For a supposed ‘wonk’, Ed Miliband has surprisingly few ideas of his own

James Willby

You might remember that there was a break-in at Labour HQ. The joke was that the thieves had gone in looking for a policy but hadn’t come back with anything of note.

There’s been talk of “predators and producers”, of “the squeezed middle”, but the only clear instances where Miliband has produced anything like a coherent vision were with his use of Disraeli’s one nationism and his proposal for a freeze on energy bills. Then with the intervention of former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major, Miliband thought he had finally struck gold.

“Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating” he quoted at a despairing David Cameron.  “These are the ordinary people of this country who this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.”  It was, to quote a boxing term, a straight KO and the Prime Minister returned to Downing Street to lick his wounds. So, should we Conservatives be worried by such a performance? Does it herald the change of fortunes Labour activists have been so desperate to see? Hardly. 

The Labour leader’s use of Disraeli and Major, whilst good politics, illustrates his Party’s fundamental weakness – simply put, it has no idea who it is or what it’s for. From free schools to referenda, from reducing the taxation on the poorest to green investment, everything that is fresh and exciting is coming from the ongoing tussle between the Coalition parties. The fact Miliband is forced to rely on the words of former Conservative Prime Ministers in his battle with Mr. Cameron shows just how bad the situation has become. Nineteen months from a general election and Labour’s ideas factory is a wizened burnt-out old husk.

Despite endless internal reviews and conversations, it has produced nothing of substance and Miliband’s tenure has seen him hop from bandwagon to bandwagon in a vain attempt to capture the public mood. Chris Bryant’s attempt to get tough on immigration blew up in his face. Tristram Hunt is now floundering over free schools, first backing them then seemingly veering away, and on HS2 I doubt anybody within the Labour Party knows what their policy actually is.

In laying claim to Disraeli’s one-nationism and Major’s compassionate conservatism, Miliband invites us to judge him by their principles. Does his opposition to deficit reduction chime with Disraeli’s observation that “Debt is a prolific mother of folly and of crime”? If he becomes Prime Minister, will he seriously be able to claim that Labour “inherited a sick economy and passed on a sound one” as Major did?  Perhaps we can best sum up Labour’s dilemma by paraphrasing Thatcher. You see Ed; the problem with ‘Milibandism’ is that eventually you run out of other people’s ideas. It might be time to get some of your own. 

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The education system’s betrayal of bright pupils

Giles Marshall 9.00am

How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution? Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools. They have issued some shocking figures. Take English: of the children who achieved Level 5 in English in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62 per cent failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE. Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English. The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them. Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

"For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity."

He was not the first critic. In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued:

"Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?"

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers: Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”.  

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate. Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools. Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state. Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged.  

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system? In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long. They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

"Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy."

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Conservatives must convince people it is the disadvantaged in society they care about most

Dan Watkins 11.58am

With our history as a trading nation, Britain has long favoured open markets and economic liberalism. Even in the presently difficult economic times, a majority of voters still believe that capitalism is the best way forward.

But despite the Conservative party being the country’s foremost supporters of capitalism, over the past two decades it has consistently polled in the region of 30 to 40 per cent. So the party’s Achilles heel is not its economics, but its social policy - or at least the public’s perception of it.

Rightly or wrongly, the Conservative party is perceived as the ‘party of the rich’. Lower income groups are discouraged from becoming supporters, fearing the party is not interested in them. Furthermore, many better-off voters seek to allay their social consciences by shunning the Tories. The two diverse groups represent millions of voters but can both be addressed by focusing on the disadvantaged - and if done successfully could push the party above the critical 40 per cent level of support.

In fact, it is only the Conservative party that can truly transform opportunities for the disadvantaged - the people who most rely on the public services that are in urgent need of reform. The Labour party’s strong ties to the unions and the large swathes of leftist supporters within the Liberal Democrat party, prevent either from taking the radical steps needed to improve social mobility.

The Tories are unencumbered by those vested interests and care just as much about helping all members of society as any other politician. But crucially, it is the belief in policies that fit the grain of human nature that give the Tories a genuine chance of success. The use of the ‘carrot and stick’, or positive and negative incentive, is what needs shouting about.

For instance, with welfare we have long offered benefits to people when they fall on hard times. For some recipients the ‘carrot’ works and they soon return to work. But for many others, the money is taken with no serious intent of finding further employment. They will only respond to the ‘stick’ - such as the threat of enforced community work or reduced benefits.

Consider another area - education - where again we are putting sensible incentives into play. We provide positive incentives to children from poorer families by improving their quality of education received via free schools, academies and the pupil premium. Yet those pupils who do not respond, and who cause disruption, will now face newly-liberated heads who possess a greater range of sanctions for pupils and parents. Teachers will also face positive incentives in the form of differential pay, syllabus freedoms and greater powers in the running of schools - but also the threat of dismissal if they consistently fail to perform.

This can be applied to all public sector workers. The Conservatives sorely need to improve their support among this group at a time when necessary public spending cuts threaten to offer them only the ‘stick’, not the ‘carrot’ (such as decentralisation or mutualisation). Examples such as the Civil Service Pension mutualisation should act as blueprints for other state institutions.

Of course, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove have already begun implementing such policies in welfare and education. But we need to spell out to people time and time again how these measures shall directly help families on lower incomes. Likewise for reforms to the NHS, local government and social services. The Government’s programme is not all about deficit reduction in the slightest.

The next three years offer many opportunities to focus relentlessly on the disadvantaged in British society and demonstrate to voters that it is these people the Conservative party cares the most about.

Why the Conservatives could lose in 2015 unless we value the public sector

Paul Abbott 6.03am

A defining moment of the 2010 general election was when George Osborne, at a private meeting of candidates and volunteers, said: "We didn’t lose in 1997, 2001 and 2005 because a few thousand people went to fringe parties. No. We lost because millions of people went to Labour."

This is the most basic and fundamental political insight for the Conservative party. It should be writ large on the wall of every Minister, Member, think-tanker and researcher. It should scroll across our PC screensavers, and be inscribed on our mobile phones.

Why? Because as soon as we forget it, we will all be back in Opposition again for another thirteen years.

There is a strain of language out there today that confuses a desire to cut the deficit with a dislike of the pubic sector. Thus we hear constant attacks on Civil Service salaries, or libertarian fantasies about a no-holds-barred economy. We hear endless calls for tax cuts for millionaires, but not enough about tax cuts for the millions of people on ordinary wages.

This has to stop. Many low-paid workers voted Conservative in 2010. 
In fact, in June 2009, of the public sector workers questioned who were “certain to vote”, Ipsos MORI reported that 32 per cent would vote Conservative, 29 per cent for Labour and 19 per cent for the Lib Dems.

Everyone wants the public sector to be good value for money. Of course this means thinning out the quangos and endless back office administration. But surely we are happy to pay for positive outcomes? What is wrong with higher salaries for nurses, teachers, university lecturers, immigration personnel and police officers, if they are doing a good job? If we do not pay good wages, how else can we persuade bright young graduates to become public servants, rather than City solicitors?

There will inevitably be some hardliners who say that this argument is soft, liberal sogginess. To them, I say this: remember 1997. And 2001. And 2005.

There is nothing socialist about standing up for the admirable parts of the public sector. One of Tony Blair’s great domestic triumphs was to rebuild the public realm, which had been neglected in the 1990s. This was a large part of his electoral appeal.

The first political office that Margaret Thatcher held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to increase the wages of rank-and-file police officers.

Too many dodgy PFI deals were struck and billions of pounds were wasted, but there was a genuine public appetite for things like better motorways and more police officers. Such public policies should not solely be championed by the Left.

This is so often merely a matter of emphasis. Many Conservative Ministers are already quietly finding ways to reward deserving public sector workers. Academies and Free Schools can pay good teachers more than the national union rate. Nurses can set up co-operatives and have a stake in the success of their clinic. George Osborne has protected the pensions of the lowest paid civil servants, and boosted their income by £250, despite a general pay-freeze. There are lots of other examples. But we need to make more of them. Champion them.

I accept that Britain is still too dominated by the public sector, and that we need to rebalance our economy. I accept that Labour wasted our money, and hopelessly ran up debts. I accept that Ed Balls in particular seems to have an almost criminal disregard for our financial stability.

But we are in Government now. It is our public sector. We should look after it.

Follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_t_abbott

Failing schools should face the same fate as Lehman Brothers

Daniel Cowdrill 6.00am

‘Meme’ is short for the ancient Greek ‘mimene’, or in English, ‘something inherited’. It was coined by Professor Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). A ‘meme’ is an idea that behaves like a gene. It describes a process whereby ideas and practices are transmitted from one mind to another via variation, competition and inheritance. The result is that self-evidently we improve over time.

Improvement springs from social interaction and exposure to how other people do things. A simple example is driving on the left-hand side of the road. It was enshrined in law only recently but through interaction people learned to ride their carriages on the left and later their cars.

Without ‘Meme’, bad practices can develop. We witness this regularly in the market economy. Who would have thought, for instance, that by the end of 2008 some investment banks would have disappeared? From the 1990s onwards their leaders acquired an elevated position as ‘masters of the universe’. Inertia limited the functioning of the Meme. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley since either collapsed or abandoned their lofty positions.

But let us focus on education. The highly respected Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows that Britain has slumped to 28th place in maths (from 24th four years ago), 25th in reading (from 17th) and 15th in science (from 14th). Searching questions must be asked as to why this relative decline has taken place.

The tripartite system of education introduced after the Second World War - grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns - was inadequate for a number of reasons. However, the move to comprehensive schooling caused its own problems. It made a a virtue of reducing variation and competition, hence it has rightly been criticised for encouraging mediocrity at the expense of excellence.

It is vital in education to encourage variation and competition so that the transmission of good practice occurs most widely. One can argue that greater competition has driven educational standards higher in Europe. It can also be argued that Catholicism’s historic resistance to public schooling in France has resulted in a much greater proportion of independent schools than in the UK, thus creating a market that boosts educational standards.

Research published in the Economic Journal by academics at the Harvard School of Education and the University of Munich suggests that there is a causal link between higher numbers of privately educated students and higher educational attainment in general. This is not due to more people attending private schools but because the wider existence of private schools push up overall standards. State schools have to work harder to attract the best pupils against the competition of nearby affordable private schools, hence driving up standards for everyone. Good state schools in turn put pressure on private schools to justify the additional costs to parents.

Choice in education does not just mean more private schools, rather it means more independent schools with their own customs and practices that can be appropriated and improved on by others. While education policy certainly must address equality of opportunity, the Meme will do the rest.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielCowdrill

Mind the aspiration gap: Prince’s Trust research highlights ‘youth underclass’

Giles Marshall 6.02am

The Prince’s Trust has produced a new report highlighting the ‘youth underclass’ and a clear ‘aspiration gap’ between the richest and the poorest.

16 per cent (more than 1-in-6) say that their families and friends make fun of them when they talk about finding a good job; more than a quarter, 29 per cent, had few or no books at home; more than one third, 36 per cent, did not have anywhere quiet at home to do their schoolwork. Too many young people from the poorest areas believe that they face dead-end futures on benefits.

Prince’s Trust chief executive Martha Milburn said:

"Our research suggests that all young people start off with similarly high aspirations. However, those from poorer homes are significantly more likely to lose confidence in their own abilities and ambitions as they approach adulthood."

The Government should take note. The Prince’s Trust is a classic example of effective ‘big society’ engagement, albeit with unusually high financial backing and the personal involvement of the Prince of Wales. The trust has, over the years, notched up impressive record of engagement in some of the country’s most deprived areas. It is arguable that as an independent charity, the trust has been able to act with greater freedom and dynamism.

But not every charity working with the urban poor can boast the trust’s backing and clout, and even they only seem to be scratching the surface at times. Smaller charities and community initiatives are likely to be more stretched and could benefit from a dose of state aid to keep them going. If the ‘big society’ is more than just a call for volunteerism to make up a state deficit, it would be encouraging to see greater definition from Number 10. There needs to be clarity about how the state and charities can work together to alleviate deprivation, lack of aspiration and a host of other problems.

This must include more substantial state action in education. Evidently, education catalyses and inspires aspiration. The figures produced by the Prince’s Trust highlight how the state education system is failing the most disadvantaged children. What their homes lack should be provided by schools.

But what do these schools look like? Perhaps Michael Gove’s Free Schools? Not for the moment. As of Monday, the Department for Education had received only 323 applications to set up Free Schools, of which 10-20 are expected to open in September. Also bear in mind that these schools are being set up by motivated individuals catering to a relatively small potential base of similarly motivated families.

What about the Academies? They may have been part of the answer when they focused principally on revamping poorly performing inner city comprehensives but the current programme is focused on offering financial incentives to successful schools to opt out of local authority control.

In fact, I believe the answer lies in an idea far too radical for any party to commit to. It lies in providing well funded and well supported schools in the most deprived areas of the country, which cater directly to their pupils’ educational needs and work as mini communities to raise quickly and collectively the pupils’ aspirations.

It would involve grouping together youngsters of similar academic abilities, thus allowing them to move at a faster pace, to play off each other in their learning, and introducing a sense of academic competition. With teachers able to be more selective and pupils able to share a common ethos of attainment and aspiration, it would be the fastest method of promoting social mobility and dealing with the aspiration gap.

I’m talking about grammar schools. Unfortunately, the whole notion sends Cabinet members running for cover.

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