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20 September 2010

Liberal Democrat activists revolt against free schools

Proof that the Lib Dems and the Tories remain two very different tribes.

By George Eaton

Lib Dem activists have flexed their muscles and passed a motion opposing the coalition’s free schools agenda and the expansion of city academies. As a new YouGov poll showed that the majority (65 per cent) of party members consider themselves left-wing, it was a reminder that few Lib Dem activists approve of the government’s reform plans.

The vote is largely symbolic, as the Academies Bill has already been passed by parliament, but it’s a warning that the Lib Dem grass roots will do all they can to block “free schools” on the ground.

Speaking for the party leadership (Nick Clegg gave the debate a miss), Sarah Teather may have attacked plans for a boycott as “illiberal” (about the worst charge in the Lib Dem lexicon), but her appeal largely fell on deaf ears.

The lightning speed with which Michael Gove piloted the bill through parliament (“with a speed and urgency normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation”, said the Lib Dem councillor Peter Downes) offended many, but there was also a more profound critique of Gove’s masterplan at work here.

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Downes warned that free schools presented “a threat to the stability, fairness, viability of our educational system”, and lambasted the idea “that the principles of the marketplace can be applied to state-funded education”.

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The defeat isn’t significant enough to spoil Clegg’s big day, but here, if needed, was proof that the Lib Dems and the Tories remain two very different tribes.