Can Labour change Britain? The answer is yes. No other political party, no other political movement has done more to shape the modern UK. Labour shaped the last century for the better through its bold and ambitious post-war effort and the 1945 Attlee government which paved the way for the NHS, state education system for all and a welfare state that provided protection from poverty and destitution.
In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of working for Michael Young, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto and learnt from him first hand the power of government to rebuild and help people realise their hopes and aspiration. I also learnt from his work the vital importance of ensuring that people and communities had the power to shape their own lives and futures by using their skills and talents to transform society. Many of the best ideas emerged from the grassroots, but governments and other agencies are vital to supporting those ideas.
But Labour’s long-term positive record is far more than just our headline achievements in the UK’s infrastructure and economy. Over the last century, the party has also fundamentally shifted a deeply traditional society in the direction of fairness and aspiration for all. It is in the Labour party’s DNA to push for change.
Now more than ever, with the coalition government still pursuing a divisive social agenda, Britain can do better and here is why I believe Ed Miliband’s Labour party can confront the challenges we face. Just as Labour shaped the last century for the better, we must be bold and ambitious in transforming our country for the better for this century. Ed Miliband understands the challenges ahead. He has reinvigorated the party’s commitment to making real and lasting changes to Britain and we know we can make the differences that count.
These are, of course, very difficult times for the UK. The country’s economic and financial context is still shaky, with only an inadequate, unbalanced economy and the cost of living crisis being felt by people up and down the country. Equality and aspiration are at Labour’s core; making them work in a time of budgetary constraints and deep public scepticism towards politics is the party’s real challenge now. I believe Labour can change Britain for the better. Here, I believe education has a pivotal role in building a strong society and resilient and modern economy by maximising our collective human potential and talents.
First, this is because education is fundamentally about fairness and aspiration for all. A lack of real, meaningful education spells disaster. But with a decent education, anyone and everyone can reach their true potential. Education is the vehicle to lift families and communities up and promote social mobility.
When Labour got into power in 1997, it inherited overflowing classrooms, leaking roofs in classrooms such as in my old school in the east end of London, university for a privileged few and like today, high levels of youth unemployment. Few would argue that we did not leave education in this country in better shape. We made the crucial link between education and economic competitiveness and focused on improving standards in schools, whilst expanding access to higher education. We have a world-class higher education sector, which we should preserve and support.
But not everyone goes to higher education. In fact a majority of our young people do not – last year the participation rate stood at 49 per cent. It is entirely fair to say that when in government we did not do enough for the group that Ed Miliband has called the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’. We did not do enough to improve standards in technical and vocational education. And they are being completely sidelined by the government, who have devalued apprenticeships, scrapped work experience, dismantled careers services for young people, and neglected teaching standards in further education. Labour will rebuild our careers service for young people. They are being failed and we can see the social and economic consequences all around us. And these failings particularly hurt vocational education, where the routes to qualifications and accreditation are often harder to decipher.
Second, education is what will allow Britain to really compete in the 21st century economy. By the most recent results, the UK is languishing 21st out of all OECD countries in terms of technical skills, which is completely unacceptable. At the same time, around a third of high-tech manufacturing firms in the UK are importing labour from overseas, due to a pronounced skills shortage. Put that into the context of almost one million young people unemployed and it becomes clear that, as a nation, we have to compete in a new way. We need a high wage, high innovation and hi-tech economy fit for the 21st century. To do this, we need the best skilled workforce in the world and education is the only tool fit for that ambition.
It will be a priority for Labour to build a coherent strategy to break down the corrosive divide that exists between vocational and academic pathways. And we will work to raise the status, the standing and the standards of teaching and vocational education. We need to sharpen our focus and channel all our energies upon two clear national priorities. First, to provide a supply of high skilled, highly motivated young people to meet the demands of the labour market; and second, to ensure college leavers are equipped and ready for a Level 3 apprenticeship. Labour would seek to dramatically increase the number of high quality apprenticeships currently offered by employers.
The third reason education has a pivotal role in building a strong society is the intrinsic link between education and national identity. Time and time again, we’ve seen the current education secretary demote and devalue teachers to cogs without a voice. Time and time again, we’ve seen this government ignore the importance of teacher morale in our classrooms, instead content to treat education as some kind of box-ticking exercise in which social values of limited remit are more important than hard skills, self-confidence and meaningful knowledge. We can’t go on with teachers feeling devalued and demoralised. We need to invest in them and help raise their status and standing, so they can educate our young people and prepare them for the world of work in a globalised international economy.
Labour can change Britain for the better, and moreover do so at a time of deep public scepticism and fiscal constraints. I can think of no better avenue for implementing lasting change than ensuring we develop a world class education system enabling British success on the world stage, tapping into our country’s creativity, diversity and promoting our technical and scientific potential in trade, commerce and global leadership. Labour can do this, in conjunction with talent from the private and public sector alike, and achieve Ed Miliband’s vision of a one nation Britain.
This article was first published in the Fabian report ‘How Labour can change Britain: Ten priorities for a future government’, edited by Anya Pearson.