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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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

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

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit