I agree with Jonathan Calder: why are the Lib Dems so conservative?

by Stephen Tall on June 22, 2012

Jonathan Calder has a typically thought-provoking post on his blog — Education: When did Kenneth Baker become a Liberal hero? — responding to Michael Gove’s leaked proposals to abolish GCSEs and re-introduce O-levels. Here’s his conclusion:

I have seen little reasoned argument against Michael Gove from Liberal Democrats today. Most seem locked in a mind-set where the world can be divided into sensible people who agree with us and ludicrous people who want to turn the clock back.

Just as with health (and let us pause for a moment to observe how much more deft Gove has been at bringing in his reforms than Andrew Lansley), we Liberal Democrats give the impression that we have arrived in power after 90 years in the wilderness with no higher ambition that maintaining the status quo. We need to do better than that.

Knee-jerk oppositionalism is an inevitable consequence when far-reaching reforms are proposed without discussion out-of-the-blue. But Jonathan is right that the Lib Dems are not on the front foot on education policy — in fact, we haven’t been since Ed Davey’s (simplistic but effective) ‘1p on income tax’ proposal at the 2001 general election.

As a centre party we all too often end up rooted to the spot, standing half-way between ‘producer interests’ and ‘consumer interests’. We’re not quite in favour of academies… so we’d re-name them to show we’re different really. We’re against the public school-perpetuated two-tier education system… but we’ve no proposals to end it. We say we want to empower parents… but we oppose free schools. We argue against educational inequality… but we’re content to let the school catchment area housing market discriminate against poorer children.

If Lib Dems really want to know why Michael Gove is regarded as a success as Education secretary, the answer’s quite simple: he’s worked out what he believes, and he’s developed a narrative that resonates with many parents and the public. Shouting him down might make the party feel better, but it gets the Lib Dems no closer to developing our own solutions.