Remember when Stephen Twigg beat Michael Portillo in the 1997 General Election? I do. As a lifelong Labour supporter born in 1972 it was a cathartic moment. After the false dawn of 1992 (“It’s Time for Change” was a much better slogan than Kinnock’s “Well alright” of the cringe-making Sheffield Rally) it was finally clear that we would be having a Labour Government for the first time since Margaret Thatcher had made her promise to bring harmony, truth, faith and hope in 1979. And because of the debacle of 1992 it was only when Portillo was electorally decapitated by the scarily young Twiggy that those of us on the left finally realised that we were at long, long last going to win and win big. Only half an hour before I’d smiled like a Gorgonzola Cat (cheesier and fuller flavoured than the Cheshire variety) as Jeremy Paxman had asked Portillo, the symbol of next-generation Thatcherism, whether he would miss travelling in the ministerial limousine.
In spite of this wonderful page-turning night of history though, I couldn’t quite summon the smile I should have. Something was spoiling it, and that something was the smug grin on the smug man that I had last seen adorning that smug face when he smugly beat me to the presidency of the National Union of Students (NUS) some 6 years earlier: an election defeat I suffered at the tender age of 18 and in my first year at university. Whilst everyone around me in 1997 was whooping and hollering at the prescient understanding of what joys were to come during that election nights of election nights, I was transported to the 1991 NUS Conference at Blackpool Winter Gardens and the moment when I stood next to Twigg on the hustings platform in front of many hundreds of students, braced myself against my booming breast, looked down loathingly at him and happily called him corrupt and useless.
A brief history lesson is needed at this point, so here’s an oft-repeated passage from a number of online encyclopaedias.
He became the youngest and first openly gay president of the National Union of Students in 1990 representing the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS). In 1991 he was reelected, despite failing to register his nomination for the position before the deadline; this forced NOLS delegates to vote to re-open nominations at the NUS Conference. The subsequent election was only able to take nominations from the floor of conference, but despite having a large number of opponents, many of whom stood to register their unhappiness at this process, Twigg won the ballot.
I was at the time one of the youngest delegates at the conference, having been co-opted onto my Student Union Committee as a Campaigns Officer. Having scant regard for my educational attainment (oh how times have changed for me in my current role as Deputy Headteacher, dispensing advice to teens that I only learned to take for myself in my twenties) I happily took part in every non-academic pursuit and was the first name down for National Conference. I had heard all about the frequently awful infighting between the hard left groups such as the Socialist Workers (Swizz to the mean-spirited) and the centre left National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS or Nasty Officious Lazy Slobs as my end-of-week badge said) to which Twiggy belonged. But this conference was so much worse than anyone expected as a result of the negative campaigning and filibustering that the NOLS delegates had to resort to in order to get their people, with the future minister at their head, re-elected.
This news report for a Student Union that had attended the conference gives a flavour of the pointlessness of the whole event.
I was one of the “large number of opponents” who “stood to register their unhappiness” described in the encyclopaedia entry above. Back then I was idealistic, impulsive, somewhat confident and unafraid to speak my mind on matters of principle (how times have changed me) and I couldn’t keep quiet. With nominations well and truly reopened there was only one thing someone like me could do: garner all the nominations I could from conference the floor and stand. So I did, and so did many others (at least 30 as I recall it) and then we hit the bars, forming an independent caucus and scouring amongst our number for a credible candidate for whom we could all stand aside.
For the first time that week student politics came alive for me, not because of party political allegiance but in spite of it: because people working interdependently, individuals with passion making connections with each other in order to put the collective good ahead of everything else. It was also incredibly successful, not in the sense of toppling Twigg but of making a truly non-credible independent candidate scarily credible in the eyes of the party machine. And, of course, in terms of teaching people like me that there is an alternative to the Labour Party (of which I am a proud member) and to unions (of which I am a proud member). These two institutions are vital parts of a fair society, but sometimes their interests as institutions can predominate over the interests of their individual members. Sometimes we have to act collectively as individuals.
All of which brings me back to Twigg. I’ve never warmed to him in spite of the Portillo moment and its importance to me as a time of great joy in my life. In some ways he is an apt metaphor for the whole New Labour project: elected to great fanfare and expectation in 1997, re-elected with another mandate to do something special in 2001 before being unceremoniously ousted by the post-Iraq anger in 2005. The fact that he was given the heave-ho by his constituency before the 2010 election is indeed a more appropriate metaphor than if he had survived as he therefore is more representative of the coming Blairite bankruptcy in the eyes of the electorate.
Since 2010 he has been back and in possession of the education brief wielded so pugnaciously by Ed Balls in the dying embers of the Brown administration and so surprisingly effectively by Andy Burnham in the transition to Milliband’s One-Nation Labour (can’t we finally leave the slogans for the slogans and not for the name of the party). Lined up against the amazingly ambitious but highly divisive Michael Gove it should be the dream job of an opposition front-bench team, but Twigg appears to be making heavy weather of it (or should that be light weather, given that nobody really seems to know what his policy vision is or what elements of the Govian revolution he will or won’t unpick when in office). The result is significant amounts of scorn from within the teaching profession, a scorn mirrored by socialist stalwart Peter Wilby in a recent Guardian interview:
“I plead guilty to nuance,” beams Twigg, who is so affable a man that you want to shout something like “lying Blairite bastard” just to see if he gets angry.
As a Labour member and supporter a part of me worries that Twigg (who I still don’t like – first impressions count with me it would appear) remains a metaphor for the party and that the wafer-thin education policy agenda for a Labour government post-2015 is part of a wider malaise that will only be fully revealed in the bright glare of media and public scrutiny as we approach the national ballot.
My bigger concern, as a school leader and education professional who cares deeply about schooling regardless of the colour of rosette worn by the governing party, is that Stephen Twigg is actually a metaphor for the political class as a whole and that there is no longer any reason (if there ever was one) to pin our hopes and expectations to this class to effect positive change on our behalf.
With this very firmly in mind I shall go back to the lesson I learned upon my first interaction with our Shadow Education Minister: that party politicians are not our saviours and possibly not even our servants. Instead of looking to our political masters we should look to master our politics at local, regional, national and international levels so that we (as parents, teachers, leaders and citizens) can become the agents of change within the system. All of this will involve the marginal gains made through the determination of individuals brought together by collegiality of networks such as twitter and teachmeets and expressed powerfully through the emergent representative bodies such as @headsroundtable and @SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling.
Such a vision of interdependent professionalism is our best and maybe our only remaining opportunity to fill the vacuum left by a political class that appears to have forgotten that most of the solutions to the problems that vex our profession are already happening somewhere within the profession. We need to remind the politicians that they are indeed the twigs of our education system and that we are the branches, the trunks and the roots.