Why is Labour so quiet on education?

The rush of policy announcements at conference seemed to miss out the area where change has been greatest.

"There is no greater cause for Labour than education. It is the great engine of social mobility."

Stephen Twigg used the above phrase in his speech to the Labour conference on Monday. He is absolutely right in his full-throated support for education as a powerful agent for social mobility and in his assertion that it is of intrinsic importance to the party. Some great rhetoric and sentiments were there but the rest of the speech was marked by a conspicuous lack of policy. Against the backdrop of a conference bursting with serious and concrete policy announcements, why did Twigg’s department leave such a gap in the formation of Labour’s manifesto? It seems the rush of policy announcements at conference skipped over the shadow education department, with only the promise that under a Labour government the compulsory education participatory age will be raised from 16 to 18.

Twigg concerned himself with the level and spread of child and family poverty, appropriate considering that the living standards crisis was the main theme of the conference. But the fact that education is a long-term agent in affecting living standards was seemingly ignored. In the UK of 2013, complete with rising use of food banks, Twigg committed his party to reforming childcare. It was clearly a pledge the party needed to make, but why did this make up the bulk of Twigg’s speech? Being rewarded with lashings of applause, he repeatedly pointed out failings of the coalition government and, although he was not wrong, his speech paled against many others from frontbenchers who announced specific policy ideas to combat the issues raised.

The most we heard about education at conference was from sources other than Twigg. Yvette Cooper made special mention of Michael Gove and how Labour would reverse his refusal to introduce proper sex and relationship education. Through Chuka Umunna and Ed Balls’s speeches, there was an emphasis on developing a skilled workforce to allow the UK to compete in the contemporary world, with specific emphasis on the need to revamp and reform vocational education, an area neglected by successive governments. It is strange, then, the most tangible policy announcements did not come from the shadow education secretary.

"Conference we have to wake people up to what is happening now"; in his speech, Andy Burnham urged the party and the public not to let  the dangerous and dogmatic NHS reforms go unnoticed. But it seems that Twigg has largely ignored the onslaught of policy coming from Michael Gove. The damage free schools are doing to our education system through underinvestment in areas that need it most and Gove’s regressive curriculum reforms are criticised by Twigg, but not sufficiently countered with hard policy.

In the end, free schools may well be pragmatically accepted by the party, but beyond that there has been no plan announced to tackle the large number of young people out of work, education or training. No plan to address the increasing need for many people to retrain later in their careers in an attempt to avoid unemployment. No mention of the issue of tuition fees, a big constituency for Labour and also a real opportunity for progressive reform. Twigg paid homage to the past reforms that inform the One Nation project, including the introduction of universal primary education by Gladstone, but he didn't seem as clear in his current vision as his colleagues.

This article is by no means an attack on Twigg, rather on the current lack of education policy. It may well be that the policy review hasn’t reached this area yet, or that there is a general malaise surrounding education policy in the party, although this seems unlikely. The policies announced at conference are only the preliminary blueprints for a manifesto but they are indicative of what kind of party Labour is right now.

With the NHS and the schools being subjected to some of the most divisive, dramatic and ideological reforms, the party should be indicating where it stands on education. Although there were fewer policies announced on health than on the economy, there has been a track record before then of policies coming out of the shadow health department. Where is the 'whole person care' of Labour’s education policy? It is short-sighted for the party to leave such a gap in policy, to be so quiet and to not live up to its great heritage of comprehensive education, massive investment and the Open University. As much as the One Nation project is growing in success for the party, it is by no means complete and cannot fulfil itself without addressing education. 

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Holden leads on political research at ComRes. He tweets @DanSHolden.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder