Universal Free School Meals Could Make Schools Poorer


Whilst it’s nice to see a Labour Party policy dominating the news agenda for once, I can’t help but feel disheartened by their universal free school meals policy. The plan is simple: charge the parents of children who attend private schools a tax of 20% on their fees and use the money to provide a free school lunch to every child in a state-maintained primary school.

What initially sounds like a progressive idea, taking from the wealthiest to give to the neediest, quickly crumbles under scrutiny. It’s more take from the wealthiest to give to the slightly-less-wealthy. The threshold below which a family is eligible for Free School Meals is currently a household income of £16,190 – I would argue that should be raised. Means-assessed benefits are never perfect and need to be refined and developed to ensure people who need support don’t slip through the net. We need to make sure that all children who need free school meals get them but universal free school meals is a clumsy solution and has unexpected costs to many schools, especially when they have had to expand their kitchens. This is fine but they have had no additional money to pay for it.

On one level this is a debate about universalism and means-assessed benefits. One of the arguments for universalism is that it removes the stigma from benefits and helps to build public consent for the welfare state. Having taught dozens of Free School Meals children one thing that was clear was that they didn’t know they were receiving free school meals. They just knew they were “school dinners” as were many of their peers. I can’t comment on whether there is more of a stigma at Secondary school but this policy wouldn’t affect them anyway.

One aspect of this policy that I haven’t heard being discussed is the impact it could have on Pupil Premium funding. Introducing universal free school meals would inevitably result in parents no longer applying for them – because, why would you? The Pupil premium is worth around £1,300 per child every year and is allocated on the basis of the number of children claiming free school meals (or who have claimed them at any time in the last six years.) Combined with the fact that schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20 the implications of losing pupil premium funding could be severe and it would be schools in the most deprived areas of country who would be hit the hardest. We saw this happen in 2014 when free school meals were introduced for all KS1 pupils. The number of parents registering for FSM dropped by as much as 50% in some schools and leaves schools having to chase up low income families and ask them to register for the extra funding: this is can be a very costly bureaucratic process.

So what could Labour have announced instead? One idea is funding free breakfast clubs for Pupil Premium pupils – as they do in Wales. Research has found that attending a breakfast club improves concentration and raises attainment.  Over the last few years I’ve provided breakfast for over a dozen children on a daily basis. I provided cereal bars, loaves of bread and cartons of juice as I knew that there were children in my class who hadn’t had a proper meal since their school lunch the previous day. The average breakfast club costs just £4,000 a year to run which makes it a more affordable policy than universal free school meals and would benefit those who needed it the most.

I think what it comes down to is that this policy is just a bit lazy. It doesn’t solve any of the problems schools are facing today and suggests that Labour aren’t tuned in to the current debate and aren’t interested in addressing the very real issues school are facing: a teacher recruitment crisis, savage budget cuts, an assessment system that simply doesn’t work and an alarming “feeling in the air” about what’s happening to pupil behaviour as hard times continue to bite for many families. I wonder how many school leaders and teachers they ran this policy past before announcing it? I wonder how many ideas from professionals they really listened to first?

A radical, modern Labour Party would address those issues rather than fall back on a favourite policy that was first implemented over 100 years ago. What was true in the imagined post-war golden age of Big State Britain is still true now: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


“Take Back Control” and the Death of the Policy

This guest post comes from Alex Hunter, Insights & Analytics Director for Hearth Group and a longstanding Labour member. He shares his thoughts on the role policy has to play in the era of the political slogan. 


On the 18th of February 2017, Donald Trump held a rally in Florida where supporters held aloft signs that read ‘Make America Great Again’. Trump told reporters that he first came up with the slogan after the loss of the presidency to the Democrats in 2012. Of course, this may be true, but when Donald was 33 years old in New York City, Ronald Reagan was using that phrase in all his campaign media.

In 1963, Martin Luther King spoke from the heart when he said “I have a dream…” and it was to become one of the defining speeches of the age. Many have discussed the rhetorical measures employed, and the theatrics by which it was delivered. However, in reality it was simply an excellent reflection of feeling at the time, and it therefore deeply resonated with people and effected change.

I’ve wondered if Nigel Farage would like to think he can bump up against such titans of global politics, but his most catchy of slogans was ‘Nigel Farage will give Britain its voice back’ which wasn’t quite ‘Take Back Control’. The credit for that slogan goes to Dominic Cummings, a political strategist, not Nigel, Boris or Gove. Again, resonance was needed, and for this they turned not to internal feelings of discontent, but to data science.

The “Vote Leave” campaign hired scientists and engineers to build the databases and tools required to deliver an extremely effective campaigning tool. However, they also used their data to understand on a deeper level what makes people tick and used this to their benefit. They outclassed the opposition by competing on a different plane. No longer did policies matter when you could tap in to a different level of thinking. This is the future advocated by Dominic Cummings.

So, we’ve tapped into an emotional way of thinking and shortened political debate by about 7,000 words, but how did it come to this? It’s more the why, than the how. I believe I can point the finger squarely at my own industry, market research.

Asking people what they think is now easier than ever, and in some ways you don’t even need to ask. However, step back to the dark ages (before the internet) and you will find many more people than now were knocking on doors and dialling numbers to ask people to fill out a survey. This generates huge amounts of paperwork and data. Why not use the latest in text analytics to scoop up every public (and not so public) thing that people say and use that instead? And so, in our most public age of sharing, a new industry was born of predictive analytics and algorithms.

The problem with standard commercial text analytics is that it still doesn’t really work. If you send that last sentence through my IBM text analytics software it tells me that I’m displaying negative sentiment and talking about the category of analytics. It’s right of course, I am, but it has obviously lost a lot of the nuance of my language. If you condense everything into a black or white statement on a category then you’re very likely to see the debate as fairly polarised. 44% believe the economy is negative, 38% believe it is positive, 18% ‘unknown’.

This means that the process of governing has become so much easier. No longer is it necessary to understand or empathise. You don’t need to believe in what you’re doing, you just need to sell it. Which is the best environment for corporate marketing. We are being governed not by politicians, but by marketers. Is it any wonder that the media means so much to them. They analyse sentiment, deliver policies and wrap it all up in a catchphrase which appeals to our base emotions. When the rewards are big enough, someone steps this on, and delivers class leading political messaging.

In 1996 Tony Blair took to the stage of the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool and after a while he said, “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.” to rapturous applause. He chose this line because he had looked at all the polling and knew that a focus on education was not only important to him, but to Britain. This was a new way of working and was to continue to guide him for years to come.

Fast forward 20 years, and we have Theresa May saying, “Brexit means Brexit” which not only didn’t make much sense, but left people empty of feeling. What we don’t know though is whether this was an attempt to surf the wave of feeling generated by the referendum. Did this play to concern that politicians were fiddling around the edges? Is this the tell to suggest Theresa has switched up to a new way of working?

What does this mean for Corbyn and Labour? Well, it probably means that his concentration on policies that matter will only continue to speak to the people for whom are willing to engage which means there will continue to be the obvious echo chamber effect. Of course, it is entirely possible to go out and fight on fair terms, bringing all the same data science to bear. Alternatively, it will be necessary to await the political conditions that were there for Martin Luther King Jr. and hope it comes soon.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexghunter

Who Are The Blairites?


I don’t know if you heard but on Friday morning an ex. Prime Minister gave a speech about the EU. You know the one: haunted look, manic smile, constantly on edge as if he’s seeing ghosts – oh and a bloody good orator. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only person in the Labour party speaking for the 63% of Labour voters who voted Remain is Tony Blair. Yep for just 10 minutes Blair was back although, listening to the bickering among Labour members over the last 18 months, it’s hard to believe he ever went away.

“The Blairites” are the reason Corbyn’s Labour Party won’t win a General Election. Corbyn’s approval ratings plummeting? It’s because of the Blarities briefing against him. An MP resigns from their seat? Blairite coup. Labour’s polling getting worse week after week? It was fine until the Blairites. It was the Blairites who elected Gareth Snell, the anti-Corbyn candidate, in attempt to lose Stoke. You see Blairites are both ruthless careerist politicians who will do anything to get Labour back in to power but are also masterminding plots to keep Labour out of power. They are completely toxic: clinging to the values of an ex. leader with lower approval ratings than Corbyn. The public hate Blairites, they’re the reason we lost so many members and why our share of the vote decreased during New Labour’s tenure, oh and at the same time they’re so revered that their opinion of Corbyn can sway voters.

So who are these apparent puppet masters? Who are The Blairites?

Well Blair obviously – he’s a massive Blairite. He loves all the Blair stuff: Iraq, PFI, tuition fees, academies etc… I think we can all agree on that. Technically the term “Blairite” refers to the most right-wing faction of the Labour Party which would include: Liz Kendall, a self-confessed “fan” of Blair, Jamie Reed, Tristam Hunt and David Miliband. Four of those people are no longer serving as MPs. Caroline Flint would often be classed as a Blarite but after condemning Blair’s speech on Friday, towing the party line on Marr this morning and voting in line with three-line whip on Article 50 people are not sure what to think.

And here’s the problem: some Corbyn supporters seem to use the term Blairite to describe ANYONE who has ever disagreed with Corbyn.

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, is called a Blairite because he defied Corbyn on the Article 50 vote. However he is also one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn to be leader in 2015.

Catherine West, my local MP, is apparently now a Blairite for not following the three line whip on Article 50. She is one of the few MPs who didn’t vote “no confidence” in him last year and on the day he was elected leader in 2015 and attended the “Refugees Welcome” march immediately after the result was announced, appearing onstage next to Corbyn.

Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner is a Blairite for her claiming, “Tony Blair’s tenure changed my life it gave my children a life that I could never have dreamt of having and I want us to get back to that.”

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan is a Blairite, despite nominating Corbyn for the leadership election in 2015 because, well I don’t know why really but maybe it’s because he won an election and what could be more Blairite than that?

Yvette Cooper, famously a Brownite, is a Blairite because she, you know, was there… at that time…

When I’m having a down day I remind myself of the time I saw a tweet dismissing Gordon Brown as a Blairite…

The trouble I have with the term is that it’s lazy. It ignores the distinction between the “soft left” and the “right” of the party. A division that plagued New Labour: the Blairites vs. Brownites. It has become a term to describe anyone who disagrees with Corbyn on anything. It’s anyone who acknowledges that being in power means making compromises. It’s anyone who wants to win an election. It’s anyone who disagrees with this three line whip on the Article 50 vote. It’s anyone who believes we should be worried about the polls.

It is not the case that disagreeing with Corbyn makes you a Blairite.

Questioning the effectiveness of Corbyn’s opposition does not mean you want another Tony Blair – you can disagree with both. I have real problems with some of Blair’s decisions – Iraq being the main one. It would be an error to think we can just try and repeat the 1997 election. But I also have issues with Corbyn’s leadership. I voted for him in 2015 but Brexit completely changed my view of him. His complete disregard for the 63% of Labour voters who voted Remain is astonishing.

The threat to the Labour Party is not the man who hasn’t been leader, or even an MP for a decade. It’s too easy to blame him. For as long as we have the excuse of “The Blairites” we can ignore the real issues facing the Labour Party. Let’s be really honest most of the electorate don’t care if the Labour Party is run by the right, the soft left or the hard left. They just want an effective opposition and a competent leader.


GUEST POST: Generation Rent


This week’s guest post comes from one of my favourite people – Kath Shaw. We’ve been friends ever since the day we had to create a make-shift rubbish disposal cart whilst working together at a multiplex cinema. Our cinema days are behind us and we’re now grown-ups trying to navigate life in London. By day Kath works in PR and by night she takes me to comedy gigs.

GUEST POST: Generation Rent

Nine out of ten north London private renters have had “serious problems” with their homes, according to details of the #BigRentersSurvey released last week; problems ranging from landlords entering the property without prior notice, deposits not being returned and unexpected rent hikes.

I moved into a new flat at the start of this month and with one day’s notice was told the rent was going up. The letting agency had known I was moving in for eight weeks so why hadn’t they told me earlier? Presumably because they knew that with 24 hours to go I would already be packed, there would already be somebody ready to take over the room I was vacating and I would have no choice but to meet their demands.

I take little comfort in being part of the 90 per cent of people being screwed over in the city but I take some comfort in knowing that Sian Berry, Green member of the London Assembly and former mayoral candidate, is calling on Sadiq Khan to set up an independent London-wide organisation to represent renters. London is made up of private renters; it’s about time we had the help available to us made clear and formulised. It’s about time there was some protection.

My salary didn’t increase in line with my rent so it just means a larger percentage of it will be given over to my landlord, but I’m by no means the worst affected here. I have a job which pays well and a family who’ll ensure I don’t go hungry. Lots of people don’t. The people who work in the retail or service industry in zones one or two who earn minimum wage – where do they live? The minimum wage in London for 21-24 year olds is £6.95. On a 39 hour a week contract, they will take home – after tax and national insurance – around £1062 a month. Even less if they’re making the pension contributions we’re all being told to make. They’re met with the challenge of working out whether it’s cheaper to live in central and walk to work, or live in zones five and six where the rents are slightly lower and pay travel. The reality is they’re probably working an extra job (or two) and sharing their flats with multiple people. For them, it’s not a case of a little less disposable income. Every fiver was accounted for when I was unemployed and then again when I was on minimum wage. That £40 extra a month on rent just simply isn’t there to spare.
During the 24 hours of ‘negotiations’ with my new letting agency, they suggested I should give up the tenancy and they would ‘find someone who was happy to pay market rate’. Show me those people. Who are they? Who is walking around happy to pay £500+ a month for a box room in a converted council flat? What they meant is they’d find someone happy to accept that they have to pay market rate.

I moved from the North East to London and sometimes when I want to cloak myself in sadness, I play the, ‘what would this get me in County Durham?’ game. The answer: a three bed house in a good catchment area, a yard – potentially a garden, living room, dining room, garage. But I just brush it off. I join in with colleagues as we share those all too frequent viral room adverts offering little more than a tent in a living room. I frivolously compare London to the cinema whereby I wouldn’t dream of going into a supermarket and happily handing over £14 for a Diet Coke and some Butterkist but within the parallel economy of a multiplex cinema, I don’t question it. London is my Vue: County Durham, my Sainsbury’s.

And that’s fine for me. I could pick myself up and move back. If the work opportunities were better, I probably would – and I’d probably fit back in just fine. But what about all the Londoners who are being priced out of their own home city by greedy landlords who plead that ‘they’re just charging market rate’ (as if market rate isn’t something they have any shitting control over) – do they have to move out to completely new areas, get new jobs and build new support networks? That can’t be how it is.

So it’s not just landlords screwing born and bred Londoners over. It’s idiots like me, who keep paying the ridiculous rents. I could just stop. Maybe we should just stop – that might be the only way the revolution starts. If we all just bartered and dared to suggest that maybe the bedsit with the leaky shower wasn’t legitimately worth £680 a month – and all agreed that we wouldn’t pay it. Landlords would have to price their properties in accordance to their actual worth, not the value they’ve escalated it to. Mobilising a city of people is all it would take…

Generation Rent. That’s what we’re called. Those in (or approaching) their 30s who have half the wealth than those born a decade earlier had at the same age and have the lowest house ownership rates for any generation in a century. If we’ve been given a name then it seems likely we’re renting for the foreseeable. It’s bad enough that London homes are too expensive for us to ever own them, we shouldn’t have to also deal with an inefficient and exploitative renting system.

So whilst things don’t seem likely to change anytime soon, it might have to be enough to at least have some help which Sian Berry’s Londonwide renters organisation would offer. In the meantime, I’ll flesh out that mass mobilisation idea.

Kinder, gentler politics


Last week I was asked by a journalist from the Huffington Post if I would like to feature in an article he was writing about young voters who voted for Corbyn last year but won’t vote for him again in the coming leadership elections. I agreed to be in the article for one simple reason: I think it’s really important for people to speak out about changing their mind in politics. Because, let’s be honest, the only way elections are won is by convincing a lot of voters to change their mind about the party they’re going to vote for. Accusing those who change their mind of being weak or disloyal will only result in people firmly retreating to their chosen “side”. Politics is a never-ending dialogue. It is the way in which we decide how best to live alongside each other. It’s not a war.

The response to the article was, sadly,  as I could have predicted. I was called: a vile human being, a moron, an ignorant bitch and a “traitor to the Labour Party” by some Corbyn supporters. For me, far worse than the name calling was the, “you’ll understand when you’re older dear” comments which littered my inbox.  Reading some of the comments you would have thought I had attacked these people on a personal level rather than simply expressing an opinion different to their own. I spent last Summer campaigning for Jeremy and trying to convince them to vote for him and at no point did I resort to name calling of abuse. I didn’t call my friend a “heartless Blairite” for voting for Yvette Cooper and I didn’t accuse my Kendall voting colleague of “wanting disabled people to die.” Yet these were comments thrown at me for saying I could no longer support Corbyn.

Wanting a “kinder, gentler politics” is admirable yet seems to only apply to Jeremy himself. He shows great integrity in Prime Minister’s questions and refuses to engage with personal attacks, sadly the same can not be said of some of his supporters. Of course it isn’t all of them. There are plenty of mild-mannered, polite and kind Corbyn supporters but they are being let down by a loud, minority who are behaving appallingly.

I can understand why some Corbyn supporters are angry. They think the challenge put forward by the PLP was vindictive and underhand and they’ve watched with frustration as Corbyn’s message has failed to cut through the media. Some of them joined the Labour Party at the beginning of this year, paid membership fees for 7 months only to be told they don’t have a vote in this leadership election unless they pay a further £25. They have every right to be angry. But I am angry too.

I am angry that we cannot engage in a debate about the future of the party without being shouted down. It’s not just happening online, it’s also happening at meetings.  A women in the last GC Meeting I attended was shouted down whilst speaking against a motion. She was brave and just firmly asked them to stop shouting at her which they eventually did but you’d have thought she was a fascist the way they were attacking her not a long-standing member of the same party.

I don’t want another Blair but I do want someone who can win an election; too many people are suffering as a result of this Government’s policies for winning not at least be a possibility.  Just increasing the support of Corbyn in areas that already vote Labour is not going to be enough. The General Election will not be won on the strength of members’ enthusiasm for their leader it will be won on the number of votes we can win back from people who voted Conservative last year. There is an assumption that there is huge support for Corbyn across the country and we just need to “tap into it”. One Corbyn supporter asked me to explain why I thought he couldn’t win an election “without quoting the polls” which is a bit like asking me to prove to you that my laptop screen is 30cm long without using a ruler. No polls aren’t entirely accurate and need to be taken with a pinch of salt but, even allowing for a large margin of error, this is a pretty bleak picture:

Let’s be honest – if these polls were reversed and it was the Tories falling this far behind we’d be feeling fairly confident at the moment.

The response to this from many Corbyn supporters tends to be either, “Well I meet lots of people who are going to vote for him – look how many members have joined to vote for him.” or, “It’s the fault of the main stream media. They’re working against him.” and not forgetting, “He was doing just fine until the PLP turned on him.” I don’t doubt any of those arguments – they are all true but they also don’t provide evidence that he can win a General Election.

Yes, since Corbyn was elected leader there has been a surge in Labour Party membership. At my last check it was just over 400,000. This is largest membership of any political party in the UK and something to feel proud about. If there were any correlation between the number of members and the likelihood of winning a General Election I would be feeling very optimistic right now. Sadly there isn’t. Last year the Conservative Party won a majority with only 100,000 members. Labour has always been stronger on the ground and at the grassroots but sadly elections are no longer won on the ground – they’re won in the media. Is that fair? Absolutely not. Does it mean we should stop campaigning or delivering leaflets? No but Corbyn and his team need to find a way to work with the media or, the MSM as we have to call them now because they are never going to make it easy for him. They do not portray him fairly, I accept that. However that is never going to change. If anything, if he is still leader in the run up to 2020, that is going to get a whole lot worse. What is Corbyn’s strategy for dealing with this? Last year Rupert Murdoch was able to convince swinging voters that Miliband would be an inept leader because of how he ate a bacon sandwich. “Don’t let him make a pig’s ear of the country” was the headline I seem to recall. The Conservatives won on a promise that they could offer security that Miliband could not. Just imagine what Murdoch and his buddies could do with a Labour leader who has lost the support of 80% of his MPs and refers to Hamas and Hizballuh as “his friends”.

The other acronym causing problems for Corbyn at the moment is the PLP. The week after the referendum they made very public resignations following a vote of no confidence in their leader. I’m told that Corbyn was doing just fine until that point and yet the most positive polling I was able to find had the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck the day that David Cameron resigned. The day the Conservatives were at their weakest for the last 6 years – we were able to scrape a tie. In some ways I hope Corbyn is still leader by the time of the next General Election because I’m desperate for Corbyn supporters to see how detached the majority of the Labour Party membership is from the rest of the country at the moment. John McDonnell has said Corbyn will stand down if he loses an election and I do hope he’s right. Although I can only see that promise from McDonnell as a maneuver to line himself up as Corbyn’s replacement.

“Calling us a cult is hugely offensive” one Corbyn supporter argued, in reference to the headline of the article, and I agree – name calling isn’t helpful or productive. However if you refuse to debate or even acknowledge the evidence, if you cannot accept that there are people who have legitimate doubts about the leader you defend, if you cannot even acknowledge his flaws then you are behaving no differently to a cult. If I were presented with tangible evidence that Corbyn could get the Labour Party back into power he would have my support. I won’t rule out supporting him the future. My question to Corbyn supporters is at what point would you stop supporting him?

It is most likely that Corbyn will win the leadership election in September. I can already picture the memes that will be generated and shared across social media: “They said he was unelectable and then he won an election twice!” He will be more popular than ever with the majority of members but the real fight comes once Jeremy is reelected as leader. Because if Corbyn supporters found it frustrating that people in the same party as them didn’t share their views they’ll be furious when they find out what the rest of the country think. Those members are going to have to find a way to engage with the electorate – they’ll have to convince Conservative voters in swing seats to vote for Labour – because that is the only way we can win an election. Members that shout at other Labour Party members in meetings cannot just shout in the face of people who voted Conservative next year and hope to change their mind. If they’re going to be knocking on doors or making phone calls they are going to be interacting with hundreds of people who do not share their opinion of Corbyn. Calling them names, mocking them and undermining them is not the way to convince them. What these people need more than anything is reassurance. The media are doing an excellent job as portraying Corbyn as extreme, unreliable and untrustworthy. To counteract that the members need tobe  calm, kind and open to reasoned debate.

We are the Labour Party. We sell ourselves on being kind, compassionate and fair. We’re the party that introduced the minimum wage, the NHS, the Civil Partnership Act, the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act. We have fought tirelessly to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country and more people are relying on us than ever before. We are tolerant – we accept that not everyone shares the exact same views as us but they are welcome in our party. If you want a fairer, more equal society then there will always be a place for you in the Labour Party.

We are the kinder party – so let’s bloody well start behaving like it.