by Jonathan Todd
Having derided Ed Miliband as “a vulture” in his column, David Aaronovitch is not an uncritical Labour observer. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, was last night brave enough to sit down for an hour of conversation with him at a Progress #InConvo14 event.
We can only wonder what an hour of conversation between Miliband and Aaronovitch would tell us. But five things to take away from last night’s event were:
Labour loves teachers
Blowing smoke up the bottoms of teachers is a Hunt speciality. The policy chat was of lessons to be learnt from Finland and Singapore where a focus on teacher quality has driven improvement in school performance. The political pitch was also clear: for the support of teachers bruised by Michael Gove. Where Gove sought to bend them to his will, Hunt wants to put them on a pedestal. And if the Finnish and Singaporean experiences can be replicated, children and parents will thank Hunt.
Labour doesn’t love faith schools as much – but isn’t going to abolish them
Parental choice and school diversity become Labour virtues under Tony Blair. Last night, though, we debated what kind of divided society we might become if this choice is exercised to create a diversity of schools centred on different faiths and ethnicities.
Hunt recognised the concern but argued that school challenge and collaboration can overcome it. He claimed that these characteristics were present in the successful London Challenge, while their absence goes some way to explaining recent problems in Birmingham schools. A diversity of faith schools, on this argument, is unproblematic if they are challenged by Ofsted and integrated into local networks of both accountability and collaboration.
Labour wants to make a big play out of being pro-EU
“The thing,” according to Chuka Umunna’s recent GQ interview, “business fears most is exit from the EU, not a Labour government”. Umunna made this argument when it was put to him that Labour is anti-business. Hunt did the same last night when similarly pressed. Labour cannot be anti-business, so the story goes, because business values the UK’s EU membership and Labour government guarantees this membership, whereas Tory government doesn’t. Having cast around for business pitch, it appears that Labour has disembarked on what it thinks is a winner.
Hunt is a safe pair of hands but might want to be more nimble
In an attempt to catch Hunt off guard, he was asked if he thinks Labour has made any mistakes in the past six months. He didn’t rise to the bait. Nor did he say anything that deviated from strict party lines over an hour of probing. That’s no mean feat. But it’s a touch dull.
Umunna – I can’t think why I keep comparing the pair – also largely played it safe when interviewed by Jacqui Smith at the Progress Annual Conference this year. But he did reveal that he isn’t a fan of Labour’s ‘shrinking Clegg’ party policy broadcast. Many party members wouldn’t take this gentle criticism as risqué so much as proof of Umunna’s good sense. Hunt might reflect on whether he can be equally unbuttoned, which, of course, isn’t particularly unbuttoned at all.
Rising politicians like Hunt and Umunna proclaim the increased importance of authenticity, while agonising over the slightest dash of candour. By definition, however, it is walking the walk on authenticity that counts more than talking the talk.
Labour thinks equality can trump growth and the deficit
In two separate sessions at the 2011 Progress political weekend Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy both said that Labour needs a draw on the deficit and a win on growth. Asked whether Labour can be ahead on economic credibility for the general election, Hunt didn’t declare that win. Or even much seek it. As for the deficit, he said even less.
Instead Hunt deployed the equity argument that James Morris has advanced and which I have previously critiqued. This holds that it is not the perception that a party can deliver growth that is electorally decisive but whether they are thought to be on the side of ordinary people.
Advocates of this kind of thinking often cite Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York. But Rob Philpot has explained why this of limited relevance to next year’s general election. In fairness, Hunt didn’t do this. Like Morris, he appealed to President Obama’s 2012 re-election. “It was,” claims Morris, “Obama’s lead on being for ordinary people carried him through”.
In contrast to Miliband, though, Obama was the incumbent. Assuming Miliband is thought to be on the side of ordinary people, and Aaronovitch cast doubt over this, this pits the value of being for such people against the devil we know consolations now held by the Conservatives – which of these forces is most powerful remains to be seen but the analogy to 2012 Obama is imperfect.
Nonetheless, ordinary people – like teachers and the EU – are building blocks toward Miliband’s majority. If this construction should falter – whether for want of growth and deficit stories, seeming acquiescence in being pro EU with the Euro malaise, or a sudden uptick in support for French style absolutism on faith schools – we will enter a different political context. In which, we may reassess Hunt and Umunna afresh.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut