Tristram Hunt is getting a fair bit of stick from the Conservatives for refusing to condemn the strike action planned by the National Union of Teachers on this morning’s Andrew Marr Show. The Shadow Education Secretary merely said ‘it’s not up to me to tell trade unionists what to do – what I want is teachers in classrooms in a conversation with the Secretary of State so we get over these kind of hurdles’. He said the current stand-off was ‘as a result, partly, of some of the incendiary language from the Secretary of State’. Certainly when you read some of the NUT’s literature around its industrial action, it’s difficult not to conclude that this isn’t as much about a dislike of Michael Gove as it is a particular policy.
But the question for Hunt is not so much whether he condemns the strike action, but whether he is prepared to end up in the stand-off with the NUT that would inevitably befall him if he wants to pursue rigorous standards in the classroom. Last summer I wrote about the confrontations that Democrats have ended up in with trade unionists when they’ve tried to reform schooling – and the stakes are higher in the US as teaching unions can provide funding for party campaigns. There is no political affiliation for teaching unions in this country, and so Hunt needn’t worry about Len McCluskey-style threats when he formulates Labour’s education policy. But an education policy that favours the consumers – pupils – rather than the producers will most likely be one that incurs the wrath of this country’s most militant teaching union, and Hunt must be prepared for that.