The more radical and effective a minister is, the more fire their brief inevitably draws from the opposition. Partially that’s due to radicalism setting the media agenda, inexorably drawing the other side into a fight on your own terms, but it’s also because these are the areas an opposition thinks it will be easiest to open up a clear gap between “us” and “them”.
So it has come to pass in the present parliament. The areas where the Coalition has been at its most bullish – fiscal policy, welfare reform and education – are also those where Labour has squealed the loudest. These are the sites of the most intense battles, sometimes of policy but more often of personality, of the last four years.
Michael Gove has put his inimitable stamp on a brief which had previously been important but not Westminster’s most exciting job. He reinvented the bureaucratic, mealy-mouthed “Department for Children, Schools and Families” as the Department for Education, bulwark against “the blob”, slayer of sacred cows.
Labour have mostly focused on the style and language of his politics – generating plenty of heat about advisers or anecdotes, but limited light as to what they would do instead.
Of course, as a Tory libertarian I’m unlikely to be singing the praises of an NUT agenda in education – so you don’t have to take my word for it that Labour lack even something as tangible as that. Instead, let’s look at their policy problems through the words of the New Statesman, an organ which would be singing the praises of a left-wing alternative if one existed.
Last September, three years into Project Miliband, the NS ran a devastating editorial, headlined “Why is Labour so quiet on education?”
Its target was Stephen Twigg, the then Shadow Education Secretary (I know – we’ve all forgotten Stephen Twigg at one time or another, you’re forgiven):
“[Twigg] is absolutely right in his full-throated support for education as a powerful agent for social mobility and in his assertion that it is of intrinsic importance to the party. Some great rhetoric and sentiments were there but the rest of the speech was marked by a conspicuous lack of policy. Against the backdrop of a conference bursting with serious and concrete policy announcements, why did Twigg’s department leave such a gap in the formation of Labour’s manifesto?”
Sounds came out when he spoke, the magazine conceded, but precious little else:
“…he repeatedly pointed out failings of the coalition government and, although he was not wrong, his speech paled against many others from frontbenchers who announced specific policy ideas to combat the issues raised.”…”it seems that Twigg has largely ignored the onslaught of policy coming from Michael Gove. The damage free schools are doing to our education system through underinvestment in areas that need it most and Gove’s regressive curriculum reforms are criticised by Twigg, but not sufficiently countered with hard policy.”
The writing was on the wall, or at least in the New Statesman, and that seemed to be enough. Mere days later, Twigg was gone and there was a shiny, new Shadow Education Secretary (Twigg wasn’t put down – he now resides as Shadow Minister for Constitutional Reform, a kind of Battersea Dogs’ Home for politicians. There isn’t even anyone for him to shadow, for goodness’ sake.)
The NS was excited about the change, publishing a new editorial, “Tristram Hunt could allow Labour to regain control of the education debate“:
“…the appointment of Tristram Hunt as shadow education secretary could help Labour regain control of the debate. As an admired historian, he has an unquestionable commitment to academic rigour; his eloquence and media savviness will also allow him to challenge credibly the self-confident Mr Gove.”…”Now, at last, Labour is offering a third way.”
“Michael Gove is the most destructive Education Secretary we have known in our lifetime. Yet Labour has not laid a glove on him in three years and has allowed him to pose as the friend of the underprivileged child. That’s why Stephen Twigg had to go as shadow education secretary and why his successor, Tristram Hunt, could just be an inspired appointment.”
So all was set to change – no more “gaps in the manifesto”, no more lack of “hard policy”. From now on, Labour wouldn’t just be reacting to Gove’s actions, it would be setting the agenda.
Fast forward to the start of this month, and we find another New Statesman leader article on education: “Why is Labour silent on education’s Berlin Wall?” Gove had made a speech about the dominance of the privately educated in British society:
“Yet what does the Labour Party have to say about this Berlin Wall in education? What is it prepared to do to breach it? Why…is it politicians of the right who are prepared to speak out on this issue while Labour, with the admirable exception of Andrew Adonis, remains silent?”
Uh-oh. I’m not a TV historian, but the fate of Twigg suggests to me that this doesn’t sound good.
“We invited Tristram Hunt to reply to or comment…He declined. Could it be that Mr Hunt, the son of a peer who was educated at an exclusive private school in London, feels compromised by his own background and education? If so, this is a dismal state of affairs and underlines the timidity and incoherence of Labour’s education policy.”…”One is in no doubt what Gove stands for and what he wants. He can be wrong-headed but he has the courage of his convictions. Could one say the same of the shadow education secretary?”
That didn’t last long. In short, after years of failure to develop an education policy under Stephen Twigg, Tristram Hunt has simply continued the same act but with a better haircut.
To be fair, a few Labour positions have dribbled out since the last election. Here they are in full:
- Free schools are bad. Labour would instead have “parent-led academies”, which might look quite like free schools but, importantly, will have a different name.
- Existing free schools would be allowed to continue. However, they would have much greater managerial “involvement” from local authorities – in other words, they would lose the very freedom they were set up to have. So they would be allowed to continue, but just as schools, not freely, in practice ending the programme.
- New “parent-led academies” would be allowed to be set up, but only where there is deemed to be insufficient supply of places. This would remove a central objective of the whole free school project – driving up educational standards in other schools through competition even where there are enough places available. The whole Govian analysis is that just providing a school place is not enough – children must have the chance to get a place at an excellent school. Labour’s policy would remove that mechanism.
- No academy, free school or parent-led academy would be allowed to employ “unqualified teachers” – ie teachers without a formal teaching qualification. This is a pledge intended to buy off the NUT, who are desperate to protect their status. In so doing, Labour would ban state schools from hiring the many “unqualified” teachers who help the independent sector to achieve success. Some of the teachers who helped Tristram Hunt get to Cambridge would not be allowed to teach kids who couldn’t afford to pay fees. Somewhat hypocritically, Hunt himself teaches classes in schools in his constituency – and has no teaching qualification.
It’s small wonder that, with four bullet points of scrappy policy to show for almost four years in opposition, even the New Statesman isn’t impressed.