Rebecca Long-Bailey will be missed by teachers, parents and anyone else concerned about children’s wellbeing. Her tenure as Shadow Education Secretary was short but she nonetheless presided over our only major victories against this Tory government. It was possible because she united the industrial and political wings of our movement.
Teachers like me were worried when Boris Johnson announced his plans to send more children back to school before it was safe. We all wanted children back in school as soon as possible but the government’s plans seemed reckless. Many aspects simply did not add up. For instance, they wanted to double or triple the number of classes in each school but they could not explain where we would find the additional space.
We questioned whether the plans were in children’s best interests. Why prioritise the youngest children who were least able to maintain social distancing, and whose social and emotional development could be affected by the experience? The government had set a target before it had a proper plan. It had to be opposed.
The National Education Union joined with other trade unions, parent groups and local authorities to do just that. We were backed wholeheartedly, unreservedly and immediately by Rebecca Long-Bailey – a position sadly not shared by all senior figures in our party. This support from the shadow cabinet gave our campaign confidence and legitimacy. After all, we were a group of parents and teachers taking on the government on its flagship policy. The task might have felt insurmountable. The backing of the official opposition helped make it seem possible.
And it was – the government was defeated. The government’s own advisers broke rank to advise against schools reopening and when the day came, most schools stayed closed. Of those that did open, none had full classes. Parents had voted with their feet. The government then shelved its (even more dangerous) plans to open schools more widely still a few weeks later.
With hindsight, this looks like it was inevitable. But it wasn’t. The government thought its plans would be implemented, and many in our party thought they would too. But the combined force of the union mobilisation, an unflinching commitment to scientific evidence, and the political legitimacy of the Shadow Education Secretary was enough to defeat them.
This was the biggest defeat that this government has suffered. More importantly, it saved lives. The second biggest was probably the government’s U-turn on free school meals over the summer. Again, this fell under the education remit and, again, it followed the same pattern: a people-powered campaign from the unions (and Marcus Rashford!), given political legitimacy by the official opposition.
The right draws its power from wealth; we on the left channel ours from the people. Rebecca Long-Bailey was so successful in her role because she harnessed the strength of the alliance between the industrial and political wings of our movement. It goes without saying that trade unions are the natural allies of the Labour Party, sharing a commitment to the transfer of wealth, power and opportunity to ordinary people. When the unions are strong, Labour is strong too.
Despite not being an affiliate, the National Education Union is one of the best examples of this. The NEU enacts social justice trade unionism. This means it is interested in not just its members working conditions, but wider questions concerning child poverty or international solidarity. Its interests and views overlap with those of our party, which has tangible effects. While the NEU does not call for a Labour vote, its campaign on school cuts nonetheless robbed the Tories of half a million votes in the 2017 general election. The NEU fought for its values, and the Labour Party benefited. We are partners in the same struggle. Rebecca Long-Bailey understands this.
Rebecca Long-Bailey has now been replaced with Kate Green. There are rumours that Keir Starmer and she face pressure from the party’s right-wing to “stand up to the NEU”. The argument, so it goes, is that Boris Johnson has “weaponised” Long-Bailey’s vocal support for the NEU so the party should put distance between itself and the union.
This would be to play into Boris Johnson’s hands. Having seen the NEU and Labour Party defeat him twice in as many months, it is no surprise that Boris Johnson wants to undermine that partnership. The NEU is increasingly becoming the most trusted voice on matters of education and children’s wellbeing. It would be a catastrophic error to break our alliance now.
I am hopeful that we won’t. There are questions over the justification for Long-Bailey’s dismissal but given that it was allegedly unrelated to education there is no logical reason why the party should now change tack. Green may not share Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Corbynite background (she chaired Owen Smith’s ill-fated leadership challenge), but many of her positions on education are shared by the union. She has a strong background in the Child Poverty Action Group and her support for the ‘Abolish Eton’ campaign even outflanks the NEU from the left.
By working closely with trade unions, Rebecca Long-Bailey set an example for shadow ministers. We need more like her.