The power of the parental vote was badly underestimated by Theresa May’s campaign, in her botched election of 2017. Her team disastrously failed to understand how school funding cuts would play on the doorstep. It was a mistake that she would learn to regret.
Tory canvassers across the country reported the issue coming up time and again. In the weeks that followed polling day, analysts concluded that it had played so badly that it may in fact have cost May her majority.
Parents were enraged by the issue, and campaigns such as the NEU teacher union’s School Cuts successfully fanned these flames.
It came as little surprise, therefore, that when Boris Johnson moved into Number 10 with an election looming very large on the horizon, he moved quickly to neutralise the issue by promising to pump billions into the education system and return funding to the levels last seen before the coalition’s austerity kicked in.
The best, however, that Johnson and his education secretary, Gavin Williamson, could surely have hoped for was to take the issue off the table, giving their doorsteppers an answer when faced with voters angry over stationery shortages at the local primary.
But then along came the Labour conference last week, and Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner’s promise to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a radically reformed inspection regime. These changes would include no one-word judgements, and no whole-school inspections.
It seems to me that Labour (and the teacher unions that advise it) have underestimated the popularity of Ofsted among parents. Surveys tell us that parents – who make up roughly 14 million potential voters at any one time – both trust it and use it.
So I struggle to see why Labour couldn’t have simply promised their reforms without abolishing the brand. This would have been popular among the hundreds of thousands of teachers who vote, but would have meant very little to the average voter. But no.
Is it possible that Corbyn and Rayner have managed to make education a hot topic in the imminent election, and one that will instead play well for the Tories?
Johnson certainly seems to think so. His conference speech was littered with educational attack lines, and he highlighted the abolition of Ofsted as an example of Corbyn and Labour being weak on standards. In the election that is surely just around the corner, I would expect this to be repeated time and again.
Labour is abolishing Ofsted: they are weak on educational standards.
There is every likelihood that, by insisting that Ofsted itself must go, Labour has ensured that this line of attack will play just as well with parents of school-age kids as the funding cuts did just two and a half years ago.
This poses a very real danger to Labour’s chances of electoral success.