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2 July 2015

My Corbyn-Kendall conundrum, Gove’s grammar, Woodhead’s legacy and Ofsted’s expulsions

Peter Wilby on Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal, Michael Gove’s grammar and schools inspectors.

By Peter Wilby

How should I vote in Labour’s leadership election? The candidate closest to my own views – opposition to the benefit cap and to renewal of Trident, for instance – is Jeremy Corbyn. He has no chance of winning, but I could give my first preference to him (as I did for slightly different reasons to Diane Abbott in 2010) and my second to the “serious” candidate I like most. But I am apparently required to consider that a large vote for someone who isn’t wholly signed up to the principles of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman would suggest to “aspirational” folk and leaders of “the business community” that, as a party, Labour is still “in denial” about “reality”.

Which “serious” candidate should I support, whether as first or second preference? If I opted for the one I like most, it would be Yvette Cooper. But I could then expect five years in which the Tories and the right-wing press portrayed her as the puppet of her husband, Ed Balls, rejected by his own constituency electorate and also a former aide to Gordon Brown, a rejected prime minister. Which leaves Andy Burnham, who strikes me as a slippery, Harold Wilson-type figure, and Liz Kendall, who seems somewhere to the right of Ronald Reagan. I confess I am tempted by the latter. At least nobody could call her “Red Liz” and she would be immune to sniping from Blairites. She would probably have the best chance
of securing a Labour majority in the House of Commons.

That, to me, is always the main point of voting Labour. All governments behave in much the same way; forces largely beyond their control (or thought to be so) influence their actions far more than principle or ideology. A vote for Kendall, I can tell myself, is still a vote for Corbyn. If he and those like him are on the government side of the Commons, the voices of the deprived will be heard where it matters, however faintly.


One referendum or two?

The EU referendum is not as democratic as its supporters think it is. The latest reports say that David Cameron intends to secure an opt-out from the Social Chapter. For me, the Social Chapter, with its rules on ­working conditions and employment rights, is the main reason for staying in the EU. I could not back a prime minister who had negotiated us out of it. Nor, since my heart, if not necessarily my head, has always been with the EU, could I vote to leave.

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To be properly democratic, the referendum should be in two stages. First, Cameron should ask whether or not we want to stay in the EU on the present terms. If the answer is no, as Cameron would presumably recommend, he should take his shopping list to Brussels and hold a second referendum on the outcome. As none of this is likely to happen, perhaps those who share my views should agree on a standard format for spoiling our ballot papers.


Insecurity rules

Michael Gove, the Lord Chancellor, has issued rules to civil servants about how to write letters. Examples include: do not ­begin sentences with “however” or “but”; write “met”, not “met with”; prefer the active to the passive voice; cut most adjectives and adverbs. I agree with some rules but not the first, as will be evident from my own writing.

But (sorry, Michael) the big question is why, when they attain powerful positions, one of the first things many men do (it’s nearly always men) is to lay down rules for writing. I did it myself when I became New Statesman editor. For example, I banned “massive” except where used by the science correspondent about objects that were full of mass; I insisted that “refute” was not a synonym for “deny”; I ruled that “of course” was always redundant. Neither writers nor sub-editors took much notice, and I spent too many hours amending copy to strike out the offending words and phrases.

A decade later, I have some perspective. Attempts to control written expression betray insecurities that many of us feel when we start a new job; we want to show ourselves and others that we are in complete command. I now think that, while editors and ministers are right to insist on good style and clarity, they should not lay down pettifogging rules that have nothing to do with either. After all, when a rare “massive” escaped into print, no NS reader misunderstood the writer’s meaning.


The Woodhead way

Chris Woodhead, head of Ofsted from 1994 to 2000, who has died at 68, was another man who wanted good English. He improved school inspectors’ reports no end, expelling the bland educationese (random collections of platitudes and clichés), baffling to parents, that previously characterised them. Alas, he also provided soundbites that delighted right-wing tabloids: 15,000 teachers were failing; “trendy” quasi-­Marxists, trained in the 1960s, had captured the schools; poverty was no excuse for poor exam results. He damaged teachers’ morale, which is always fragile. Worse, he created a climate in which many parents and pupils held teachers in low regard, contributing to the poor school discipline that he deplored.

Schools, where those who directly “consume” the “product” are conscripts, are not like other consumer services such as power, telecoms or even health. In many regulatory roles, Woodhead’s belligerence and determination to avoid “producer capture” would have been welcome. But not in the delicate ecology of education.


Examining Ofsted

Ofsted continues in the Woodhead style; if anything, it has become even more judgemental. It has just fired 40 per cent of its contracted inspectors, who were assessed as not good enough to judge schools reliably. Could we be told which schools they inspected, what the verdicts were, which head teachers were fired as a result and which schools were required to become academies? Could we also be told if those heads will now be reinstated and/or their schools returned to local council control?