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Milibandism: Politics and Expediency

It’s a truism of politics that a cabinet or shadow cabinet reshuffle does not necessarily mean a change in political direction. And that much is true of the first statements of intent from new appointees Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt. You don’t need me to tell you that Rachel’s intent to “be tough” on joblessness, and Tristram’s pledge to stick “rocket boosters” on Gove’s free school wheeze have not proven palatable with much of the Labour faithful. So what’s going on?

Well, to be truthful, nothing has changed at all. Rachel’s pledge to be tougher than the Tories is exactly where Liam Byrne left off. The idea the long-term unemployed will be compelled to take a guaranteed job on pain of losing JSA payments is absolutely nothing new. Let’s be clear, this is light years ahead of the Tories basically reintroducing the workhouse in their dole-for-work scheme and though it’s not without problems the policy is a step in the right direction. After all, isn’t the age-old socialist response to unemployment the provision of guaranteed jobs for those who find themselves out of work?

What’s true for the DWP shadow holds for the education brief. Tristram’s comments about free schools (and a more thoughtful piece on LabourList) and the expansion of parent-led academies bears an uncanny resemblance to what went before. And by before I’m not talking about Stephen Twigg but the changes to schooling under the Blair/Brown governments.

I don’t follow education policy closely and don’t know enough about the area to offer an in-depth critique. But I for one cannot understand why schools have to be handed over to academy sponsors and have all democratic accountability removed for them to “innovate” and be “successful”. In Tristram’s Stoke-on-Trent Central patch, and across the city as a whole, most of the secondary schools are or were seriously under-performing. Some of this is down to characteristics common to former industrial cities: an ingrained antipathy toward formal education, and the inequality disadvantages working class kids have to overcome to name two. But this does not explain everything – a number of schools were problematic, up to and including the calibre of some officers overseeing them on behalf of the city council. Yet these issues, which are far from unique, could be tackled without handing over schools and their curriculums to unaccountable academy providers, or allowing parents to set up their own simon pure free schools, thereby effectively opting out of the schools system – especially when doing so is horrendously expensive.

Part of this policy agenda comes from the belief that a mixed school sector will drive up standards through competition. The second bit is the widely-acknowledged but seldom-spoken belief in senior Labour circles that comprehensive education is a busted flush, and that certain academies and free schools (with their independent selection criteria) reintroduces grammar schools by the backdoor. But the third part comes back to the grubbiest motives of all – votes. From the standpoint of winning an election in the first-past-the-post system in which comparatively few swing seats hold the balance of power, it makes absolute sense that Labour is not seen to be advocating the closure of schools, especially successful ones.

If the fates of Twigg and Byrne are anything to go by, I expect Rachel and Tristram will get it in the neck between now and 2015. But the thing to remember is that they’re not properly masters of their domains. With perhaps the sole exception of Andy Burnham at health, what is emerging is ‘Milibandism’. If Labourism is an outcome of principle wrestling with expediency, Ed’s politics are very much in this tradition. The lines peddled right across the shadow cabinet are as much as the leader’s views as those who occupy the position. Labour’s rejigged free schools policy is Tristram’s AND Ed’s. Labour’s strong words against the non-existent shirking masses are Rachel’s AND Ed’s. Trident replacement and HS2 are as ‘Milibandist’ as abolishing the bedroom tax and freezing energy prices. It is qualitatively different from what the Tories have to offer, but is always and all times conditioned by electoral calculus. Hence when necessary, as it was during conference season, the stick was bent leftwards to keep the faithful happy and firm up leftish swing voters. Now we’re in the long campaign, expect more announcements and interventions like Rachel’s and Tristram’s aimed at tickling the fancies of soft Tories and soft UKIPers.


  1. Robert says:

    What can I say told you so.

  2. No more than your good self, sir; I haven’t given education a lot of attention , mainly due to the fact that my son left school in 1984. But one firm belief/principle that has always stuck with me through my working life is that comprehensive education,having been fought for ,for years, should be supported to the hilt and that there should be no way back for Grammar schools(the Tories sop to the lower middle classes,something resembling Public School education, without the fees)
    The move to create Academies,was as you say, a backstairs tactic of the Bliarites and Liberals like Adonis to try and reintroduce selection(with the funding of rightwing millionaires/billionaires and religous nuts/creationists, carpet(baggers) tycoons, with one aim, to remove from Local Education Authority control and democratic accountability and transpariency. One other aspect of Free schools and as fundamental an aim as removal from L.E.A. supervision(certainly not aired by its backers, and shamefully discussed very little by the Labour leadership) as proven by the reactionary practices of the Islamist school in Derby that is threatened with closure is the aim of bringing in non qualified teaching staff into the classroom to reduce staff costs and therefore to reduce the power of the teaching unions, eventually throughout the country. Succeeed in that aim and you reduce the Education budget eventually, always the aim of the Tories and to their shame New Labour, and now by the looks of things,despite his progressive noises Milliband and his coterie of Bliarites.

  3. David Melvin says:

    No real surprises – but as anyone who opposes austerity and privatisation is effectively disenfranchised. Not the ‘Spirit of ’45’ more like the “Spirit of ’97”. The left in the Labour party seem to have disappeared since the successful motion on renationalisation of Royal Mail was ignored by Ed Miliband.

  4. James Martin says:

    “…and that certain academies and free schools (with their independent selection criteria) reintroduces grammar schools by the backdoor.”

    Yes, but it is not so much about selection criteria (significant numbers of maintained faith schools have been playing that particular middle class chasing game for years, and as LSE discovered some years ago it is the ONLY reason why their results are slightly better nationally).

    No, it is far worse. Many academies will be using university technical colleges (UCT’s) or the smaller ‘studio schools’ to off-load their worse performing 15%. These kids will then be forced into vocational routes only (funny how Gove opposes vocational qualifications publically, then encourages them through this wheeze), but for the schools that have got rid of them (even in some cases to a portacabin in the school grounds) their A-C maths/english results will improve significantly compared to the remaining maintained schools (who can’t access this scam). And yes, it is the return of secondary moderns in all but name.

    Hunt has shown that he is as stupid as Twigg (and boy, that’s some achievement), as the real movers behind free schools and academies (which have always been the same thing in legal terms – a free school is just a starter rather than a converter academy) are the large chains being run for profit (or their executives massive salaries where they claim to be ‘charities’), or the religious extremists of one shade or another intent on enforcing religious segregation in the playground. You can probably count the number of genuinely ‘parent-led’ establishments on one hand and still have some fingers to spare.

  5. James Martin says:

    Oh, and of course, funny how ‘comprehensives’ get such a raw deal when the most successful schools in the country tend to be fully comprehensive. Mind you, they are also known as public schools, and most of the current cabinet went to one…

  6. Sandra Crawford says:

    The free schools programme is a back door to the privatisation of school assets and services.
    Hardly anyone is unaware of a school in their local area that has not been given to a trust, or had its playing field sold. In fact, the benefactor of Progress, Lord Sainsbury has been buying playing fields, according to one commentator in the (Observer Guardian online Sunday 13th Oct).
    I wonder if that is why Labour supports the free schools programme.
    New Labour have got the same blind faith in the freemarket as Thatcher had. They do not consider that privatisation is not about education – it is about the free lunch that the rentier classes can make out of running public services for profit. The neoliberals have a blind spot to the predatory rentier classes that Miliband professes to be wanting to suppress.
    Once schools are privately run they will become selective and discriminatory. Without democratic controls such as the LEA, parents will have less power, not more, particularly if they are poor.
    You only need to look at Chiles privatised education system to see that it is a disaster – especially for the poor who get a menial education.

    This policy goes against all that Labour stands for – itwill lead to gross inequalities.

    Just the sniff of this had Guardian readers very angry – and I am sure it is a vote loser amongst both left, liberal and Tory voters. Teachers as well. Some said they would now vote Green.

    It is a very bad policy. It even goes against the equality aspirations of the Lisbon treaty because it will lead to discrimination.

  7. Gary Elsby says:

    I live in Hunt’s Constituency on the border of another one outside of his City.

    50% of the children go outside of the City to High school and 50% stay to attend the nearest.

    The 50% that go outside enter a school with an average of 75% A*-C.
    Those that stay enter a school guaranteed to entertain children with a score of 33% A*-C.

    My children entered the 33% school and I was a Governor for around 7 years.

    The head teacher pushed the school up to 50% after two years after a massive investment by Blunkett and a new build extending the school.

    I asked how this was possible and the reply came that each time new and more money became available, the results went up.

    I asked if she thought money was the key to higher grades for children suffering in a de-industrialised City?

  8. Robert says:

    I remember my old school we use to feed the rats at dinner time. Then I and about six others became ill the school inspectors moved in and they found that rats had got into the kitchen and had been eating the food.

    They decided to put down rat poison but it was no good so they decided we should all be taught in Porta-cabins in the end they transferred us to different schools and our education improved, the old school had no heating no showers, in the winter you had to wear long johns to try and keep warm. I hated that school and just could not work once we went to the new school boy what a difference, then after repainting the old school they sent us back.

    Without doubt the building and the type of school does affect your education.

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