Boris Johnson wants the next election to be about Brexit betrayed. He wants to pitch it as parliament vs the people, with himself – an old Etonian career politician – as a man of the people. For Labour there is no path to victory which does not confront and expose this hypocrisy. Boris Johnson represents the privileged few in whose favour our entire society is rigged. Labour can highlight this with bold and popular policies, which grab attention and move the fight onto home turf. If Labour is committed to ending privilege, it must pledge to abolish Eton.
Next week, it will have such an opportunity. Labour Party conference will, for the first time in decades, focus its sights on the grotesque inequality of private education. A grassroots campaign has led local branches to submit a proposal for the full integration of all private schools into the state sector. No more fee-paying schools, their resources equally shared.
This is uncharted territory but on a path the party has already begun to tread. In the 2017 general election, Labour pledged to scrap the VAT exemption on private school fees and to use the additional tax-revenue to provide free school meals for all primary school children. More recently, the party has looked into scrapping the business rate exemption that these elitist institutions enjoy as so-called “charities”.
These have been positive steps in the right direction but Labour must not shy away from saying what it really means: private schooling is immoral and should be abolished. This clarity of vision is both principled and electorally advantageous; a diluted proposal offering minor reforms would not have the same effect.
As a teacher in a state primary school in Brixton and a Labour councillor in leafy Dulwich, I see the gross inequity in education every day. Thanks to budget cuts, my own school has lost out on £500,000 since 2010. This has meant the loss of after school clubs and the gradual loss of teaching staff. We no longer have a full-time Special Educational Needs Coordinator, and there are fewer teaching assistants each year. Needless to say, the children I teach come from some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.
Meanwhile, in Dulwich College – Nigel Farage’s alma mater – the children enjoy “a sports hall, gym and swimming pool, and 70 acres of grounds providing ample space for numerous pitches”. Its £40,000 annual fees dwarf most London families’ household income.
Surely no civilised democratic society could accept this clear injustice. The British public certainly do not; 63 per cent think private schools are unfair. Bringing private education facilities into the state sector is an easy vote-winner. Resources are stretched – they should be distributed more evenly. Tinkering around the edges with tax breaks is not enough.
But the resources argument is only half the story. Elite private schools are not just comprehensives with better funding. Rather, with their exemption from the national curriculum, they teach different content and serve a different purpose.
State education is designed to prepare the majority of the population to be productive, but subordinate, members of society. By contrast, the elite “public school” system prepares its students for a lifetime of dominance.
It teaches the children of the ruling class how they can maintain their power over the rest of us. And it does so successfully: although only 7 per cent of the population are educated privately, this tiny pool produces 65 per cent of senior judges, 52 per cent of junior ministers, and 44 per cent of news columnists.
And, of course, one school alone – Eton – has produced twenty prime ministers, including the incumbent. If we were not sure whether private schools elevate the least appropriate candidates to roles of seniority, prime minister Boris Johnson provides the final piece of damning evidence.
If Labour commits to full integration of private schools into the state sector this will frame the whole election. On one side, Labour and the many; on the other, Boris Johnson and his privileged few. As electoral territory, this is Labour’s home patch.
My party wins when we make the case that the system is rigged and that we will make it fairer. And we win when we stick to our principles. For that reason, we must adopt the proposals in full, and reject any attempts to water them down.
The Tories want the next election to be “people vs parliament”. We can make it “people vs privilege”. And if we want to defeat privilege, we have to abolish Eton.
James McAsh is a primary school teacher and Labour councillor
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies