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

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.