“build a ladder of opportunity so that the able can get ahead”

Provocative New Statesman article by Adrian Wooldridge which insists that the key to the “reinvention” of the Labour Party is by going back to basics – appealing to the “new working class that is growing alongside the old one” – and reinstating a belief in meritocracy, “the belief that individuals should be treated according to their own merits rather than their family connections or membership of various pre-determined groups, and that the state’s job is to build a ladder of opportunity so that the able can get ahead regardless of where they are born”.

Wooldridge almost exclusively focuses on education as the laboratory for this meritocratic reinvention. For him, the Tories have seized control of middle and working class aspirations which were once the ambitions of the early Labour Party and Labour governments. “Meritocracy is the most successful big idea the Labour Party has ever embraced” Wooldridge argues and asserts that when Labour has rejected the meritocratic idea it has been destroyed as a governing party. Labour embraced egalitarianism and the result has been a rejection of the party at the ballot box.

Much of the article is given to narrating how early Labour/Fabian thinkers like the Webbs were advocates of meritocracy and “wanted to turn the British education system into a giant capacity-catching machine, primarily through a combination of new grammar schools and new universities, in order to rescue “talented poverty from the shop or plough” and allocate it to the most powerful jobs in the country”. He goes on to describe how Labour leaders such as Ramsay MacDonald, Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan, Denis Healey and Harold Wilson all promoted meritocracy. Blair’s New Labour “was essentially an undisguised enthusiasm for opportunity and upward mobility… Out went the old collectivist dream in the form of Clause IV and trade union barons. In came enterprise, self-help and the fruits of ability”.

When it came to schools, Blair’s meritocracy “infuriate[d] his party’s left by taking the Conservatives’ criticisms of “bog-standard comprehensives” seriously, hiring Andrew Adonis to drive an ambitious educational reform programme from Downing Street (the Department for Education being considered untrustworthy). He subjected all state schools to a Gradgrindian regime of testing, inspection, league tables and competition. He introduced academy schools, free from local educational authority control and empowered to develop their own ethos and to break the “cycle of low expectations” in the public sector.”

Wooldridge champions grammar schools (and modern academisation) as instruments of meritocratic change. While he acknowledges that “grammar schools had a dark shadow in the form of the secondary moderns” he believes that Labour MPs turned against grammar schools due to complaints from parents. He imagines other timelines where a more grammars could have been built, a German tripartite system thrived, comprehensives could be “academically rigorous” or public schools forced to take on more scholarship children.

He singles out Anthony Crossland and Shirley Williams as Labour ministers who abandoned the meritocratic idea and became seduced by progressive ideas (he uses the term “equality machines”). Wooldridge is clear: “The result was to reverse the great social revolution engineered by the 1945 Labour government.”

Because Labour sought to define itself as an egalitarian party, it enabled the Thatcherism to assert itself: “By favouring equality over meritocracy and community over competition, the Labour Party had unwittingly paved the way for an ambitious programme of privatisation and “rolling back the frontiers of the state”.”

Wooldridge describes the recent Labour Party as an organisation opposed to meritocracy, ability, acadamisation and high-stakes testing. He sees this happening at a time when “the educational reforms that had begun with Thatcher and that both Blair and David Cameron had championed were beginning to work.” He also believes that “academy schools are coming into their own” citing the highly-selective East London state school Brampton Manor Academy as an example (he says that the school won more places to Oxford this year than Eton School). “This selectivity allows Brampton to cultivate a rigorously academic atmosphere,” he asserts.

His proposal for Starmer is “to focus on reinventing the meritocratic tradition: celebrate schools such as Brampton Manor Academy; call for a new generation of technical schools and colleges, like the ones that are so successful in Germany, that will provide a ladder of opportunity to people who don’t want to go to university; and point out that, for all their waffle about the north, the Tories are still the party of unmerited wealth.”

I’m not sure whether Wooldridge himself has been nostalgically seduced by the supposed post-war Golden Age of grammar schools or not. His “meritocracy” seems to me to be quite narrow: enabling a minority of the most “able” middle-class children or those from vigorously upwardly aspirational working class families to go on to Oxbridge and then into public life or business. There is little about the majority of working class children who would be failed by his meritocratic ideal. The highly-selective successful academies he wants to see thrive come at the expense of the great numbers of children from disadvantaged families who end up in failing academies or joins the thousands permanently excluded from education. Wooldridge doesn’t seem to be able to see the “dark shadows” already cast across the educational landscape.