Nick Tyrone

Starmer is falling into Boris’s trap on school reopenings

Starmer is falling into Boris’s trap on school reopenings
Boris Johnson visits a school in Upminster (photo: Getty)
Text settings
Comments

The National Education Union has issued 200 safety demands they want met before schools are to fully reopen in September. The response from many Tory MPs to this has been to describe the list as a ‘wreckers’ charter’, designed to make a return to the classroom this autumn practically impossible.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is establishing getting kids back to school full-time once again in September as one of the guiding missions of his premiership. As the prime minister said, ‘now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so.’

This is a wise move by Boris Johnson. Getting the classrooms full again is a big opportunity with little political risk. Even if we do have a second wave of coronavirus this winter, blaming it on schools isn’t going to have a lot of political currency. In the meantime, Johnson can be the one who got the kids learning again – and he can paint Keir Starmer as someone who tried to stop that from happening, or at the very least, stood by weakly as the unions tried to halt the whole thing. At least, unless Starmer makes a countermove very soon.

The battle over reopening schools leaves Starmer in a difficult position. The leader of the opposition has avoided the topic for a few months now, but he can’t do so forever. At some point he will be forced to essentially side with Boris Johnson’s plan to reopen the schools, or stand with the teaching unions, given the list of 200 safety demands will not be met. It is hard to see a middle ground between the two positions that will open up for Starmer, without appearing to most of middle England that he doesn’t want children to get an education again.

As ever, I don’t know what the epidemiological right answer is here. It may be that reopening schools in a few weeks’ time represents a huge risk of the virus spreading. Yet one also has to ask how long schools can stay shut before there is irreversible damage done to a generation of children. As with all coronavirus related decisions, we have to start thinking the virus could be with us longer than we first imagined, and so hard choices have to be made. When one considers how much more difficult school closures have been on poorer children, this becomes essential, particularly for the Labour Party, who partly exist to ensure poorer children do not get left behind in life.

I believe that the choice here is a simple one, when all factors are weighed up: Keir Starmer has to unequivocally support the reopening of schools. If he wants to demonstrate to people who once voted Labour, but could not do so when the party was led by Corbyn, that his leadership is tangibly different, he will have to be on the side of parents over the National Education Union. I think the most he could push for on this issue is to make the sending of children to school non-mandatory for the first few months. Even this carries a risk for Starmer, however; he could be painted as equivocating. Better for him to simply say that schools should reopen and be done with it. The one thing he could point out is that the government says it has done enough to stop schools becoming mass breeding grounds of the coronavirus, and that if this isn’t so, the government should be held accountable. But that’s as far as I think he can go without causing himself political damage.

Boris Johnson has seen the push for reopening schools on time in autumn as being something critical to getting his time in Number 10 back on track after the Covid crisis. Keir Starmer needs to see this and watch out for the trap he is being led toward. As much as this is critical for Boris, it is pivotal for the leader of the opposition at the same time. While Starmer might feel like he doesn’t want to pick another fight with the Len McCluskey portion of the Labour movement right now, he’s probably going to have to if he ever wants to be prime minister of this country. As ever, the path to Downing Street for Starmer is paved with some very hard stones.