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Artillery Row

Rebecca Long Bailey – classroom warrior

On schools policy, Keir Starmer is no heir to Blair

Sir Keir Starmer has made as impressive a start as the new leader of the opposition as the unpropitious circumstances permit.

Where Jeremy Corbyn looked ill at ease promising a period of constructive opposition, his successor has seemed sincere. When briefly the prime minister’s life seemed threatened, Starmer’s expression of concern was instant and instinctive. Here, was the kinder, gentler politics that Corbyn promised but did not believe in.

Furthermore, Keir Starmer has been able to form a shadow cabinet that is demonstrably a clear break from that of his predecessor. Shadowing the home secretary is now the task of Nick Thomas-Symonds, a former barrister, rather than Diana Abbott. Also out are the socialist partisans, Barry Gardiner, Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett.  In Anneliese Dodds we no longer have a shadow chancellor who thinks that “Marxism is about the freedom of spirit, the development of life chances, the enhancement of democracy” or who repeats sentiments about wanting to lynch “a stain of humanity” like Esther McVey.

But Starmer has nevertheless been savvy enough to ensure that Momentum and Unite still feel they have some purchase upon the direction of the party. Shutting the Left out entirely would not have been clever politics. The need to keep a few Corbyn-supporters in key positions explains Starmer’s decision to give his leadership challenger, Rebecca Long Bailey, a key portfolio.

When normal politics eventually resumes, Starmer’s choice of Long Bailey as shadow education secretary may provide Labour with one of its clearest domestic policy dividing lines from the Tories. Alongside opposing reform to the NHS, detestation of selective education and school autonomy remains the catechism of Labour’s Left. Why has Starmer given them what they want?

In this brief, Long Bailey is the continuity candidate. She continues where her friend and predecessor as shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, left off: scrapping primary school tests, abolishing Ofsted and bringing evaluation back under local authority control – a council control that will also be reasserted over admissions, academies, free schools and “the power to open schools.”

As she reminded Schools Weekly last month, Long Bailey voted against the creation of academy schools, and believes “there is no evidence that academy schools are better … local authorities should be responsible for delivering education to their local communities.” Replicating the language of Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, she describes the charitable status of independent schools as a “tax loop-hole” that she will close.

Rebecca Long Bailey is squaring-up for a fight.

It is to misunderstand the new Labour leader to believe that Starmer has made schools the sacrificial offering to the Left as the price for securing peace within his party. If Corbyn is the yardstick then certainly Sir Keir is the voice of directed advocacy rather than indiscriminate anger. But that does not make him remotely Blairite. Starmer is clear that all state schools – not some schools – all state schools “should be under local democratic control.” Labour will not return to the agenda of offering schools greater autonomy favoured by Blair’s education guru, Andrew Adonis, and carried on by Michael Gove.

Such bipartisanship is in the past and Long Bailey has wasted no time in signalling it. As part of the government’s efforts to include the opposition frontbench in some coronavirus-related briefings, on 8 April, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, held a discussion with Long Bailey about his department’s response. Judging by what RLB did next, the outreach was not a success.

The following day, she sent Williamson a letter that was demanding in scope and contemptuous in tone. Feeling the need to remind the Secretary of State that it was her job “in the national interest” to hold him to account and that “I consider it my responsibility to protect the interests of all those who rely on” the education and childcare system, Long Bailey’s letter contained 49 major policy questions to which she demanded answers, each of them attempting to anticipate pending decisions that are currently being strategized, worked-through and finalised prior to announcement.

In case the Secretary of State might let the 49 points of RLB linger in his in-tray she demanded answers “providing as much clarity as possible, within the next week.” Given that Westminster is in recess until 21 April, she added that “I expect your Department to treat them with the seriousness it would traditional parliamentary mechanisms of accountability.”

Posting the letter on social media, Long Bailey tweeted “Some initial questions to @GavinWilliamson re: urgent coronavirus support. Should keep him busy for a few days” followed by a winking face emoticon.

Such facetiousness sits uneasily with her leader’s commitment – and the Speaker of the Commons’ request – to desist from pestering government departments with non-vexatious claims during the emergency. Most Labour frontbenchers are seeking to hold the government to account by asking penetrating questions where a department may have overlooked or insufficiently grasped a problem. The shadow education secretary’s approach more closely resembles carpet-bombing an under-pressure department for the sake of political grandstanding.

Remarkably, RLB ended her 49 point inquisition with “I will take every step I can to facilitate this constructive relationship moving forward, and it is in that spirit that I look forward to your reply.”

If Gavin Williamson was looking for the concluding smiley face emoticon, he will have been disappointed. Rebecca Long Bailey is squaring-up for a fight.

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