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A Shadow Cabinet Nightmare Scenario

Everyone concerned for the future of the Labour Party and how it goes into the general election in 2015 wants to see a stronger Shadow Cabinet. Virtually no one, wherever they stand on policy matters, is satisfied with the generally lacklustre performance of the Shadow Cabinet taken as a whole.

Andy Burnham’s recent Guardian interview was one of the few pieces of serious reflection and reconsideration to come from a Shadow Cabinet member since Labour left office in 2010. There was more substance in his comments than the entire output of three years of Labour’s Policy Review. Particularly important was Burnham’s statement that the Labour government was wrong to be captivated by the mantra “standards not structures”. He now believes that it matters who provides services.

It hardly matters where one looks, whether it is defence, foreign policy, pensions and work, or the economy, the Party is hitting well below its weight. But if there is one area where this shortfall in performance and policy stands out like a sore thumb, even against the background of the rest of Labour policy, it is education.

For three years the Coalition, under the energetic leadership of Michael Gove, has been transforming the English education system. It has been a vast process of dismantlement in which schools are being removed from the local authority framework and made into (publicly funded) independent competing institutions.

At least, that’s the theory, and it would be bad enough if it were the reality. In fact, it is worse since many schools are in academy chains which give them less independence than they would have with a local authority – the main ideological justification for decoupling schools from local authorities is therefore a sham. And to top it all one of the justifications for creating chains of ‘independent’ schools is so that they can work within a larger framework to provide economies of scale … you couldn’t make it up. To top it all, academy sponsors (e.g. Harris of Harris Carpets) appoint the majority of Governing Body members.

Academies were Labour’s idea and although it is said that Labour set them up (over 200 by 2010) with the aim of helping the least advantaged, the fact is that their anti-democratic and fragmenting consequences were there from the start. Not only that, but during the period when Gove has been rampaging through the school system Labour has kept its commitment to academisation. Labour’s opposition to the Gove reforms has been toothless. Thus Stephen Twigg’s approach to education is based on the same basic idea as that of Michael Gove: standards will be “driven up” by making schools independent thereby creating a market in which parents will choose the best schools. This is not the way for Labour to go.

And here’s the nightmare. Even though Stephen Twigg’s performance as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education has been appalling, things could get even worse: in my nightmare he is replaced by Andrew Adonis. Adonis, who describes himself as the architect of Labour’s academies, is better than Twigg at handling the media. He has more energy and more experience. Moreover he appears to want the job since: his recent article in the London Evening Standard looks like a job application. So what’s not to like? Only that he is even more resolutely committed to a neo-liberal marketising approach to education than Stephen Twigg. Appointing him would be a case of ‘if the medicine doesn’t work just take more of it’.

If Stephen Twigg remains in the Shadow Cabinet then it means that Labour will continue with its same Tory-lite educational policies into the general election. For education and for Labour that would be a disaster. With Adonis the difference would be that the same thing would be done but with greater determination, energy and ability. In other words it would be a disaster squared. Ed Miliband should appoint someone committed to good local schools accountable within the framework of local democracy.

Adonis has written a book on education. In it he says that prior to his appointment as education adviser, and eventually minister, by Blair in 1998, he had been longing to do something about “the jungle which passed for an education system, from which few emerged with anything resembling an education”. His book is full of such absurdly distorted characterisation without the slightest hint that anyone might have a different view.

The Adonis solution is to complete the decoupling of schools from local authorities. He wants them all to have full independence, to expand (e.g. set up sixth forms), determine salaries etc., as they see fit. He wants private schools to keep their charity status if they take on the role of showing state-supported schools how to do their stuff. If he were to cross the floor of the House he would have to make only minimal adjustments.

What happens to the Shadow Education Secretary post in the forthcoming reshuffle will be something of a litmus test indicating whether Labour is going to be bolder and more radical, stay on its current limp course, or lurch to the right.

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