Is it ok for socialists to pay for private education and healthcare?

by Peter Watt

Like many other parents, we have spent the last two weeks trying to sort out a school for our four-year-old. Coming straight after the Christmas break, it means I have had lots of reasons to reflect on how my family, and my children in particular, are the most important thing in the world to me.

I am at one of those transition stages in life. I have just finished one job and start a new one in February. It has made me a bit introspective, to be honest. I look back with sadness at the sacrifices that my family, my older children in particular, made so that I could pursue a career in politics. I thought about the school plays and the messy pasta and paint pictures that I chose to miss. All in order to work long hours. I am lucky that they don’t seem to hold it against me. But I am sad at the shared experiences that we missed and grateful for the things that we do now do together.

My now better-balanced life means spending more time with the younger children. This year I saw three nativity plays, went to four Christmas parties and cannot count the number of times I bumped into Father Christmas.

Seeing and thinking about my children develop, change, explore and grow is incredible. It has made me think of every other family, across the country, doing whatever they can to put their family and children first.

But it led me to question whether we communicate this understanding of people and families in our political values. I am not sure that we do.

Trying to sort out a school for my daughter has not proved to be easy. Like every other family, we want the best for her. We want a local school that suits her. And we are lucky that there are good schools locally.

But what if we couldn’t find one that suited her? Would we pay for private education?

The answer is yes. Of course we would. I don’t know if we could afford it. But if we felt that was best for her we would do everything that we could.

Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. What if my Mum needed a knee replacement, and the family all clubbed together to get it done more quickly by going privately? Would that make us a bad family? Of course not. But the language and rhetoric of the Labour party all too often says that we are wrong to make these choices.

Of course it is not fair that some people can afford to pay for essential services – like health and education – while others cannot. At our heart we are a party of fairness. It is what drives us. We reformed public services so that they would be as good as the private sector. And this may be the case in some areas, but it is simply not the case everywhere.

We are a party that espouses fairness. And that means we should not even appear to be against families who work hard every day to secure a better future. Families who want to do what is best for their children and want their children to be more successful than they are. That is not our politics: but all too often it sounds like it is.

We have had a good few weeks taking on the government. The VAT attacks struck home and, fingers crossed, tomorrow will deliver a Labour victory in Oldham East and Saddleworth. Opinion polls show that people worry about how fairly the deficit reduction plans are impacting, even if they support deficit reduction itself. But we must be careful. In our desire to label the Tories as being the party of unfairness, we must not appear to be against people wanting to improve their lives and those of their families. Ask a parent if they would like their child to become a banker who gets a big annual bonus. How many would say “no”?

As we continue to hone our messages and policies, we should remember this. If people are forced to choose between fairness for all and what is best for their family: they will choose their family every time. We must not even appear to be asking people to make that choice.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.


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17 Responses to “Is it ok for socialists to pay for private education and healthcare?”

  1. Julian says:

    It is not bad for “socialists to pay for private education and healthcare” unless, of course, they make it difficult for others to do the same. Which does seem to be the case.

  2. This is a deeply confused article.

    Socialists are people who believe that an even society is better for everyone. Not just for the poor, but for the rich and middle class too. That being the case, that should be the society we want for our children, and so should not actively perpetuate the status quo by ensuring that there remains an uneven society (however they may work in other ways to make it a bit fairer), but at least our kids get to be at the top of the heap. To give up on the chance of an equal society for your child and the belief that such a society is the best for your family is to give up your Socialist beliefs. Which is ok, but don’t kid yourself it’s anything else.

    The rest of the article is classic denialism. I get that you have lost acore value, which defined you for a long time and that is a painful process. But in this article, the bitterness that this is causing you is throwing up straw men all over the place.

    Firstly, there is an implied judgement in your post that Socialists with the means to do so who don’t send their children to private school & aren’t “lucky” enough to live in an area with good schools are not doing “what is best for their children”. I think they are doing precisely that. Frankly, I couldn’t afford it in a million years but even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I hope that when and if I do have children, I will love then enough to never even consider stunting their cultural, social and emotional development by sending them to a place of “elites”.

    Secondly, most of your answer is to a very different question. It’s not the answer to “Is it ok for socialists to pay for private education and healthcare?” but “Should Socialists tell others that they can’t send their children to private schools and use provate hospitals?”.

    My answer to that would be no, we shouldn’t say people can’t send their kids and family privately, but we should work everyday to make that a pointless choice. We should change society so that a tiny percentage don’t get this percieved advantage simply because they can afford it.

    One exception I would make to that is that we should demand this of our Labour politicians and those who work for the party. For myself it’s because I want people representing us who still believe in our values and are actively working towards them. According to this article, I can’t see how you can disagree. If – as you believe – “If people are forced to choose between fairness for all and what is best for their family: they will choose their family every time” then it is essential that when representing the interests of the vast majority of MPs constituents and preparing the policy that will be implemented by those MPs this conflict is as inevitable as you believe it to be, they simply would be unable to do their jobs properly if thier children were privately educated and their kidneys privately removed.

  3. Its worth remembering that thanks to Ed Balls if you moved into a new area the LEA would just assign a sink school for your kids – you are no longer allowed to find the school that’s right. The choice your enjoying is one created by a Conservative govt in the teeth of left wing opposition and that was being undermined by Ed Balls until he had more free time on his hands after May.

    If you think the choice of primary schools is tough, just wait till the secondary school choices start. Thankfully parents are now getting better informations thanks to the English Bacc and Michael Gove.

    You close to understanding why Conservatism is right and good for our country – don’t stop now. I can remember nearly chocking on my cornflakes when I heard two very left wing from University friends one morning say they would vote Conservative next time… having kids means you can no longer just pretend things are okay when you know they are not and its hurting people you love.

  4. William Campbell says:

    – Ask a parent if they would like their child to become a banker who gets a big annual bonus. How many would say “no”?

    Peter, have you ever considered the possibility that you were in the wrong party all along? That you ended up in a crowd of Labour people because they seemed nicer, but you never really got the politics, and in some Chauncey Gardner way, you ended up as GS? I’m not being personally abusive, but the article does make me wonder. Maybe you would genuinely be happier in the Liberal Democrats?

    Of course someone would rather their child enjoyed financial success. But the whole point of being in the Labour Party is that you see the need to change the world and that means making arguments that meet reality head on and try to move people’s perceptions. The banker bonus point you make is too fatuous to respond to.

  5. Robert says:

    But then again most socialist in the real term not the new labour kind, do not have enough money to pay for private education, politicians have a fair amount of money £65,000 a year, I worked on the building trades all over the UK, I was away from home for eight week, then would have a long week end, I never saw any of my kids growing up and took home a wage which just about keep our heads above water.

    Socialist who pay for education tend to be politicians.

  6. Jamie says:

    Emma Burnell says “Socialists are people who believe that an even society is better for everyone. Not just for the poor, but for the rich and middle class too.”

    This is why I’ll never be a socialist – I’d rather forge my own way through my own efforts, rather than allow other people to decide what my path is and how successful I am allowed to be.

    I don’t want to see people in poverty, but I also don’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy any financial rewards I may receive through my own endeavours because it’s not “fair” on others. Fairness should be allowing anyone to succeed if they have the drive and ambition – it’s not about holding people back because others lack the ability.

  7. Frederick James says:

    A brilliant exposition of Conservative values. As William Campbell suggests, it seems like high time for Peter Watt to jump ship.

  8. Salome Jones says:

    It feels a bit like you’re having a crisis of conscience. Having read your post and the comments left, I’m a bit puzzled. Of course you’re not willing to accept any random services for your child. That’s normal. But it’s not an all or nothing game. If you believe in an even society, you need to fight for it. You need to speak up about the inadequacies that you’ve found in education and health care and work for their improvement. Does putting your child in a bad school or giving her inadequate health care help the cause? Not necessarily. A smarter, better educated, healthier child is the rigfht’s worst nightmare. Someone who will stand up and speak out, someone who can see through all the political crap. And that’s what you have to be, if you care. Not someone who just accepts the status quo for yourself or for others.

    Of course, free will makes us all entitled to make our own choices about this. But most people won’t make a choice. They’ll just do nothing, which i worse than any choice they could make.

  9. Left Is Forward says:

    The choice is fairly simple, surely? Be loyal to the people who have supported you for all these years, or put your own good (and that of your family) ahead of the cause.

    This is the dilemma for anyone who claims to be left-wing or progressive or a Labour supporter, but if that claim is true, the dilemma is easy to resolve. For those who are not of the Left, it will be difficult or impossible to eliminate private healthcare and education, if for no other reason than the fact it can be undertaken abroad. The choice will remain open to them (which is why we should stop hand-wringing about whether we will ban others from this choice – the simple fact is, we can’t!) and we can probably expect them to take the selfish course. That is why we are better than them. We can’t take that choice away from them, but we can try to persuade the more amenable and sympathetic ones that the state system does offer a worthy and effective alternative to paying for it privately.

    This fear of “sink schools” in this article is far too reminiscent of Tories who don’t want their kids mixing with the “wrong sort”. Surely there is no better way to teach your own children the value of solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed and the socially excluded, than for them to share a school and education together?

  10. Sir, Socialism per se does not hold together in light of scrutiny anyway. As some have noted socialism requires an equal society for all, or rather the neutralization of inequalities.

    Be that as it may, pure socialism has absurd theoretical problems, such as levelling down people in higher social-economic positions. Moreover, it attacks the talented. I feel people find the third-way a dirty by word for neo-liberalism, or Blarite philosophy. However, the ‘third-way’ is egalitarianism ,but without the practical problems- so we can help the needy with democratic state solutions a la NHS and the talented can also prosper- it’s important to remember the majority of businesses in Britain are SMES (small or medium sized enterprises).

    Paying for education shows one thing, the terrible experiment of comprehensive schooling has failed- the talented are left at the bottom of the ‘to teach’ list. So called ‘socialists’ reject the better alternative as pointed out by the Sutton Trust and LSE social mobility unit figures- grammar schools- on purely ideological grounds ,in that that they reject grammar schools- as grammar schools are meritocratic. Seemingly meritocracy does not fit in with socialism; however it fits in well with philosophies of equality of welfare and the like- which most labour supporters ascribe to.

    In short you should not send your children to a private school if you ‘had to’. As an ex-Labour general secretary; you will have to live, like the rest of us with mediocre comprehensive schools.

    A further point. Like most good comprehensive schools I presume you live in a quite middle class , affluent area (correct me if I am wrong), this points to the issue that most decent comprehensive schools are dictated by post codes and prices of local housing , this is rather than open selection- the whole comprehensive mantra.

  11. Peter Watt says:

    There’s much I love about the Labour Party but some things I dislike intensely. Most if all I hate our semi-religious attitude to our own versions of ‘socialism’ I am perfectly happy in the Party I have been a member of for 25 years. it is and always has been a broad church – long may that continue.

  12. Richard says:

    “Thankfully parents are now getting better informations thanks to the English Bacc” Nonsense, shedman, it only measures 5 subjects which took the fancy of Gove, and as a consequence 142 private schools failed his successful schools criteria, not to mention a high number of academies too, all of which he strongly advocates.

  13. john reid says:

    don’t jump ship Peter,I don’t know why Frederick james wants you too. MAybe Fred felt it was good 4million labour voters went over to the SDP in 83

  14. William Campbell says:

    Peter
    I’m not trying to kick you out! I just don’t see how your line about bankers and people being happy if their kids get a big bank bonus can come out of the mouth of someone who was GENERAL SECRETARY of the party.

    Can you please write a few lines on how you think Labour should react to that? Should we not try to critically engage with it? I mean, everyone would want their kids to be billionaires, to push the point to its conclusion, but that material benefit for an individual comes at a cost to others. As socialists, we care about those costs, and should see it as our duty to make them clear and make the ethical case for a different kind of world.

    I would genuinely be interested in the ethical basis of your membership of the party. I think that the article above demonstrates that you don’t really have one, or rather, that you don’t have one which is compatible with most of the rest of the party. I’m sure you’re a nice guy but you’re not at heart a socialist or even a social democrat. Maybe you should be in a liberal party?

  15. William Campbell says:

    Surely there is no better way to teach your own children the value of solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed and the socially excluded, than for them to share a school and education together?

    Peter – please respond to this point by Left Is Forward, earlier. I couldnt have put it better – and didn’t.

  16. Andy Dodd says:

    I’m afraid I must disagree with a lot of the comments here, but not because my politics are unsympathetic to the Labour Party – quite the opposite as my articles elsewhere on this site will avow.

    Firstly, Peter, I think you are neither “deeply confused”, nor in denial, nor in search of lost core values, nor a Conservative in waiting! I think your question is entirely reasonable and my answer to you would be that of course it’s okay to send your children to private school. With the greatest of respect to Emma Burnell, Left Is Forward and others who posted different opinions, I can’t help but feel that declaiming your right to make the best choice for your family is the same attitude that made the party unelectable for almost twenty years between 1979 and 1997!

    In a nutshell, I don’t believe you can say to individuals that their ability to progress and better themselves must be at the expense of the reward for that endeavour. This is a very artificial construction, one which history has proven to be just as unworkable as the other extreme of laissez faire. This kind of top-down socialism is unpopular with the majority of the British electorate and, I think, deeply impractical.

    Using the education question as an example. I’m afraid I don’t agree that sending a few dozen children from affluent backgrounds into an underfunded, mainstream comprehensive school is going to change or improve the status quo for all the other children whose parents had no choice? Or that as a parent of a child going into an independent school, I waiver all influence over their behaviour and values, and sit back as they are transformed into an uncaring, unsympathetic brat?

    What is needed is not martyrdom by working class people fortunate enough to have made enough money to consider private education, but investment into State schools to reduce the size of classes, improve facilities, strengthen access to further and higher education (no tuition fees!) and raise ambition. I believe this would motivate generations of children, future parents all, to have higher aspirations and regard education as an investment rather than a cost. That is the way to achieve a better, fairer society in my opinion.

    My background is resolutely working class and I was educated in the state sector from beginning to end. I would vigorously support and campaign for higher general taxation to fund education to reduce the gap between state and independent schools, to the extent that the need for private schools becomes largely redundant.

    But if you tell a person that they can’t educate their children privately, with the proceeds of their own hard work and endeavour, because it’s a betrayal of socialist values, I would answer that this is a very negative attitude. What it says is don’t work hard, don’t prosper, don’t succeed.

    To send an individual child to any school in order to satisfy a political principle is just self-sacrifice and will do nothing to change the underlying unfairness of the state education system that perpetuates many of the problems we’re discussing here. If our state schools offered the same level of tuition and extra curricular activity that the independent sector did, there would be no need for this debate.

    Why is it that the British public refuses to countenance a small rise in income tax to fund and resource an education system that would do justice to all our visions of fairness and equality? Why is it we can find $20 billion for a Cold War missile system that is irrelevant in the 21st century but not money to reduce all secondary school class sizes to less than 15 pupils per classroom?

  17. Horace Heaton Jnr says:

    This letter absolutely sums up the problem with Labour and in particular, New Labour. I personally have enough money to send my children to private school but would never consider it an option. I wouldn’t consider it an option because it’s not fair. My children went to the local primary, despite advice from certain parents that it was ‘full of chavs’ and they now go to the local comprehensive despite advice that the school had 35% who spoke English as a second language, despite the school having the highest proportion of free school meals given out in the area. To convince the electorate to vote for the left, we have to show a lead and send our kids to schools that are the norm and not syphon them off into a private stream. my children are happy mixing with EVERY person on this planet and EVERY person’s kids on this planet UNTIL that person does them some personal wrong! And that also applies to your horrible queue jumping NHS references. I don’t care whether you’re left or right, it absolutely disgusts me that some of you send you’re kids [who are already miles ahead when they are born] to these places. And before you ask, I was state educated, left school at 15 and never returned.

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