In this week's New Statesman: The end of socialism

Education special | Lost generation of 1992

Alwyn Turner: The end of socialism

In the New Statesman Cover Story, Alwyn Turner, author of the ebook Things Can Only Get Bitter: the Lost Generation of 1992, considers that year which brought a surprise election victory for John Major and the Tories, and "when a generation finally turned its back on politics":

These were the people born a few years either side of 1960 - the biggest demographic bulge in British history - whose adult political experience was of a seemingly permanent Conservative government. Disillusioned by the unexpected victory of the Tories in the 1992 general election, this lost generation turned its attention instead to capturing the commanding heights of national culture.

After leading a brief cultural renaissance, this same age group "sowed the seeds of its own destruction", Turner says, arguing that "[their] absence from politics ceded the field to a group of homogenised professional politicians who were allowed to emerge unchallenged". The effects of this disengagement are still being felt today:

Twenty years on, as another era of mass unemployment dawns, the effects of that election can still be seen in the political world that is being bequeathed to today's school leavers and graduates.

end of socialism

Education Special: Andrew Adonis

This week's magazine also features an Education Special in which Andrew Adonis, minister for schools under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, argues that the left should be in favour of free schools because the Labour Party, in effect, created them:

They were a crucial part of our drive to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility, particularly in disadvantaged communities with low educational standards.

Labour, Adonis writes, set up dozens of "free school" academies while still in power:

The only reason why the Tories invented the term "free school" was to pretend they were doing something fundamentally different, instead of continuing one of Labour's most successful policies.

However, unlike the new free schools created under the coalition's schools agenda, Labour's academies were founded on tenets of equality and social mobility and were "located largely in areas of very high deprivation, selected with a relentless focus on overcoming disadvantage". Academies built under the Tories since 2010 owe much to Labour's legacy:

School 21, [Toby Young's West London Free School] WLFS and many other free schools are all-through, catering for children aged three to 18. Again, this builds on bold changes under Labour. Thirty of Labour's academies are all-through; before academies, there were virtually no all-through state schools.

Adonis argues that, with such claims to success, Labour must debate "credibly and constructively" with the Tories on their "wrong" and "deeply complacent" education policies, including:

. . . teacher recruitment and development, the curriculum, Sure Start and the replacement policy that will be needed for £9,000 university tuition fees . . .

Labour will get back into government by having a better plan for the future, not by opposing changes which are working well. This applies above all in education, which is one of our success stories.

Read the article here

Melissa Benn: The school wars

Also in the Education package, the journalist and campaigner for comprehensive education Melissa Benn offers a diary of the recent "school wars" she has been fighting in public.

In September 2011, Benn noted how a defence of free schools in a London Evening Standard article by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove,

. . . [described] the "principal opponents" of the policy as "Tony Benn's daughter, the Hon Melissa Benn, and Alastair Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar . . . well-connected media types from London's most privileged circles".

She takes issue with Gove's chosen description of herself and Millar:

This is a bit rich. What two middle-aged men, with years of political, journalistic and campaigning experience between them, would be described solely in relation to their mothers and wives? As for Gove, an intimate ally of Rupert Murdoch, claiming that it is his critics who are part of the privileged media establishment, well, that's laughable.

Challenges to the government's education reforms are poised to move into the mainstream of public debate, Benn writes:

Toby Young makes the absurd claim that objection to the government's policies is confined to a handful of campaigners such as myself. Discontent at coalition school policies has not reached anti-NHS reform levels but there is widespread unease at the speed of the fragmentation of state education, from a government with no overall mandate to do so. (In their 2010 election manifesto, the Lib Dems promised to scrap academies.) The most common question at the end of [parent and schools] meetings is: "What can we do?"

Elsewhere in the Education Special, Mehdi Hasan unpicks the myths and realities of academies, and in conversation with Rafael Behr, the Lib Dem children's minister, Sarah Teather, defends government cuts to Sure Start.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

In Observations, Frank Ledwidge describes the psychology of soldiers in Afghanistan and John Ashton writes that the failure to solve the Lockerbie bombing has become, now more than ever, a gross embarrassment for the Scottish National Party. And elsewhere in the magazine, Nicholas Wapshott reports on Washington's indifference to David Cameron, David Marquand reviews two new books about John Maynard Keynes, Simon Kuper charts the decine and fall of Glasgow's "Old Firm" in the Critics, and we publish "Mind away", a new short story by the Costa shortlisted author and poet, Jackie Kay.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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