Monday, 4 August 2008

Michael Gove attacks lads’ mags and steals the Pupil Premium

Earlier today I attended a speech by Michael Gove at the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). Loosely entitled Liberty, Equality, Family? Why Conservative social policy delivers progressive ends, it was in fact a statement of the Conservative view of how policy toward the family, children and education can create a more harmonious society with more social mobility and better outcomes for the most disadvantaged.

Coverage in the press has mainly focussed on his attack on the objectification of women in “Lads Mags”, notably Nuts and Zoo. He was condemnatory, but it was interesting that he condemned without threatening action: the most he proposed was to “ask those who make profits out of revelling in, or encouraging, selfish irresponsibility among young men what they think they're doing.” (IPC and EMap must be quaking in their boots!) This is a shame, because this was not the most interesting or important part of the speech, but it seems that near-naked ladies on the covers of magazines, even when they are merely the subject of Tory criticism, are more interesting to journalists than school pupils graduating without any valuable qualifications.

Gove speech was another step in the attempt by the Conservatives to paint themselves as a modern, progressive party (indeed, as the modern, progressive party). He began with a (rather tired) discussion of “Ubuntu”, a Bantu word which, broadly translated, means "I am because you are". Bill Clinton famously used it a lot (notably in his speech to the Labour Party conference) and it was consequently a bit of a buzz-word in 2006, but I surprised Gove dragged it up again in 2008. However, it provided an opportunity for him to discuss Social Capital and the role of the voluntary sector and community politics. “One of the most profound, but under-appreciated, changes that David Cameron has brought to Conservative politics is a determination to put the strengthening of relationships at the heart of policy,” he explained.

Under Labour there is really only one relationship which matters. The relationship between the individual and the state.

The Labour conception of society is a thin, and impoverished, one in which there appear to be only two primary centres of decision-making, the central state organises and the individual is expected to respond appropriately.

Individuals are assessed by the State as economic units in need of upskilling, taxing, monitoring or redeploying as appropriate - according to priorities set, and policed, centrally.

Gove went on the criticise the Government’s depletion of social capital; its closure of post offices and GP practices because of a focus upon a “narrow cost efficiency over enriching personal intimacy”; the excessive regulation that has stifled “autonomous institutions which help bind communities together”. This is all startling stuff from a Tory, and shows how far they are prepared to go to distance themselves from the Thatcher era. It was summed up in one sentence of Gove’s that must have required the most enormous amount of gall: “for Gordon Brown, there really is no such thing as society - only the individual and the State.” So now it is Brown who is the heir to the hated Thatcher (hence, perhaps, that rumoured state funeral!) and the Tories who are committed to the “cause of social justice and the drive to make opportunity more equal”.

And then, while the audience were reeling from that act of repositioning, Gove reached out and deftly plucked a key plank of Liberal Democrat policy:

There is one specific intervention, however, the central State will make which is different from now, and which goes to the heart of one aspect of David Cameron's thinking on relationships which has been under-appreciated.

We're explicitly committed to the creation of a premium to be added to the per pupil funding children from disadvantaged backgrounds receive. We want to ensure educational resources are targeted more effectively on those in need. And we want to create a dynamic by which schools are incentivised to take children from more challenging backgrounds and new providers are explicitly incentivised to locate in areas of greater disadvantage.

I’m not sure how new this is for the Conservative Party, but it is certainly very familiar to Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg made this a key platform of his leadership campaign in Autumn 2007, reiterated it in his 2008 New Year message and in June wrote an article for the Guardian all about it.

Asked (by the author) to explain how his pupil premium “differed from that which Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been advocating for over a year”, Mr. Gove denied that it was Nick Clegg and David Laws who invented it, saying that it originated with David Willitts or Julian Le Grand. I'm not the first blogger to notice this, and David Laws and David Willitts have had this debate before, on the floor of the House. However, the fact remains that Willitts did not introduce it as policy and that Gove is bringing the Conservatives rather late to the Pupil Premium party.

What is frustrating is that it is highly likely that the Liberal Democrats will get none of what economists call “first mover advantage”. In other words, the Lib Dems will not get the credit for this policy: rather, it will be touted as a new Tory innovation with little reference to the fact that Clegg and Laws have been vocal advocates for this policy for over a year.

Gove went on to argue in favour of increased parental choice, a policy that this blog has long advocated:

We will make schools accountable to parents by allowing parents to choose the school they want for their child. We'll give every parent the right to take the money currently allocated to their child's education and then deploy it in accordance with their priorities, not the Government's.

We'll make it easier for new providers to enter the state system, reforming planning and other laws to increase choice and diversity. Parents will be empowered to
choose the school with the pedagogy, the disciplinary approach, the ethos
and the philosophy they believe in….

Again, Clegg and Laws have argued this case before. So far (and in my view, erroneously) the Lib Dems have been reticent is in including private schools within that choice and allowing parents to top up the public funding. Gove was equally vague: it remains unclear whether one can use one's (lets say it!) "voucher" to fund whatever education one feels is in one’s child’s interests, even where those providing the education might profit therefrom.

What this speech clearly reinforced was Michael Gove’s status as one of the most impressive members of the Conservative front bench. I first had a chance to hear him speak in January 2006 when he debated Vince Cable on the question of whether the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives were the true heirs to Gladstone. Neither dealt a knock-out blow but I was impressed even then by how eloquently he spoke and how reasoned his arguments were. He has since become a regular guest on Question Time.

It is unlikely that Gove will suffer from having blatantly plagiarised Lib Dem policy. Rather, he will have demonstrated once again that in the coming electoral battle, the squeeze is going to be on, and the challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to make sure that they have a strong, distinctive voice and innovative policies. The pupil premium was to be one of those. Michael Gove may very well have shot that fox.

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