Whispers from Westminster

1st April 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

“This policy has no mandate!” This was the call bellowed out from a march of unelected people last Wednesday, holding a knot of signs demanding that the elected secretary of state resign.

It will come as no surprise that I don’t hold much truck with the NUT and ATL teaching unions for calling a protest march over universal academisation. But plus ça change. It’s safe to say that they probably don’t think much of my support for the policy, either. And they do represent a large number of teachers.

But what really angered me were the non-union banners I saw being held aloft, and specifically the organisations that had provided them (I would say at speed, but the truth is that these are the same old, tired slogans that have been wheeled out by the organisations in question for the past 30 years, only with the names of the latest villain changed). “Strike to save education.” “Tories out.” “Morgan must go.” “You’ll go far, in the USSR.”

They were supplied by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). These are, under any definition, fringe groups on the extreme political left. Indeed, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party are accurately termed as Trotskyist groups.

I haven’t got the space in this column to set out the details of their underpinning philosophy and political views, but I would urge readers to look at excellent work by Labour blogger Hopi Sen, former Labour parliamentary candidate Kate Godfrey and former editor of Left Foot Forward, James Bloodworth, for a full forensic analysis of the hard left in UK politics, their beliefs, and their past history. They are hardly, in brief, groups representing the views of anyone in the UK – on academies or anything else.

It is also worth noting that TUSC (including the SWP) got only 36,000 votes in 2015 for the 128 candidates it nominated, and that the Socialist Party secured a grand total of 899 across 10 seats. It was campaigning against a secretary of state who represents a party that won 11.3 million votes. I would suggest that they have an odd understanding of democratic mandates and legitimacy.

In time, there will be a full parliamentary debate on the White Paper proposals around academisation. There will be plenty of opportunities for teachers – through their unions and through their elected MPs and councillors – to have their say through the democratic process.

Alongside that, there may be more marches. There may be strikes. Some readers may well choose to participate in these, as is your right. But, if you do, I would urge you to think carefully before raising a banner that has a fringe group’s slogans on it – a group that, in all likelihood, espouses many views that you would find profoundly disagreeable and objectionable. Such groups are not representative of the British left, of trade union activists, or of teachers.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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