Credit for being progressive?

One of Tony Blair's greatest legacies could be a £45bn programme to rebuild or renovate every second

One of the more remarkable things about this government is its unerring ability to get no credit when it does something progressive. It launched the largest public building programmes in decades, but was slammed for using PFI. It's invested billions in health and increased the number of doctors being trained, but finds itself loathed for wrecking the NHS and dooming junior doctors to unemployment.

Building Schools for the Future (BSF), a £45bn programme to rebuild or renovate every secondary school in England, is a case in point. Since it was launched in 2004 it's been largely ignored, to the extent that many people don't even know it's happening. When it did hit the headlines in January it was for the wrong reasons, as the newly public spirited Tory party slammed the programme for failing to deliver.

This lack of attention is odd because, if all goes to plan, BSF should be one of the Blair government’s biggest legacies. There are more than 3,500 secondary schools in England. Ofsted reckons that two-thirds of these are decrepit enough to be damaging to children's education: dingy, poorly heated Victorian blocks, or post-war monstrosities with leak-prone roofs. By 2020, the government claims, BSF should have swept these schools away and replaced them with bright new buildings fit for the 21st century.

Nor is it just about bricks and mortar: BSF, we’re told, is "transformational". IT will become an integral part of school life; new schools will become community centres and encourage regeneration. Even bullies will be tackled, by denying them darkened corners in which to terrorize their victims. As Tim Byles, the chief executive of the agency delivering the programme, Partnerships for Schools, recently told a conference: "We have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference."

All this sounds like exactly the kind of stuff that a modern progressive government should be doing. So why hasn't it been more of a PR coup for a beleaguered Labour party?

For one thing, there’s been a certain amount of political backlash. Every council is producing a long-term plan to determine what schools it needs and where to put them; that can mean closing old schools as well as opening new ones. This has sometimes led to painful headlines, like when the Manchester Evening News noticed that Salford council’s glossy schools prospectus was jam packed with images of one of the secondaries facing the axe.

Also, as the Tories have rather gleefully noted, the programme is rather nastily behind schedule. The government now reckons that, of 100 new schools originally planned to open this year, just 14 will be finished by April 2008.

The delays are largely down to the hellish complexity of the average scheme. Local councils are expected to team up with private companies in a 10-year Local Education Partnership (LEP). Individual schools will then be funded through PFI, the scheme under which private companies finance and manage schools under 30-year contracts.

But a vocal minority of councils have refused to follow this route, complaining that it is too slow, too expensive, and gives private companies too big a role in education planning. A lot of construction firms hate the LEP idea too, complaining that the only ones to benefit from the mounds of new paperwork will be the lawyers. "What do we know about education?" one chief executive said recently. "All we want to do is build schools."

Despite these problems, there have been signs of progress. After a slow start the deals have started to sign, and the first new BSF school, Speedwell College in Bristol, is due to move into its new buildings this September. What’s more, council officers and contractors alike still evangelize about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity BSF represents.

But this may turn out to be the biggest problem of all: that the programme can't possibly live up to the huge expectations of it. "The government doesn't just say it's fixing up the schools, it says it’ll make every school better and results will go up,” says Elaine Hall, an educationalist at Newcastle University. “But we're in ‘all children are above average’ territory here." The fear is that efforts to sell the programme as 'transformational' mean it could disappoint, however good those new buildings are. “Already people say it's not delivering,” notes Hall.

BSF has the potential to be one of this government's greatest legacies. But the way it's going at the moment, it could be forgiven for being quietly glad it’s going unnoticed.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of Public Private Finance, a magazine that covers the private sector's role in public infrastructure. A recovering financial journalist, he also contributes to the Sharpener group blog

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times