I used to love the Labour party. Dame Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Glenda Jackson – you couldn’t have got a more eclectic mix, but the message was quite clear – we stand up for the disadvantaged, the poor, the weakest in our society and no matter what their own backgrounds were, they were all about championing those least able to champion themselves. That’s how it seemed to me in the 1980s – that there were people in parliament who genuinely cared and who weren’t afraid to speak up regardless of how it might play with the voters. My Dad (a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher) and I would argue for hours about the miner’s strike, the unions, capitalism and so on. He came from abject poverty and saw her as someone who had facilitated him to move up in the world. I looked at my cousins, still stuck on council estates, their parents made unemployed and their communities shifting from the working poor to the so called underclass and I couldn’t see the fairness in a system that prided individual ambition and success over community care and responsibility.
When I went to university, I stomped the streets of London pushing leaflets through doors and trying to talk to people in flats on Glenda Jackson’s behalf. I wept when Labour lost the election. And in 1997 partied so hard when we won that I was ill for days. And then months. And then years as disappointment began to set in. I thought we’d get equality, but we got a weird kind of equanimity instead. I wish they’d done more, I lamented in 2010. I wish the differences between politicians had been more marked. But look at the trajectory of movement to the right as outlined by political compass.org.
I became a little disillusioned. What was the problem? There’s something to do with the cult of the professional politician – the blind compliance with party lines. The fear of losing votes and seats (because if all you’ve known is politics, where do you go when you lose your seat?) This shift from politicians with proper working backgrounds to the career politician has led to a colourless palette of choice – like a Kelly Hoppen political interior of nothing but taupe. There’s so little choice at the very time there is so great an appetite for change. I really think that UKIP are gaining so much ground not because of their appalling policies, but because they are appealing to the desire for something new and different. And somehow they get the attention of the media. There is choice on the other side – the Greens of course, but how often do you see them on the telly? Credibility is formed by media attention and ours has been shabbily shaped by a media governed by the very same desires as those bland politicians – protect your advantage; sit; don’t rock the boat.
There are some notable exceptions. My local MP, Debbie Abrahams is wonderful – hard working, caring and compassionate. And she’s worked in the NHS for years – she knows a world away from politics. This is what we need – people who know stuff. Not academic stuff, but life stuff – work experience, the machinations of industry, institutions, the work place. But there is too little of this across our whole political system. We need more Alan Johnsons, more Ian Mearns. We need politicians who don’t give a toss if they’re given a portfolio. And who will offer alternative visions. And where they exist, we need a media who will give them coverage. Look at this – where British politicians sit within the wider political spectrum – where is the real choice?
Nevertheless, I’m backing Labour this Spring. I’m phone phobic, but calling people in my local area from my constituency office. I’ll be pounding pavements, delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. Why? Well, partly because my MP is great and I want her back. But also because while the gap might seem slight between Labour and Conservative, there’s still a world of difference.
I’ve watched in dismay as our schools have become fragmented and atomised; as our children have been valued less and less for what they are capable of and pushed though ever decreasing sets of measurements. I saw my brother in law, a brilliant physiotherapist, who has painstakingly dedicated 15 years of his life to building an NHS centre of excellence for back care in the South East, suffer the news that his service is to be handed over to Bupa – a much reduced service with no attempt to even match like for like. I’ve seen children in my school unable to get in because of extortionate bus fairs. I’ve seen families queuing up at food banks while politicians sneered. Those gaps matter. They are significant.
People have said to me that it is better to have something to vote for than something to vote against. And while I wish the Labour party would have the courage to step to the left; to see that there are literally millions of people yearning for a fairer society, I do think there are some really good ideas in there. The problem, of course, is that newspapers rarely report them.
Last week, I was honoured to be invited as a guest of Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn to a Comprehensive Futures meeting in parliament. Tristram Hunt addressed the meeting outlining his priorities for education. All day his comments about private schools and state schools had dominated the news. (By the way, Tristram, while you’re on the subject of tax/charitable status, can we please get rid of the anomaly that means that sixth form colleges – often serving highly disadvantaged communities – have to pay VAT when school sixth forms don’t. It will cost you about £31 million. Less than the cost of a single free school). Anyway, away from the media headlines, it emerged that there was some compassionate common sense being spoken:-
1. A renewed investment in EYFS provision including 25 hours per week free entitlement. This would be high quality provision, not Liz Truss’ pile em high babysitting service, with highly qualified nursery nurses and provision that is rooted in research into what young children need. Not calculus as it turns out.
2. More investment in apprenticeships – proper apprenticeships, not slave labour – with a greater choice of vocational routes. Building more links between FE and industry.
3. Reinstating the AS level and exploring how GCSEs might allow more scope for practical modes of assessment.
4. Wrap around school care from 8am to 6pm – not staffed by teachers.
5. A representative body for school support staff.
6. The facilitation of teachers to ensure that they are able to teach. And that they are ALL qualified.
7. An emphasis on high quality CPD, ensuring that teachers are entitled to professional development and that they are committed to it.
8. The creation of a less hierarchical, ‘value neutral’ system where no school type is given preferential treatment over another. Local authorities will be able to open new schools where there is demand in the area.
9. An investment in good quality careers services in schools.
10. Teacher training which is varied, but managed centrally by HE institutions acting as hubs.
As fast as I could scribble, these were the headlines I heard. And these are the headlines we need to be communicated, because there is much goodness in this mix. Is it perfect? No. Is it a lurch to the left? Not really. But it is a step towards common sense. And it’s why I’m getting behind Labour education policy and the party as a whole. And once you’re behind something, you can give it a bit of a push…