That Andrew Adonis, architect of the New Labour education reforms, was the Tories’ favourite minister when they were in opposition, tells you surprisingly little about the man himself. His reforms as the schools minister – subsequently adopted and pushed further by the Coalition government – have earned him the unflattering label of an ‘arch-Blairite’. But the Labour peer is scathing about today’s Conservatives and sees himself as rooted firmly in left-wing politics. Now an adviser to Ed Miliband’s team, the mild-mannered and unfailingly polite Oxonian spoke in our interview about Oxford, being caught amidst the Blair-Brown turf wars and where Labour needs to go next.
The first thing one needs to know about Adonis is that he’s a traitor, of sorts. The young Adonis was politically left-of-centre in his youth, but state socialism was too much. “I joined the SDP [Social Democratic Party] on the day it was formed.” And what a dramatic occasion it was, when the ‘Gang of Four’ broke away from Michael Foot’s dinosaur socialist Labour party to form a new social democratic one. When Adonis matriculated in 1981 the young party briefly looked like it might win the next General Election. It didn’t, and as the turbo-charged capitalism of the 80s took off Thatcher’s electoral success and popular appeal prevented the SDP from making the sort of breakthrough that third parties have failed to achieve in British politics ever since.
Roy Jenkins, who Adonis describes as his “great hero, then and now”, was one of the breakaway gang. Adonis argues that the social liberalism he pursued in two stints as Labour Home Secretary in the 1960s and 70s underpins British society now almost as strongly as Thatcher’s economic liberalism in the 1980s underpins (or “undermined”, as Adonis later put it) the British economy today. Moreover he sees Jenkins’ approach as a harbinger of the New Labour strategy. “He did more than any other minister in the 1960s to change society. And if you look at how [Jenkins] made Labour more than just a working-class socialist party, you can see parallels with how Tony Blair made Labour more liberal and open to the middle-classes.”
First and foremost therefore, Adonis was an SDP man. He wasn’t an especially political student, eschewing the Union. Its famous hacks, including William Hague, who was President when Adonis went up to Oxford, turned him off. Hague “did me a huge favour” in that regard, he now claims, since his ambitions took him elsewhere.
Academia, Oxford council politics and then journalism all preceded Adonis’ entry to No.10 as a policy advisor. Through ennoblement in 2005 he entered the third Blair government as an Education minister. “There are two morals to my career: you can’t really plan your [political] career, because it’s unpredictable; and second, do something else before politics. Don’t go into it too early. My ten years in journalism was an invaluable preparation for politics thereafter. Being the [Financial Times’] public policy editor prepared me much better than almost anything else could have done for being in government and working on education policy for Tony Blair.”
That said, he “doesn’t deride” what would seem to be the precise opposite of his prescription – being a special advisor. He describes the bag-carriers one can find busying around Westminster as “apprentice ministers”. “It’s very good training for government, because you’re part of the government.”
However, he later qualifies, “it is good to take some time out [of politics]. Ed Miliband, for instance, spent a couple of years at Harvard as a lecturer and I know from speaking to him that it was an incredibly formative period in his life.”
He chastises those special advisors who became infantrymen in the Brown-Blair wars, a conflict in which he became a “proxy” as Brownites attempted to frustrate the education agenda as a means to undermining Blair’s authority and reforming zeal. Sometimes it hurt. “You have to develop a thick skin. When I was on the front line in the earlier years I would take all the personal attacks” – what he calls the “Oxford Union bit of politics” – well, “personally”.
He’s now more reflective, rather than reactionary, about those who levied attacks on him. But a thinly veiled critique of some of those advisors was forthcoming. “There’s a problem with rising too fast in politics,” Adonis says, “which is that you lose social awareness and perspective”. Many of that era’s special advisors – most notably ‘Bruiser Balls’ – are now members of the shadow Cabinet. Adonis suggests that the sort of politicos who shoot from university straight into the Westminster bubble – and never leave it on the way up – will lack the sort of self-control in handling relations which each other.
His support for Labour remains dogged. Though a backer of David Miliband in the leadership contest, Adonis is now firmly on Ed’s team. He rigidly stays on message when it comes to free schools – “I don’t support a free for all [in education] where anyone who wants to come with a half-baked plan to set up a school can do so” – despite an interview with The Spectator in 2011 in which he described himself and Blair as “enthusiastic about the idea of entirely new schools being established on the academy model, as in Michael Gove’s Free Schoolsâ€¨policy.”
In general terms though the continuity from Adonis to Gove is undeniable. The Labour front bench has been distinctly lukewarm about the expansion of the academies programme, but Adonis doesn’t distance himself from the policy– he stakes a claim to it. “There is a good deal of consensus but let’s be clear – the consensus is a New Labour one. It’s about privilege for all, rather than the old Tory policy of privilege for a few.
“[Furthermore] Michael Gove is now coming behind my call for private schools to sponsor comprehensives. Labour can take pride that in important areas of public policy the Tories have been forced to accept a New Labour consensus.
“I very much hope that Michael Gove will read my book,” he says later. I expect that the Education Secretary, who has expressed admiration for Adonis, already has. If you care about modern social democracy, so should you.