Ed Miliband. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Ed on ed: what would a Miliband government do for education?

The time seems to be right for the Labour leader to lay the foundations of a new, more confident, education policy for his party.

In the end, perhaps, it passed with more of a whimper than a bang. Or rather, the bang was elsewhere – with the question of Tory tax evasion, especially as Ed Miliband chose to use the closing passages of his schools speech late last week to follow up on the Fink question. (Fair enough – more tax equals more public spending.) As for the substance of the Labour leader’s first major statement on schools in a long time, the press focused on class sizes and later, on the comparative spending promises of the big parties. (The person to trust on this is Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network, here and here.)

But Ed on ed is worth a closer look for other reasons, in particular the subtly changing Labour narrative on schools, an area the new Labour leadership has had real difficulty with during the Gove years. Here, buried beneath the required talk of aspiration and skills for a global economy, were some welcome messages about what a Miliband government might actually do.

Ed has always been very proud, and vocally so, of his comprehensive education and, if memory serves me right, this was one of several speeches he has chosen to give at his old school, Haverstock. (It amused me the way that a couple of reporters gingerly described it as “Haverstock comprehensive” – I mean, can you imagine them writing of Cameron that he gave a speech from “Eton private school?”).

For all Ed’s personal commitment, Labour still can’t claim comprehensive education for itself, as it does the NHS, when, for all their problems, both public services should be natural territory for the party of One Nation. Andy Burnham has said that his biggest regret as shadow education secretary during the early manic Gove period, was not to champion comprehensive education.

But things have shifted in interesting ways over the last four years. Not least, the right of the Tory party has claimed non-selective excellence for its own. Key figures like Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange or Sam Freedman, former adviser to Gove, may welcome “diverse providers” or even full-blown privatisation, but they passionately believe that far from advancing social mobility, academic selection merely entrenches existing advantage. Gove, Freedman has claimed, “normalised comprehensive education for the Tory party”.

All this helps Ed to lay the foundations of a new, more confident, Labour education policy. So, too, does the visible failure of the Gove bus – I rather like the current NUT hash tag on this theme, #thewheelscomeoff and the destructive stand-off between the teaching profession and Gove that finally did for the erudite, excitable ex-minister.

This leaves some sensible mainstream themes for Labour to pick up and run with, including the need for qualified teachers (duh!), continued professional development, planning for need in terms of new school provision, proper careers advice, and keeping class sizes at 30.  

At the same time, there is a shift away from the axioms of the New Labour years. Yes, Miliband namechecks the original city academies but he is unequivocally critical of the expensive and wasteful academy conversion and free school programmes of the Gove years.

He goes even further by saying that the answer does not lie in structural reform but in world class teaching, a broad and balanced curriculum, and local not central oversight. All the elements, in fact, of a good local school – if not a terribly exciting speech. He is also very good on the ways that the hastily imposed eBacc has led to the tragic abandonment by many schools of arts options when all the evidence shows that a good arts education boosts academic attainment.

No mention, either, of the role of local authorities in education, another long standing negative touchstone for Labour, but Miliband is robust about the need for local oversight and collaboration. Enter the Blunkett plan for a new Director of School standards, a kind of supra local authority position.

It was a shame he couldn’t mention the urgent issue of teacher workload nor tackle the question of fair admissions, a growing problem, as more and more schools with their renowned “freedoms” are able to pick and choose the pupils to teach. And, of course, no word on the disgracefully divisive 11-plus in 15 selective authorities, with its catastrophic implications for the education of poorer children in those areas.

Melissa Benn is co-author of a new e-book “School Myths: And The Evidence That Blows Them Apart”, available now on Kindle

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.