Heatwave: but part of the East Anglian coast contains some of England's poorest-performing schools: Photo: Getty
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Ukip does well in areas with failing schools

Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Waveney all fall in the area of East Anglia where Ukip recorded its best results in local elections. They also contain some of the country’s worst schools.

Polls show that low educational attainment and a feeling of being “left behind” are common among Ukip voters. A 2013 YouGov survey found that over half of Ukip voters had left school at 16, compared to 37 per cent of all voters. They were also half as likely as the average voter to go to university: just 13 per cent have a degree. This feeling of falling behind could spread to the children of Ukip voters, too: many of Britain’s worst-performing schools are found in the party’s strongholds.

Failing schools used to be concentrated in the inner cities but this has changed. Late last month, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published findings showing that disadvantaged pupils in inner London are 21 percentage points more likely to achieve five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grade C and above than those elsewhere in England. And this is not just the “London effect”: the report also noted “improvements in other large cities across England, such as Birmingham and Manchester”.

In the past 15 years, efforts to improve education have given priority to big cities, through schemes such as London Challenge and Excellence in Cities. Both academies and the Teach First programme, which encourages top graduates to teach in struggling schools, were designed with the inner cities in mind.

Away from England’s biggest cities, the picture is different. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, recently described pupils in coastal areas as “invisible”. Take Great Yarmouth, a coastal town in Norfolk. Here, 47 per cent of all pupils are at schools that Ofsted describes as “unsatisfactory” or in need of improvement. Five years ago, 33 per cent of pupils attended such schools. Compare this to London, where 16 per cent of pupils are in schools that are either unsatisfactory or require improvement, a fall from 29 per cent in 2009.

Last month, the Department for Education named the areas with the worst GCSE results. The three poorest performers – Great Yarmouth, Waveney and Norwich – are all in East Anglia. In 2013, less than 47.5 per cent of the pupils in these three areas gained five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grade C or above.

The poor quality of state education supports Ukip’s wider argument that outside our cities, large parts of the country have been neglected. “We’re left out of everything,” says Matthew Smith, a county councillor and Ukip’s parliamentary candidate for Great Yarmouth. “It could be schools, it could be policing, it could be hospitals. Everything seems to boil down to being left out and forgotten. We’re at the end of the line and no one’s interested in us.” The Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth, Brandon Lewis, also refers to the sensation of being at the “end of the line”: clearly, the notion resonates.

Such feelings have driven Ukip’s surge in popularity. Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Waveney all fall in the area of the east coast where Ukip recorded its best results in local elections in 2013 and 2014. Ukip gained more votes than any other party in wards in Great Yarmouth in 2013, and it is one of its top target seats for next year’s general election.

The links between failing schools and Ukip may run deeper. If low educational attainment correlates with Ukip support, as Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin argue convincingly in their book Revolt on the Right, the struggling schoolchildren of today in Great Yarmouth could end up becoming the Ukip voters of tomorrow. 

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

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum