Lord Adonis is typical of the technocrat class that serves any master

by Trevor Fisher

The move by Andrew Adonis in resigning the Labour whip to take up a post working for George Osborne’s Tory project was a significant political moment. For Labour, it removed a key element of New Labour’s drive to turn Labour into a faux-Thatcherite party. But Adonis’s career has a wider significance in the development of what Colin Crouch has called Post Democracy*.

Crouch’s thesis revolves around the emergence of a one dimensional political class, preserving the forms of political democracy and rival parties but removing significant political differences. Politics become behind closed doors decision-making, patronage and back stage intrigue. This is, de facto, what has emerged in the post-Thatcher period and Andrew Adonis is prime example of the phenomenon.

Adonis is best known as a Labour politician, rising without trace under Blair, who promoted him from his backroom staff to be Schools minister. Adonis has never troubled the electorate for their votes, but was so essential to the New Labour project that Gordon Brown ennobled him and appointed him transport minister. In both posts Adonis projected grandiose mega spending initiatives with little debate and limited or non-existent proof of value. For HS2, the super-fast train, no value has ever been demonstrated. His other major project, academisation of state schools, is even more curious.

Academisation has been seen as a miracle cure for the alleged failings of comprehensive schools, ie secondaries, though the failure was patchy and non-systemic. The cure has been worse and report after report on the key indicators, GCSE results, has failed to find consistent evidence that academies do better. With over half secondaries academised, when the Education select committee investigated at the end of 2014 they were loath to draw the conclusion that academisation of secondary schools had failed, but warned against the rapid academisation of primary schools, which remain largely under Local Authority control and are mostly successful The MPs concluded,

“Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change… there is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on achievement in primary schools. The Department for Education should commission such research as a matter of urgency”**

No such research into primary was undertaken but the forced academisation of primaries is under way if the current Academies Bill is implemented, along with the remaining secondaries, fulfilling the desires expressed by Adonis in his book Education, Education, Education for a completely academised system. Academisation is seen as a miracle cure in the Westminster bubble. Its creator is a miracle worker. Proof of miracles is not required.

As the Labour part of Adonis’s career is now over, a balance sheet of that and his time in the Social Democrat Party is now possible. He is part of New Labour’s high command. Blair won two and a half elections – 1997 and 2001 were solid victories, achieved when Adonis was a marginal character – 2005 was a fluke on dwindling share of the vote when Adonis had become prominent. It is of course not the case that Adonis was solely responsible for the loss of support after 2001, but by 2005 he was a player, and made his contribution to the decline.

Gordon Brown displayed the poor political judgement which was his achilles heel by enobling Adonis and making him Transport Minister. Again, while Adonis was only part of the disaster of the 2010 election, he made a contribution to Labour’s loss of support which has never been analysed.

The Adonis story is not merely a Labour one. Factor in his time in the SDP and his attributes of a back stairs politician come into stark relief. In terms of rising through patronage, Roy Jenkins links Adonis as an insider to Blair and Brown, and the rise through the corridors of power begun in the SDP prefigures the New Labour years. There is a common factor going beyond the apparent success of a political career, however, which Osborne should note. Neither the patrons nor their parties gained from the rise of Adonis. He did not create the disintegration of the SDP and Jenkin’s slide into oblivion, but he played a part.

The same is true for Blair in 2005 and Brown in 2010. For the parties he ran with, his ascent co-incided with their decline. There is no simple relationship of cause and effect. But it is not accidental that the success of Adonis coincides with a downturn for the causes he embraces.

Matthew Ashton, on the Conversation web site (5th October) defended Adonis from the charge – from the “Corbynistas in the Labour party” – that Adonish ws a “Judas figure.” I am not a Corbynista, and would agree with him that Adonis is not a “Judas figure.” However his positive assessment of Adonis is mistaken, though he is right t say “he’s never been elected to any position he has held” – and is thus the model of a post democratic politician. Ashton believes his move is a positive one aiding Osborne to approach the “centre ground” and that he will be providing “evidence based policy to a government that has on occasion seemed bereft of ideas” and that he will struggle in “retaining his Labour Party convictions” in the Tory party.

He does not have any. The Liberal councillor who moved to the SDP and then to New Labour and now the Tories has nothing that could be seen as having anything to do with the Labour (or would suggest the democratic Liberal) traditions. He cannot be a Judas precisely because he has not betrayed any convictions that would tie him in to the Labour party. Or the SDP. Or the Liberals. A clever politician who understands which bandwagon to tie himself to is certainly a chameleon, but not a conviction politician.

Labour has again become unelectable, and the historically minded should begin to see a pattern where Lord Adonis is concerned. Adonis has a reputation as a skilful player, but for the projects he is linked with he has negative consequences. This was apparent even in the Corbyn surge. There is no evidence for a left wing growth in the party’s active base, but the dominant right wing simply voted for Corbyn as they were sick of the loss of identity, principle and votes which went along with New Labour. Adonis himself was invisible, but his legacy was not and Adonis has to take some share of responsibility for Corbyn’s rise, though it was Blair and Mandleson who actually spoke up against Corbyn and helped Corbyn win votes.

The poisoned chalice that Adonis and his politics provide has now arrived in the keeping of George Osborne, who endorses the view of Adonis as a player of substance. And indeed it is true that Adonis is a formidable operator. The short term advantages of employing Lord Adonis are real. However the longer the relationship continues, then the law of diminishing returns operates. As the shooting star has now moved into the Tory orbit, Labour can begin to distance himself from his alleged ‘miracle cures’. However for the Tory Party, the advantages are not so obvious. Osborne has pulled off a coup of sorts But while he has gained an ace, it is an ace within a very large hole.

* Polity Press 2004.

** House of Commons HC 258 21st January 2015 p3.

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007

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12 Responses to “Lord Adonis is typical of the technocrat class that serves any master”

  1. Tom says:

    The most recent independent analysis of academies can be found here: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp1368.pdf

    The abstract reads:

    We study the origins of what has become one of the most radical and encompassing programmes of school reform seen in the recent past amongst advanced countries – the introduction of academy schools to English secondary education. Academies are state schools that are allowed to run in an autonomous manner which is free from local authority control. Almost all academies are conversions from already existent state schools and so are school takeovers that enable more autonomy. Our analysis shows that this first round of academy conversions that took place in the 2000s generated significant improvements in the quality of pupil intake and in pupil performance. There is evidence of heterogeneity as improvements only occur for schools experiencing the largest increase in their school autonomy relative to their predecessor state. Analysis of mechanisms points to changes in head teachers and management structure as key factors underpinning these improvements in pupil outcomes.

  2. Historyintime says:

    Marvellous article. Just another very clever opportunist and ideological vacuum.

  3. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Trevor Fisher should not be surprised that Andrew Adonis is getting on with doing his own thing. It is a fact of life that individuals will put personal considerations before party. The problem Labour has is self made. It is their undying love of the House of Lords. Labour supporters, members and officials all know its is an undemocratic anachronism, but have ignored the chance to reform it when they have had the chance.
    The reason I stopped voting Labour and cancelled my membership of the NUR (it was that long ago) was because Sid Weighell, at the time NUR General Secretary went to the Labour Party conference I think in 1979 and was seen on TV to vote against his union mandate. Jim Callaghan reward for such loyalty was a peerage for comrade Sid.
    Its a pity Labour has always put expediency before principal over the years. You reap what you sow.

  4. New Labour seemed to have wanted to be a meritocracy without being very good at judging the merit bit.

  5. swatantra says:

    Doesn’t matter what type of school system they adopt for the majority of ordinary students, until they get the issue of discipline sorted out in schools, they are bound to ultimately fail, no matter if grammar or comprehensive or academy or community schools, all are bound to fail the majority of pupils.

  6. paul barker says:

    If Adonis is so non-political why did he devote so much time & energy to attacking The Libdems for joining the Coalition ? Adonis has taken a non-party job involving infrastructure, his main focus. He dropped the Labour whip because that is the convention when taking such posts. In my experience most Politicians are extremely Political & fiercely tribal. Your thesis is rewarmed Marxist drivel.

  7. john reid says:

    maybe the “any master” he serves is the country

  8. ad says:

    Given that a National Infrastructure Commission is a good thing, what is so terrible about leading it?

    There is more to politics than sitting in a corner playing “Who hates the Tories Most.”

  9. John P Reid says:

    cross party voting, such as chares Clarke and Malcolm rifkinds view there should be a joint pro Union vote in Scotland, against the SNP where labour, tory and Libdems put up a joint candidate, who agrees to abstain on certain bi partisan issues
    or when the tories in Dagenham in 2010 while campaigning for themselves for the national election actually tactically voted labour on the council to oust sitting BNP councillors

    or the EU vote or cross party support over the year such as Tory Peter bottomley being the first person to ask about the lack of police investigation onto the murder of Stephen Lawrence later followed up by diane Abbott and Jack straw

  10. colleagues are missing the point. There is a strong case for cross party alliances on issues of national importance. The problem with Adonis is he consistently favours the rich and powerful on big projects with no value to the ordinary punter. Which is why they turn away from the 3 parties he has been associated with.

    On schools, the academies policy is accepted privately as a disaster, and on September 5th Nick Gibb, who is rushing it through, told the Research Ed conference academies are ‘not neccessarily’ better than maintained schools. I am waiting for the schools minister to line up against his government’s academies bill, but not holding my breath,

    ON the HS2 project the fruit of Brown allowing him to play with a very big train set, the result is a £50 billion (that’s billions- not millions) to connect four citeis with a high speed train – London, Birmingham Manchester and Leeds.

    No value to ordinary punters who will have to wait for investment in freight and commuter lines.

    Comments on the academy and HS2 projects would be welcome. And the fate of the Liberal Democrats, SDP and Labour, all of whom had the attentions of his lordship

    trevor fisher.

  11. Tafia says:

    Tervor, you mention ‘national importance’ then trot out a load of stuff that only pertains to England.

    We have devolution now and that will increase. get a grip and work with it.

  12. just to make it clear Tafia, that the country I refer to is England. At no point did Adonis reforms ever touch the rest of the UK. The High Speed train (HS2) does not even touch the north of England or the East Midlands, only serving London, Birmingham Manchester and Leeds. There is to be a station in Lichfield serving Staffordshire, but Stoke which is in urgent need of regeneration will not get it, and CRewe which is said to be part of the current planning thought it would be getting a link to the continent. However the Tories will not build links through London so it stops in London. On current plans it will not even link up with the St Pancras channel tunnel trains – so even England gets a very raw deal for £50 billion investment.,

    On the LSE study, while the quote is accurate, the figures used the old Adonisite method of calculation which used vocational equivalents. That is, not GCSEs. Gove abolished these after the Wolf report and Stephen Twigg on one of his best days asked the government to recalculate the LSE (and National Audit office, which used the same data) figures. He refused. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network and others did the calculations, and the gains even for sponsored academies vanished.#
    ~The select committee report is the latest, January 2015, and could find no hard evidence of improvement in academies. For an estimated £8 billion spend over a decade.

    A national scandal or what?

    Trevor Fisher

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