Last week, I predicted in the Independent that Ed Miliband’s appointment of Stephen Twigg as Shadow Education Secretary would mark a capitulation to Tory policies on free schools. A few Blairites took me up on this over Twitter: I was wrong to pre-empt him before he’d even got his feet under the desk.
It took him all of a day to announce a U-turn on free schools to the Liverpool Daily Post. It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so. When I read Toby Young’s declaration of victory my initial panic was whether I’d keep my lunch down.
There all sorts of reasons for Labour members to kick off. Firstly, there’s the substance of the policy. In Sweden – where they were unleashed in the 1990s – they have simply failed. Sweden has gone backwards in literacy, maths and science according to the OECD. The evidence suggests free schools have increased social segregation.
Indeed, a Guardian study suggests the first 24 free schools are tilted towards middle class areas. A significant proportion are faith based, accelerating the segregation of our kids along ethnic and religious grounds. Free schools are independent of local authorities and are therefore not accountable to their communities.
As I suggested in the Independent, if we are going to look to a Nordic education system, it should be Finland. It consistently tops global education rankings and has an integrated comprehensive system, no selection, few private schools and universal free school meals.
But there are other issues, too. , how is it right to have policy suggested by reshuffle? Without consultation with members, Twigg announces a u-turn to a local paper.
But there is a broader political point Labour members and supporters should bear in mind. I was attacked for quoting Michael Gove bragging about Twigg’s appointment in Parliament last Monday. But the point is this deeply radical right-wing government is committed to building a new political consensus – just like Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher forced their opponents to accept the key pillars of their policy programmes. Using the economic crisis, they want to build a permanent small state consensus.
After World War II, marginalized Tory right-wingers complained about the failure of Conservative governments to unpick Attlee’s consensus. Labour governments came to power and shifted things to the left, they felt, and the Tory administrations failed to reverse it.
Things have now switched. Tory governments are shifting things to the right, and Labour is failing to provide a coherent alternative. The danger is we face a long-drawn out retreat – Labour accepting the fundamentals of what the Tories are doing, and making it clear it is politically impossible to reverse the bulk of it.
Labour activists could find themselves asked to rage against Tory policies, only to have their leaders embrace them a few months down the line. Free schools are just the start – those traditionally called Blairites, but who more accurately could be described as Labour’s ‘surrender tendency’, would have us accept the basic underlying programme of this government, with just nuance and emphasis to distinguish ourselves.
Labour activists therefore have a choice. We can be asked to remain silent as our party leadership slowly capitulates to Tory policies without our consent, out of fear we’ll be accused of attempting to provoke an internal civil war rather than (supposedly!) sticking it to the Tories. Or we can organise and put pressure on our leadership to develop a popular coherent alternative to the Tories at a time of national crisis – as frankly the Tory right cleverly managed to do in the other direction with Cameron.
Twigg’s surrender could be a turning point. Forcing the leadership to return to Labour policy – rather than embrace hard right attacks on comprehensive education – could make similar capitulations less likely in the future. We must not allow Twigg’s surrender to go unanswered.