Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt isn't taking advantage of Michael Gove's weakness in the education debate. Photo: Getty
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What happened to Tristram Hunt, and where is Labour’s radicalism on education?

After a strong start, the shadow education secretary's voice is absent from the education debate, and his party is being reactive and not proactive on education. They have less than a year to turn this around.

When Tristram Hunt replaced Stephen Twigg as the shadow education secretary, many were hopeful that he would present a renewed and real challenge to Michael Gove’s ideological and unpopular reforms. It seemed like a good start for a week or two, Hunt said that he wouldn’t repeal free schools but rather wanted to reform the model, and after that; silence.

There have been several controversial developments in the saga of Michael Gove recently; the "Trojan Horse" scandal, the changes to the school curriculum and Gove making claims about "British values". Recently, Hunt was meant to be at a conference and was understandably unable to make it due to a hectic schedule of media interviews on the unfolding "Trojan Horse" story. However, in the days that followed it seemed as though he never did those interviews, his voice is absent from the argument and consequently Labour’s presence in the education debate has remained negligible. Fulfilling his opposition duties of holding the government to account, Hunt has raised concerns about the behaviour of cabinet ministers and about the content of the school curriculum; but vitally where is his and Labour’s alternative model?  

Whether or not this refusal to engage positively with the education debate is due to the individual failings of Hunt and Twigg or a wider unwillingness, or even inability, to take on the mantle of education reform within the party, is unclear. Michael Gove’s free school programme, for all its similarities with New Labour’s Academies policy, is a different proposition entirely for the future of our education system. Although the funding models of the two systems are very similar, free schools have a level of autonomy from local authorities that Academies never did. This is precisely the reason that the Toby Youngs of this world and other Gove followers are such fans of the policy, but it is also the same reason why it presents such a threat to our education system. This set-up of control regarding free schools is indicative of Gove’s broken ideology; he supports autonomy for schools and a smaller state, but wields significant centralised power and fights to reduce localism.

Considering the stories that are now circling Gove, not least last week’s patronising announcement about British values, it is impressive that he is still standing. For a long time the education secretary has had something of a Teflon coating; he was perhaps the most dangerous reformist in the cabinet and was progressing at speed, apparently unchecked. Now, after the recent reported infighting with Theresa May, Gove’s status is not what it once was and he is far more vulnerable. In this context, why isn’t Hunt taking this opportunity to win, or even just engage actively with the debate on education? This isn’t an argument entirely around religious extremism but rather about the set-up of our education system; the threat of extremism is a sideline to the wider issue of accountability.

This all leads to a central question to which there is no real answer: where is Labour’s radicalism when it comes to education?  The Labour party policy review has work as one of its streams of focus, alongside place and family. Within work specifically there is focus on skills and education, with a view to improve efficiency and satisfaction in the world of work but where is this showing in the party’s education policy? Whatever happened to "education, education, education"? What about reform to vocational education, of which the Labour party has been a champion? Yesterday afternoon, Thomas Piketty spoke at an event in parliament with Stewart Wood. In his talk, Piketty said that Labour must make a priority of investing in education. Considering his popularity and political capital amongst the left, why is the Labour party not using Piketty’s book as part of a push to put education on the front bench of policies for 2015? The fact that there are no answers to these questions means that Labour is being reactive and not proactive on education; they have less than a year to turn this around. 

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred