Why the Lib Dems will struggle to win any credit for the recovery

This recovery runs to a traditional Conservative narrative - harsh medicine applied by a single-minded Chancellor.

" 'Without the Liberal Democrats, there wouldn't be a recovery.' That's Clegg's election line there", tweeted the very astute editor of this blog during Nick’s stint at Prime Minister's Questions this week and there’s every indication that he’s right to say that’s what we’ll be hanging our hat on in 2015. The same line was tweeted moments later by the Lib Dem Press Office and Danny Alexander has written to members with a similar message after the Autumn Statement

“This recovery would not have been possible without us, and neither would the vast majority of the positive measures in today’s Autumn Statement. In fact, setting the Tory Marriage Tax break to one side, the Autumn Statement is packed full of Liberal Democrat ideas.”

And of course, it also happens to be true (though I don’t suppose that fact will feature much in the comments section of The Staggers), not least because by going into coalition in the first place we provided a more stable government than any other option allowed at a time of great economic uncertainty.

And yet it’s hard to escape the notion that this will be painted as anything other than a Tory victory. This recovery runs to a traditional Conservative narrative -  harsh medicine applied to a patient suffering from a potentially fatal illness, ignoring the cries and the pleas for mercy, because they know what’s good for you. Of course, it’s not precisely true – as Stephen Tall has pointed out, Plan A got abandoned (or at least diluted) some time ago. But that’s how the story is playing out.  And it suits the Tories that it does so, because it means they can own it.

Hence the willingness to dump the "green crap", the huskies, and any notions of hugging a hoodie. Because it’s the nasty party that owns the economic narrative. And let’s not forget, after three years of austerity, recession and economic malaise, that nasty party is only 3 or 4% worse off in the polls than when it was running against the most unpopular Labour government for a generation or more (this morning’s YouGov poll notwithstanding).

I fear the Tories think the nasty party narrative suddenly has traction and electoral credibility. And it’s that single-mindedness that will make it so hard for the Lib Dems to claim any credit for the economic recovery. Not helped by the fact that the 'differentiation strategy' dictates that, for the second half of the parliament, we are meant to distance ourselves from the Tories at every turn.

Sure, Lib Dems will be awarded the odd battle in the court of public opinion – raising the tax threshold, free school meals, pension reform. But the narrative of the Autumn Statement is triumph for Osborne, disaster for Balls. The battle for the Lib Dems will be to get nary a mention at all.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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