By Cllr Sam Stopp, Secretary – Renewing Labour
There’s a bit in the 2015 film about Steve Jobs (coincidentally, that’s its title), where the computer pioneer gets into a heated argument with his co-founder, Steve Wozniak, about the benefits of open versus closed systems. Mr Wozniak is a passionate advocate of an open computer system, where users can make their own modifications, while Mr Jobs demands a closed system, meaning that Apple will be totally unique and incompatible with any other system.
Of course, as was usual in the life of Steve Jobs, it was he, and not the other guy, who prevailed. In his peroration, Mr Jobs argues that designing computers is an art, not a science, and Apple must create products and then tell consumers why they need them. This part of the film spoke to me precisely because the opposite is true in politics. In politics, the only way to win is to listen to the voters and then tell them why they need you.
The reason I’ve just recounted this story is that I think there’s a lesson in it for Labour. Take our recent campaign against grammar schools expansion. Great to have something to unite around. Brilliant that we’re fearless about fighting back against a reactionary policy. And yet … the question I have to ask is: do the working-class communities who voted Brexit, and whom we need to win back en masse, actually care about the policy?
To me, it’s a rhetorical question and the answer is, ‘No.’ Outside of London, most people don’t give a damn about grammar schools – the ones that exist or the ones that might in the future. Anthony Crosland was right to say, “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to close every last f****ing grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.” But he also wrote a book entitled, The Future of Socialism. Labour’s renewal demands that we stop obsessing with the past and its policies, including grammar schools.
Because, I’m happy to predict, there will be no grammar schools expansion. The whole thing is yet another ‘dead cat strategy’, the hallmark of the Tory approach of distracting and confounding Labour ever since Lynton Crosby pulled the government’s messaging out of the mire in 2014. The strategy is simple. First, shock and dominate the news agenda with a controversy (such as saying Ed Miliband is a threat to national security). Second, force your opponent to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing with the controversy (hence, Labour’s grammar schools campaign). Third, get on with the far more controversial stuff you don’t want the media to report on while everyone looks at the dead cat you’ve thrown on the table.
Why won’t there be a grammar schools expansion? First of all, everything Theresa May does is the result of careful and methodical planning. The fact that the grammar schools re-think was announced out of the blue and with little lead-up suggests that it’s not a serious policy. Second, the split in the Tory Party over the issue, and the unity in the Labour Party over it, means it has virtually no chance of getting through the Commons. And third, it’s simply too costly and too complicated a proposal to impose on local government across the country, especially when many councils have had their budgets all-but-halved.
And while Labour has been very vocal about grammar schools, there has barely been a Labour response to some of the ridiculous news coming out of the Conservative Party conference this week. Think on this. Theresa May has this week suggested British soldiers should not face justice for any war crimes they commit. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, has scrapped nearly all of George Osborne’s fiscal targets in a tacit acknowledgement that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were right back in 2010. And while we now know when Article 50 will be triggered, we still have no idea what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means.
If Labour is serious about regaining power, it needs to stop falling for blatant Tory dead cat tricks and it needs to listen far more closely to what working-class communities up and down the country are crying out for. I can assure you, sad as it may be, that those communities will share not one scintilla of the disgust the Labour establishment seems to about the fanciful, imaginary, mythical grammar schools expansion we have before us.