Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Source: Getty
Show Hide image

A bad press for Farage doesn't automatically help the Tories

Conservatives are desperate for Ukip to falter but they may be underestimating the stubborness of the anti-politics vote.

It cannot do Nigel Farage good to have his character and finances queried on the front page of the Times for a second consecutive day. The question is how much harm it does. Some Ukip supporters will be receptive to the party’s line of rebuttal, which is that the whole thing is a smear by agents of the Tory party disguised as journalists. After all, wouldn’t it be just like the Establishment to use its house journal to attack the leader of anti-Establishment resistance?

That defence has the virtue of consistency with Ukip’s wider message, but it also comes across as cranky. The list that the party published yesterday of links between senior figures at the Times and the Conservative party is in the idiom of conspiracy theory website. The same technique, applied with a little more imagination, could probably be used to demonstrate that Times journalists are connected to 9/11 and Mossad.

Clearly, Ukip doesn’t enjoy being treated like other political parties, which is to be expected from a party that touts itself as the antidote to politics. Less clear is how resilient Farage is to such treatment. There is a certain kind of populist swagger that is immune to bad news. Scandal, gaffe and embarrassment bounce off the likes of Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi (in his hey day). Perhaps the Ukip leader is made of similar non-stick stuff?

The Tories hope not. The party has a notional plan for clawing back support from Ukip but there isn’t much evidence yet that it works. The method is to remind Farageist voters over and over again that the kinds of things they like – a tougher immigration policy; a referendum on leaving the EU; benefit crackdowns – can only be delivered in practice by a Conservative administration. A ballot cast for Ukip only nourishes the Europhile Ed Miliband. Some errant Tories can be wooed back to Cameron’s camp with this argument but not, I suspect, as many as the party’s strategists hope.

The mistake that some Conservatives make is in thinking that Ukip, being a relatively new party, commands tenuous loyalty. In this view, the smaller the body in the political firmament, the weaker its gravitational pull; so if a giant, such as the Tory party, moves in close, voters are dragged into its orbit. This is the traditional arrogance of the ancient party towards parvenu challengers and recedent suggests it is misplaced. The presumption that voters have nowhere else to go is usually wrong, as Labour has found in many of its former seats now held by Liberal Democrats; also in Bradford (Respect); in Brighton (Green) and, above all, in Scotland, where the demise of the Tories accompanied a surge in Nationalist support.

The tidy Labour-Conservative duopoly has been slowly unravelling since the 1950s. There remain strains of ancestral allegiance in the electorate. There are families where the political stripes of Blue or Red are worn tribally, like football colours. But that trend is in decline. Anyone who has interrogated voting intentions on the street – whether during the various by-elections of this parliament or at other times – will testify to high levels of contempt for politics in general and the more familiar parties in particular. One such recent conversation stuck in my mind. On a trip to Cambridge I got into a conversation about politics with a woman – early 30s, with young children – who had voted Lib Dem in 2010. The reason: “They had never been in before.” That attachment had since been shed. The current intention was to not vote at all or to support Ukip, because “they’ll shut the gates.”

Anecdote is a poor instrument in political forecasting but the episode was instructive as a reminder that people do not follow the laws of uniform swing that party strategists want them to obey. I have had numerous similar conversations: a Muslim taxi driver from Slough who is voting Ukip because the newer class of immigrant is giving the more established immigrant communities a bad name; a nurse in Manchester who is voting Ukip in protest against government cuts, the bedroom tax and high energy bills. (Miliband’s campaigning on those issues was discounted because Labour “caused all of the problems.”)

Voting intentions are rarely set by comparing a list of personal policy preferences with a party’s menu of promises and plumping for the best match. The Tory strategy for winning support back from Ukip presumes people have some flowchart in their heads that chases specific aims and arrives at the conclusion that returning a Tory MP is the most efficient way to see those aims realised. But what if one of the overriding aims is not to support the Tories? What if the function of voting is not to choose the government, because governing parties - “they” - are all the same, but rather to express a preference for none of “them”?

In that case, the exposure of Farage as a charlatan, or just another politician, will not be sufficient to steer voters back to more mainstream candidates. It is a fallacy to think that all Ukip supporters are the lost sheep of Labour or Conservative parties who have gone wandering mid-term and can be rounded up in time for a general election. It is also a mistake to try telling them they are Tories and just haven’t noticed it yet. Some MPs have realised this and wonder whether the penny has dropped in No10. “The leadership is terrified of Farage and doesn’t really have a clue what to do about him,” one young backbencher recently told me. Another prominent Conservative warns that anger against Cameron and the political elite is entrenched enough that even a rising economic tide will not wash it away: “It can’t be bought off with an improvement in living conditions.” (A view the same source describes as “deeply seditious” in terms of the official party narrative.)

If Ukip loses its anti-Establishment allure, there is no guarantee that its votes will seep back to the old parties. Farage didn’t create the anti-politics mood in the country, nor does he own it. Meanwhile, David Cameron hopes that voters who doubt Ed Miliband is up to being Prime Minister will come to realise that the Tories are the only credible option on the ballot paper. He may be disappointed. The lesson of recent history – in by-elections; general elections; local elections; European elections – is that large swathes of the British public really don’t need much encouragement to vote something other than Conservative.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”