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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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