Sunday 13 October 2013

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.

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Robert said...

The charitable interpretation would be that if Labour said go easy on benefits it would cost votes. Better to use tough rhetoric while drafting a sensible plan.

People on the left might be more willing to give Lab the benefit of the doubt on this if Lab hadn't set up WCA in first place and given Atos the contract.

Phil said...

Indeed, Robert. I think the party does need to eat some humble pie over the work capability assessment. I've worked with people on the sharp end of it, I've seen the test myself and as someone without any medical training or personal experience of disability, I can see how utterly inadequate it is. I think the best people to determine whether someone is work fit or not is a patient's doctor - someone who has access to and is aware of their medical history.

Of course, I'd prefer a citizen's income to replace all social security payments, but that's a way off yet ...