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23 September 2019

Labour’s commitment to abolish private schools isn’t all it seems

Campaigners bounced the leadership into accepting a policy whose bolder proposals will be ignored.

By Patrick Maguire

No policy announcement at this year’s Labour conference will generate quite so much coverage as the proposal to abolish private schools, which was approved by delegates here in Brighton yesterday evening, to the delight of Momentum and the broader left.

In theory, Angela Rayner and the Labour leadership are now bound to work towards the integration of independent schools into the state sector via three big measures: the abolition of charitable status, public subsidies and tax privileges, a 7 per cent cap on university admissions from private schools, and the redistribution of their endowments, properties or investments. It is, on paper, a big win for the Abolish Eton campaign.

Yet bold though the policy prescription drafted by campaigners is, it is unlikely to be adopted in full. This is partly because of its radicalism. The suggestion that a Labour government would expropriate the assets of private schools alarms some of those who will ultimately be responsible for translating last night’s vote into a workable programme of policy as much as it alarms the party’s critics. The private view of key players in and around the shadow cabinet is that it simply isn’t going to happen. 

So why are they so confident that, when push comes to shove, Rayner will be able to avoid committing to the more contentious proposals set out in the motion approved by conference yesterday? Sources say that the ambition of campaigners could well be their undoing. They point to the contradictions in the three demands the motion makes. A Labour government could not, they argue, withdraw tax privileges from private schools and cap university admissions at the same time as redistributing their assets wholesale. It is, they say, an either or.  

“The motion is so badly worded that it gives us quite a lot of wiggle room,” was the conclusion of one of those tasked with implementing it.

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During the compositing process, John McDonnell – who publicly endorsed the motion – indicated that he could not support the motion in its original form. Yet the campaigners brooked no compromise. The leadership briefly considered opposing the motion altogether, but eventually arrived at the conclusion that accepting it was the least worst option: abolishing the tax-free status of private schools is already party policy, and its bolder proposals can be avoided altogether. As one source said: “We’ll do the first and withdraw the tax privileges, and ignore the rest.”

That will make life easier for the shadow chancellor and shadow education secretary. But it will do nothing to dispel grassroots fears that have played out very publicly over the past few days: that, when it comes to their more radical aspirations, the leadership’s preference is to moderate rather than facilitate.

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