Not everyone who disagrees with Gove is a "wrecker" or an "enemy of promise"

The Education Secretary’s combative methods are going to result in bad policy. His them-and-us style is alienating the middle ground and polarising the debate.

 

You know who I hate? Children. Little bastards, with their snot and their questions and their boundless curiosity about the world. You know what I'd do, if it were up to me? I'd thwart them. Seriously, I'd thwart the bloody lot of them. I’d deprive them of vital general knowledge, not teach them to add up or spell, and we'll see who's laughing then, eh?

Except, obviously I don't think that. Because no one thinks that. Until yesterday, I didn't think it was even possible to un-self-consciously use the word "thwart" unless you were a character in The Lord of the Rings.

Our education secretary, though, thinks otherwise. In yesterday's Mail on Sunday defence of his plans to reform the national curriculum, arguing that "millions of talented young people  [are] being denied the opportunity to succeed... Far too many are having their potential thwarted by the Enemies of Promise.”

Who are these enemies, I hear you ask? They are the education establishment, a nebulous mixture of Marxist academics, lefty teachers unions, Brownite apologists and orcs, which is trying to block the coalition's brave crusade to raise standards in our schools. "There are still a tiny minority of teachers," Gove explains solemnly, "who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as Enemies Of Promise.” This is an actual sentence in an article credited to the secretary of state.

The trigger for this latest offensive against the dark forces on all sides was this letter in the Independent . Signed by 100 academics, it argues that the new curriculum is a bit on the narrow side, and will drive schools to prioritise rote-learning over critical thinking. Read after Gove’s response, the letter in question frankly comes as a bit of a disappointment.

I'm not a curriculum expert. My only experience of teaching was 18 months attempting to tutor a succession of teenage boys, all of whom sacked me, so I'm not going to attempt to defend either the new National Curriculum or its predecessor. For all I know the academics are talking rubbish, and Gove's version is by far the superior (although the fact it features the heptarchy, which I’m fairly sure was debunked years ago, gives me some pause for thought).

So let’s leave aside who’s right, and consider the tone of the two pieces of writing. The academics’ letter is staid and considered, and while it's clearly based on opinion as much as fact, the opinions in question are about policy, not about those who make it. Gove's article, by contrast, is hysterical and combative and assumes that anyone who doesn't agree with him is a subversive element that needs to be utterly crushed. In the Gove-ite view of the universe, you're either with him or against him. It's the sort of education policy document one might get from Pope Urban II.

Does this matter? If Gove is right – and I can't say for certain that he's not – then does the tone he uses to make his case really make any difference?

It does, for two reasons. The first is that it alienates the middle ground. There are those (I am one) who agree with Gove's aims, but are unconvinced by his methods. Every time he lumps us all together as nothing more than a bunch of Trots, it makes us less willing to listen, and less content to offer the benefit of the doubt. In other words, Gove’s endless rhetoric about the implacable enemies of reform is creating the very monolithic establishment that he claims he’s out to destroy. Just consider the cognitive dissonance required to write the line "Stephen Twigg chose to side with the Marxists" to see what I mean.

But there’s a more important reason why the them-and-us routine is A Bad Thing: it leads to bad policy.

There are problems with a number of coalition schools policies. Questions over how you scale up good academy chains while clamping down on weak ones; over how to find buildings for new schools; over how we’re going to find a quarter of a million extra school places by this September. All these problems have been looming for a while.

So why have they not been addressed? Because, one suspects, that those who pointed them out were instantly dismissed as wreckers and enemies of promise. By questioning the government, they instantly showed themselves to be another part of the Blob. I can’t help but thinking that, if Gove was more open to criticism, he’d be more likely to spot when he’d made a mistake.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty
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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.