The other day I saw an exchange on Twitter between some Labour activists in which Jeremy Corbyn got the blame for Theresa May’s announcement that the ban on new grammar schools was to be lifted. The logic was that Corbyn had opened the way for May to become Prime Minister with his lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum campaign, without which David Cameron, who favoured academies over grammars (although the manifesto pledge was to allow good schools, including grammars, to expand), would still be PM and none of this would be happening. I said that all this was on the cards from the moment the Tories won the last election, and Corbyn was not Labour leader then; Ed Miliband was. The reply came, “I see, blaming Labour leaders is OK as long as it’s not The Great Leader?”.
I never called Corbyn a “great leader”. I’m all for criticising his performance, both as leader and in the referendum campaign, but blaming him for grammars is taking things too far. Corbyn’s history as an opponent of the EU, and the EEC before it, was well-known (perhaps it should have been more of an issue in the original leadership campaign), and Labour had many other politicians able to campaign on behalf of staying in the EU, as did other parties — Cameron and Osborne, who might have been expected to win over Middle England even if not the Labour heartlands or some rural areas of England, also supported the Remain side. It’s tempting to assume that a bigger effort from Corbyn himself could have swung the vote, but if parliamentarians had done their job and imposed a threshold, or held the vote on a public holiday so that retirees did not have an unfair advantage over people with jobs, who would have had to squeeze voting in before or after work, the disastrous result could have been better avoided, and MPs of all parties, including the pro-EU mainstream of the Labour party, were to blame for these two failings.
While grammar schools were never the vehicle for social mobility their supporters make out (see this article for the criticism from the Tory perspective, although the Trump comparison is ludicrous), I really wonder whether they are worse than some of the academies the last two governments have brought in; the showy, inflexible and often expensive uniforms, the unaccountable trusts, the prison-like appearance (and atmosphere) of some of them, as well as the forced academisation of schools whose communities did not want it. Moreover, the conservatism of the Blair era left grammar schools that were already present when they took over intact; although they banned the opening of new grammar schools in 1998, they did not force the conversion of the remaining grammar schools in the minority of areas that retained selection. This is significant as Blairites routinely argue that Labour have to be in power to make a difference, yet in power they made a difference that the Tories can easily reverse now. If Blair had abolished grammar schools altogether, there would not be a base from which to expand them now; it could not be argued, for example, that as Tonbridge has a grammar school, nearby Sevenoaks should have one as well. Yet as on so many other things, he was too wary of antagonising the Daily Mail.
Let us not forget that it was Ed Miliband that lost the last election; if it had not been for his dithering performance, his total refusal to defend Blair and Brown’s legacy in the face of a hostile Tory media and sneers from biased Radio 4 presenters (especially their handling of the economy and how the 2008-10 debt was incurred), his party’s attempt to micro-manage the Scottish party, resulting in the collapse of Labour’s Scottish vote, and so many of his other failings, there might have been a chance of Labour winning the last general election and neither Brexit nor grammar schools would be on the table now. It was the failure of Miliband and his team which led to the election of Corbyn in 2015; they were uninspiring, seeking only to “mind the shop” in the Tories’ absence. Many Labour voters do not want a Labour government that will repeat Blair’s mistakes; they want a Labour government which will leave a permanent legacy.
Map source: BBC.
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