I had – at best – a minor walk-on role in the story of ‘New Labour’. But there was this one afternoon.
It was the early 1990s in a rather grand Walworth Road committee room. I was there to be interviewed by party panjandrums Margaret Beckett and Larry Whitty. At stake was the entire direction of British politics or, to be more accurate, the vacant post of Labour Party Director of Communications. Peter Mandelson’s old gig.
The word ‘communitarianism’ was in the air. Now I’d read some Amitai Etzioni, or the sleeve notes at least, I’d worked on a World in Action film about the ‘broken windows’ theory of community rebuilding and, most importantly, I’d drunk a few wines with my mates at the cool new Demos think tank. So I felt as prepared as I’d ever be.
The problem, I said, is that Labour is too closely identified with the rule-breakers and excuse-makers. We’re seen as weak on crime, weak on school discipline, weak on the values that most of our voters hold dear. Too many of our activists are right-on ‘stick it to the man’ middle-class poseurs with little or no real understanding of how unpunished bad behaviour can undermine the communities where our actual voters live.
Few people today remember the Poundswick scandal of the 1980s, where teachers took a stand against misbehaving schoolkids, but it divided the Manchester Labour party and Teaching Unions for years. We talked about that too, and I was clear which side I thought the local and national party should support.
Now, I did make the final shortlist of three (well done Sally Morgan by the way) so at least some of this made sense to Margaret and Larry. And within a few years new leader Tony Blair evidently adopted a similar stance, with a fair bit of electoral success.
Of course you can’t simply cut and paste the politics of the mid-1990s onto 2023, but I do know one thing – if Blair and those advising him were in charge of Labour today they would want their MPs photographed visiting Katherine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School, rather than calling her names on Twitter. Actually more than that. If I could say anything to the Larry and Margaret’s of todays’ Labour Party it’s that they should be thinking of offering a Michaela-style school in every inner city in next year’s manifesto. Because I reckon the Tories will.
For anyone who’s not been following this story, since 2014 Birbalsingh has run a terrifically successful free school in north London, which receives rave reviews from pretty much everyone who visits it. Her emphasis on discipline, uniform, tidy desks and punctuality is easily mocked as some kind of authoritarian fantasy, but it clearly works and clearly changes young lives very much for the better.
She claims to be apolitical, but she’s been happy to identify with the Tories and recently spoke at the National Conservative conference. This has made her a target for the angry online left and some Labour MPs too, including the normally (to me) very grounded and impressive Jess Philips. The back bench MP and headteacher were recently drawn into one of those cringy Twitter duels that both would have been wiser to avoid, culminating in an overlong, rather inaccurate diatribe from Birbalsingh to Keir Starmer.
The idea that Birbalsingh and those of her ilk should be in opposition to Labour is, I would submit, both dangerous and rather wrong-headed. Indeed, look back at the people who first created the Labour Party and the trade union movement over a century ago and they all look a lot like Katherine Birbalsingh.
It’s become a cliché that there was more Methodism than Marx in Labour, but the party wasn’t just built on the ideas of John Wesley. The temperance movement was very much in the mix as well and so too were numerous Workers’ Education campaigners. They were for choirs and libraries and clean shoes on Sunday, emphasising individual responsibility, hard work and stern moral rectitude.
Back then it was the Tories that stood with the brewer and the slum landlord who populated a world of moral turpitude, gambling, gin lane and gangs. The left wanted to raise people out of all that chaotic, selfish individualism by asserting shared values and honest toil. (For the sociological details you can easily find Etzioni’s sleeve notes online these days.)
So how should a Labour party once again preparing for government treat someone like Birbalsingh?
Well, they may not want to roll out the red carpet to a figure who is clearly much closer to the Tories than themselves. But the party would do very well to at least avoid headlines about its MPs going to war with a woman who is most famous for the kind of high standards and discipline most parents would love to see in their child’s school.
Never forget too that real children, many from unpromising backgrounds, are having their lives turned around in Birbalsingh’s school. If the activist left can only see that as something to mock and undermine then they’re as far away from the concerns of most potential Labour voters as the party became in the years before Tony Blair.
PS, if Sir Keir is reading, I’m still available for that big comms role…
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