There won’t be a grammar schools expansion. It’s time we stopped falling for Tory dead cats.

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.

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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.

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To win power, Labour needs to understand why so many Britons feel powerless.

By Cllr Sam Stopp, Secretary – Renewing Labour

While it is still unclear what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually means, we do at least now know when Article 50 will be triggered – by March 2017. Any hopes of ‘blocking’ Brexit, as Owen Smith sought to do, are clearly fanciful. Labour needs to urgently wake up to the historical forces that drove 17 million Britons to give the British establishment one of the biggest shocks it has ever received.

In a Newsnight interview conducted shortly after the result of the EU Referendum, the much-maligned Frank Field MP set out in stark terms how real was the danger of Labour reacting incorrectly to Brexit. Any attempts to dismiss the result, patronise ‘Leave’ voters, or ignore the warnings contained within their vote, could spell Labour’s doom. While I was as deflated by the result as 16 million other ‘Remain’ voters, I could not agree more strongly with Mr Field’s analysis.

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When one considers that the Labour Party was originally formed to represent the powerless, it is a cruel irony that those voters who followed the party’s advice to remain were more likely to be middle class, socially liberal city-dwellers. The northern heartlands out of which Labour grew voted decisively for Brexit, bringing to bear the central challenge for the left throughout the West today: how to reconcile the forces of globalisation with concerns about the pace of change and the great challenges that come with it, including mass migration.

That is why I call these forces historical. Looking back, Brexit now seems inevitable. It did not seem so at the time, with the media and pollsters alike briefing that Remain would win, even if the margin of victory might be close. It wasn’t as obvious to a metropolitan YUPPIE like me as it probably should have been.  Yet Alex Salmond was right to call the result “a vote for English independence”, except it wasn’t independence from the EU for which people were voting, but independence from a world changing too quickly and too unequally for too many to bear.

When Tony Blair made his final conference speech as Labour leader in 2007, and spoke of the need for “these values, gentle and compassionate as they are … to be applied in a harsh, uncompromising world”, he was describing the huge challenge facing the modern left, if not the solution to it. Even if the UK had not voted for Brexit, a realignment in British politics would have come sooner or later. The question now for Labour is how it responds. Though it sounds stark, if Labour falls in its response, it might not recover.

So what, if anything, can Labour do to convince the millions of Britons who feel powerless that ours is the party that can give them back control over their destinies? This point has been made before, but it doesn’t particularly seem to be resonating. Labour need to become the masters of devolution. The EU Referendum proves, if proof were needed, that the old boundaries are breaking down. Statism and supranational bodies are going to become increasingly irrelevant.

The dominant party in Britain throughout the next century will be the one that best understands, and capitalises on, the need for devolution. Arguably, Labour has already lost the first big battle in this war, having been driven out of the country of Keir Hardie, Scotland. The struggle is especially difficult for Labour, too, as it is the only truly national party of the UK. The Tories are so unchallenged in the south of England (aside from London) that they do not need to reach much beyond Birmingham for a parliamentary majority.

Labour, meanwhile, still imbued in its thinking with the statism that became culturally ingrained during the Blair years, is increasingly stretched and fraying as it tries to reconcile a unified policy agenda with the far more varied areas of the country it is seeking to represent. How does Labour appeal to working-class people in our deindustrialised heartlands and to metropolitan liberals? It was our failure to square this circle that arguably cost Ed Miliband’s Labour the 2015 General Election.

As Tom Watson argued so forcefully in his speech to Labour conference last week, the answer lies in local government, where Labour is comfortably the biggest party. Labour needs to make its councillors, mayors and metro mayors not merely the footsoldiers, but some of the leaders, of the movement. The PLP must provide robust opposition in Parliament, but to truly recover across the country, Labour needs to focus far more of its national campaigning strategy on local issues.

This is, after all, how the Liberal Democrats, after years of relentless local campaigning, managed to mangle their way into coalition, despite lacking a message that appealed across the country. The long march back to power will not be successful if Labour is only a talking shop. Our 600,000 members must urgently be mobilised to become the true party of local government and local campaigning. The grammar schools campaign led by Angela Rayner MP is a great start, although we will need to find causes that appeal outside of London. We need 1,000 such campaigns across the country in the next few years before Labour can even dream of a return to power.