Adam Swift: It's hard, but let me defend Diane Abbott

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According to Diane Abbott, the left-wing Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, "it is inconsistent for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school". Her decision to send her son to the prestigious private establishment, City of London Boys' School, which emerged last week, is according to her, "indefensible". Full marks for honesty, but she is wrong on both counts. I want to defend her against her self-accusations.

Hypocrisy is about whether you practise what you preach or not. If you preach that parents should never use their money to buy their children out of the state system, then do exactly that, you are a hypocrite. Diane Abbott did preach that - indeed she criticised Tony Blair and Harriet Harman who didn't even go private - so she is a hypocrite on that score. But she was preaching the wrong principle. She should be demanding that we get rid of private schools. They are bad for the 93 per cent of the population who don't go to them. They leave that 93 per cent unfairly worse off than the lucky 7 per cent. And, by creaming off affluent children and their parents, they worsen the absolute quality of the state sector.

Recognising that what's wrong with private schools is that they worsen the state sector makes it easy to see how one can consistently urge their abolition while sending one's child private. Parents are entitled to send their children to a school that is good enough. It's because I want all children to go to decent schools that I would get rid of the independent sector, and change funding formulae and admissions policies within the state system. But suppose that, through no fault of mine (or my child's), my local state schools fall below the threshold of acceptability. Why should I send my child to them? Getting rid of the private sector would produce a massive increase in social justice at minimal cost to individual children. Sending your child to a poor state school might seriously harm him or her while doing little or nothing for social justice.

Ms Abbott thinks that Hackney schools are not good enough. According to her, only 9 per cent of black boys get five decent GCSEs, against a national average of 50 per cent. I don't see why her son should suffer because we lack the political will to adequately fund schools in disadvantaged areas, or properly to address the issue of black educational underachievement (an issue she has done much to highlight). As we all know, many well-off parents solve the problem by living close to "good" state schools. Doubtless Ms Abbott could have done that - though presumably she had political reasons for wanting to stay in her constituency. Spending money on going private is hardly different from paying a premium for a house in the right catchment area.

Still, this argument doesn't let her off the hook. Avoiding inadequate schooling is something parents may properly do. If that's what she was doing, then I'm on her side. But procuring unusually expensive and competitively advantageous schooling is another thing altogether. The City of London School is an unusually expensive and competitively advantageous school. Parents are not justified in seeking the best education for their children, only in avoiding an inadequate one. She has gone from one extreme to the other, which does indeed look hard to defend.

Why bother to stick up for her then? It matters that we understand how political principles and personal choices fit together. Those on the Right love cases like hers. They take them to show that, when it comes to the crunch, everybody is as selfish as they are; that any proclaimed concern for justice and fairness by Leftists is a hypocritical sham. That simply does not follow. Meanwhile Ms Abbott's supporters feel let down, believing that someone who sends her child private can no longer be a credible champion of the Left. That too is a serious mistake. I trust that she will continue to rail against injustice. She thinks that Hackney schools are not good enough - for her son, and for everybody else's. That is itself good reason for her to continue to champion a fairer and less divisive educational system.

Adam Swift is Fellow in Politics and Sociology at Balliol College, Oxford, and author of 'How Not To Be A Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent' (Routledge Falmer, £9.99)