Some MPs enjoyed a New Labour education. Do they know how lucky they were?

Labour must stop trashing the proud record achieved by Blair and Brown and instead try to build on it

Last modified on Tue 4 Feb 2020 05.38 EST

The first stage of the Labour leadership election is drawing to a close and it is hard to dredge up enthusiasm for a contest marked by low energy, too many elephants in the room, and ambivalence – not least towards the last Labour government.

The need to appeal to Corbynite members means the Blair-Brown era is at best framed as an equivalent success story to the Corbyn years, or at worst a continuation of Thatcherite policies, as the Labour MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, explained in her maiden speech.

After my indignation at her comments died down, I realised it was handy that Sultana had offered this interpretation of recent political history, as she is roughly the same age as my daughter, whose entire compulsory education took place under a Labour government.

This allowed me to reflect on how lucky she, Sultana and their peers were to benefit from smaller class sizes, an annual 5% increase in school funding, a focus on literacy and numeracy, investment in teachers and teaching assistants, more young people going to university, and a generous school building programme.

All of this all contrasts sharply with my sons’ primary education in rickety prefab classrooms under a Tory government that left more than a third of 11-year-olds without adequate literacy and numeracy skills.

Anyone without experience of those Tory years might also underestimate the impact Labour made in lifting children out of poverty and investing in extended schools, in parenting support and properly funded local government, all of which meant teachers didn’t have to double up as mental health support services and social workers.

Of course, there was continuity from the Thatcher era. Politics rarely makes a clean break from the past. The idea of a quasi-market – parental choice, league tables, diversity and competition – has been the predominant education philosophy for more than 30 years and it is time for a rethink of how it works in practice, as there are still too many losers as well as winners.

But what exactly does Labour’s current education programme offer? Scratch below the surface of the National Education Service and you will find a Horlicks version of what went before: no primary tests and a rebranded inspection service, but the continuation of league tables, high-stakes accountability, academies, the hierarchy of schools and selective admissions.

The grammar school sixth form that Sultana attended was allowed to continue in the Blair years, to the dismay of many party members, but it would also have had a place in Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist utopia.

In current material sent to members who have rejoined Labour to vote in this leadership election, a timeline flags up some of the high points in the party’s past 100 years. Between 1997 and 2017 only four facts are considered worthy of celebration – the national minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, Labour party membership passing half a million in 2016, and the non-general election victory of 2017.

Much has been written about the miserabilist, “talk the country down” nature of Labour’s recent election campaign, which clearly contrasted in some voters’ minds with what they perceived as Boris Johnson’s optimistic bulldog spirit. But a Labour party that is ambivalent about its own record in office is just as unlikely to convince floating voters. “Vote for us because we were terrible in power” is hardly a ringing slogan.

It is possible to celebrate Labour’s many real achievements in power while presenting a reflective but upbeat image of how those might evolve in the future. Let’s hope the candidates who make it on to the shortlist are imaginative and brave enough to realise this. If they aren’t, I suspect many more years of opposition lie ahead.

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