Miliband denounces McCluskey over "reprehensible" attack on Blairites

The Labour leader moves swiftly to condemn the Unite general secretary over his comments to the New Statesman.

Len McCluskey's fierce attack on the "Blairites" in the shadow cabinet in my interview with him for the NS has been met with a no less fierce response from Ed Miliband. In his most significant criticism of the Unite general secretary since becoming leader, Miliband has denounced McCluskey's remarks as "reprehensible" and "disloyal". A spokesperson for the Labour leader said:

Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party. This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work, it is wrong, it is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.

McCluskey, whose union helped secure the Labour leadership for Miliband in 2010, told me that Miliband would be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he was "seduced" by "the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders". Of Liam Byrne, the shadow and work pensions secretary, he said: "Liam Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy, I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be."

One of the three shadow cabinet ministers singled out for criticism by McCluskey - Jim Murphy - has now responded on Twitter. "It's disappointing in advance of important local elections that Len McCluskey turns his fire on Labour," he said.

Miliband's decision to distance himself so swiftly and explicitly from the Unite head will come as a relief to those in the party who feel that he has often been too tolerant of McCluskey's regular attacks on the party's Blairite wing and the Progress group in particular. But Unite's status as Labour's largest donor (it was responsible for 28 per cent of donations to the party last year and has given £8.4m to Labour since Miliband became leader) means he won't be able to dismiss McCluskey as easily as many would like.

The politics of the intervention, though, could yet work to his advantage. By rejecting Blair one week (another NS exclusive) and McCluskey the next, he has positioned himself as the reasonable moderate, holding the centre between the New Labour diehards and the union militants.

Ed Miliband addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in central London, on November 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times