Where’s the Liberal Democrat voice in education?

Looks like this week’s election results have changed little for the coalition, at least for Nick Clegg who – aside from a little more public flexing of Lib-Dem muscles – plans to stay at Cameron’s side for the next five years.

A few days on from their bad night at the polls, the one gear change from Clegg seems to be the conclusion that the public wants to hear a louder Liberal Democrat voice in the Government.

That’s one way of looking at it. And a risky one too.

The Conservative right have been emboldened by their relative success this week; cages are being rattled.

They seem to be tiring of their junior partners, particularly their claims to be a ‘moderating’ force, keeping those nasty Tories in check. If I were of this ilk, I wouldn’t want to hear more from Clegg; I’d want him to pipe down.

There is a sense from the Liberal Democrats, a year too late perhaps, that the Tories govern ruthlessly and that the friendliness of the first twelve months perhaps now seems more like entrapment. They have manouvered Clegg and his team into the firing line, made concessions, but kept the good ship HMG steaming right-ward.

They have allowed the Liberal Democrats their totems and their pet projects, but there is no doubt the Tories are in charge of digging up the foundations.

Education is in many ways a perfect example of this.

All the key jobs (the ones that are actually doing the digging) belong to Conservatives – the Liberal Democrats have just one seat at the table, taken by the close-to-anonymous Sarah Teather.

They have, cunningly, allowed the Liberal Democrats their totem – the pupil premium (which, by almost any analysis isn’t anything close to being a ‘premium’. Notice how it is now being spoken as a ‘better’ deal for schools, rather than ‘extra’ – they have accepted the cuts are coming and this is, at best, a sticking plaster).

On the rest – Academies, free schools, EMA, curriculum reform – it’s all coming from the Conservatives. There seems to be no Liberal Democrat voice here at all (a crude measure, admittedly, but at Education HQ, Conservative Ministers have made 45 speeches in the last year, Sarah Teather has made just 6).

This is not to say this is the same as inaction – Sarah Teather is working away on pre-school initiatives – but this appear to be done in isolation and at a very different pace to the rest of the Department. There are Green Paper’s rather than White, warm words rather than clauses in a Bill. It seems separate from the big stuff, the things that are actually happening right here and right now.

You could say the same for health care and policing – what are the Liberal Democrats in these Departments actually doing? Their own thing, in a back-room somewhere, is my guess – or up-front, like Clegg or Danny Alexander, agreeing with every word.

This leaves the Liberal Democrats in a difficult position. To remain credible to their core vote, they have to assert themselves more widely, impacting on the flagship policies, not just sideshows.

Yet they aim to do so in the context of declining support at the ballot box, a Tory party who may think they need their partners less than they did a year ago, and signs that dissent is bubbling within the ranks. By any stretch, that’s quite a conundrum.

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2 Comments

Filed under Clegg, Lib Dems, Policy, Politics - general

2 responses to “Where’s the Liberal Democrat voice in education?

  1. Excellent article, thank you. There was a fine critique of Tory education ;policies from a Lib Dem point of view in a speech by Peter Downes at the Lib Dems conference in autumn 2010 — there’s a lengthy extract at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/20/libdemconference-freeschools-academies?INTCMP=SRCH

    • Thanks for the comment, and the link. I’d read the Peter Downes piece before – striking in its criticism of coalition policy. It’s interesting, I think, that the Lib Dems are (belatedly) resisting the NHS reforms – even though there are many elements in common with their pre-election rhetoric. Yet, on education, where there is such a jarring of (pre-election) policy and values between what the Lib Dems talked about and what Michael Gove is doing, there is radio silence. Could it be they have seen where change was already going to happen and boarded the bandwagon, so they can later claim ‘success’ and ‘influence’ within the coalition?

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