Labour's lost inspiration

The former home of craftsman William Morris could soon be available for weddings

The status of the great craftsman and writer William Morris as a pivotal hero of the Labour movement was once taken for granted. Yet, today, the gallery dedicated to his life and work is under threat from Labour-led Waltham Forest Council, which plans to shorten the museum's opening hours. It even proposes that the former home of the author of News From Nowhere should be used as a wedding venue.

The news illustrates how far Labour has travelled from his ideals. Burdened by an obsession with the new, the party has little regard for a man who dedicated his life to the revival of traditional crafts. Morris's veneration of the past - of which he said, "it is living with us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make" - sits uneasily with Tony Blair's facile characterisation of Britain as a "young country".

Morris saw all arts and crafts as "man's expression of joy in labour", and his appreciation of practical skills has enduring resonance: the past few years have seen a great revival of interest in arts and crafts. Next Saturday evening, millions of Britons will watch Strictly Come Dancing - a programme about a variety of personalities acquiring the skill of ballroom dancing through instruction and practice.

Craftsmen such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are feted national icons. The popularity of programmes on architecture (David Dimbleby) and engineering (the late Fred Dibnah) demonstrate our national interest in Britain's built heritage.

Yet the government appears to have a limited vision of this kind of education. Courses in traditional crafts such as cabinet-making, upholstery and silver-smithing face closure despite demand from students and employers. One million places in adult learning have been lost in the past two years due to funding cuts.

Morris would be outraged. He knew that education is about crafting a nation in which we can be proud to live. Only by valuing practical learning can we create a society where people are inspired to acquire skills throughout their lives. The weakness of Labour's approach is seen in the declining take-up and availability of work-based apprenticeships. Instead, trainees spend time in simulated work environments. No wonder nearly half of them drop out before completing the programme.

A recent high-profile advertising campaign, using painted hands to promote training, is another example of the government's failure. The ads cost £32m, but barely 9,000 people responded to their invitation to call a national skills helpline - the equivalent of £3,555 for each call.

In fact, targets for learner numbers on Train to Gain, the government's flagship training scheme, have been missed in every English region, with only 15 per cent of learners actually completing their training.

Low take-up rates mean that only £174m of the £268m allocated to the Train to Gain budget has actually been spent. This disappointing return reflects the scheme's failure to inspire. Glossy adverts will have little impact while people are discouraged by the government's failure to provide training that is either valued by employers or attractive to potential learners.

At the root of this failure is a serious underrating of crafts and skills. Those who fashion public policy - themselves usually the product of a wholly academic education - are simply failing to recognise both the sense of worth that can be derived from the acquisition of practical skills, and the nation's need for craftsmen.

Labour has forgotten what William Morris taught; he knew that education is much bigger than book-learning. The Conservatives, who share his aim of elevating the practical, are the true guardians of Morris's legacy. John Hayes is Conservative MP for South Holland and the Deepings

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered