"Ed used to hang with the geek crowd." Photo: Getty
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It’s GCSE results day, but what did our party leaders get in their school exams?

As hundreds of thousands of teenagers will receive their GCSE results today, we look back to see what our party leaders achieved at school.

The former Conservative Prime Minister John Major famously left his comprehensive school, Rutlish, in London with three O-Levels: history, English language and English literature.

In November last year, he lamented the “shocking” domination in Britain of those who were educated at public schools.

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class.

“To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

Although Major did actually achieve three further O-Levels (in maths, economics, and, rather bafflingly, the British Constitution) after leaving school, it is still unusual for a political leader to have a poor academic record. Let’s look at how our current party leaders fared at school:

 

David Cameron

We don’t know exactly what marks the PM received in his O-Levels, but we do know the Eton-educated Cameron is a chillaxer by some accounts. Although he did sit 12 O-Levels – quite a high number even by today’s standards – he described his results as “not very good”. And although he passed them all, his pre-sixth form academic record has been described as “average”.

His biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning quote a fellow Etonian, recalling: “We were convinced there would never be an Etonian prime minister again. I certainly didn’t think Dave would have a go at it. His only acting roles at school were as a serving-man and as a girl. He was never outrageously extrovert – just quietly popular.”

One of his teachers, John Clark, is also quoted: “He didn’t draw attention to himself. He wasn’t effusive or loud… [he was] very much a late developer academically”.

However, things looked up when he sat his A-Levels, achieving three As at A-level, in history, history of art and economics with politics. Shame the UK’s triple A credit rating slipped for the first time since the Seventies under his leadership…

 

Ed Miliband

According to a quick sweep through Google, the Labour leader’s O-Levels aren’t common knowledge, though he did pass them. However, he scooped four pretty good A-Levels – AABB in maths, English, further maths and physics. He beat his brother David, who got BBBD in his A-Levels.

Both Milibands attended Haverstock School in north London, a state school that has been labelled by the Mail as the “Eton for lefties”:

“… Mr Miliband is hardly a typical comprehensive pupil; and Haverstock, at the time, was not exactly a typical comprehensive school.

“He is a product of the Labour aristocracy. His old school has been mischievously dubbed ‘Labour’s Eton’ – a finishing school for future Labour politicians.

“Apart from Ed’s elder brother, David, alumni include the former New Labour MP Oona King, Tom Bentley (a special adviser to Australia’s Labour prime minister Julia Gillard) and the author Zoe Heller (who described her mother as a glamorous Labour activist with ‘Stalinist inclinations’.)

“Nor was Haverstock Hill in the middle of a sink estate. Its catchment area included the middle-class Hampstead intelligentsia.”

However, the Observer journalist Andrew Anthony, who attended the school, wrote of it in 2012:

“It amuses me now to see the place snipingly referred to as "Labour's Eton". For although it's true that in the 70s the school contained a significant minority of children from the Hampstead and Primrose Hill intelligentsia, violence was rife in and out of the classroom, police were regularly called to the school gates to quell mass fights, and the ethos was embarrassingly unacademic.”

In Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s biography of Ed, they quote the head of English at Haverstock, Nikki Haydon, who recalls a large and distinct “middle-class contingency” in the school. They also quote a contemporary of the Labour leader during his schooldays:

“Ed used to hang around with the geek crowd.”

 

Nick Clegg

The wisecrack goesNick Clegg failed his biology A-Level – he couldn’t find a backbone.

This cannot be confirmed.

The journalist Harry Mount, who was at school with the Lib Dem leader, wrote this about how he was as a student:

“Nick Clegg wasn’t one of the more intelligent boys when he was at Westminster School from 1980 to 1985.

“The clever pupils at Westminster — one of the best, and most expensive, schools in the country, costing £32,490 a year — were ‘accelerated’. That meant they did O-levels after two, as opposed to three, years.

“Clegg, one of the less bright sparks, was selected for the three-year option. Still, that didn’t stop him making it into Robinson College, Cambridge, in 1986”.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.