Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Proud of our own leaders

Reflecting upon the political debate over the last 10 days, what has been very evident is the degree of pride and affection in which Tories hold Margaret Thatcher. Time is a great healer, but her supporters are relentless in championing council house sales, privatisation, trade union reform and her enthusiasm for enterprise as having changed Britain for the better, despite the devastation that many of her policies caused in Britain’s industrial heartlands and cities.

Labour politicians and members should be equally proud of the governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The national minimum wage, nursery education for all three and four year olds, city academies, record investment in the NHS, peace in Northern Ireland and civil partnerships have all changed Britain for the better. New Labour made Britain a more tolerant, dynamic and kinder place to live, where more people than ever before had the opportunity to go to university, to start a business and to live their lives free of prejudice.

As one of the Thatcher ‘generation’, having had the dubious distinction of spending all of my secondary and higher education with Thatcher in No 10, I have reflected on my schooldays over the last week and Labour’s investment in education from 1997 to 2010. Although I was taught by some excellent teachers at my Oxfordshire comprehensive, my day-to-day experience was one of having lessons in large classes (35 pupils was not uncommon), in temporary classrooms, sharing textbooks and the school day beginning to be disrupted by industrial action. Far fewer of my contemporaries stayed on at school and went to university than is the case today. I can’t remember anyone at university becoming a teacher. Shortly after graduating, I moved to Lambeth, where the reputation of many of the borough’s schools, particularly the secondary schools, was poor. The picture was very similar in many London boroughs and large cities. In 1997 teacher recruitment and retention, particularly in London and the south-east was a huge problem, standards were far too low and many school buildings were falling apart.

Today Britain’s schools are so much better as a result of Labour’s investment and reform, and the hard work and professionalism of teachers, support staff, governors and pupils. The quality of education in inner London is unrecognisable from 20 year ago. One of Labour’s most important achievements in government which is never discussed is the raising of the status of the teaching profession. Thanks to a Labour government focusing on ‘education, education, education’ teaching is now a sought-after career. Britain’s best graduates now want to become teachers, which they never did in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to greater investment in schools, better pay and career prospects, greater political support for state education and programmes such as Teach First. More still needs to be done to attract high-calibre graduates to teach maths, physics and chemistry, but, nevertheless, the transformation of the teaching profession should be a source of great pride to Labour party members.

City academies will be a lasting legacy of the Blair and Brown era, as they have significantly raised aspirations and improved educational achievement in some of Britain’s most deprived communities. Secondary education in Hackney and Southwark has been transformed by city academy investment, as have communities in Sunderland, Salford, Wolverhampton and Walsall. Yet one rarely hears Labour party members talk about academies with any great pride. Many members continue to feel passionately about the comprehensive ideal without being able to acknowledge that when we came into government in 1997 radical change was urgently needed. Too many of our young people from low-income families were being failed by the state. One of Blair’s most unrecognised achievements was to banish to the political dustbin the too widely held belief among educational professionals that nothing much could be expected of children who lived on council estates. Stephen Twigg has been right to criticise Michael Gove for abandoning the original concept of academies, which was to provide a much higher quality of secondary education in deprived communities where existing schools were failing to deliver.

We should also be very proud of our record of investment in higher education and enabling many more young people to go to university than was the case in the 1980s. Thatcher may have talked the language of opportunity, but her governments did very little to encourage more young people to aspire to go to university. When our opponents criticise the Labour government’s target of increasing the participation rate of 18-to-30-year-olds to 50 per cent, we should remind them that our global competitors in the BRIC countries are rapidly expanding higher education. Labour was right to reinstate grants for low-income students from 2006 and to exempt them from fees.

A Conservative government would never have raised the school leaving age to 18. It would never have introduced a national programme such as Aim Higher to widen participation among non-traditional groups of students, or the Office for Fair Access. It is inconceivable that either Blair or Brown would have agreed to raise tuition fees to £9,000 per year. Labour’s policy review must produce detailed proposals as to how a future Labour government would reform undergraduate and postgraduate funding.

Education will always be a cause that stimulates passionate debate among and with Labour party members and supporters. We must always take pride in our achievements, be more ambitious for the future of our young people and never allow the Tories to claim the mantle of aspiration and achievement. We allowed that in the 1980s and a generation of young people paid the price in terms of low standards, lost opportunities and unemployment.


Sally Prentice is a cabinet member in Lambeth. She tweets @SallyPrentice and has a website


Photo: Louisa Thomson

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Sally Prentice

is a councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. She tweets @SallyPrentice


  • OK then, we will forget the illegal wars and the complete crash of the national economy, due to excessive deregulation of the banks, and reliance on the financial sector. We will forget the failure to build social housing and the wedge in the door to NHS privatisation – which the Tories are now easily levering open. Yes, lots of public sector investment – but usually through privatisation – PFI and Academies. Little more than rebranding, with a new building if you were lucky near the start. Of course the outsourced workers in PFI scheme were always mainly the low paid, manual workers – so cutting their pay (it took years to bring in TUPE protections), conditions and pensions is OK. The private sector have no secret formula – it always consists of cutting the pay of workers. Frankly the Coalition has done more radical stuff (in the interests of the rich) in 3 years with no clear Parliamentary majority than Labour did for ordinary workers in 12 years of Government with huge majorities. For those of us fighting to protect workers on the ground Blair was truely Thatcher-lite. The value of the Minimum Wage is less now in real terms than when it started – yet by October some Local Government workers will be earning just 7p an hour more than the Minimum Wage, showing how much public sector wages have been squeezed by both the Labour Government and especially by this coalition.

  • Labour has lived with the assumption that its leaders will be traitors since Ramsey Macdonald (at least). Certainly I remember no great affection for Harold Wilson until very recently and Jim Callaghan’s government was lambasted and impugned (very unfairly – they did not even have a majority) on a ritual basis during the great Benn Wars. My fellow Glasgow Fabian Martin Hutchison has started to write about the psychology of the left in his blog:

    My own view is less scientific, although Martin’s approach is sound and internesting. This is that Labour people come into politics to change things, i.e., to what they think is a fairer social order. At the same time, they believe that part of that is to change the Labour Party, which has in their eyes obviously failed in its historic purpose – or else, logically, the world would be perfect and they would not need to get involved.

    Labour members also have a deep suspicion of electoral success. If you believe that Labour is nothing if it cannot achieve power (our experience of the 1980s and 1950s and 30s come to that) you will sometimes find yourself in arguments with people who are opposed to what they see as the party prostituting itself – for example, I was accused of this by former Treasurer of the Scottish Labour Party.

    Finally, never forget that to get elected, Labour’s electorate must be much wider than its membership. Therefore, the leadership must be more like the population at large than we self-selecting eccentrics that comprise the active leadership of the Labour Party. In the Blair/Brown era, this is a particular problem as most the members are middleclass professionals and not the people benefiting from the major policy successes: teachers and social workers do not need the National Minimum Wage. In your own example, these always find good “clear conscience” ways of getting their children into good schools – academies are not much use to them.

    If you add all these factors together – failure to do more than make a capitalist world better; electoral success and popular appeal; polices which most benefit the poorest – lo and behold you have Blair and Brown, Wilson and Callaghan. Traitors all of them. (John Smith only got away with it because he died; Foot and Kinnock are tolerated because they were failures.)

  • Labour , as an idea, is untouchable. Labour in its many&diversified constituent entities [politicos&proletariat supporters] needs to shake the blanket of a few fleas&oldcobwebs and face the fact that the 2015 electin is hanging by a thread at present. Will someone wake up at Head Office ?

    The Tories/UKIP/evn Libdems/SNP are currently outpacing [us] in talented PR&marketing.

    There are no friends in love&war. [We could lose 2015 at this rate, you know, Ed?]

  • Well, the lawyers always know which laws to break and how to break them. Does Sally Prentice (any relative?) claim education in Iraq – for Blairites, a paradise on earth, still covered with the (slightly fading?) blossoms with which the practitioners of ‘shock and awe’ have always been greeted by the locals – has improved since 2003? or indeed since US ambassador April Glaspie lured Saddam Hussein into toppling the apartheid/puppet regime in Kuwait? Can she show how education in Iraq has improved even since 1990 – after Iraq was exhausted after a war in which the West vigorously encouraged Iraq to persevere against part of the ‘axis of evil’? – part of which was the supply of arms, the inevitable ambiguities of which Robin Cook delighted in exposing to no political point at all – unless his revival of the hypocritical cloak for British imperialist aggression under the guise of foreign policy with an ethical aspect counts….
    Frankly, Thatcher’s foreign and military policies were confined to the direct defense of western democratic interests. The kleptocracies of Izetbegovichistan (the artificial state of Bosnia) and of the organ-plundering and drug-dealing genocidal morass of ‘independent’ Kosovo are as bad an advertisement for Robin Cook’s ‘ethics’ as the sectarian shambles of Iraq and the (rightly) panic-ridden rout of the crass punitive raid in Afghanistan. Now the ‘statesmen’ of the AngloAmerican ‘special relationship’ are realising that they have to negotiate with the Taliban, after the expenditure of untold blood and treasure. Was Ms Prentice one of those who applauded Karzai at that Brighton LP conference?

  • I think there are some real good solid points here and you are correct we should be proud of the improvements we made. At 6th form level the uptake of A Levels and AS levels started in 2000 has been massive and our universities are full of students who have experienced these opportunities under Labour 0ver the last 12 years or so. .

    Of course this is now seriously under attack as Gove brings in an A Level system which looks like the 1960s elitist model with an end of exam after 2 years. . He has removed 6th form ‘exam retakes’ already so the thousands of the lower & upper 6th formers getting their results this summer will be the first cohort of pupils for over 10 years who will not be able to retake their AS/A level exams until a year later. This is, of course, is a waste. It blocks opportunities to improve on grades so that students cannot get higher in say Maths or Physics. Its unfair on kids who will have to stay at school longer, who were unlucky through illness, family misfortune or just inexperienced/disrupted teaching. Moreover it affects students who might want to change subjects through wrong choices. Removing the A Level Units approach and mid – year resits ( a system favoured by our universities ) leaves England with an A Level system that favours the fortunate few in the very best selective or private schools while hitting the less advantaged in comprehensives and FE colleges.

  • City academies have been a disaster – eclipsed only by the wider expansion and mutation of that policy into the dogma now being purused by Michael Gove.

    Sally Prentice effectively argues here that local councils simply aren’t up to the job of co-ordinating and managing schools provision – which is a dangerous precedent for any local authority to introduce. The city academies policy – however “well-intentioned” – has encouraged parasites whose overriding motive has been to profit from school budgets. This is unforgivable at a time when the Tories are slashing budgets. A bullying culture has also grown up in and around schools. The Tories ripped up social partnership agreements with unions such as NASUWT and we have a Chief Inspector of Schools who trumpets “low staff morale” as an indicator that the Tories’ schools policies are working!

    If city schools were deemed to be failing, then New Labour should have had the courage to get stuck in and sort out the management in those councils’ education departments. Instead, “the baby was thrown out with the bath water” and we had a pointless and sinsiter change in the all-schools management model. You could say it was as flawed as Hunt and Co’s attacks on the NHS today.

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