Bill de Blasio, the new Mayor of New York, was the ‘star speaker’ at this autumn’s Labour conference. As a strident left-winger, especially by American standards, the Conservative attack lines almost wrote themselves. The Independent reported that:

“Mr Miliband’s invitation is bound to provoke renewed Conservative claims about his own left wing prospectus at next May’s general election. Mr de Blasio has been been dubbed by his critics as “as red as Ken Livingstone”. The Tories, who have branded Mr Miliband “Red Ed”, are bound to point out Mr Blasio’s support for higher taxes and claims that he is “anti-business”.”

Yet there’s one critical area which deserves special attention: de Blasio’s dire attitude towards education reform, and the humiliating reversals he has suffered as a consequence.

One of previous mayor Michael Bloomberg’s worthier struggles, compared to his private wars on salt, soda and smoking, was his attempt to break the stranglehold of the city’s over-mighty teachers’ union on education. Alongside other members of his administration he did what he could to empower head teachers and foster non-union ‘Charter Schools’, amongst other measures, in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

Since de Blasio’s election, according to this excellent overview in the City Journal, “the political will to reform Gotham’s schools has collapsed.” The UFT is amongst the richest and most influential Democratic donors in New York, and during his campaign de Blasio attacked a former city official and leader of a successful Charter School chain, arguing that she had “to stop being tolerated, enabled, [and] supported.” The lady in question, Eva Moskowitz, had been run out of office by the UFT after she held open hearings on teacher contracts.

The above-linked article sets out in some detail the case for education reform – New York’s school system has been getting more expensive and less effective ever since unionisation in the 1960s. Charter schools dramatically outperform their unionised counterparts but their numbers are artificially restricted by UFT lobbying.

But de Blasio does not simply provide another stick with which to beat Labour’s shameful alignment with the vested interests of the education sector – his experience also demonstrates the pitfalls that can face such a strategy, for the Mayor’s attempts to roll back education reform have suffered a “humbling” setback.

Moskowitz, rather than slipping quietly into the night, has assembled a formidable political coalition of her own to defend school choice. A critical element of it is ethnic minority parents, who recognise that whilst unionised schools are great for teachers they are failing their own children. At the other end of the spectrum she is backed by Andrew Cuomo, the current Democratic governor of New York State. The City Journal describes her campaign:

“It came down to a public-relations battle between Moskowitz and the mayor. She led a protest of mostly minority students and parents in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, and she organized an Albany rally, at which Cuomo gave an impassioned speech supporting charter schools. A charter advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools, launched a $3.6 million advertising blitz attacking the mayor. The tabloids had a field day covering this Democratic civil war.”

Not only did the Mayor’s poll ratings take an immediate tumble, but the state legislature overruled his attempts to limit charter school growth

It’s important not to overstate the triumph – the UFT is far from beaten, and managed to outlast a three-term reform-minded mayor without giving too much ground. Nonetheless, the battle of New York should remind us that reform is a policy that can drive a wedge between two foundational elements of the progressive coalition: public sector trades unionists, and disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

Reformers already know that it is children from poorer or under-privileged backgrounds who suffer most from inadequate state schooling, but Moskowitz demonstrates how effectively reform can be leveraged to show parents from such backgrounds that we, rather than producer-interest Labour, are on their side.

If we can get a hearing at all, that is – it must be remembered that it was a “Democratic civil war”, and not a Republican insurgency, that rallied the city’s minority parents to defend New York’s free schools.

It also raises a dilemma for the localism agenda. It was the state governor who overruled de Blasio and brought New York City’s education policies closer into line with the interests, and stated preferences, of its citizens. If Labour-dominated local authorities collude to resist free schools in the areas that need them most, will a Conservative education secretary be prepared to do what Cuomo did?