometimes to take points and suggestions about things that other departments are doing that affect children and families. That's the job that the prime minister asked me to do and I take it seriously."

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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser