Labour’s Return to Blairism in Education Is a Disaster for Young People

By embracing the Blair-era legacy of Ofsted ratings, Keir Starmer is signalling that Labour is no longer committed to progressive education reform – and abandoning young people to a broken system.

Keir Starmer meets pupils during a visit to Sydney Russell School in Dagenham. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / Pool / Getty Images

When will Keir Starmer acknowledge that people born after 1980 exist and have political opinions, wants, and needs? The answer, increasingly, would seem to be: probably never. Starmer’s stridently neo-Blairite speech at the Labour Party conference seems to suggest that the Labour leader and his gang of managerial berserkers are willing to permanently excommunicate ‘Generation Left’ in a clumsy, almost certainly doomed pursuit of electoral power.

Starmer hopes to win in 2023 (or 2024) by stealing older, right-wing voters from the Tories, while hanging on to younger, more radical voters by default. This is, pretty obviously, the stupidest political strategy since current Starmer advisor Peter Mandelson said in 1999 that working class voters would always vote Labour because they had ‘nowhere else to go’. And yet, Team Starmer has now nailed itself forever to the mast of this slowly sinking ship.

Quite aside from being tactically inept (voters of all ages will be serenely unimpressed by such manoeuvring when it comes to election time), Starmer’s centrist cabaret act, which revives the clomping Third Way Schlagers of the late 90s, is also flagrantly immoral. And nothing better illustrates the ethical hollowness of Starmerism—now finally unmasked as mere Blairism without the jouissance—than Labour’s new, reactionary stance on education, outlined in a series of vague policy gobbets in Starmer’s conference speech on Wednesday.

Starmer’s speech signalled that he is willing to disregard the fact that the educational reforms of the Blair years helped to make life utterly miserable for millennials and zoomers. Indeed, instead of acknowledging the deep flaws in New Labour’s education strategy, and looking to reverse its malign legacy, he looks set to revive some of its worst features.

If Labour wins power, Starmer announced, his government would ‘launch the most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation’. So far, so benign (and banal). But Starmer’s emphasis on the fact that ‘even before the pandemic 200,000 children grew up in areas with not a single primary school rated as good or outstanding’ seems to confirm that Labour is intent on preserving the hated education quango Ofsted, with its damagingly robotic rating system (outstanding/good/requires improvement/inadequate) for routing out what Alastair Campbell once termed ‘bog-standard comprehensive schools’.

Under Corbyn, Labour was committed to finally winding down Ofsted – which New Labour retained and championed post-1997 after its foundation under John Major’s Conservatives in 1992. This commitment was announced to the widespread relief of almost everyone who has been directly involved in delivering education in Britain over the last 30 years.

In contrast, Starmer seems now to be ideologically or tactically committed to the empty, market-derived vocabulary of ‘excellence’, ‘targets’, ‘performance’, etc., which coincided with Ofsted’s campaign of terror in British schools in the millennium period, and which has, by Starmer’s own tacit admission, notably failed to actually improve educational ‘standards’ in the intervening years. This follows then Education Secretary Wes Streeting’s announcement in December 2020 that Ofsted plays an ‘important role’, and that Labour was ‘wrong’ to pledge to scrap it in the Corbyn era.

Equally terrifying was Starmer’s drone-like repetition of the word ‘work’ when outlining his vision for education – which again carries over the language of New Labour’s Gradgrind-ish, New Right-inspired approach in this area of policy. As part of an extension of the central motif in his speech—an often specious eulogy to his toolmaker father—Starmer repeated ‘work’ and its cognates an astonishing 72 times.

Such incantations seem designed to mimic the nostalgic, Sun-editorial workerism which has recently served Boris Johnson so well, and which buries the complex reality of modern Britain’s shifting class dynamic under an avalanche of Red Wall clichés and repurposed memories of a time before Thatcher and the service-oriented economy. Young people, it seems, will not be able to escape from the effects of such Blue Labour reveries, whether the Prime Minister is Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer.

Under a Labour government, Starmer tells us, education ‘needs to be pointed in the direction I took from my dad… Towards work.’ Employers in all sectors, we are told, need young people who are ‘ready for work’. To this end, the one concrete education policy announced in Starmer’s speech was a commitment to reinstating two weeks of compulsory work experience for British schoolchildren. This move will no doubt go down well in focus groups, because it sounds like a sort of mini-apprenticeship. But in practice it will make very little difference to the job prospects—let alone the human development—of new generations of young people.

To be fair to Starmer, the Workfare State aspect of his speech was balanced out—we might say triangulated—by a commitment to giving every child ‘the chance to play competitive sport and play an instrument’. But in an education system that is so obsessively, instrumentally geared around ‘getting this country ready for work’, what room will there be for extra-curricular activities that have nothing to do with serving up dutiful workers for grateful employers – activities that are, in an important sense, an educational end in themselves?

One of the main reasons people under the age of 40 feel so immiserated—and politically angry—is that they have been appallingly served by the main developments in British education over the last 30 years. Although it deserves credit for increasing school funding (albeit at a time of unprecedented economic growth), the New Labour government of 1997-2010 played a central role in this negative process – from the ‘academisation’ of schools (which took them away from local authority control and placed them into the hands of consortiums led by local car dealers and former CEOs), to the aggressive marketisation of universities (which seems likely to lead eventually to  the destruction of the liberal arts tradition in British higher education, and which has saddled millions of millennials and zoomers with life-long debt).

With Starmer at the helm, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Labour will win an election any time soon. But even if they somehow managed to, a Labour Party that did not attempt to radically reform our hollowed-out, mechanistic education system really would be little better than its Tory equivalent.

This is part of the reason why Starmer’s unashamed revival of Blairism is such a profound political tragedy. Many older, centrist voters look back on New Labour and see a government which was mostly good in spite of one or two flaws. But those of us who passed through the education system of the 90s and 00s know that the whole, marketised system was—with a handful of notable exceptions—rotten to the core.

Starmer’s rightward turn on education is part of a wider process, by which he has decisively abandoned all desire to radically reform the deeper structures of neoliberal Britain. For many younger voters, this will be the point at which they part ways with him for good.