Labour needs to be bolder on education

The real "One Nation" opportunity.

Education is one area about which Ed Miliband has had little to say – but it is actually rife with radical "One Nation" policies. 

If Ed Miliband was nervous before his "One Nation" conference speech, he at least knew that a few lines were guaranteed to attract the desired response from his audience. Like “Michael Gove”.

The pantomime boos that greeted Miliband’s mention of Gove’s name showed the animosity Labour holds him in. But while criticisms of Gove’s policies as Education Secretary might be an expedient way of getting a few cheers, they miss a deeper point. Whatever the merits of Gove’s solutions to British education, he is at least right in his underlying diagnosis that something isn’t working. The attainment gap between private and state education is the highest in Europe.

Labour’s educational policy is much better known for what it opposes – above all, Gove’s free schools - than what it actually supports. The party’s policy on academies, the centerpiece of New Labour’s education reforms, remains somewhat confused. This had better change, and fast: while both Labour and the Conservatives exaggerate the significance of free schools, academies are where Gove’s true radicalism has been. After the last election, there were 203 academies; there are now 1957 (compared to 79 free schools). Labour needs to outline exactly how it would deal with these new academies and indeed formulate its vision for education in this country. Miliband’s outlining of plans for “the forgotten 50 per cent” is certainly a positive step. But there remains a fundamental problem: Labour needs to lay out coherent ideas for how to improve state schools when substantially greater investment isn't deemed a viable option.

For inspiration, Labour needs only to turn to the NHS. As schools do, the NHS has to compete with private alternatives. Why do the public have a better perception of state hospitals than state schools? One of the reasons is that, while the best teachers can move away from the state sector that is not true of the best doctors – the principle that those who work in the private health sector must also contribute to the NHS helps mitigate differences in the quality of care provided in the two. Doctors have been state-subsidised to do their degrees (as is still the case under the new tuition fees) and it seems only right that their skills should benefit all, not just those who can afford it.

The idea is, perhaps, the very embodiment of "One Nationism" at work. And it could relatively easily be mimicked where schools are concerned, mandating that all teachers spend at least half their career in the state sector.

For all the life advantages private schools give their pupils only so much can be apportioned to simply better facilities. More than anything, parents pay for the best teaching; and, while there are many excellent teachers in the state sector, a disproportionate number of the best teachers are at private schools. A sensible policy to amend this would provide a compelling vision of how Labour plans to improve the quality of state schools.

This could be accompanied by asking more of private schools in return for their charitable status. While opening up school playing fields is a worthy idea and should be extended, there is ample scope for more imaginative thinking: for instance, mandating that private schools invite pupils from nearby state schools to special classes for Oxbridge candidates.

Labour can't allow its educational policy to be caricatured as being mere defenders of a status quo that isn't working. Just as investment provides no guarantee of tangible improvement in education, so a shortage of it needn’t stop state schools getting better. Indeed, an absence of money has actually created a climate rifer for radical educational ideas. As Labour proclaims to speak for "One Nation" it needs to be proposing them.

 

Ed Milliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.