The Labour leader's big speech was wordy and short on substance
“By hand or by brain” is perhaps the most memorable phrase contained within Clause IV, adopted by the Labour Party in its constitution of 1918.
While it would later become a target of contempt for the party’s Right, and discarded by Tony Blair in 1995, such language — part of a wider commitment to public ownership — was intended to be ameliorative. Section four of the clause, where those words can be found, was originally a compromise to integrate socialists with social reformers.
Sir Keir Starmer is certainly not the former, but the speech he gave yesterday — on his party’s “mission” of education — sought to put cognitive and manual work on a par. The subtext was obvious in the aftermath of Brexit and 2019: Labour only wins if it seeks to defend workers of all stripes.
New Labour accomplished much, he insisted, but had failed to eradicate the “snobbery that looks down on vocational education”. As far as swipes at the old guard go, this was rasping. Blair and Gordon Brown had trained millions of young people for the “knowledge economy”, Starmer added, but they had failed those who wanted to pursue blue-collar jobs.
The Labour leader placed emphasis on rhetoric, logic and learning how to make persuasive arguments. Of course, he didn’t use any of those terms, presumably because proposing that schools teach rhetoric and logic sounds like something Boris Johnson would say. Strangely enough, such accusations didn’t surface yesterday.
That’s perhaps because Starmer sidestepped any association with Johnson by deliciously Blairite means — namely using jargon like “oracy”, which apparently consists of “the fluent, confident, and correct use of the standard spoken form of one’s native language”. So yes, rhetoric.
Suddenly it felt as if we were listening to an Alain De Botton audiobook. “It’s not just a skill for learning,” the Labour leader said with genuine ardour. “It’s also a skill for life. Not just for the workplace [but] also for working out who you are.”
Besides Starmer now wanting Britain’s classrooms to resemble Socratic dialogues, there was the equally unexpected proposal that all students study a creative arts subject, or sport, until 16. Such originality was inevitably accompanied by centrist homilies, most notably in defaulting to the language of social mobility. When Blair spoke in a similar register it made sense, but today it sounds out of touch. Really, there is a great deal of social mobility in Britain right now — it’s just mostly downwards.
While Starmer praised apprenticeships, and even proposed the formation of a new body, Skills England, he failed to mention that the minimum wage for an apprentice is as little as £5.28. The incentives to study for a university degree, and access cheap credit immediately, are clearly more alluring.
The party leader spoke candidly of how he grew up “surrounded by hope” and “took it for granted”. Yet he isn’t interested in scrapping student fees, despite free higher education being something his generation literally did take for granted. Starmer is keen to talk of obligation and an “unwritten contract” between different age groups, only this contract omits mentioning that he didn’t have to pay for something, while expecting that others should.
There was a lack of substance around resources and constraints. Starmer wants to replace an outdated national curriculum yet academies, introduced by Blair and massively scaled in recent years, don’t have to follow it. The kind of centralised plan he seems to desire is at odds with the legacy bequeathed by a former prime minister he frequently praises.
Starmer’s posture on education policy is intriguing, and in parts even original. But there is a disconnect between his ambitions and the structure he stands to inherit. “National missions” and the academy system will mix like oil and water. To deliver what he claims to want will require a reversal of New Labour, as well as Tory, policies. I wouldn’t hold my breath.