Mary Riddell speaks to Tristram Hunt and finds that the Labour party has not only a new shadow education secretary to flesh out the least developed area of Labour’s policy prospectus, but a fully signed-up outrider for Milibandism
Is the Labour party ready for a leader called Tristram? We may never find out. On the other hand, the unforeseen elevation of Tristram Hunt to shadow education secretary provoked an unusual buzz of speculation. The oracles of the media ruminated on his likely status in a post-Ed world, and The Spectator named him Newcomer of the Year, possibly for his achievement in facing up to Michael Gove without being torn limb from patrician limb.
For Hunt, despite possessing an accent, wardrobe and demeanour that would allow him to blend seamlessly into any comprehensive school staff room, is undeniably posh. The son of Lord Hunt of Chesterton, he is an alumnus of University College school, in London’s Hampstead, and Trinity College, Cambridge. While such a pedigree is no impediment to high office in any political party, Labour is rarely short of those ready to grumble about perceived elites.
Recently, for example, David Lammy MP was reported as warning that Labour must be more than “the party of Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill.” Does Hunt subscribe to the worry that his party is too weighted towards the chattering classes? “Who am I to say anything on that? The challenge is to have vibrant local parties and to make sure we grow them.”
He is, however, eager to play up the less academic side of his clan. “My mother is a retired landscape architect, and my grandfather was an artist. My wife is a textile designer, so there’s a strong history and environment which I understand of technical, practical skills and craftsmanship.” While Hunt’s artisanal roots seem more William Morris than Bill Morris, his attachment to vocational and technical training is at the heart of an education mission that began on the night, some weeks ago, when he received a text from Ed Miliband’s office alerting him to a reshuffle the next day.
“I thought: That’s nice – that I was enjoying what I was doing but that if something came up, I’d take it. Parliament wasn’t sitting, and I turned up in my jeans. Ed seemed a bit surprised, and then my office phoned and said I was scheduled to see him after Rachel Reeves [promoted to shadow work and pensions]. Suddenly it assumed a bit more significance. Ed offered me the job, and I was shocked.”
Of all the major policy areas in Miliband’s ‘one nation’ prospectus, education has seemed the least fleshed-out. Although Hunt is quick to pay tribute to his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, whom he credits with “much of the heavy lifting”, he does not deny that the education debate has been dominated by a secretary of state whom he has called a “zealot”.
“There is a lot of Michael,” he says, adding that “if we’ve lost any ground it is disturbing.” Hunt appears not only to acknowledge that there has been a hole in the policy prospectus but also to diagnose one possible cause. “In education you have a particularly strong voice in the trades union movement. The NUT or NASUWT absolutely have their role, but the debate is often framed with the government on one side and the unions on the other. We need to be in the space of putting out a message and an attractive political prospect around education. On childcare, on the forgotten 50 per cent or on what we want to do about teacher quality, we’re beginning to lay out some of that terrain.”
Would he accept that the line between Labour and the Tories seems blurred, at least to the average voter? Maintaining the drive towards academies and rebadging free schools as ‘parent-led academies’ do not, I suggest, denote a radical departure. Hunt disagrees, citing “clear red and blue water between us”. Or, to continue the aquatic metaphor: “When it comes to schooling, no school is an island.”
In contrast to Gove’s “highly aggressive, investment banker model of schooling in which each school outadvertises each other and tries to compete,” Labour would have “some competition between schools but within a collaborative framework … and we’d also, where we need new schools, absolutely think about establishing parent-led academies … Innovation, yes, but with some basic systems of transparency and accountability.”
To improve standards (and no doubt to avoid the problems which have afflicted free schools such as the al-Madinah in Derby) Hunt envisages a middle tier of oversight. Is he not simply building in another layer of expensive bureaucracy? “No, because head teachers [tell us] it’s very good to have an external body or commission or system which forces them to challenge each other and collaborate. We’re not interested in creating bureaucracies for political purposes.”
With David Blunkett, a former education secretary, studying the details of how best to construct bodies suited to different areas, Hunt mentions no plans to remove any powers from local authorities. He does however warn of “the drawbacks of the politicisation that local authorities can have when it comes to education policy … So there are understandable reservations about previous models, but we don’t want to create a bureaucracy for the sake of it.”
As an academic and a historian, Hunt is drawn from a different milieu than more mechanistically-minded predecessors. Amid the (understandable) focus on structures and the goal of training children for work, should he not also focus on the neglected question of what education is actually for? “You’re absolutely right, and this is something Ed himself is rather passionate about and wants us to work on – which is that the education debate can end up as being all about structures. What do we want the 16 or 18-year-old to come out of school with? What education have they enjoyed; what have they experienced?
“You can’t give an inch in terms of maths and English, because we know they are fundamental in a devastatingly competitive world. But are we seeing a steady loss of art and music and creativity in the curriculum when we also know that is one of Britain’s USPs in a globally competitive world. There’s something in our soil and in our cities when it comes to music and literature and art and design.” Challenging as it may be to marry such ephemeral qualities with get-ahead competition, Hunt sees another challenge.
How, he wonders, do you balance “our obsession with benchmarking” with “mindfulness, social skills, emotional intelligence, eloquence, the ability to have a conversation – all these elements which are often created and developed organically in more advantaged communities.” These unquantifiable skills are, as Hunt notes, on the wishlist not of some wistful do-gooder but of the hard-nosed CBI.
Those who tend to lack these skills, along with any academic credentials are the “forgotten 50 per cent” on whom Miliband and Hunt are focused. With the emphasis shifting to the ‘technical baccalaureate’, vocational education and apprenticeships, the spotlight has once again fallen on the poor relations of the system, colleges of further education. Is Labour’s demand that FE teachers should be fully qualified with the minimum of a GCSE in maths and English not a terrible indictment of their current state?
While Hunt points out that you might have “a brilliant plasterer teaching plastering” without any academic qualifications, new recruits will have to hold or acquire a basic qualification. In addition, unnecessary and worthless certificates will be stripped out. “We need to be very strict about schools and colleges selling pupils a pup.”
Unsurprisingly, Hunt’s main criticism of all that ails the education system is directed at Gove, who is “terribly linear and thinks the job is done once you change the name plate on a school.” Even so, he reserves a rebuke for the Labour education policy of the Blair years. “Ed understands, as I do, the value that certain structures can bring to education, but that’s not the be-all and end-all. Where he does make a split from the past – or a growth – is that in 1997 the focus was on standards and expansion of the higher education sector. We all thought the knowledge economy was the answer and that financial services would keep going for ever.
“We did not focus on vocational education and the FE sector to the degree that we should have done. If we want a rebalanced economy and regional growth, we need that [transition]. We weren’t focused on that enough. We got into this myth of being a post-industrial nation, and there wasn’t a powerful enough voice. We got there in 2008 with Peter [Mandelson] and his industrial policy. But from 1997 to 2007, there was a failure to recognise the significance of technical education.”
Hunt has been put on the spot over the education of his own children – a five-year-old son who is in a state primary school and two younger daughters. Jeremy Paxman took some delight in asking him repeatedly whether he would ever sent his children to schools with unqualified teachers – a question to which he obtained no definitive response.
“I’m doing my second kid’s application at the moment, and hopefully she’s going to the same school as her brother. They’re going to stay in the state system.” So why didn’t he simply tell Paxman that he wasn’t going to send his children to private schools but that there might be a place in state schools for visiting experts to give the odd lecture without formal teaching qualifications? “Who knows what Jeremy would have done with that? His agenda is different. All I’ll say is that my children are in the state system, and they’re going to stay there.”
Since Hunt is listed as a supporter of the cross party group Balanced Migration, where exactly does he stand on an issue with which the Labour leadership is wrestling? “Frank Field, who is the co-chair, shares some of the same concerns. I’m influenced by my time as MP for Stoke-on- Trent. I remember talking to a young, second-generation Pakistani British lad who was concerned about the speed of change in the community as a result of the failure to introduce controlled migration from the EU accession states last time.
“That spoke to me very, very powerfully. So it seems to me that we did want controls … I think the answer is partly on the supply side,” he says, citing the Miliband plan to make those who hire foreign workers also take on British apprentices. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re training our young people for jobs [in which they will] succeed [but] the real fear is that we got the numbers wrong last time, the statistics were very poorly produced, and policy flowed from that.” Is he in favour of the UK looking again at the free movement of labour within Europe? “I would say that is above my pay grade.
“What we can do in the education sphere is to [show] that there is a growing issue of white British boys not getting the education they want.” Several times during our interview, Hunt raises the problems of a group which seems to preoccupy him above all others.
Presumably he seems them as the cohort most failed by a migrant influx? “None of this is to say there isn’t more work to do with black Afro-Caribbean boys and in urban areas. But we do know from Alan Milburn’s social mobility work and elsewhere that there is a strand of low-attaining, not necessarily poor, boys in suburban coastal districts – you can draw a line from Lincolnshire through Norfolk, Suffolk down to the Kent coastal towns – who are not being challenged or served effectively enough by the education system.
“It doesn’t matter that these are white boys. It’s not about the colour of their skin. It is a grouping that we know we have an issue with.” While London schools have been transformed “and that has particularly impacted on other race communities, we have a problem in other parts of the country that particularly affects white British boys.” Since the areas he cites are exactly those of high recent migration, presumably he thinks the two issues are linked?
“Exactly. And that comes back to the supply side. We have to get in there.” Hunt declines to say quite how he would intervene, saying “I’ll swerve that one” when asked if Labour should curb migrant benefits and charge for NHS services. None the less, his views sound more robust than those of other colleagues lining up to repent Labour’s past liberalism on immigration.
Although Hunt, who contrives to be both Blue and Blairite, eludes easy labels, he seems a total convert to Milibandism. Does he see himself as the leader’s intellectual outrider? “It’s very, very important that we all [accept] the duty to broaden and deepen the one nation argument. While he cites “Liz Kendall on social care and Stella Creasy on payday lending” as powerful influences, Hunt’s scholarship and charm clearly equip him to take on the challenge.
“Ed always says that we either go big or we go home. Ed likes the battle of ideas and an argument about the nature of our political economy. That’s why this talk of us just wanting 35 per cent and nipping over the line is really not the ambition I hear coming from Ed.” Like the leader, he foresees a dirty election. “How David Cameron marries his vision of himself as a liberal, ‘big society’ Tory with the barnacle-scraping politics of Lynton Crosby is very hard to see. I think Ed is right to call it now so that people know what sort of politics are being played.”
On the other hand, the Arsitotelean politics of virtue, adapted by Miliband with a little help from the Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, and others surely sit uneasily with the Falkirk selection process, and Labour’s links to the disgraced former chairman of the Co-op Bank and – for that matter – with Hunt’s own recent reavowal of Labour’s mutualist, co-operative and associationist roots? Although Hunt does not resile from his faith in the model, he admits that the Co-op debacle “is very, very disheartening to see.”
Despite such glitches, he is confident that the Miliband vision of responsible capitalism is sellable on the Stoke-on- Trent doorsteps, where he believes Labour’s stance on zero hours contracts, payday loans, immigration and much else will answer the question: why should we vote for you? His great mentor, Lord Mandelson, was more critical, suggesting that the energy price freeze might mark a retrograde step. Would Hunt agree?
“I speak to Peter, as do many people on the frontbench. He is a very valuable figure, and he has his own views as a senior [presence] in the party. There’ll be internal criticism, external criticism, conversations with Ed. The great strength of Ed is going beyond some of the tribal yin and yang stuff and using the experience of people like Alastair (Campbell), Alan (Milburn) and Peter.”
Hunt, by contrast, is self-deprecating about getting up to speed in his new role. When I press him on what Labour’s offer will be on childcare for all under-threes, he says: “I’d be selling you a pup if I told you where we were on that.” On the broader themes of Project Ed, he has no hesitation. Asked what policy he would cite to persuade a doubtful constituent to vote Labour, he says: “The jobs guarantee. Smashing the spectre of youth unemployment.”
Should Hunt’s enthusiasm prove as infectious as he hopes, then the Labour party will be absolved, for the foreseeable future, of wondering whether it is ready to be headed by a Tristram. Does he hope, none the less, one day to lead his party? “I’m so excited by the prospect of Ed Miliband in Number 10 and of being education secretary,” he says. “I am focused only on that.”