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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.