79996 to go – Labour’s Green Opportunity

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This last week was National Apprenticeship Week 2020: an annual celebration designed to “bring the whole apprenticeship community together to celebrate the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy”.  I doubt if many people noticed that this national celebration was taking place. For my part, rather than donning a party hat, I was concentrating of my role as mentor at our local state comprehensive school.  Each year my wife and I offer support to a selected small group of Year 12 (17-year old) students.

We enjoy our work at the School.  We have developed a deal of respect for the professionalism and commitment of the staff and find the energy and optimism, albeit sometimes misplaced, of the students refreshing. My generation of baby-boomers needs to recognise how lucky we were to enter a workforce with a booming employment market and we need to understand how much tougher things are today.

Reflecting on my practical experience at the school and building on my earlier professional experience writing and lecturing in this field, has reinforced two firm conclusions. Both have important political implications as we begin the long and tortuous process of rebuilding the Labour Party’s credibility.  The first is that we should focus less on the needs of the 50% of the population who are heading for University and more on the 50% who are not going on Higher Education.  It is the latter who face challenging life opportunities.  The abolition of all student fees might be a vote winner but it is hardly good socialism to invite a less privileged section of the population to subsidise a more privileged section. My second conclusion, underlined by the empty propaganda of National Apprenticeship Week, is that apprenticeships lost their traditional meaning some time ago, and that far more honest reporting and less hype is needed.

No government has been able to deliver their propaganda targets for apprenticeships, and the current situation is dire.  In, what was for them, a remarkable intervention in the free market, Theresa May’s government introduced an apprenticeship levy on employers in April 2017. It has failed. According to a recent research report* much of the levy has been spent on jobs “offering minimal training and low wages” or on “rebadging” jobs already offered by employers as apprenticeships.  Indeed, the report goes so far as to describe 50% of apprenticeship courses introduced since 2017 as “fake”, saying they do not “relate to helping young people get started in a skilled job or occupation”.

It is a sad reflection on the Labour Party that this debacle did not feature prominently in the December 2019 General Election, but let’s turn to something that did: The Green New Deal.  This idea is a central plank of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign and she claims credit for its authorship. The Green New Deal appeals to all factions of the Labour Party and beyond to uncommitted voters – particularly young people.  It is an idea whose time has come.

Given this, it is essential that The Green New Deal is well-grounded and credible.  It cannot be mere aspiration: if we are to regain the electorate’s confidence, we must show that we are capable of delivering what we promise.  We have a long time to get things right and I make no apology for asking some hard questions now.

In a speech delivered to the Confederation of British Industries Conference in November 2019, Jeremy Corbyn introduced the idea of climate apprenticeships:  “Under the plans, businesses will benefit from an average of 80,000 people per year being trained as apprentice engineers and technicians in renewable energy and transport, civil engineers and skilled tradespeople in sustainable construction, designers, welders and fabricators in low carbon industries, and sustainable agriculture and forestry specialists.”.  The 80,000 annual figure was translated into a commitment to deliver 320,000 such apprenticeship in the first term of office and has been repeatedly used in all discussions on The Green New Deal. This idea is attractive and seductive.  It is also totally unrealistic.

To return to an earlier point, we must be honest in our promises, particularly those that affect young people.  Let me go back to one aspect of my work at the local Sixth Form.  For those mentees who are not contemplating University I make use of the official Government ‘Find an apprenticeship’ online tool**.  Out of curiosity I fed in ‘climate apprenticeships’ into the search engine.  It produced four responses across the whole of England, one of which was bogus as the tool had picked up the phrase ‘a positive working climate’ in a logistics firm.

Now I know I am being unfair: neither Jeremy not Rebecca Long-Bailey had the opportunity to put their scheme into practice.  I do however question how much serious thought has gone into the delivery of climate apprenticeship, or even if anyone has worked out what it actually means.  Accordingly, I have endeavoured to contact anyone and everyone to ask how the figure of 80,000 was derived and who derived it.  I have had no replies on this and must reluctantly conclude that it was plucked out of the air to give Jeremy a chance for a headline.  If so, this was quite unscrupulous.  We are going to have to do much better going forward.

 

* The report Runaway Training was published January 2020 by the think tank EDSK:   see https://www.edsk.org/publications/runaway-training/ and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50973579

**https://www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk/apprenticeshipsearch

 

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Jeremy at Progress – an unexpected visitor

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We’ve all seen it happen at wedding receptions. Someone nobody likes is going to make a speech; the speaker may well have an unfortunate history with the family but his position (divorced father?) makes his attendance obligatory. We hold our breath and hope that nothing will be said that will cause offence: everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief when this proves to be the case and we can all proceed to the next stage.

I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended my first ever Progress Conference where Jeremy Corbyn had agreed to speak. For overseas readers Progress is an organization for moderate Labour Party members – widely castigated by others as a Blairite group. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s close ally, has described Progress as a ‘right-wing conservative’ group which had never accepted Corbyn as Labour leader. Certainly for my part I had joined Progress for that very reason.

All credit to Progress to getting Jeremy Corbyn to come. The conference organisers had trailed a surprise speaker and a surprise it was. And all credit to Jeremy Corbyn for coming. However what was he going to say?

My guess, talking with others before the event, is that we could have expected one of two things. The first, which would have been very tough to deliver, would have been an appeal for tolerance towards his leadership. The second would have been a statement on the critical importance of a Remain vote in the June referendum and the obligation on us all to put aside all differences and work for that result in the meantime. Clive Lewis, the Norwich South MP and a Corbyn support, had made just such a statement in a breakout session earlier in the day and it went down well

In fact Jeremy Corbyn did neither of these. He started with a quite a good joke – something he normally avoids. ‘It is my first time speaking here. In fact it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to a Progress conference – you set a pretty high bar if you have to be elected leader of the party if you ever want to get invited here.’ He then delivered a rushed, and sometimes garbled, address covering topics where no-one in the room could disagree: human rights, protection of rights at work, refugees. He concluded by answering a number of questions – all were very soft with the exception of a tougher one on anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

Someone of the calibre of Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot would have grasped the opportunity and tried to influence the forward agenda in some way. As it was I felt that Jeremy was just pleased to get through without incident – like the speaker at the wedding who knows he is not liked by almost all those present.

It may have been a missed opportunity for him. The case for putting differences aside for the greater goal of Europe is most powerful and everyone is receptive. Two days before the Progress event I went to a most enjoyable Labour Party ‘Remain’ dinner in Tottenham where the Labour MP David Lammy articulated the case with considerable aplomb. His was the speech of the week that I will remember.