An Afghan banana seller in Jalalabad, 2013. Each of the fruit contains more than the RDA of sugar. (Photo: Getty)
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Getting into state school Gove-style, milking the dairy industry and going bananas about sugar

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

Michael Gove has won praise for sending his ten-year-old daughter to Grey Coat Hospital, a girls’ comprehensive in Westminster. It is refreshing that a Tory education secretary has opted for a multi-ethnic urban school (nearly 30 per cent of its pupils don’t have English as their first language) and that his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, has written about “the miracle of our state education system . . . [which] welcomes all-comers”. Vine admits that “snobbery” (her word) plays a part when parents choose fee-charging schools. They are “paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids”.

While giving the Goves due credit, we should note that they aren’t exactly sending their child to the neighbourhood comprehensive. She will travel more than five miles from their home in west London, bypassing several other comprehensives rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.

More important, you need nifty footwork to get your child into Grey Coat. It is not only a Church of England school but also a specialist language school, which admits 10 per cent of its children after an “aptitude” test. It is hugely oversubscribed, with more than six applicants for each place, and the criteria for choosing the lucky ones are exceedingly complex.

More than two-thirds of places are reserved for Christian applicants who have attended church with their family weekly for five years. The child must also acquire “points” from baptism, confirmation, Sunday school attendance and “a role in public worship”. Parents, too, must accumulate points from, say, “elected office in the church” and “practical involvement”.

In November, the schools adjudicator deemed these arrangements neither open nor fair as required by the government’s
admissions code. Working hours or childcare difficulties prevent some families, especially single parents, from participating in church activities, the adjudicator ruled. Did Gove take advantage of an admissions process that breaches his department’s rules?

Following Shephard

While we’re about it, it isn’t true that Gove is the first Tory education secretary to send a child to a state secondary. Gillian Shephard, in office from 1994 to 1997, sent two sons (actually stepsons, but their mother died young and Shephard raised them from infancy) to state schools. But Shephard is a woman, so I suppose she doesn’t count.

Dear dairy

Tesco’s latest cut in the price of milk – it will sell four pints for £1 – has led to another spate of stories about the imminent collapse of the British dairy industry. I do not know enough about the economics of farming to judge the veracity of these reports. I do know that, all my adult life, people have complained about things that, though the complainants do not realise it, are the result of successive (mostly
Tory) governments trying to make the British economy more “competitive”.

Rock-bottom milk prices putting farmers out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1994 of the Milk Marketing Board, which once set prices according to production costs. Small, independent retailers going out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1964 of resale price maintenance (RPM); RPM allowed producers to fix the prices at which their goods were sold. Unhelpful and ignorant sales assistants? Blame the end of RPM again, because retailers now compete on price, not on personal service. The country has repeatedly voted for more capitalism. It should now grin and bear it.

Sugar goes bananas

Is milk good for us? Who knows? Following advice on what to eat has as many ups and downs as following the England cricket team. Keep sugar to a minimum, we are told. Fine, many of us already call it “white death”. Now the World Health Organisation says we should aim to limit it to six teaspoons a day. A banana contains seven teaspoons, the WHO adds. I deduce that I should never eat a banana or, if I do, I should eat half, saving the other half for another day. On either day, I should take care not to eat an orange, which contains four teaspoons. Can that be right?

Tell me Hawaii

Sir Tim Rice seems baffled by the failure of his latest musical, musing that people don’t want new songs, only old ones repackaged. Reluctant to reject a production because it lacks popular appeal, I hastened to buy tickets before From Here to Eternity closes at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. The music was unmemorable, the set colourless (though it’s supposed to represent Hawaii, a tropical island), the choreography ragged, the historical context (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) barely evident. Sometimes, the popular verdict is spot on. Rice should try writing better shows.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.