Re-balancing Education: The Democratic Deficit

VICKY SEDDON attended the ILP’s Unbalanced Britain conference on education last month. Here, she argues that any future progressive reforms must include changes to our structures of democracy and control.

The ILP hosted a very interesting discussion on education on 4 March in Sheffield. Melissa Benn was informative, strategic and focussed; Julie Thorpe was interesting and thought-provoking in her description of the merits of the Co-operative College model. Both provided very good introductions to the conversation.

Educaiton=Future pic

Over the last 15 years or so, my main input in politics has not been through a political party but through the democracy movement. So perhaps it is not surprising that on listening to the debate, and some of the proposed policy shifts, such as Melissa’s advice to Jeremy Corbyn that he should go back to basic principles and values – that education should be free, lifelong and equitable, and that it should be a public service under public scrutiny – I found myself wondering, not so much what should we do (there are others much more clued up than me on the matter of practicalities), but when those practicalities are in place, how do we prevent any following hostile government from simply sweeping them away?

I made some general remarks in the debate about the need to ensure there are democratic protections in place when we introduce progressive policies, and here I will expand a little on those remarks.

The Sure Start programme was an excellent initiative of the last Labour government. Who could not agree with the value of this holistic and effective way of giving children a level playing field at the start of lives that otherwise would have been downgraded by poverty, parental ineffectiveness, community deprivation, and/or a paucity of resources and opportunities?

Well, the Conservatives, that is who. Claiming that “we cannot afford these ideological fancies”, the Tories reduced funding for Sure Start and hence decimated the programme.

Of course, with different governments, we are bound to get different approaches. But surely the almost unchallengeable, unfettered power of central government to sweep away existing practices does not speak of a mature democracy. What appals me is the seeming acceptance among many, including many Labour supporters and politicians, that this should be the way, that alternative arrangements (less power in one place; a requirement to seek agreement; robust checks and balances) would inevitably mean an in-coming Labour government could not easily bring its own policies into being.

Our ‘democracy’

My view of our ‘democracy’ leads to a different conclusion. We have a highly centralised state; voting systems from the dinosaur age; a government that only very occasionally fails to exercise control over the Commons; and a second chamber that rarely challenges the Commons or the government and, even when it does, backs down the moment the Commons sticks to its guns (for example, over triggering Article  50).

Is this a democratic deficit? I should say so! And that is only the formal structures. There is also informal access to power through lobbying, funding of parties, revolving doors and media ownership. Yes, it’s a huge deficit.

So we end up with pull-and-push politics, not steady progress to a more equal society. I cannot tell you how many times over the years I have argued for more and urgent attention to our political infrastructure, that I have been patted on the head (metaphorically speaking) and been told, “Yes, Vicky, I agree with you but it is not a priority”.

So that pull-and-push continues and Sure Start centres are closed, and another generation of children end up by the deprived wayside, not on prosperous and comfortable suburban avenues or in genteel metropolitan enclaves.

In schools, the undermining by successive governments of local authority powers, most noticeably via different funding arrangements for different types of schools, has certainly altered the ability of those authorities to hang onto a progressive framework of support for its institutions.

Reducing local control

Remember advisers? (They were called inspectors in some local authorities.) Some very creative practices were introduced by some authorities. Yet, instead of finding mechanisms for promulgating such practices to other less progressive or less competent authorities through professional networks, backed up by government incentives and best practice encouragements, successive governments wanted to do it all their own way. They did this by reducing local control through establishing schools that are not attached to local authorities, imposing structures and meddling in the curriculum.

Some of it resulted from an understandable impatience to improve things, but the consequences were not thought through. When Blair first introduced Academies, his initiative to boost performance, did he not see that the initiative could be adapted by the next government to shape schools and education to suit its own ideology, and in ways that were antithetical to comprehensive provision?

Now we have schools of different statuses – first Academies and now Free schools – deliberately intended to reduce local control. We have religious groups of various kinds running groups of schools, and companies paying CEOs high salaries to maintain their own kind of school.

The Co-operative College model, adopting a different approach but under current rules and requirements, is a brave and clever way of addressing the issue. Good for them. Let’s hope their approach will be widely known about and copied.

I am not arguing here that immediately giving local authorities more powers can simply change things for the better, make our education system more equitable and more genuinely developmental, and enable them to prepare today’s children for life in today’s world. Local authorities’ capacities have been sharply reduced, and we need some new thinking on what kind of governance and support structures would be best – and what would protect our education system from neo-liberal impositions.

I am arguing, however, that a consequence of our current stunted political structures is the untidy system we now have and schools that provide learning that is too narrowly focussed. In proposing change, we must make a priority of reforming those structures so that a government with overall control, but minority voter support (currently 37% of those who voted), cannot make significant changes without negotiating with other parties.

We do need to build structures and institutions whose role is to stand between government and schools, to take account of the interests of different parties. By parties, I mean both political parties and all those with an interest: parents, professional bodies, those who speak for teachers, potential employers, and those who are elected to serve local communities.

Such institutions would need expertise and authority, backed by access to research. They should be powerful bodies able to evaluate current practice and new initiatives, and hence able to make sure those principles – that education should be free, lifelong and equitable – are not only built into our learning systems, but locked in.


Vicky Seddon is a council member for the  pressure group Unlock Democracy.

See also: ‘Back to the Future: Re-balancing Education’.


  1. Vicky Seddon
    24 April 2017

    Of course Mr Barnes

    All on the stump now!

  2. Harry Barnes
    20 April 2017

    Vicky : After the dust has settled following the General Election, I hope that we can return to the issues you raise. I live in NE Derbyshire and we are in the middle of key County Council elections, followed by the Parliamentary Election in a highly marginal Constituency.

  3. Vicky Seddon
    17 April 2017

    Thanks for this, Harry Barnes. Of course a strong democracy can unpick previous policies, but a more representative structure would mean it would have to be argued for, negotiated on, and MPs etc persuaded, rather than our current system where the executive decides and parliament (apart from a very few issues) waves it through.

    I cannot tell you how impatient I have become with the many Labour MPs and others who argue against a fair voting system because (they say) they want to maintain the constituency link. That argument has been made and challenged many times but still they persist. For people who are supposed to understand about politics and power, that sounds either like intellectual laziness or ‘Not in my backyard – I might lose my seat’. Yes, there are systems such as Harry Barnes describes, which manage that link with a proportilonate outcome. Let Labour get behind that….

    The other big issue that Mr Barnes doesn’t mention is the centralisation of powers, away from localities, whether in Westminster or Edinburgh or Cardiff etc. Local government has been systematically undermined by successive governments of all shapes – Labour, Tory, Tory-Lib Dem. In various ways: funding cuts, powers, re-education, city region mayors foisted on combined authorities – and those combined authorities/mayors all have a different set of powers. And now LAs not allowed to boycott certain tenderers for services… Sigh…

  4. Harry Barnes
    14 April 2017

    From Vicky’s comments it is likely that we both would wish to see the establishment and operation of similar forms of educational and related structures. But I wish to test out the constitutional, parliamentary and general political implications of her approach.

    Our democratic system is certainly in need of an overhaul. But if via change we somehow achieved the type of educational and other arrangements we both favour, then I don’t see how we could democratically place a constitutional block upon its subsequent transformation (or even its removal) under due processes. For we would not wish to have the present structures (or even worse) put permanently in place, with a constitutional block being placed on reforms in the direction we actually favour. Democracy needs to be as open for the goose as well as the gander, so that either can press their case.

    I am all for the Lords being replaced by some form of elected second chamber. Ideally this would require the establishment of a written constitution in which the respective areas of the authority of each chamber would clearly be spelt out. There is a need for a form of checks and balances between both Houses of Parliament, but these should not be such that they would mean that Parliament would find it almost impossible to pass new laws. There also seem to be sufficient complexities around us to require a bi-cameral, rather than a unicameral parliamentary system.

    It also seems to me that we have reached a situation where a more proportionate electoral system needs to be put into operation. Yet I also feel that MPs and any newly established Senators (or their equivalent) should have some degree of connection with the areas they represent, so that they are liable to have feelings for local or other relevant needs. I am not for democracy for carpet baggers.

    One way to square this circle would be to adopt a version of the electoral system used in the Republic of Ireland of a single transferable vote within multi-member constituencies. A rule could also be in operation to say that candidates for MP would need to have lived within the boundaries of the multi-member constituencies for some time, either recently or in the past (for say a total of seven years, even if this was when they were a child). Senators would also need to be drawn from their own particuar electoral group – whatever we decided it should be.

    There also seems to me to be a strong case for giving equal legislative powers to a second level of democratic bodies covering Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and within (what are yet to be determined) regions in England. No region or nation should be dramatically bigger than the rest.

    Significant changes towards a new second chamber, defined powers and duties for MPs and Senators, a more proportional electoral system and a second tier of regional/national legislatures would all be huge moves and would need to be democratcally shaped.

    At the last election Labour promised to set up a constitutional convention to look into these type of issues. Labour should still be pressing for this approach and setting up something on these lines at least for discussion purposes, even though they are now sunk into opposition. It might help revitalise the party.

    After matters are fully discussed and analyised, worked out proposals would need to be placed in a draft constitution and placed before the people for endorsement, rejection or amendment. Once a constitution was adopted it could have a amending procedure attached to it – which might have written into it the requirement that any amendments would need to be carrried within all (or the bulk) of regions and nations.

    Governments would be much less likely to dominate their parliamentary parties in the above circumstances. Internal democratic decision-making within political parties would assist this process. It is difficuIt, however, to see how this could be legislated for, as that would involve parties interfering with each other. But it is, at least, something we can all press for within the Labour Party.

    If my list of suggestions sound to be far too large and comprehensive, then I would point out that I am not looking for an overnight coup. But we could push for the inevitability of gradualism. Even if that is a Fabian and not an ILP tradition.

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