Michael Gove received a surprising amount of support from the opposition benches when he unveiled his GCSE reforms in the Commons on Monday. Among those Labour MPs saying they welcomed his proposals were David Blunkett, Barry Sheerman and, most unexpectedly, Diane Abbott, who said that they would particularly benefit working-class and black minority ethnic children. ‘Mr Speaker, I’m in love,’ said the Secretary of State for Education. ‘The honourable lady is absolutely right. If I had been a member of the Labour party, I would have voted for her as leader.’
Listening to this exchange, I couldn’t help but turn this hypothetical on its head: if Michael Gove had been a member of the Labour party, would Diane Abbott have voted for him as leader? The honourable member for Surrey Heath is often talked about as a future leader of the Conservative party. But in many ways he’d make a better leader of the Labour party.
For one thing, he seems to have a more extensive knowledge of Marxist political theory than Ed Miliband, which is saying something when you consider who Miliband’s father was. A picture of Lenin greets visitors to Gove’s office in the Department for Education and he is fond of quoting Antonio Gramsci to wrongfoot his critics. In particular, he has grasped Gramsci’s point about victory depending on a long march through the institutions. To change a country, argued Gramsci, it’s not enough to control the government. The true revolutionary needs to capture all the ‘neutral’ organs of the state as well. And this is precisely what Gove has done.
Since his arrival at the Department, Chairman Gove has purged three of his top four officials, including the permanent secretary. Heads have also rolled at Ofsted, Ofqual and the National College for -Teaching and Leadership, with the bosses of all three being replaced by Gove appointees.
He likes to joke about overseeing a ‘permanent revolution’, but for defenders of the status quo in what Gove refers to as ‘the Blob’ (the educational establishment), the scale and pace of his reforms is no laughing matter. He urged David Cameron to push through an education bill (prepared in secret before the election) in his first 90 days as Prime Minister, just as Blair had done, thereby denying the teaching unions an opportunity to organise. It was done in 77 days. That Act of Parliament enabled a majority of England’s state secondary schools to convert to ‘academy’ status, making them operationally independent and free from local authority control. It’s a change so far-reaching that the political opponents of academies are still reeling in shock and awe.
The same sense of almost Trotskyite urgency underpins his other reforms, with a completely rewritten National Curriculum to be taught in schools next year and new GCSEs and A-Levels coming on stream in 2015. Even when he suffers a setback, as he did when his attempt to introduce a single exam board in core academic subjects ran afoul of EU procurement rules, he quickly regroups and attacks the problem from another angle. Most ministers, even the radicals, would have trouble getting the government machine to move so quickly. Gove is helped by having the most able special advisers in the government.
Then there are free schools. They’re perceived to be such a success within the Westminster village that virtually every centre-right think tank claims to have come up with the idea. But the truth is that no legislation was required to usher in free schools because they’re just a subset of the sponsored academies that were brought in by the previous government. As Andrew Adonis says, Labour should be claiming credit for them, rather than attacking them at every opportunity, as Ed Balls did last week. But Gove has managed to convince the Labour leadership that free schools — and academies in general — are a Conservative innovation.
It’s as if Gove has taken a leaf out of Blair’s book — or, rather, his memoirs, which the Education Secretary is fond of quoting — and simply stolen his predecessor’s best ideas. Incredibly, Labour don’t even want credit for the fact that about 20 private schools have now become academies. They could, if they chose, say that these schools had been ‘nationalised’ and boast about how pupils from poor families now have access to schools that, not so long ago, only the rich could afford. John Reid, a former communist, used to say that extending choice to poor families was socialism at its most radical. Thanks to Gove, it is now seen as a Conservative policy.
Another aspect in which Gove is more like a Labour politician is the passion with which he argues his case. Most Conservatives are reluctant to claim the moral high ground, falling back on arguments designed to appeal to voters’ heads rather than their hearts. Not Gove. There are moments during his endless round of television and radio debates when he seems to catch fire, harnessing an Old Testament rage that is more reminiscent of Labour firebrands like Nye Bevan and Michael Foot than a Tory grandee.
This occurred during his last appearance on BBC Question Time when he was accused by Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney-general, of judging schools according to how many children they sent to Russell Group universities. Suddenly, a dark cloud seemed to pass across his brow and the thunder and lightning were unleashed. His anger was so palpable, and his counterattack so ferocious, you almost felt sorry for Thornberry.
Gove’s sense of moral purpose is rooted in his own experience of growing up in a lower-middle-class household in Aberdeen. After initially attending state schools, he won a scholarship to Robert Gordon’s College and it was the rigorous academic education he received there that enabled this adopted son of a fishmonger to get into Oxford. He knows that for children like him, whose parents don’t have friends in high places, a good school can make all the difference. That’s where his proselytising zeal comes from — the absolute conviction that his education reforms will create a more level playing field between the children of the rich and the poor.
And it is this, above all, that would make him such an effective leader of the Labour party. Gove seems to possess a genuine affinity for the underdog — a sense of what it’s like not to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth — that Labour’s two Eds lack. How else to explain their bizarre decision to attack the Education Secretary’s attempts to restore rigour and discipline to state schools and, instead, side with the producer interest? In the looking-glass world of contemporary politics, the person doing the most for children from low-income families is a Conservative, while the leaders of the Labour party are willing to die in a ditch to defend a system that preserves privilege and entrenches poverty. No wonder Diane Abbott, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who got into Cambridge after attending Harrow County Grammar School for Girls, has come out as a Goveite.
Of course, Michael Gove would never see himself as being on the left, even if he has borrowed some of their tactics. In his Keith Joseph lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies last month, he placed himself (and the Prime Minister) in the same radical tradition as Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher. It’s one of the shibboleths of the modernising project, of which Gove is an architect, that it’s possible to have compassion for the most vulnerable members of our society and still be a Conservative.
But the reason he’s becoming an increasingly attractive figure to Labour MPs is because his education policy is so clearly in keeping with the best traditions of their party. Not so long ago, the Labour movement put great emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, with left-wing intellectuals like R.H. Tawney believing all children should be introduced to the best that’s been thought and said, regardless of background. How that philosophy came to be embraced by a Conservative, with Labour politicians defending the idea that working-class children should study the words of Simon Cowell rather than Shakespeare, is one of the great mysteries of the age.
Michael Gove will never leave the Conservative party, any more than he’d switch allegiance from his beloved Queen’s Park Rangers. But Labour backbenchers can be forgiven for looking wistfully across the aisle and wondering what might have been.