Labour on welfare and free schools: facing electoral reality

New shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would be "tougher than the Tories" on benefits, while Tristram Hunt said Labour in government would back a version of education secretary Michael Gove's flagship free schools programme.

Yesterday evening many in the Labour movement were expressing indignation on Twitter at the apparent volt-face by the party on education and welfare.

New shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would be “tougher than the Tories” on benefits, while new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said Labour would back a version of education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship free schools programme.

As George Eaton has pointed out, much of the indignation appears to stem from the fact that the left accepted at face value much of the narrative from the right-wing press – that the Labour reshuffle was a “purge of the Blairites”.

Anyone who did will have come back down to earth with a bump today.

If we look closely at what has been announced, however, and ignore the white noise from a press that was desperate to find a party “lurching to the left”, we see that the latest announcements, if you can call them that, are really a change in tone rather than a substantive change in policy.

On welfare

Rachel Reeves has made the news for, firstly, defending Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee, and secondly, for supporting the £26,000 a year welfare cap provided it takes regional variations into account.

As should be obvious, defending the compulsory jobs guarantee is just that – defending a policy that has already been proposed; it isn’t a substantive change in policy.

As for the welfare cap, Ed Miliband has already pledged his support for a welfare cap in a much lauded speech back in June.

“The next Labour government will use a three-year cap on structural welfare spending to help control costs,” Miliband said at the time.

The fact that Reeves says in today’s Observer that she supports the £26,000 welfare cap (which Labour initially opposed) is more a reflection of electoral reality than anything else. It is evidence Labour understands that welfare policy is one of the party’s weakest areas going into the General Election.

Whether or not one agrees with the cap, what is really surprising is that it has taken Labour this long to stop opposing it: poll after poll has shown that the public is overwhelmingly in favour of the cap – including Labour voters.

If it is any consolation to those who oppose the benefit cap, many appear to support it for the wrong reasons: 73 per cent of the British public support the Benefit Cap, yet 68 per cent knew little or nothing about it.

On free schools

The apparent change in policy on free schools is more significant than on welfare but again, Labour has already been moving in this direction for some time.

Free schools are one of those things, like the privatisation of the Royal Mail, that would be a lot harder to reverse than many critics are willing to give credit. It would be very hard electorally for Labour to go into the next election promising to close down a large number of schools. Doing so might secure the votes of some of those who are likely to vote Labour in 2015 anyway, but it would also ensure that a large number of so-called ‘aspirational’ swing voters would definitely not do so.

In terms of getting elected, it is quite clear as to which is the most sensible option.

As it stands, Labour will not close down any existing free schools (provided they are operating within official guidelines), and will pursue its own version of the scheme – parent-led academies (PLAs) – in which groups of parents and organisations could set up schools which were outside of local authority control.

Hunt is also only proposing the opening of PLAs in areas where there is a shortage of school places, as he made clear this morning:

“Will PLAs offer everything free schools have got? ‘Yes, but in an area of need, absolutely,” Tristram Hunt said this morning on the Andrew Marr Show.

To his credit, Hunt raised the problem of the Al Madinah free school in Derby Birmingham, which is alleged to have coerced non-Muslim teaching staff into wearing hijabs as well as introduced gender segregation. This shows that he recognises some of the potential problems associated with free schools, such as their being used as a vehicle for private and religious interests. Under Labour, this sort of thing would be prevented, Hunt said, through better oversight of free schools by local authorities.

This is welcome; but there is still a much bigger question as to whether religious schools are really the best means of educating (rather than indoctrinating) children. Hunt is not the only one unwilling to ask that question: the Tories and Lib Dems do not want to touch it either.

As to why this announcement has been made now: free schools are popular, especially in areas with sitting Labour MPs. 47 per cent of free schools are in areas with Labour MPs, compared with 44 per cent in Tory areas and five per cent in Lib Dem constituencies.

11 Responses to “Labour on welfare and free schools: facing electoral reality”

  1. swatnan

    Good news to see that Labour is no longer going to be a soft touch anymore. That is the reality; its only fair that those deserving of need get that support in difficult times of their lives.
    But Tristram should have come out against Faith Schools, that is the primary problem with the Al Medinah school, and the poor adimin. Hunt was right to stress the 3 conditions where he supports Free Schools.

  2. Paul Sands

    Al Madinah, Birmingham? Surely you mean Derby

  3. Mason Dixon, Autistic

    Why can’t the truth have it’s day?

  4. Mason Dixon, Autistic

    The previous Labour government was harsher on benefit claimants than any other since 1948. You’d actually have to go back to the Labour government in the 1930s and the horrid means-test to come close.

  5. Efrogwraig

    It’s not about closing free schools surely but making sure they are properly regulated and are under local authority oversight. As the areas where there are a shortage of places are those with rising birthrates they are likely to be in the areas where there is less parental wherewithal to develop their own schools. It really is a class (no pun intended) issue and ought to be addressed as that so as to make sure all our schools are inclusive and not middle class ghettoes for those parents who love living in an up & coming area until they decide they’re worried about their children mixing with “edgy” children and hanker after some Latin for them.

  6. Jo Green

    yes but what are they going to do about tax evasion/avoidance tax haven misuse and what have they got to say about the so called robin hood tax…are they prepared to cut back their expenses at this time of every body else having to tighten their belts? i have always been a socialist but there is no socialist government option any more!

  7. insolito

    There’s a very simple conclusion to be drawn from this article, and indeed, from the stance of the modern Labour Party: Labour has forgotten what it means to be a political party.

    Of course 73 per cent of people are in favour of benefit cuts – because the entire argument for at least the last five years has been ‘we have no money, yet we’re making payouts to scroungers’. And Labour’s response? First to have no real response and now to say they agree with public opinion.

    But Labour’s job is not to agree with public opinion. It’s to shape it. That’s what the Tories have done, which is why 73 per cent of people support benefit cuts and yet 68 per cent of the population knows little or nothing about benefits and how cuts will be delivered. The Tories have told them we must cut benefits, and that people on benefits are a) lazy and b)thieves, so they support benefit cuts.

    In ‘accepting public opinion’ as this article praises them for, Labour is in fact admitting that it believes in Tory ideas and ideals. That it has not only been defeated in the argument, it has not even had an argument (and just blankly stating we oppose benefit cuts is not an argument – it’s not even really stating a basic position – it’s just a negative response without reason or alternative). It is admitting that it exists solely to be elected: it has no ideas, no beliefs, no political standpoint from which to deliver a better state for us all. Labour is admitting that because something is popular, it will do it, even though the whole point of a political party is to develop ideas, and to persuade the people to come with you on those ideas.

    I am not sure who is to blame for the situation we are now in, but Reeves and Hunt have merely confirmed that what we now have in this country is one political party (the Tories, with whom I disagree on virtually every issue), one party which no longer even knows what it stands for (the Lib Dems, who have sold everything for a taste of government) and one group which is no longer a political party at all, just a weak echo of public opinion, which is of course based on what is fed to the public by the Tory Party because the Tory Party is the only (major) political party actually making policy decisions or outlining its ideas in the hope of persuading people.

    Labour is not just failing the Left, or the working people of this country. By refusing to hold any political opinion and by limping into line behind a poorly-informed public who receive ideas and information only from the Tory Party, Labour is failing the entire nation. And if, as may be the case, we still have any influence internationally (see Syria as an example), Labour is in fact failing the human race as a whole, and perhaps even every living thing on the planet.

    Labour has dropped the sole reason why politics is important – the development and enaction of ideas and policies which will make the country better. Instead of developing policies, it is being dictated to by people who admit themselves they do not understand the issues on which they hold opinions. It’s pathetic.

    So what can be done? The people’s assembly may yet produce a party of the Left, if that’s your thing. It will at least present some real views, rather than simply regurgitate the opinion of the 68 per cent of the UK population who admit they don’t know enough about benefits but still want them cut.

    The Green Party offers a genuine alternative: you may disagree with its alternative, which is fine. I’m not shouting ‘vote Green’ from the rooftops (at least, not yet), but at least do yourself the favour of taking a look at what it actually stands for these days. You may be pleasantly surprised.

    Those of you already in/involved with Labour – try to keep it honest, and try to develop and deliver some ideas. I know the leadership will ignore you for now, but at least when they finally fall you’ll be there with ideas and policies to rebuild the Party and the state.

    If you’re someone who doesn’t like politics any more, if you’re disgusted with the whole thing, then form local co-ops, do your own thing – that’s excellent.

    And if you’re actually a Tory, then fine, vote Tory.

    But if you can’t be bothered to learn about politics, to pay attention to it, don’t sit there saying ‘I don’t know anything about this issue’ and then tell other people you believe their money should be cut. And don’t say ‘yeah, I agree with the Tories’ and vote for them without thinking. Read some stuff. Listen to what people say. In the case of benefits, try to think about what benefits are, why they exist and what happens if they aren’t there any more. We are lucky to live in a democracy, but that means you’re responsible, same as the rest of us. Don’t vote on things you know nothing about and can’t be bothered to learn.

    Labour is failing the people of the country. But so are the 68 per cent of people who say they want benefits to be cut, and admit they know nothing about the benefits system.

  8. insolito

    Forgive me. What you say is quite reasonable, but isn’t making sure free schools are under local authority oversight and are regulated not the same as saying ‘they are not free schools’? I agree that should happen. And with the rest of your post.

  9. Efrogwraig

    Well it would be like schools outside LA control now eg Academies but who would have a dotted line as opposed to no line.

  10. ever hopeful

    Spot the differences between the parties. Apart from the rhetoric or sales pitch there is none.
    When you consider there are millions of people earning under 40k a year, why does Labour continue to berate the working man and all the things they and the old Labour party hold dear.
    It seems to me there are far more votes to be had by going back to the roots.
    With both parties lining the pockets of the top 1% at the expense of the 99% times are very tough for most people and the most vulnerable need a safety net.
    By all means have tough rules but they must be fair.
    Tax evasion by the 1% is more than paid out in social welfare payments. So how does tax cuts for the wealthy become good for the economy (no trickle down gibberish) and tax cuts for the workers become inflationary?
    More money means workers buy stuff, more tax revenue collected, people hire staff to cope with increased work and so the cycle goes, with more taxes being collect instead of paying out.
    Perhaps the government just want to get out of China – bring manufacturing home (kneel to Americans who want to cut Chinese influence), but pay the british workers chinese wages.
    Allowing for the fact the media (owned by the 1%) would ridicule any economic theory that did not match the thoughts of their masters, I think an Old Labour party, with old fashioned values would win an election by a landslide.
    Having won they would need to have the courage to stop the gravy train.
    Ahhhh!

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