Whispers from Westminster

27th May 2016 at 01:00
Labour seems to be short of ideas on education

Last week, Labour launched a campaign against proposals to raise university tuition fees. In short, it’s a hard argument to win (fees are rising only by inflation rather than in real terms, there’s zero evidence that higher fees have deterred entrants – indeed, poor students are now going in record numbers – any cut to fees benefits only graduates in their forties, and such a cut is also hugely regressive with the biggest gains accruing to the richest). And many in Labour secretly acknowledge it.

But leaving all that aside, at least opposing a rise in tuition fees is a policy. And there are growing mutterings – including from the Left – that Labour doesn’t have many in education. The only pledges (rather than broad aspirations) that I’ve identified are to make PSHE compulsory and to abolish fines for term-time holidays. Worthy, but hardly worth holding the front page for.

Opposition is tough. There’s a lack of cash, which means a lack of people to help design policy. A party needs time to come to terms with a defeat, new shadow ministers need time to get up to speed, and there’s inevitably a lot of work opposing what the government is doing – which Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, is doing forensically.

The way that oppositions normally work is by establishing commissions to consider issues in depth. And it turns out that Labour has one on education – one of seven they have set up.

Hands up who knew about it? I didn’t until last week, and my job is to know these things. My fault, maybe. But the commission itself isn’t exactly a hive of activity. It has one (four-page) discussion paper on early intervention, and a handful of public submissions from members. I can’t find out who comprises this commission or when it is meant to report.

And it’s not like there’s a shortage of external sources of education advice for Labour. There’s a huge range of experts inside and outside of classrooms who are willing to give advice for free. But I’m not sure how many are being sought out.

Even on agreed issues, there’s still a lot that isn’t clear. On tuition fees, is the position for them to stay at £9,000, to cut them to £6,000 (the manifesto pledge in 2015), or for them to be abolished (Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign)? The “campaign website” contains no policy details whatsoever.

A couple of months ago, I spoke at a private event on a key education topic alongside a junior shadow minister. In preparation, they had asked internally what the party line was. The frank answer, and I paraphrase but only slightly, was, “We’ll have a policy on this when we get round to it.”

That works for now – just. But the policy processes seem to be still in their infancy. And that line won’t hold for long.

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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