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The playing fields of Moscow, regional revolts, Murdoch’s satire and the great British bin

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

Tristram Hunt’s threat to deprive fee-charging schools of relief from business rates – which accounts for only a small proportion of the tax breaks available to them – provoked contrived fury from head teachers. In fact, the shadow education secretary’s attempt to persuade the schools to enter “partnerships” with the state sector would do little to reduce inequalities of opportunity and social divisions. Rather, it offers the schools an easy way to legitimise themselves. Their response shows their arrogance and their indifference to the public good.

The elite fee-charging schools haven’t the slightest interest in a fairer education system. Their soaring fees – up nearly twice as fast as inflation over the past decade and reaching an annual £42,000, in one case – put them beyond the reach even of many lawyers and accountants. As the head of King’s College School in Wimbledon, south-west London, confessed recently, these schools now “teach the children of the very wealthiest families in the world”. The high fees pay not for better teaching, but for lavish dormitory, arts and sports facilities. At one time, children at the top public schools, subjected to beatings and compulsory games, at least had to undergo a degree of hardship to earn their lifelong privileges. Now they are as pampered as the customers of a luxury spa.

At the present rate, however, the elite schools’ role in perpetuating the English class system may end at last. Not because of anything Hunt does, but because only the international plutocracy will be able to send their children to the most expensive schools.

 

Lessons in fraud

In its crazed mission to bring enterprise, competition and market forces to the public services, the coalition government allows students at private colleges – or “alternative providers”, as ministers call them – to receive loans and in some cases grants from public funds. Since 2010, the number of students benefiting from such support is up from under 5,000 to more than 50,000 and the sums disbursed up from £35m to £675m. As repayment of the loans is contingent on income, much of this money is likely never to be recovered.

Now the National Audit Office reports that 20 per cent of students aren’t registered for the exams they’re supposed to be taking; dropout rates in nine colleges are above 20 per cent (the average for the established universities and colleges is 4 per cent); and some “students” aren’t even resident in the UK, a scam that cost £5.4m but could have cost £65m if the Student Loans Company hadn’t acted. The auditors don’t quite say so, but it looks as if some colleges are harbouring large-scale fraud.

The whole thing is reminiscent of Labour’s scheme for individual learning accounts, under which poorly qualified people received modest sums to “buy” training courses from “new providers” rather than from anything so stuffy and undynamic as a local authority college. Many of the “accounts” turned out to be criminal inventions; 6,000 were created for a single address and the names of some holders were Hindi swear words. Out of £290m disbursed, at least £97m was pocketed by fraudsters.

Will politicians never learn?

 

Local is as local does

Proposals that because Scotland will get more devolved powers, so should the English “regions”, face a big problem: England, in most people’s minds, has no regions. Historic loyalties are to counties, cities or towns. Citizens of Leicester, for instance, do not wish to be ruled from an East Midlands “capital” in Nottingham rather than from London; if anything, they prefer the latter. The leader of Darlington Borough Council has told the Financial Times that Teesside will not tolerate being “subsumed” into a region run from Newcastle. Negotiators trying to form a combined authority for Birmingham and the Black Country can’t even agree on a name.

For more than 40 years, national politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats have tried to create larger and, as they see it, more “rational” units of local government. They put people into places nobody had heard of, such as Kirklees, Halton and Sandwell; created and then abolished a Humberside County Council for people separated by, er, the Humber Estuary; and ended up with a more irrational distribution of powers than they started with. It is time they gave up.

 

Just your average mogul

To the 21st birthday party of Women in Journalism, held on the 18th floor of the News UK building, the new Rupert Murdoch press headquarters close to London Bridge. My eye is caught by an extraordinarily long inscription emblazoned across the entrance hall. I take it to be the Murdoch mission statement: “Telling the stories that matter, seeding ideas and stirring emotions, capturing moments, meaning and magic . . .” On and on it goes (does Murdoch no longer employ sub-editors?), until it gets to “sticking up for the little guy”, at which point I stand in silence, quietly mourning the death of satire.

 

Rubbish newspaper

“The great betrayal”, screamed the Daily Mail headline. Had David Cameron, to secure an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, secretly agreed to instal an imam in every state school? Had ministers decided to hand over all public services to the Chinese? Were BBC news bulletins to be dictated by the CIA? None of these. “Families” must wait 12 days on average for their bins to be emptied. Truly, the Mail understands what causes terror among the British as no other paper does.

 

The Only Way Is Delhi

A footnote to my visit to India. From a car in Delhi, we spotted a shop/café called Essex Patisserie. The cast of the ITV2 series The Only Way Is Essex have two shops in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, and nine in Brentwood. Has their brand spread across the world? More information gratefully received. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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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.