A short guide to hypocrisy

Observations on Diane Abbott

Is Diane Abbott, the Labour MP who is sending her 12-year-old son to the fee-paying City of London School, a hypocrite? Yes. As I write, she hasn't shared her reasoning with us, but it's hard not to think that she's doing exactly what she criticised Tony Blair and Harriet Harman for doing: opting out of local schools to get something better for her child. And neither Blair nor Harman - of whom Abbott said "she made the Labour Party look as if we do one thing and say another" - chose private schools for their children.

Yet if she had simply condemned priv-ate education, without criticising others' choices, she might be cleared of hypocrisy. It can be quite consistent to think that there should be no private schools yet send your own child to one.

You may, for example, think that getting rid of private schools will help to make all schools OK. But private schools exist. You want your child to go to an OK school. Your local state schools are not OK for your child. The only way to send your child to an OK school is to go private. No hypocrisy there.

Hypocrisy is about whether you practise what you preach. If you preach that parents should never use their money to buy their children out of the state system, and then you go ahead and do exactly that, you are a hypocrite. But if you preach that we shouldn't allow parents to buy their children out of state schools - because that leaves those in the state sector absolutely and relatively worse off - you are talking about what principles and policies should govern our school system. It is not incompatible with sending your own child to a private school. Getting rid of private schools would produce a huge improvement in fairness at minimal cost to individual children. Sending your own child to an inadequate state school might be seriously bad for him, while doing little or nothing for fairness.

Hypocrisy is a red herring. I understand why Tories jump up and down about it: they can't see why there is anything wrong with private education in the first place. So they've only got the hypocrisy to object to. But why do Labour supporters get so excited? What matters, surely, is whether Abbott made the right choice. I don't mean the right choice for her son. I mean the morally right choice, balancing his interests against those of others.

Answering this, one requires detailed knowledge that I don't have. But here are two claims, one in her defence, one less sympathetic. First, the thought on her side. If she believes the state schools in her local borough of Hackney are likely to put her son at an unfair disadvantage relative to the population as a whole, or to leave him seriously harmed in some absolute sense (badly bullied, traumatised, etc), then she is justified in using her money to get him into a school that does not have those defects.

I don't see why her son should suffer because other people are not willing to get rid of private schools, or adequately to fund state schools in disadvantaged areas, or properly to address the problem of black educational underachievement.

But this argument only justifies parents in doing what they can to ensure that their child's school is good enough. It doesn't justify parents sending their child to the "best" school they can get him into. Avoiding inadequate schooling is something parents may properly do. If that's what Abbot was doing, then I'm on her side. But procuring unusually expensive and competitively advantageous schooling is another thing altogether. The City of London is an unusually expensive and competitively advantageous school. She has gone from one extreme to the other in a way that seems hard to defend.

On balance, her being a Labour politician makes her position stronger, not weaker. True, the appearance of hypocrisy provides ammunition that the Tories can use to slag off the Labour Party. It looks as if she doesn't really believe what she says, or, worse, that she is making choices she would deny to others. That is a problem for her party and the causes it stands for. In that way, it's worse when a high- profile politician opts out than when an unknown one does.

But there is another angle. Unlike many who go private, she at least has taken seriously matters of the public good, has done what she can to persuade her fellow citizens to endorse a more equitable educational system, and to improve state schools in a way that might make them adequate for all children. I'd like to see all parents of privately schooled children champion the cause of social justice with her vigour. I hope Abbott does not think she must now mute her demands for a fair education system in which all children get to go to decent schools.

Adam Swift, fellow in politics and sociology at Balliol College, Oxford, is author of How Not to Be a Hypocrite: school choice for the morally perplexed parent (RoutledgeFalmer, £9.99)