A Labour U-turn on free schools? It's not that simple

Stephen Twigg's speech was neither a capitulation to Gove’s agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it.

For a policy intervention to count as a U-turn, two conditions must be met. First, a party needs to have been moving clearly in one direction. Second, after the manoeuvre, it needs to be advancing in the opposite direction. Labour’s announcement today on education policy matches neither requirement.

The opposition has been painfully ambivalent about coalition school reforms, which have their genesis in the Blair-era policy. Labour has been unsure whether or how to salvage some of its intellectual property from Michael Gove’s zealous pursuit of academies and free schools.

Today, Stephen Twigg has tried to bring some clarity to Labour’s position. It isn’t easy. The shadow education secretary has both repudiated and acquiesced to coalition policy. The acquiescence is in accepting that the frenetic advance of academies and the creation of free schools under the current government would not be reversed. A Labour government would, however, apply brakes to Gove’s speeding juggernaut.

Twigg says:

Labour will not continue with Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy. Existing free schools and those in the pipeline will continue. But in future we need a better framework for creating new schools …

There will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools - all options. A school system based on evidence not dogma.

But then again, he also says:

Labour strongly believes parents have an important role to play in calling for and setting up new local schools. … Labour started the academies programme to bring outside energy and expertise into the schools system, we want to extend that to parents.

That sounds like a dilute version of existing policy.

The real element of repudiation is subtle but intellectually important. Twigg argues that new academies or free schools should not be set up in areas where there are already sufficient school places. Adding such excess capacity, Labour argues, is wasteful (because limited resources should go to areas where there is insufficient supply and classrooms are overcrowded) and divisive (because parents, it is feared, use free schools to segregate their children from neighbours whom they deem undesirable).

According to Twigg, Labour would change the emphasis in the academies policy from expansion of volume – rejecting Gove's habit of measuring success by the sheer number of schools breaking free from local authority control – to collaboration between schools and enforcing fair admissions policies.

But for Gove, excess supply of school places in some areas is not some accidental by-product of the system, it is the logical extension of the market mechanism that is meant to improve standards. New schools are supposed to arrive on the doorstep of established ones and compete for the attention of parents. The process that Labour sees as chaotic and divisive is, in Conservative terms, the positive force of creative disruption that will unleash innovation and, through increased competition, drive up standards.

This is now the essential division between Labour and Conservatives on education policy. Academies and free schools will be part of the landscape regardless of who wins the next election. But under a Tory education secretary the anticipated mechanism for improving performance in weak schools will by market forces. Education providers, including eventually profit-making private-sector companies, will compete for the custom of parents hoping to send their children to whichever institution appears to offer the best prospects.

And under a Labour education secretary, the expected mechanism for improving performance in weak schools will be intervention, directed by government, in the form of partnership with other, more successful schools. Crudely speaking, the Conservatives like free school and academies because they are supposed to give complacent local authority schools a kick up the backside, while Labour can live with free schools and academies if they give local authority schools a helping hand.

One result of today's announcement is that Labour’s education policy now officially lacks ideological purity. It is neither a capitulation to Gove’s agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it. Twigg’s soggy middle-way position will disappoint dogmatists on both sides of the debate, which is probably a sign that he is standing in about the right place. 

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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