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27 February 2015

Tristram Hunt: “You wouldn’t go to an accountant because they really like numbers“

Ahead of Ukip's conference in Margate, Tristram Hunt says that Labour can use the politics of aspiration to attack Ukip.

By Stephen Bush

Tristram Hunt has returned from the Medway in a pugnacious mood.  

The shadow education secretary has described Ukip, who are seeking to supplant Labour as the second force in Kent, as a “clarifying force”, and I sense that the trip to Kent has the same effect on him.

It’s certainly raised his antipathy to the Prime Minister a notch.

“[Cameron’s] chasing the Ukip vote, particularly in the southern marginals, in an unedifying way,” Hunt tells me. “A more one nation approach to education policy, a more strategic approach, it’s been thrown by the wayside.”

But, he feels, it’s made the task of opposing the Conservatives easier than it’s been for some time.  The real challenge, he says is not “the debate about whether to have one more grammar or an academy or a university technical college”, but “disadvantage from the earliest years, and David Cameron, when he had a more progressive mindset, realised that. And David Willetts realised that.”

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He pauses. “And Michael Gove realised that.”  Willets is on the backbenches now and headed to retirement, Gove has been exiled to the Whips’ Office, while this new, Crosbyfied incarnation of Cameron seems less and less interested in his one-time mission of improving school standards.

“They’ve dropped the ball on the standards agenda,” Hunt says, “partly because of the dead end they have on qualified teachers, when we know the quality of teachers is the most important variable [in schools].”

I’m not immediately convinced. My state school had plenty of indifferent teachers, I say, and didn’t his school, UCS, have lots of high quality but unqualified teachers?

“The vast majority of teachers [in the private sector], 95 per cent actually, are qualified by the state,” he replies, “You wouldn’t go to an accountant because they really like numbers, you’d want them to be qualified.”  And it’s about more than that: “It’s a symbol that we value the role of teachers.”

But it’s Ukip, rather than the Conservatives, who are on Hunt’s mind.  “What’s so startling about Ukip is how anti-aspiration they are,” he tells me, “there’s an anti-knowledge, an anti-education ethos [to Ukip]”. “They’re against working class kids going to university, they’re against the aspirational target [of 50 per cent going to higher education].”

“We’ve got to shine a light on Ukip policies,” he tells me, “It’s worth investigating and challenging their policies, particularly from a Labour perspective, because this is what energises us.”

Hunt has been one of the few Labour frontbenchers to realise that the Ukip phenomenon, as he puts it, has to be understood as part of a “broader cultural feeling of being left behind” rather than just seeing the discontent in places like the Medway, or Skegness, where a former Conservative redoubt now looks distinctly vulnerable to a Ukip challenge, so I’m surprised to hear that he now thinks that policy might form part of the response to Nigel Farage’s party.

“When you go on the doors and actually you speak to young parents and young families who actually are feeling the impact of high levels of migration, who have concerns about their ability to get on,” he explains, “They’re [also] really concerned about their kids and their ability to get on. They’re angry if their school is in special measures and making sure we speak to the aspiration that they have for their kids is I think a strong argument to make to those voters.”