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5 October 2012

Michael Gove is guilty of hypocrisy over the Labour heckler

Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled" is at odds with his support for free speech.

By George Eaton

Education provided a rare flashpoint at the Labour conference after a Year 11 pupil addressing delegates was heckled from the floor. When Joan al-Assam, a pupil from Paddington Academy (established by the last Labour government under the Academies programme), praised the arts programmes offered by her school, a woman in the audience shouted: “They do that at comprehensives too you know”.

The intervention was immediately criticised by other delegates, with one woman responding, “Leave her alone”, while the girl, apparently unfazed (hecklers are part of political life, after all), continued with her speech. But that didn’t stop Michael Gove issuing a press release calling for the heckler to be “expelled” from Labour. He said:

Heckling a schoolgirl because she goes to an academy is disgraceful. But it also shows the real face of Labour – a party where aspiration and achievement gets booed. Stephen Twigg needs to condemn this and the culprit must be expelled from the party [emphasis mine]. This pupil is a credit to her school and proof that we need to expand the Academies programme.

It’s a demand rather at odds with the Education Secretary’s previously stated support for free expression. During his much-lauded appearance at the Leveson inquiry in May, Gove declared:

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time

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Hear, hear. But judging by the response of Gove and other Conservatives to the heckler, she should have been frogmarched out as Walter Wolfgang was when he shouted “nonsense” at Jack Straw during the 2005 conference. Of that incident, David Cameron declared: “it lays bare the full absurdity of the Orwellian New Labour project“. Indeed it did. But isn’t there something similarly “Orwellian” about Gove’s call for the heckler to be “expelled”?

The test of our commitment to free speech is that we grant it to those with whom our disagreement is at its strongest. It is one that Gove has failed.