Imagine the scene. Imagine, if you can, being a prospective Conservative candidate for a marginal in, say, West Yorkshire in 2024 . You’re out canvassing. It’s the kind of seat the Tories need to hold if they are to stay in government at the forthcoming election.
You knock on the door of a modest house, but one that is probably owner-occupied. It quickly becomes apparent that the potential voter who answers is one of 14 million in the country with school-age children. After you’ve told them who you are, they ask you one simple question: “What is Boris Johnson’s government doing for my kids?”
You scratch your head. You think back to all the lines you learned at candidate training. You start to blabber. The truth is that you don’t really have an answer.
And you would be right.
The fact is this government has run out of big ideas on how to make the experience of growing up in this country better.
This wasn’t always like that. For better or worse – and the jury is still out – the first few years of Conservative and Coalition government were characterized by reforming zeal in the education sector. Michael Gove and his gang hit the ground running in 2010 and barely stopped for breath for four years. Those on the front line will never forget what it was like to be on the receiving end, but Tories will tell you that by the 2015 election they sure as damn it had a story to tell.
What will they say in two years’ time? How will they respond to the imagined voter on the doorstep? Prospective parliamentary candidates might have hoped there would be answers in the schools white paper published earlier this year, and again set out in the Queen’s Speech yesterday. But the cupboard was really rather bare on both policies and vision.
Where were the imaginative solutions to the crisis of childcare provision? Where were the plans to help children catch up with everything they missed out on during Covid? Where were the ideas for a longer school day with greater extra-curricular opportunities? Where were large-scale interventions that could stem the epidemic of mental health problems among young people?
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If there are conservative ideas on how to make the lives of babies, toddlers, children and teenagers better, they were notable by their absence. To be clear, there were good and interesting bits that should not and cannot be ignored. The willingness, for example, to tackle both the issues of home education and persistent school absence should be applauded – both areas require major work and brave politicians to undertake it.
But for a normal, hard-working parent, whose life is being intolerably squeezed by fuel bills, who cannot afford childcare, whose kids have found lockdown took an emotional toll and who have missed out on vital months of teaching, there was very little.
This is a big – and fascinating – challenge for Labor and its shadow education secretary Bridget Philipson. What will be their vision for growing up as a young person under a Keir Starmer government? Of course, the school system needs more funding and teachers need more time, but more broadly what changes can it make – such as rebooting a modernized version of Tony Blair’s cherished Sure Start Centres? What reforms can it develop that will, on a structural level, make things better for most children? What will be the vision?
Most importantly, what will they say on the doorstep in places like West Yorkshire, when harassed, over-worked and under-paid parents asks what Keir Starmer plans to do for their kids? There is a vacuum of ideas from the center of government just now – and it’s calling for it to be filled.