Nobody—least of all teachers—relishes the prospect of school closures, but with Covid-19 infection rates spiralling, it was clear that they were inevitable. So it transpired on Monday when Boris Johnson announced a third English national lockdown, with schools closed for all pupils except the children of key workers and the vulnerable until at least next month’s half-term. Schools in Scotland and Wales have also moved to remote learning.
Just a day earlier, of course, Johnson had instructed parents in England to send their children into school as normal, despite the rapidly deteriorating situation and concerns that schools may be vectors for the more transmissible B117 variant of the virus. Local authorities, teachers and parents had already taken matters into their own hands ahead of the government’s announcements, with local school closures across much of the country on Monday amid staff shortages, and some parents having chosen to withdraw their children.
Three councils in London—Islington, Waltham Forest and Greenwich—had advised local schools to move to remote learning last month, only for education secretary Gavin Williamson to order them to reverse course (Williamson commenced legal proceedings against Greenwich before it backed down). Despite Johnson’s claims that the risk to school staff was ‘very small’, local authority data from Greenwich, Leeds and Birmingham suggests infection rates among them are over four times higher than among the general population.
With the Tory government floundering, its Labour opposition ought to be all over this topic like a rash. But Labour got itself into an entirely unnecessary muddle of its own over school closures, having initially refused to join the National Education Union when it called last weekend for Westminster to move primary schools to online learning. As late as Monday morning, shadow education secretary Kate Green was implying that schools should remain open during the impending national lockdown.
How did Labour get itself into this mess? Since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer has chosen to keep the education unions at arm’s length. His first shadow education secretary, erstwhile leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey, was eventually sacked having been repeatedly undermined and talked over by frontbench colleagues, as well as being briefed against in the Tory press for supposedly being too close to the NEU.
You might think that Labour frontbenchers would be encouraged to work closely with the appropriate trade unions. But Starmer’s leadership appears more concerned with restoring the primacy of the Parliamentary Labour Party over the wider labour movement, and with making it clear to the media that trade unions aren’t telling the party’s ‘new management’ what to do. As a result, Starmer made a point of not following the NEU’s line on school closures, even though it was obvious that the government’s position couldn’t hold.
Having insisted that schools should stay open until the government itself was forced into shutting them, Starmer looks not stronger, but weaker. The Tories have little to crow about given their own appalling performance, but they will feel that their ‘Captain Hindsight’ jibes about Starmer have been vindicated. It’s hard to see what he might have gained by his line; it’s surely unlikely that anyone who seriously cares about Starmer ‘standing up to the unions’ would be minded to vote Labour in any case.
All this is a world away from the warm words of Starmer’s leadership campaign. Among his ten pledges—which served as the cornerstone of his pitch—was a promise to ‘work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people’. This is indeed the least we should expect of any Labour leader, even if it’s rarely worked out that way for most of the party’s history (Jeremy Corbyn excepted). But if Starmer is unable or unwilling to honour that pledge in opposition, how can workers rely on him to do so in government?
During the pandemic, Labour’s response has generally appeared somewhat apologetic and limp. Instead of hitting the Tory government hard for its myriad failures—from the test and trace disaster to doling out generous contracts to politically-connected firms with minimal scrutiny—it has been at pains to appear constructive. Even when Starmer was asked on Monday night if anything was missing from the government’s package of lockdown measures, he restricted himself to criticising its messaging.
Those currently threatened with eviction from their home, or forced to subsist on either Universal Credit or derisory levels of statutory sick pay, will feel very strongly that there’s much more the government could be doing to support them. Likewise, with 1.8 million children still lacking access to a laptop or comparable device, the shift to remote learning—though clearly unavoidable in the circumstances—could leave the most deprived pupils further behind with their education, for want of government intervention.
Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has called for Covid support measures, including the evictions ban and the £20 emergency increase to Universal Credit, to be extended. But over and above this, Labour should be arguing for a new settlement and for a far-reaching renewal of the social safety net, the gaps in which have subjected many to avoidable hardship. It might even be time to take another look at the party’s much-maligned 2019 manifesto; free public broadband, in particular, now looks like a pretty prescient idea.
It isn’t just school staff, or key workers in general, who need the Labour leadership to help them fight their corner. The inadequacies of Britain’s paltry workplace rights have been badly exposed, putting the wellbeing of millions of workers at heightened risk. Keir Starmer should stand, as he originally promised, shoulder-to-shoulder with the trade unions in fighting to strengthen those rights, rather than trying to score points at their expense.