Labour conference 2019: Private schools action reveals party’s power dynamics


Labour now has a policy radical enough to broaden the terms of what a general election would be about.

                              Labour conference 2019: Private schools action reveals party's power dynamics

For the first 24 hours of Labour conference, the drama was outside the hall with failed plots and Brexit rancour; but that changed late on Sunday afternoon.

Delegates approved a motion that made it official party policy for private schools to be “integrated into the state sector” – in effect, abolishing them altogether.

That’s certainly how the grassroot movement Momentum want the policy to be seen.

                              Labour conference 2019: Private schools action reveals party's power dynamics

Labour supports abolishing private schools

Attendees at Labour's conference resolve the party should commit to "integrate all private schools into the state sector".

National coordinator Laura Parker said it was about “dismantling” privilege, adding: “Every child deserves a world class education, not only those who are able pay for it.”

The policy is significant for three reasons.

The first is its impact at any imminent general election.

If the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are going to define themselves by their Brexit positions, Labour now has a policy radical enough to broaden the terms of what an election would be about.

The issue has the potential to dominate days of discussion in a campaign precisely because it will generate charged emotions both from those who support and oppose it.

The second significant aspect of this policy is the detail.

it would see Labour take on private education from the supply side – by withdrawing charitable status and tax privileges, but also from the demand side – by limiting the number of places universities can offer to privately educated students to 7%, which would make parents question the value of the fees.

But there is also an inherent contradiction within the policy.

                              Labour conference 2019: Private schools action reveals party's power dynamics

If private schools are going to be integrated into the state sector, it makes little sense to remove their charitable status, given the fact that they would regain charitable status once they become state run.

The other issue is the extent to which the policy actually dismantles privilege – outstanding state schools already tend to see house prices rise in their catchment areas, so these new proposals could see that form of wealth privilege intensify further.

That’s all before you get into the legal thicket of redistributing assets and endowments.

It’s one thing to require public schools to ensure their libraries, museums and collections are open to all, it’s quite another to remove their ownership of those things.

But the third significance is what this policy says about the power dynamics within the party.

Momentum sources made clear at the start of this conference they wanted to demonstrate the scale of their influence on shaping the policy and direction of the party.

The vote on Labour’s approach to private education is a clear example of their clout.

But there are other areas of policy where they have been less effective.

Leave aside for a moment the attempt to oust Tom Watson as deputy leader (which was led by Momentum founder Jon Lansman, but was not supported by all senior figures in the group) and look instead at the debate around the “Green New Deal”.

                              Labour conference 2019: Private schools action reveals party's power dynamics

Momentum had hoped to see a motion put forward that would commit a Labour government to setting a net zero carbon target of 2030.

But they have come up against more concerted push back from the trade unions than they had anticipated, meaning the proposed policy wording has still not been agreed.

The power tussle isn’t just between Momentum and the unions, but the Labour leadership as well.

There is no doubt the conference motion to integrate private schools into the state sector is a clear message from the delegates that the party’s manifesto position must now go further than it had previously.

But it will be for the shadow cabinet to take the four bullet points of the conference motion and translate it into a developed, costed policy decision – a process which by definition could allow for some watering down.

Even after that, any Labour general election manifesto is subject to approval by committee – a procedure known as the Clause 5 meeting – which will once again make today’s conference motion subject to a degree of interpretation.

This is a policy that has not yet matured to its final state.

Its birth in the hall in Brighton, however, will likely be one of the key moments of this conference.

    Next article

    Labour policies drowned out by Momentum plot – and MPs are seething


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