In my limited experience of persuading people why they should vote, I find the schools policy always works. The Tories, I say, would pay for a new breed of boutique schools which would compete with each other to educate your child. It’s not a theory, it’s been done in Sweden. No more catchment area games. No more 10-year saving plans for private school. Community groups – churches, for example – won’t need the permission of a local authority to open a primary. All you need is find a building, and enough parental support. The power of this policy lies in its simplicity.
I have never worked out why the Tories did not sell this policy harder. It’s not very complex. The policy cannot be summarised as "set up your own school" – the cul-de-sac where William Hague ended up on the Today programme earlier. As John Humphrys rightly told him, people don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to do so. The Tory plan means that school providers (GEMS, Knowledge Schools, Cognita, International English Schools) would beat a path to your door. And yes, community groups would do it to (as the New Schools Network shows). Mr Hague didn’t quite get around to making that point: a missed opportunity.
For three years, we at Coffee House have been encouraging that the Tory leadership to find a way of conveying the radical nature of the schools policy. We lost the argument. As James Forsyth says in his must-read cover story this week (subscribers, click here), Mr Cameron has not mentioned it during the television debates even when talking about education.
So The Economist’s coverage is an important advance in doing what the Tory leadership is (for whatever reason) reluctant to do: communicating the best single reason to vote Conservative. After all, those who do want to move towards a more open society – with greater social mobility - can do more than moan about the Tories. This is not like a football game, where frustrated supporters shout "give me your shirt!" Anyone can get on the field, and start to run with the ball. Many argue that the intellectual climate needs to change before government can change - and politicians cannot, by themselves, change the intellectual climate. The Thatcher revolution was made possible by a huge amount of covering fire support – from journals, think-tanks, intellectuals who switched from left to right like Kingsley Amis and Paul Johnson. This is a battle of ideas, and pieces like this Economist article are significant contributions in that battle for the open society. It’s not a battle which those who are in favour of an open society can expect the Tories to fight for us. It won’t do to sit back, do nothing, and shout at the Cameroons when they stumble.
Even if you do believe there has been a failure of communication, this must not be confused with a failure of policy. Michael Gove has honed the ‘free schools’ policy, it would be in the first Queen’s Speech, it does promise to transform the educational prospects for kids whose parents cannot afford to move into a posh area. It remains, in my view, a reason not just to vote Conservative but to do so with enthusiasm. With a Lib-Lab PR stitch-up now on the horizon, the stakes are even higher now. Labour would never agree to a ‘free schools’ policy: it is in the pay of powerful unions and local education authority barons who do not want to face competition. Only a Tory-led government can deliver this. For those who do want school liberalisation, and the liberalisation of the state that would inevitably follow, this might be your last chance to vote for it.