Progress’ thought-provoking series of debates with Labour’s shadow frontbench team continues. This time it was the turn of Tristram Hunt MP, shadow secretary of state for education, to be given the third degree by Times columnist and commentator David Aaronovitch. The discussion started with a good-humoured quip at those who have called for Progress to be disaffiliated from the Labour party for its ideas of progressive politics. But Progress has weathered these storms well and still remains an incubator of radical political ideas.
With polls showing education is further down on people’s priorities it was up to Hunt to articulate what Labour’s message will be on education and what difference a Labour government will make to the current system. David Aaronovitch was on good form probing the prospective secretary of state about what Ed Miliband’s intentions are for education. Hunt confirmed that his mandate was to give education a political salience at a time when the sector has undergone significant marketisation and fragmentation. Labour’s strategy in an incoming government would be one of refocusing education towards vocational and technical skills alongside more traditional academic courses. In a post-recession jobs market the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies have not provided the skills young people need to succeed.
Much of Labour’s proposed schools reform appeared to be based on models borrowed from east Asia with a hint of Scandinavian flavour from Finland. There would be more focus on the quality of teaching and greater recognition of teaching as a first-class profession. Hunt was emphatic in his belief that a teacher’s oath will point to a broader truth about the quality of teaching and its importance in a school’s achievement. Aaronovitch was cautious when he told Hunt that a party preparing for a period of austerity post-election and maintaining its position of deficit reduction was facing the prospect of going into the election with lovely policies and an over-reliance on gestures.
The polarising issue of immigration was touched upon, especially Labour’s silence on this crucial matter compared to the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence party who came out early on this issue. Aaronovitch pointed out that when Labour did respond it echoed the rhetoric of the right – being tough on immigration. The implication that job insecurity was one of the pervading issues around the immigration debate was present. Ukip is strongest in places of dramatically low skills. The discourse around immigration has moved from inferiority of migrants to their superiority in the jobs market. Hunt stressed that there was more to do to ensure there was a supply of jobs and skills to counter the anti-immigration messages of the Tories and Ukip.
Hunt at times appeared to relish using his extensive knowledge of historical trivia to make the point about the fragility of the union. Divisive issues such as the Scottish referendum had shown where Labour excels and Hunt was keen to state that it is Labour’s strategy of going door to door talking to voters that combats the visceral politics of parties like the Scottish National party and Ukip. He exposed the paradoxes of the so-called anti-political parties across Europe including Ukip, which is using a traditional party structure to campaign for Britain’s exit from Europe making Farage an effective politician – the same thing he detests. On Europe, Labour is in a strong position and takes a pro-European approach. The disastrous Tory response to the EU’s £1.7bn bill was a sign of the incompetence of the Tories’ and their increasingly detached view towards Europe, a view which Labour would not emulate when in government.
The questions from the floor were poignant and touched on subjects from educational inequality, Scotland, and where Labour could do better. On the last point, Hunt was less inclined to reveal to the audience, which included journalists, to say specifically where Labour could do better but instead remarked that Labour can always do better.
Labour’s policies on education will be a defining part of their electoral campaign and importantly their offer to the British people. With this assured performance by Hunt, Labour looks and sounds like a party preparing for government. The hope is that the policy that the arguments asserted for change in the education system will connect with the British public and ensure a Labour win in 2015.
James Beckles is a councillor in the London borough of Newham. He tweets @James_Beckles
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