Miliband delivers the performance he needed in Queen's Speech debate

The Labour leader brilliantly ridiculed calls for a Tory-UKIP pact, but his borrowing problem remains.

After one of his most difficult months since becoming Labour leader, Ed Miliband needed a strong performance in today's Queen's Speech - and he delivered. His best moment came when he referenced the calls from Tory MPs for a pact or even a coalition with UKIP. "They used to call them clowns. Now they want to join the circus," he quipped, a line that improves with each reading. 

He went on to remind the House how Cameron's promise of an in/out EU referendum (which many predicted would prove disastrous for Labour) had failed to counter UKIP or sate his recalictrant backbenchers. In a well-crafted passage, he declared: "The lesson for the Prime Minister is you can’t out-Farage Farage. Banging on about Europe won’t convince the public. And the people behind him will just keep coming back for more. A Europe referendum tomorrow. Drop same sex marriage. The demands go on and on. They will never be satisfied. And every day he spends dealing with the problem behind him he’s not dealing with the problems facing the country."

Earlier in the speech, referring to Iain Duncan Smith's suggestion that wealthy pensioners hand back their Winter Fuel Payments, he asked Cameron: "why doesn’t he set an example and hand back the tax cut he’s given himself?" Seizing on David Davis's plea for "no more old Etonian advisers", he quipped that it was "time for some diversity" - "let's have someone from Harrow". After the abandonment of minimum alcohol pricing and plain cigarette packaging, Miliband also brought up Lynton Crosby's links to the alcohol and tobacco industries, declaring, once again, that Cameron stands up for "the wrong people".

This is what they used to say about cigarette packaging: 'It's wrong that children are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets … children should be protected from the start.'

That was the previous Health Secretary. Before they hired their new strategist. The one whose company worked for big tobacco. And now what’s happened? They’ve dropped the bill.

After his now-infamous World At One interview, in which he was unable to say whether Labour would borrow more to fund a temporary VAT cut, three Conservative MPs intervened to challenge Miliband over his plans. In response to the first, Jacob Rees-Mogg, he replied that "of course" a VAT cut would "have a cost" and "lead to a temporary increase in borrowing" (perhaps the first time Miliband has admitted in the Commons that Labour would borrow more), but that the increase would be justified since it would help to stimulate growth. But he was unable to answer Penny Mordaunt's claim that the measures included in Labour's alternative Queen's Speech would cost an extra £28bn, insisting that he had "already addressed this" (he hadn't). After he was challenged again, he fell back on the line that it was the government that was "borrowing more". This is true (£245bn, in fact) but it invites the Tory rejoinder, "you would borrow even more", leaving the Labour leader back where he began. The danger for Miliband is that Tory MPs will continue to challenge him over the total cost of Labour's plans until, as with the VAT cut, he finally gives way.  

But while Miliband still gives the impression of running scared of his own economic policy, today he did enough to remind his party why he could emerge as the victor in 2015. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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