This year at conference many socialists had their inner activist reignited by the swathe of radical socialist ideas that Labour have adopted. From the expansion of freedom of movement to creating a public drugs agency, the reforming of Ofsted, and not forgetting the abolishing of private schools. These ideas were framed as radical.
Abolishing Private Schools
The rhetoric and positioning around this policy has been badly handled. When you look at the idea, it does not advocate burning Eton to the ground whilst having John McDonnell and Angela Rayner dance around it singing The Red Flag. It wants to start by abolishing taxes for private schools and to close tax loopholes that they use. It also wants universities to have the same proportion of private school students when compared to the wider population. This is around 7%. However, the main aim of the idea is ‘integrate all private schools into the state sector’.
This could have been saved for the future. In the next 5 years they will not shut down any private schools, so why say that? It maybe the ideological force behind the idea but people don’t always care about your ideology, even if they share it. Abolishing private schools will help free up the top-end jobs of society, but many people want to get rid of work capability assessments and have secure, fulfilling work. People want a fairer system not a socialist utopia. We forget not all our voters are socialist members of the Labour party or ideological purists, many of them are ordinary people hit by austerity.
I went to a comprehensive school and was bullied for most of my school life. I often thought I deserved this as I was not a social equal to the bullies. It took years for me to understand they were just assholes. Change in perception is not a quick thing: even more so when the change is on a societal level. We need to change our collective perception before dealing with the cause. When my perception changed, I could stand up to the bullies.
Many people in the UK believe themselves to be ‘about in the middle’, even when they are not. Many see that the rich have it easier. They also see that they can afford to go to private schools and go to better universities. The problem with this is the myth: if someone is rich then they have worked for it. Not that they inherited it. And even if they did, someone must have worked for it right?
Some people in the middle-classes have worked hard, but most of the elite, who go to Eton, don’t get there by their own genius. They get there because when they were younger they had access to better education, didn’t have to worry about money, and had better access to social and cultural capital. The richer you are the more of an advantage you have: it is a fact. Labour need to change this narrative before they attack the cause of the problem. The narrative is the problem at this time not the school.
Many people don’t see a problem with inheritance. They want their kids to have what they have worked hard for. Therefore, common sense would say that it should be the same rule for everyone. Even if it continues to prop-up a centuries old system of privilege. Because that’s just the way it is. This is the common sense that Labour needs to change before promising to abolish institutions that are set ideas in peoples’ minds.
People no longer believe we are in an era of clear class warfare. Labour needs to choose its battles carefully, or they may lose the class war that exists in the minds of middle class Labour members.
Change is coming… but how fast?
Eventually, at 21, I went to university. However, I could not complete the degree. This was because in my third year, they would have took my nursing bursary away if I wanted to do the full degree. I couldn’t afford not to have the bursary, so I did the diploma instead. Tearing down educational road blocks to achieving a person’s potential is something I fully support and would have benefited from.
However, with this badly thought out idea, socialist ideology overtakes electoral common sense. At the moment the UK is an aspirational nation. It’s one of start-ups, and one of believing that you can better yourself (even if you can’t). This was Thatcher/Blair’s lasting legacy. The poor deserve to be poor (if they don’t work hard) and the rich deserve to be rich (because they are better than you). This is the reality of 21st century liberalism: even if it isn’t true.
A lesson we can learn from New Labour is that you have to win some of the middle classes to win a majority. This idea makes some middle-class people feel guilty for having money and sending their kids to private schools. Should they feel bad about it when children in public schools are being fed by teachers and setting up food banks.
This idea is an attack on the aspirational feelings that many hold in this meritocratic society that New Labour helped form. We need to slowly undo it. It also cements the stereotype many people have of socialism which is taking away people’s choice of freedom. Even if they could never afford to send their children to Eton, they believe it is their right to have the option. Who are we to say otherwise?
Change the Conversation
It took me a while to change my mind about bullies, the nation will take some time change its mind about privilege. Boris Johnson’s poll ratings are proof of that. We need to change the narrative that people are rich because they deserve to be, and that they should have nice things and we should not. It will take longer than we expect as the Conservatives austerity project has taken us backwards. All the above could also be said for immigration policy. Another common narrative we need to challenge before implementing radical policies.
Only last week I was talking about abolishing the royal family. It’s a great idea. It fits and serves an ideological view. Does that it mean it will win me an election and be popular with the electorate. Is it a top priority? Politics can be fun, but at times it needs to be real.
To implement policies and tackle injustices you have to play the voting game. The country has been more accepting of leftist ideas in recent years, but there are still underlying preconceptions that Labour needs to challenge before it can make changes. We need to be radical in the right places and smart in others. Not everyone thinks like a socialist, we cannot forget that.