“Our strategy is quintessential, classic New Labour”: The Ed Balls interview

Alex Smith

Ed BallsEd Balls is the Secretary of State for Schools, Children and Families and MP for Normanton. He met Alex Smith at the DCSF on Wednesday, 27th January, 2010.

The main grapple you’ve had with the Tories recently is on families policy, and on marriage policy in particular. You said David Cameron is cosying up to the Daily Mail with his tax breaks for married couples, and you called Tory policy “total and utter nonsense”…
The Tory policy was incoherent, uncosted, unfair and out of touch. It’s incoherent because I don’t think David Cameron knows what it is. A week and a half ago he said he was having a marriage tax break policy, then he wasn’t going to because it wasn’t a priority and then he changed his mind again within the hour and said he made a mistake and he is going to do it. But he can’t tell us how he is going to do it. I remember what it’s like in opposition: part of establishing discipline in policy-making, on spending and on tax is that you can’t make uncosted commitments. George Osborne said last year that to make uncosted promises is a con, but now we know that while David Cameron wants a tax relief for marriage, he can’t tell us what it is or what it would cost. It’s also unfair, because he’s saying to the widow and to the woman who leaves an abusive relationship, that they are less worthy of support in the tax system. He’s saying to people who co-habit, or people who don’t want to or can’t get married, that those people shouldn’t get tax support. I’m afraid the moral message from David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith – I don’t think from David Willetts, I think he’s worried about this – is that a child in a non-married family is second class.

But children don’t know about the intricacies of tax policy…
Of course they don’t. But David Cameron said last week that it’s not about money, it’s about message. He’s saying that if you’re married, you’re first class and if you’re not married – for whatever reason – you’re not such a good family and not worthy of support. He’s also saying – if he’s going for the transferable tax allowance, which is what he’s promised Iain Duncan Smith – that if you’re in a married family where both people work, you’ll get no support. You only get support if you’re in a one-earner family. We know that is massively disproportionately beneficial to top-rate taxpayers. So if you’re excluding widows and wives in abusive relationships, if you’re stigmatising children in non-married relationships and you’re discriminating against families where both parents work, that seems to be pretty unfair. And it’s also out of touch because it doesn’t reflect the reality of family life in Britain or what people want. What people want from government is not for politicians to say morally here’s a good family and here’s a bad family; they want us to say those are decisions for you. We can have our views: I’m married and I believe marriage is better, I’ve always said that. But I don’t think I should tell families what the right kind of family is. We should be saying we should support all families. That’s the modern way, and that’s what our Green Paper does. The interesting thing about the debate on the Green Paper last week is that David Willetts – who two days before had said he didn’t want a back to basics family policy – spent his whole time saying he wants to support all families, too. Unfortunately, that isn’t the approach David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have taken. They have this rather traditional Tory approach to marriage, which is unfair and out of touch.

So if Labour wants to support all families, how is it going to do it?
First of all, it’s good to have a welfare state which is supporting lower and middle-income families; which recognises the extra burden, pressures and costs of having children. David Cameron says he wants to withdraw tax credits for middle-income families and he wants to take the Child Trust Fund away from middle-income families. That’s not fair on middle-income families and it’s actually not good politics or good family policy. I think it’s better to have a welfare state which we can all be a part of, rather than one only for people on lower incomes. Similarly, he says he wants to return Sure Start to its original purpose, which he says is only to support disadvantaged families. Now, I was there at the beginning of Sure Start, with Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband and Norman Glass, and it was never our intention that Sure Start was only for the poor. Sure Start was a new universal pillar in the welfare state, filling in that gap in the earliest years of a child’s life – years we know are vital for all children. We should be supporting all parents and children, but within that we should be saying there should be more help and greater intervention for children who need it. But I’ve always believed in a universal families policy, of universal child support.

Do you genuinely fear for Sure Start if the Tories get in? There was a report last week that said they would reduce the Sure Start budget by £200million…
The Tories have said they want to cut £200 million from Sure Start, they say from outreach. But we don’t spend anywhere near £200 million on outreach, so they’re obviously going wider than that. That’s why we’re legislating to make Sure Start centres statutory. We think they should be in every community, and something that every family can feel part of. I really want to believe that Sure Start as a universal service isn’t threatened, because it is hugely supportive of our families. But the fact that the Conservatives are saying they want to have a much more restricted version of Sure Start – only for the poorest and with reduced funding – is really worrying.

I’ve got the Tory draft manifesto on education here; I read it on the tube on the way here. This is what we’re up against…
It’s not very substantial, is it? I was expecting something a bit longer and more detailed.

It is short, but let’s go through one or two of the details. On the first main page, it says: “graduates will need at least a 2:2 in their degree in order to qualify for state funded training.” Is that workable; is it sensible?
The teachers’ unions report to me that they’ve had more upset and angry emails from teachers on this one policy from the Conservatives than anything else in the last two years. David Cameron and Michael Gove appointed Carol Vorderman to be their advisor on maths teaching without checking that she in fact got a Third from Cambridge and therefore wouldn’t qualify under their policy. Of course we want to get the best people coming into teaching; that’s why we’ve been raising pay for teachers, raising their training to make it a masters level profession. But what matters is: are you a good teacher? Our proposals around Licence to Teach – having a check every five years on whether people are teaching well – that’s important for teacher quality. But the idea that, whatever happens, teachers have got to have a 2:2 or a 2:1 or a First – there’s no way in which we could have met the teacher shortages that we have done in the last few years if we’d had that policy. David Cameron says it’s “brazenly elitist” but most people will think it’s brazenly undoable.

Is it risky language to use, “brazenly elitist”?
When I started this job, and I was talking about excellence, I would say our mission as a children’s department is to say every child should have the chance of going to a good school, with great teaching and qualifications that make sense to them. We do have real excellence in the state system, but the question is: can we have excellence for all? I got attacked for saying that in the Spectator – I remember it really well. People said: “Ed Balls just doesn’t get education. Excellence can only ever be for the few, and the moment you spread excellence beyond the few, by definition it’s not excellence anymore.” David Cameron’s “brazen elitism” plays into that line – that if you preserve brilliant teaching and learning for some, that’s OK, but as soon as you try and spread that excellence to everybody, it becomes second class. Tory education policy has always traded on the idea of excellence for some; Labour education policy is about excellence for all. The thing that parents always say to me is: “it’s really good that we’ve got more young people going to the top universities and getting As at A Level, but what about my child? My child isn’t so academic; he or she is more vocational. I want my child to have a good chance too, to get good qualifications and a good job.” There’s got to be something for those children too. That’s why we’re always saying we want higher statuses for vocational and academic qualifications combined, that we want more apprenticeships, that we want to have great teaching right across the piece. Contrast that with Michael Gove, who says he’s going to drop all vocational qualifications from school to school comparisons. You may have great results in a range of vocational subjects, but he will ignore that because he only cares about the academic subjects. I’m afraid that’s just totally out of touch with what parents want, and what business needs. It’s an excellence for the few approach to education. That might have been OK in the nineteenth century, but it’s pretty out of touch in twenty first century Britain.

But it’s also about much more than that. Good education is not just about having fantastic teachers, working with fantastic facilities; it’s about that constant ongoing nurturing and training – such as is provided by Future First, an organisation I work with which sends state school kids back into their former classrooms to provide networks into local communities and into the business world, in whichever profession or job those kids want to go into, and points the way into those careers…
Alongside the Milburn Report in the autumn, we are now changing the legal expectations and the inspection and our approach to careers advice. What you just said is right, but all that goes into what makes a great school. When you listen to Michael Gove and the Tories, their attitude is that schools succeed because they’re not in the state system. They think private schools are really good and their rhetoric is all about trying to make state schools more like private schools by getting them away from the state – basically to liberalise. But I think the thing that really makes a difference, the thing that makes a great school, is leadership and aspiration. If you have low expectations, you’re not aspirational for the kids; you don’t get people, as you say, who left school ten years ago coming in and saying to year 8 students: “I was like you, but I worked hard – you can do it too if you believe in yourselves”. That’s what great schools do.

The Tories are also talking a lot about the Swedish school reforms, and say they want to allow community groups to establish co-operatives and volunteer organisations to set up schools. David Cameron has also said he wants to establish hundreds of new faith schools, which I think you were initially in support of but more recently you’ve been more critical of…
When I became Secretary of State here, I thought carefully about exactly where I want to be on the issue of faith schools. I came out and talked about this before conference in 2007, and I stuck with exactly the same line all the way through, which is that faith schools play a hugely important role in our education system and have done for hundreds of years – in fact faith schools were delivering free education for poor pupils way before the state was doing so. There are 7,000 faith schools – a third of our school system – and they are a reality of education in Britain. Secondly, faith schools are often exemplars in terms of diversity or aspiration-raising; the ethos is strong in many faith schools and that’s a good thing. Thirdly, though, faith schools – like all schools – have got to deliver fair admissions according to the admissions code. You can’t have faith schools interviewing parents. Parents should choose schools, not the other way around. And they’ve also got to promote community cohesion. The times when I’ve been tough about faith schools are where we’ve had some concerns about some faith schools not sticking to the fair admissions code. But in saying that they must stick to those codes, I have been supported by the Church of England, the Catholic Education Service and the Jewish Board of Deputies, all of whom know that their legitimacy and our support for them depends upon them having fair admissions and promoting community cohesion. So I’m a big backer of faith schools, and I’ve never wavered in that position. Whether communities locally have faith schools is a matter for those communities. Some communities will want to have a faith school; others will say we don’t think having a faith school is the right thing to do for our community. That’s for them to decide locally in consultation with the local authority. But we’ve supported the setting up of new faith schools and will continue to do so.

In terms of the Swedish model, we should be careful on the judgement and the evidence of what has happened in Sweden. In Sweden all of the local groups setting up schools are doing so as profit-making organisations. They reduce standards for teacher entry, and the evidence is that they haven’t raised standards in schools – if anything they’ve led to greater difference in results depending on the income of the community, to less fairer outcomes rather than more. What the Tories are saying is not simply that they would like more parent groups or community groups to run schools – they go much further than that. If that was all they were saying, I’d support them completely. I back co-op schools, we’ve supported parent-run schools where parents have wanted to do it. But the reality is that most parents don’t have the time or the know-how to run their own school, which is why in Sweden in wasn’t parents and community groups setting up schools, it was profit-making companies. Secondly, what the Tories are saying is that they want to create thousands more school places by having lots of new schools even in areas where the existing schools already have spare places. So they would create another school down the road to compete with the first school, even when there are only enough children to fill one school rather than two. This would have a number of consequences. Firstly, they would have to spend huge amounts of money creating new schools. We estimate £1.8 billion of money would be needed to pay for the extra teachers and places, as well as all the new money for building the schools. Michael Gove and George Osborne say they are going to reduce the schools budget next year – so where are they going to get that money from? How are they going to reduce the overall schools budget and spend £1.8 billion on lots more excess places? The only way to do that is to take money away from existing schools, which isn’t fair.

But they’re also saying that any school in special measures for more than a year will be taken over immediately by a successful academy provider…
Yes, but we set the National Challenge for 246 schools and that’s a much bigger pool than the group of schools in special measures. The Tories are saying that the only time when they will intervene to make a school an academy is when it’s in special measures. We’re saying that if a school is under-performing, government should step in. In their Swedish model, if you’ve got a local school not doing that well but that’s not in special measures, you set up another school down the road, spend a load of money, and wait for the market to undermine the first school. In my history in the Labour movement, I’ve been a strong advocate for the market economy. But not in schools. When you’re choosing a washing machine, the discipline in the market choice is really important. When you’re talking about schools – and of course you need pressure on the school, the headteacher and the governing body when the results aren’t good – but if you simply leave it to the market, it’s massively expensive and hugely unfair. No Labour politician could support that.

I’m a council candidate in Islington…
In St George’s ward

Yeah, good knowledge.
I read you on Twitter, you see. I read all about your Labour doorstep campaigning with Jessica Asato. Saturday and Sunday last week…

I wasn’t there on Saturday – it’s a long story. The reason I bring it up, though, is that from opposition in Islington, Labour has managed to pass universal free school meals for primary school children, which has got a very high uptake already and is very popular. Studies show that the policy improves children’s concentration; it improves their ability to learn; it improves their behaviour and it makes it easier for teachers to teach as a result; and it embeds good dietary habits for the long term, which are then also taken home to the family. It’s a fantastic policy. Why isn’t this part of the discussion about what’s going into Labour’s manifesto nationally?
I think we have been pretty forward with this policy over the last year. It was originally done by Labour in Hull and the Hull evaluations were as you said – but the Liberals then came along and abolished it.

And they want to cut it in Islington as well…
And they want to cut it in Islington. For some reason, the Liberals don’t like this policy, and the Tories have actively opposed what we’re doing. Alan Johnson – who is an MP in Hull, and who was my predecessor here before he became Health Secretary – and I talked about this, and we decided that in order to make the case for doing it nationally, we needed to have a really strong evaluation in different places. So we found money in our two departments to do free school meals pilots for all primary school children in Newham and in Country Durham. We’re also widening the group of children who qualify for free school meals in Wolverhampton. And as you said, in each case it’s really popular. There’s nothing to stop local authorities deciding to do it themselves. You made the decision to do it in Islington, which is great. In the Pre-Budget Report, the Treasury said we will expand the number of pilots and look to do it in every region, so we can get a bigger evaluation. So from where we started three years ago, when Alan went to Health and I came here – and when it was stopped by the Liberals in Hull – we’ve gone to a serious evaluation and some real political momentum behind it. If we can show that it’s cost effective in terms of – as you said – health, concentration, standards, learning, combined with the fact that it’s really popular, then it will become increasingly powerful. For me there are times when it’s important for us to say that we will do more for those who need more help, but there are also times for us to say that a universal welfare state is part of our offer, part of what we believe in. With school meals, the impact and the benefits you can get are really important – whether you’re on a high or a low income as a family. So there’s a real case for universal free school meals. Bang the drum loud in Islington, because it’s a really good policy.

We will. I had an email today from the Vote for a Change coalition…
They’re emailing me all the time, telling me how I ought to campaign against myself…

Well, there’s this big poster released today, which they’re going to put in your constituency, saying “Don’t be a Block’Ed: Ed Balls talks about change, but he doesn’t want you deciding how he gets his job”. Their website this week says: “Reform is a test of leadership, and we’re ready to expose those who have flunked it and let down the voters – and if that requires a copy of Photoshop, a van, a few dozen square meters of paper sporting the Schools’ Secretary’s face, then all’s the better.” Where do you stand on electoral reform? Why are you accused of blocking it?
First of all, I’m in favour of Labour winning the election, and I think that’s where Labour MPs are, where Labour councillors are and where Labour supporters of electoral reform should be as well. I think we should be working together to win, rather than concentrating on some of these silly stunts. The second thing is, I’ve been on the record supporting electoral reform since 2005. After that election – when we had a lower turnout, especially amongst young people – we had the discussion about how we get people to see that their vote makes a difference. I said at our 2005 conference that I thought we should look at AV, that I supported it and I thought it was the right thing to do. The Prime Minister said at conference last year that we should have AV in the manifesto, and as I understand it that’s what we’re going to do. There’s been some speculation in recent weeks about whether or not there might be an amendment to the Bill going through Parliament at the moment, but there’s been no cabinet discussion about that that I’ve been part of. So quite why I’ve become somebody who is supposedly opposing this…I don’t quite know where that comes from. So it’s really important that we’re not involved in stunts; that we set out our position clearly and in a united way. But the idea that I personally have been opposing or blocking this is just not right.

But there is an opportunity now with what I call the democratic deficit…
In 2005 it was about turnout and participation, even before expenses – that was when I was advocating it.

But some in the cabinet see this as a more urgent opportunity. Ben Bradshaw, for example, has publicly said that he wants there to be an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Is that totally off the cards?
As I said, I’ve not been part of any cabinet discussion about the Bill. There are in Parliament lots of different views from people who say we should have a change to a form of PR, to people saying they support it but not now while our priorities are jobs, the economy and public services, to people who don’t support AV at all. I think there is a clear consensus around having this in the manifesto. In terms of bringing in an amendment, that is something which the business managers, the people leading the bill, the whips and the cabinet would all have to discuss. I’ve not been part of any cabinet discussions on that, and we’d have to think really hard about whether or not there’d be unified support for it, whether it would work for us in the run up to the election – and I have an open mind on that.

Rachel Sylvester wrote a really interesting piece in the Times recently that said that while Peter Mandelson is advocating a Labour campaign based on aspiration and public service reform – the New Labour pitch – you’re pushing much more for the dead argument of Labour investment versus Tory cuts. How should Labour fight the election?
If you want to understand our electoral strategy, I wouldn’t start from Rachel Sylvester’s column. My view on this is that one of the big mistakes the Tories have made is that they’ve allowed themselves to withdraw from support for families on middle incomes, advocating instead cutting the Child Trust Fund, withdrawing tax credits, ghettoising Sure Start, reducing spending in schools because of their Swedish model. These are policies which are anti-middle income and anti-aspiration. So I am absolutely in favour of fighting the election on aspiration, and on Labour being the party which unites lower and middle income families together in a collective view of the universal welfare state which backs their ambitions. Secondly, within that, the Tory policy for an inheritance tax cut for a small number of millionaires is deeply unfair and completely out of touch with what most families want. So we need to contrast our aspiration for the many against the Tories’ support for the aspirations of a small number. Somebody said to me a few weeks ago that talking about “the many and not the few” is “Old Labour”. I had to point out to them that this is the new Clause IV, the one we wrote in 1995 to replace taking control of the commanding heights. So whether it’s a million more home owners, lower interest rates, a universal welfare state with tax credits going above £60,000 a year, our strategy of supporting middle and lower-income families is quintessential, classic New Labour. We need to be on the side of the first time buyer, the young person going to university, the kid who wants an apprenticeship – that’s core aspiration for the many, not tax cuts for the few.

Then, on investment versus cuts, I’ve been very clear to schools that we’re going to have to go through a tough spending round in which schools are going to have to make difficult efficiency savings. No part of government is going to be immune from having to make difficult cuts from some parts of their programmes. But at the same time, the Tories say they’ll cut the deficit now, which means spending cuts now. Because they oppose the National Insurance rise and the top rate of tax, they’d have to have bigger spending. On the other hand, what we’re saying is that it would be ridiculous to jeopardise the recovery by cutting now when actually it’s important for us to be investing now. Every election is different and these are of course tougher times. But we will be the party in the election that will say: we’ll get the deficit down, in a fair way; we’ll take some difficult decisions on spending; but we’ll invest in key priority areas – schools, policing, the NHS – which the Tories would cut. This debate about whether we should talk about investment versus cuts as in 2005 or 2001 – well, no, it’s a different world from 2005 and 2001 and there’ll be a different election campaign. We’ll go into the 2010 election as the party of growth and jobs, of fairness in taxation and of investing in key public service areas. The Tories will go into the election threatening growth and jobs, not supporting fair tax rises and therefore advocating big and drastic cuts in core public services now. So, is that investment versus cuts? Well, it’s a matter of taste; I think it’s Labour versus Conservative.

Finally, we’ve heard very little about your position on selecting Labour candidates by some form of primaries. Where do you stand on primaries, be it for parliamentary candidates, or for leadership candidates in the future, or for 2012 London mayoral candidates…
Personally, I am cautious on open primaries. I’m not saying there are no circumstances under which they might be a good idea. I’ve been through selections myself, and I think that people join political parties because they sign up to a purpose and some values and that when people vote for a party they’re voting for a set of policies and they expect candidates to have been chosen because they reflect those values and those policies – and that’s a very important role for the membership of the party. Being a member of a political party is an important thing; we want more people to be members of parties, and to be active in politics, and I think it’s important that we choose Labour candidates who are taking our values out there. If as part of that process we have open public meetings and discussions, that’s a good thing to do. I’m a very active local campaigning MP and I always do lots of public meetings. But when it comes to selections, actually it’s important for members to be choosing. Now, that isn’t to say there can’t be circumstances in which we have a wider participation of supporters, and that’s something that constitutionally we’d need to think through. But the idea that anybody who wants to register by midday can turn up and vote for the Labour candidate – as the Tories are doing it – I’m quite cautious about that.

I think the most legitimate form of primaries we’ve seen so far is the one in which the Labour membership gets to select a shortlist, from which the wider public can choose…
But the wider public’s role is to vote in the election from a range of political parties. So I remain cautious about the idea.


OK, I’ll leave it at that. You’ve got a department to run…
Thanks, Alex. Can I just say, LabourList is flourishing and agenda setting, and that’s very powerful. It’s brought a huge change over the last year. Two years ago, we weren’t on the field when it came to new media. Now, I think we’re ahead of the Tories in new communications. Our people are younger, they’re in the real world, they’re young parents or they’re students, so we ought to be ahead of them in new communications. LabourList and LeftFootForward are really, really good. A year on from Labour people really grasping this stuff, the reality is now reflected in what’s going on.

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