John Rentoul: Daylight robbery at the library of rhetoric

Another raid on Labour's terms of reference shows a Tory party becoming ever more brazen in its theft of left-wing idea

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It was once said of Northern Ireland that the Republicans were too clever to admit that they had lost, and that the Unionists were too stupid to realise that they had won. The same might be said of the Conservatives and Labour. David Cameron is too clever to admit that the Tories have lost the intellectual argument, while the Labour Party lacks confidence in its command of the centre ground.

There were two striking examples last week. One was a speech delivered by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools, in which he proposed a radical extension of parental choice in education. "For those people who say that poorer families don't want choice, all I can say is: why should the poorest be denied what the rich manifestly enjoy?"

No. Wait a moment. That was, as a former minister complained to me, "a speech a Labour secretary of state should have made". It was, in actual fact, a speech given by Michael Gove, the Conservative education spokesman. Gove was cheekily lifting left-wing rhetoric from an interview Tony Blair gave in February 2006, as he fought to persuade Labour MPs to support the Education Bill on trust schools. That was when Blair pointed out that the middle classes already exercise choice through fees or house prices. "The whole basis of what we're trying to do is to say these things should not be available only to those who've got the money."

It was not obvious then, since Blair was being denounced by Labour MPs, 52 of whom voted against the Bill, but it ought to be clear now that he moved the centre ground of schools policy substantially to the left.

In fairness to Blair's detractors, it should be said that this may have been despite his instincts rather than because of them. He was against bringing back the 11-plus, but he had no objection to having a bit more selection here and there. It was only the experience of creating academies and of getting the trust schools Bill through the House of Commons that clarified his position. When it was too late, Blair started to make a forceful argument for a radical egalitarian policy: that people should be free to set up new schools, provided that they are open to all.

On Tuesday, Michael Gove rehearsed precisely that argument. "We will change the law so that all sorts of organisations ... charities, cooperatives and new education providers can set up new state academies, independent of political control. These schools will receive the same government funding as other schools in their community for every pupil they teach. All academies will be free and non-selective."

Gove has put last year's row over grammar schools so far behind him that few have noticed that both parties are now explicitly committed to the principle of non-selective admissions (while allowing existing grammar schools to survive).

If Blair had started with the idea of non-selective admissions, instead of ending up with it, he might have carried more of his party with him. Instead, it remains hostile to academies and wasn't paying attention when the Conservatives marched past Labour on to the centre ground. In some respects, Tory policy is now more left-wing than government policy. Last week, Gove repeated his plan for schools to receive more money for disadvantaged pupils, thus giving them an incentive for taking them on.

So, if that was the speech the Secretary of State should have given, what about the speech that Ed Balls actually gave, to a teachers' union conference the next day? It was craven in its appeasement of vested interests. Simple courtesy to an audience is one thing, and there is a political case for telling teachers how valued they are, but Balls sounded like a candidate for a place on the union's national executive. Instead of being the fierce champion of the ambitions of pupils and their parents, he spoke of "our ambitions for every child". Who is "us" in that sentence?

Large parts of the schools system are still underperforming, including, it was reported yesterday, the primary school attended by Balls's own children. After 11 years of reform and nine years of public money on open tap, turning this round is going to take rather more than forcing schools to take in each other's troublemakers when they are expelled, which Balls announced on Wednesday.

What is needed is an amplified shock to the whole system of the kind that Andrew Adonis, the minister for academies, has managed to administer single-handedly to small parts of it. By setting up new schools he has shown what can be done with the same disadvantaged intake in some of the most difficult areas. Balls claims to be accelerating the academies programme, but the effect of his announcement is to tie academies ever closer into the municipal bureaucracy.

Exhibit two last week was a seminar on "fairness and equality" held last Thursday. No, it was not at the Fabian Society, and Gordon Brown wasn't there. It was at the Centre for Policy Studies, the once-Thatcherite think-tank, and it was attended by David Cameron.

It was another daylight raid on Labour's store of rhetoric. In the old days, the Tories used to sneer at Labour's aim of abolishing child poverty by 2020, saying it was unrealisable. Now, as Labour looks like missing the halfway target at about the time of the next election in 2010, they don't say, "Told you so", but: "Is there is a better way that's more likely to succeed?"

Oliver Letwin, the Tory policy supremo, sounds gleeful about the opportunities for contradicting expectations: "We can afford to be quite bold in addressing poverty and equality because we are unlikely to be accused of being millenarian socialists." In fact, the policy work is still thin. There are ideas about using the public money saved by getting people off benefit or by keeping them out of prison as an incentive for organisations to find new ways of helping people. But they are hardly the main point. The point is, as Letwin says, that it is easier for the Tories to steal this territory now "because the past 10 years have not been a spectacular success at ensuring fairness, despite the Government's good intentions".

It is no use Labour complaining that the Tories are insincere, or that Cameron is a chameleon. Labour tried that when Cameron became leader and changed from blue to green. It was one of the least hurtful insults ever deployed. All it did was give Cameron a good opening line, when addressing a Westminster journalists' lunch: "Fellow reptiles." Contrary to popular belief, chameleons do not change colour to match their environment, but for display. And Cameron's changes have had the effect a naturalist would predict, of drawing attention to himself, rather than making him blend into the background. The average eight-point Tory lead in the opinion polls suggests that voters quite like Cameron dressed in Labour colours.

Labour has won the intellectual argument on education, in that the Tories no longer want to go back to selection. It has won the argument about poverty, because the Tories want to abolish child poverty too, instead of dismissing it as a utopian dream. And the argument about tax cuts versus public spending has been resolved in Labour's favour.

The question now is not who has won, but who understands that victory and who can best take advantage of it. Cameron is clever enough to know that he has lost the argument but can still win the votes.

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