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 is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.