Robert Halfon is a former Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, is MP for Harlow, and is honorary President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, Harlow MP and former Apprentice Minister.
It is true that I am obsessed with ladders. Perhaps it is because the difficulties with my legs make it almost impossible for me to climb up one.
Some years ago, when I first proposed that the Conservatives use a ladder as our party symbol instead of the tree, I remember being called in to meet a senior party official. I was told that such things were not really important, as symbols were ‘about process’, not real substance – and of no interest to the public. I politely disagreed and went on my way.
Later that day, I had a ‘telephone call without coffee’ from the Whips Office, who told me that Downing Street were not over-pleased with my suggestion.
So, what I was discouraged to do with the Conservative Party, I decided to do as Apprentice Minister.
I had pictures of ladders in my office for each area of my brief: apprenticeships, skills, further education and careers. The ladder of opportunity for apprenticeships had five rungs: Transforming the prestige and culture around apprenticeships, widespread quality provision, meeting skills needs, social justice. The final rung was about jobs, security and prosperity. The space between each rung highlighted what the Government was doing in terms of progression.
I even managed to persuade the excellent National Apprenticeship Service to change the Apprentice Badge from a simple ‘A’, to an ‘A’ with a ladder on the sign (see illustration right). These became hugely popular with young apprentices, who understand what the ladder of opportunity meant to them.
FE week, a hugely important Trade Press journal, joined in the fun. First, amusing cartoons; then a wonderful tweet showing an old black and white video of Mickey Mouse climbing an ever-growing ladder that never ends. However, some months later their key Annual Apprentice Supplement had a picture of a man on a ladder, painting the words” ‘The Ladder of Opportunity’ (I now have that frontpage hanging in my Commons Office). Slowly the BBC, some FE and Apprentice organisations were beginning to use the ladder of opportunity in various terminologies.
In every speech, and interaction with the media, I framed the whole argument on skills and apprenticeships around the ‘Ladder of Opportunity’. The role of Government was to help to bring people to the ladder, to hold the ladder, and assist apprentices to climb up it. So: doing an apprenticeship meant that an apprentice would get the education, skills and training that he or she needed to climb the ladder, to get jobs and security for their future. Of course the ladder of opportunity had to have substance – and it did. Millions of quality apprenticeships are being offered, over 90 per cent of apprentices get jobs or go on to additional education. We have 900,000 apprentices, the highest ever in our island’s History.
The ladder of opportunity was a simple way of setting out a message on apprenticeships and skills in a way that could be understood.
The ladder, with hands gripping the sides, could work for the Conservative Party too. At a time when we have significant difficulties in explaining what we are about, having a ladder as a symbol (with hands around it), would give us that immediate recognition. It would fit with our Party’s history (Churchill’s ‘the party of the ladder not the queue’), and our philosophy of aspiration.
The current so-called ‘tree’ gives no clue as to what we are about – except perhaps, as Barack Obama joked, our favourite vegetable might be broccoli.
Of course, symbols won’t succeed simply in themselves. But, if we use this time of party reform to re-craft our narrative, message and policies as the party of the ladder, giving all our citizens, especially the disadvantaged, the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity to get the jobs, prosperity and security for themselves and their families, then we may have a chance of winning the hearts of the public once again. Let our Party symbol represent a real picture of what authentic conservatism is about.