Tristram Hunt's focus on social mobility shows Labour's direction on education. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is the Labour party finally beginning to engage on education?

After years of hardly trying to counter the coalition’s regressive education reforms, Labour finally seems to have begun to make a move.

At the start of this week Tristram Hunt gave a speech saying that the next Labour government would stop the reforms to A-levels introduced under Michael Gove and that the Conservatives were "turning the clock back on social mobility" with their policies. This intervention marks the first time that Labour has begun to counter the government’s reforms on a more substantive and ideological level since the start of the coalition.

The government’s reforms which scrapped AS-levels were often unpopular because, according University admissions staff, they unfairly affected students at comprehensive schools. Comprehensive students made the fastest progress between GCSE and AS-level, therefore improving their prospects when applying to University. In essence, the reforms had an adverse effect upon access to higher education by penalising comprehensive students.

It’s been a long period of quiet from Labour on education, both from Stephen Twigg and Tristram Hunt, but now that Michael Gove has been replaced with Nicky Morgan, it seems that tide is beginning to turn. Previously, Hunt has attacked the government on teaching standards and qualifications, something which he reiterated on Monday. Hunt’s attack on the impact of reforms upon social mobility however represents something more substantial; he is pinning his colours to the mast and saying that social mobility will the core of One Nation Labour’s educational ideology.

Of all the different policy fields covered by the One Nation banner, education has been the slowest to evolve and to form a coherent narrative. Where is the equivalent of Andy Burnham’s "whole-person care"? Maybe the idea of "whole-person education" or even "whole-life education" could be the election slogan for a set of education policies that promote the joint ideas of social mobility and access to education. Whatever they decide on, it is clear that education policy has not been a priority for the party.

Instead of creating a comprehensive alternative to the coalition’s dogma of educational reform, Labour has previously focused mostly on technical points and in so doing created a consensus in Westminster around education by virtue of barely even engaging with the debate. By now taking on the reforms on an ideological level, Labour is starting to flesh out its philosophical backbone on education.

This week’s speech of course only represented the beginnings of something happening with Labour’s education policy; it was not by any means a major policy overhaul. There is still lots of work to be done and questions to be answered; what are they going to do with vocational education? And how will they make it stick? How does education fit into the overall party message? What we saw this week was indication of what will underpin Labour’s education policy for next year.

In an interview today for Buzzfeed, Tristram Hunt specifically said that, "the party has always viewed education as a vehicle for social mobility". The Labour party was the party that introduced the Open University, an institution specifically designed to widen access to education, to give the opportunity of social mobility to more people. It was also the party that introduced comprehensive education, which aimed to helped those left behind by the educational elitism. If Tristram Hunt is serious in his belief of social mobility being created through education, he will need to put his money where his mouth is and live up to the legacy of the party with something bigger and bolder than keeping AS-levels. Hopefully this week’s speech has signalled the start of this change in education policy and is not just a one-off.

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

Getty
Show Hide image

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.