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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle