“It’s brutal, to be honest”- Tory Treatment of the North

Martha Storey

The tangled web of local lockdowns has recently been swept away and replaced with a simpler, three-tiered system of local Covid-19 alert levels. This neat manoeuvre has only highlighted the neglect of areas in existing local lockdowns, making the divide between treatment of London and the rest of the country all the more prominent.

An overhaul of local lockdowns is undoubtedly necessary; this summer has seen a plethora of lockdowns across the UK, each differing slightly in detail. This highly localised approach might make sense in theory; different outbreak patterns being solved by a tweaked set of guidelines. However, the crucial thing that the rules forget is that people have to follow them. When there are too many different guidelines published, people can’t keep up, and many stop following the detail of the lockdowns that they don’t want to be in in the first place. The tiered system aims to solve this, with clearer guidelines based on the broad severity of an area’s outbreak.

The confusion caused by the previous ad-hoc local lockdowns demonstrates the hastiness of the government’s stop-gap method of tackling Covid-19. There has been little monitoring of local lockdowns; once in place, they have not been tweaked to improve either medical or economic prospects. It is clear that in many places, they just aren’t working; my home town has been in local lockdown since restrictions were controversially announced the night before Eid al-Adha (30th July) – but cases continue to rise. In Greater Manchester, an area with similar restrictions, cases are rising by 23% week on week. Even with the tier system clearing up the restrictions in place, it remains unclear whether these stringent measures are helping matters.

There have been questions raised about which regions of the UK have been locked down. Many of the areas which have had prolonged stricter lockdown measures have seen the number of their Covid-19 cases dwarfed by other areas who have somehow escaped a local lockdown. Bolton, with one Labour MP and two “red-wall” Conservative MPs, locked down in July when the cases hit 26.79 per 100,000 – however Boris Johnson’s Hillingdon constituency hit 80.82, and Raab’s Elmbridge seat surpassed 127 cases per 100,000 earlier this month. While both are now under higher Covid-19 tiers, these numbers don’t appear overnight; clearly, lockdowns were delayed for these, and many other, constituencies.

Lockdowns inevitably mean economic hardship for any region, but many of the areas lumped with strict restrictions on socialising are in areas particularly reliant on the hospitality sector. Many of the regions with pre-existing local lockdowns were areas that had not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crash; prolonging their lockdowns and forcing businesses to stay shut will inevitably spell disaster in the long-run. For a country described as the most regionally unequal in the developed world, the government’s approach is ignorant and inappropriate. With such stark differences between the treatment of these regions, seemingly regardless of their number of cases, serious questions must be answered, not only about the nature of lockdown, but about where the lockdowns are.

Perhaps most controversially, the government announced increased economic support for businesses shortly after London was placed under a tier two lockdown. While a positive step for London, the move angered many Northern political leaders, whose constituents had been living under the same “high alert” restrictions for months, with much less economic support. Clearly, the effects of these restrictions were felt acutely in the capital, however it raised serious questions about the approach of the government towards regions it promised to “level up” at the start of this year. It is disheartening for residents and MPs of these regions to see that their pleas for more financial support are only met when their hardships are shared by areas closer to Westminster, despite the months of suffering they endured.

The loudest voice in this debate was almost certainly Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester and long-time spokesperson for the North. Much of Greater Manchester had been enduring the harsher lockdown measures for nearly three months, with talks breaking down when Greater Manchester attempted to negotiate a £65 million support package.

One of the remarkable things about the situation was the government’s communication, which was publicly very poor. After talks, Burnham was at a press conference about the situation in Greater Manchester following a week of disgruntlement towards the government. Meanwhile, MPs were in a call being told about the £22 million package that Greater Manchester was to receive. In a well-circulated video, we see Burnham at the press conference, being shown this news on a phone screen. His candid reaction of “It’s brutal, to be honest” seems apt when the third largest city in the UK receives 22 times as much as what London-based entertainment firm Secret Cinema received.

The discrepancy between the amounts in talks and the amount initially handed to Greater Manchester (which has now been promised an additional £60 million in addition to the £22 million) shows that the power of mayors such as Burnham is relatively small. The poor communication also displays a very public disregard for the work of metropolitan mayors and the areas they represent. This is interesting coming from the same party that passed the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act in 2016, which devolved power to mayors of combined local authorities in England and Wales. In the wake of this year, this devolution seems purely performative; clearly the government don’t recognise regional mayors as very powerful at all. Given the slew of elections planned for 2021, this is concerning; devolution won’t work unless real power is handed over and these mayors are taken seriously. Many of the mayors are Labour mayors, and handing over ersatz power could just mean the party is blamed for local decisions that they have no real control over.

This year has created a growing pile of complaints against the government’s treatment of the regions it promised to ‘level up,’ and the lacklustre funding of regions that have been under local lockdown has only brought this issue to greater prominence. In the wake of this, a group of Conservative “red-wall” MPs wrote to the Prime Minister expressing their concern about the issue, warning he must “reflect carefully” on this year. Clearly, the seats gained in 2019 are not to be taken for granted. This signifies a growing divide within the Conservative Party; one that Labour should capitalise on if it wants to win back the red wall at the next election.

It has been made brutally obvious that the government lack concern for many of the regions under local lockdown; and the consequences are already being felt through both economic suffering, and the unrest within the Parliamentary Conservative Party. After the empty promises of devolution and ‘levelling up’ at the start of this year, it is clear that the Conservative Party pay little heed to the wants and needs of the North.

Michael O’Connor: Oxford County Council Candidate Profile

Hi! I’m Michael and I’m standing as the Labour County Council candidate for the University Parks division in the May 2021 local elections. Oxfordshire County Council is responsible for a wide range of things, including schools, social services, mental health and transport. In central Oxford, the County Council’s primary responsibility is for transport, which means that it is has substantial influence on environmental policy. My division stretches from the High Street in the South to Park Town in the North and covers most of central Oxford, including 25 colleges (listed below) – so the chances are that I’m your candidate! 

I’m a student at Balliol and have been studying in Oxford for three years now, first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate. I’m 22. I care passionately about the climate, tackling homelessness, and protecting frontline public services. I’m standing for the Council to put these commitments into action, inspired by the amazing things I’ve seen local Labour councillors do in Oxford and across the county. 

It’s easy to feel that there isn’t much that you can do with the Conservatives in government at a national level. But there are several layers of government and several ways to make change. We can do things on a local level that can’t be done on a national level. We can’t introduce a Green New Deal across the nation until Labour is in power at Westminster. But we can make Oxford a zero-carbon city, following the example of cities like Copenhagen, Bristol and Utrecht. Similarly, we can’t roll back austerity on a national level, but we can ensure that local services are effectively provided to local communities. So too, we can provide a sensible counterpoint to the central government’s chaotic response to COVID-19. Local government plays a key role in keeping the country ticking over and offers an alternative to Conservative national government.

This is a crucial election. At the moment, the County Council is controlled by the Conservatives with the support of some independents. If we win a handful of extra seats at this election, and hold seats like University Parks, we’ll be able to form a coalition and take control of the County Council. If we take control of the County Council, we’ll be able to enact major changes in policy. We’ll be able to press ahead with greening Oxford and Oxfordshire in collaboration with the separate, Labour-controlled City Council. And we’ll be able to protect the most vulnerable in our society and restore effective public services. But that’s only possible if Labour hold University Parks.

Whether or not Labour ends up in control, I’ll advocate for a greener, more sustainable Oxford by calling for the County Council to push ahead with the zero-emission zone, to improve cycling provision and infrastructure for electric cars, to move towards pedestrianisation in the centre, and to implement central bus gates. This will have to be done in a way that takes account of local residents’ concerns, but it has to be done. I’ll be writing a series of blog posts on these issues over the next few months. If elected, I will also fight against the punitive budget cuts being imposed by the County Council, which will see children’s services, social care and investment in walking and cycling slashed across the county.

Two-tier local government means many issues fall within the remit of the City Council rather than the County Council, including housing, planning and rough sleeping. Nonetheless, I will be a strong advocate for students and renters in the city and will strive to highlight the ongoing plight of rough sleepers. The Labour-led City Council has put up record funding to house Oxford’s homeless, but the County Council can do more to support them and I’ll be leading on this.

The best thing you can do at the moment is like both our Facebook pages and volunteer to hand out leaflets. It’s really hard to campaign at the moment as door-knocking is off the agenda; we really need to build up a social media presence and deliver campaign material to get the message out. If you have any questions, or any thoughts, then please get in contact with me at michael.oconnor@live.co.uk. I would like to hear any thoughts that you may have, or any issues that you care about!

The University Parks divisions covers the following colleges: All Souls (on the off-chance you’re a fellow), Balliol, Brasenose, Exeter, Green Templeton, Harris Manchester, Hertford, Jesus, Keble, Kellogg, Lady Margaret Hall, Linacre, Lincoln, Magdalen, Mansfield, New, Queen’s, St Anne’s, St Antony’s, St Catherine’s, St Edmund Hall, Somerville, Trinity, Wadham or Wycliffe Hall.


Starmer’s Speech: Connected to the Nation?

Martha Storey

It is no surprise that Kier Starmer’s “New Leadership” speech at Labour Connected was full of accusations about the Prime Minister, from his handling of Covid-19 to his hand in the decade of austerity that preceded the pandemic. However, the biggest take away from the conference speech was the marked change in the direction of the Party’s rhetoric. After months of being berated for lacking a message beyond “at least I’m not Corbyn,” Starmer has begun to outline a vision for his Labour Party, centring around a national pride that many said Corbyn lacked.

Starmer’s attitude to the past leadership has been unclear at the best of times. Keir being both reluctant to support them for fear of losing swing voters, and reluctant to condemn them and anger the Party’s left wing. His Connected speech continued in this vein, stating that Labour has “granted the Tories a decade of power,” but not going so far as to outright condemn the Corbyn administration. He is right in that the opposition is becoming more credible; Labour’s shift to close criticism of the Conservatives is already proving more popular in the polls than Corbyn’s vague narrative of ‘Tories bad; Labour good.’ However, voters are still unclear as to whether this administration is a clean break from the last, or whether Starmer is picking up where his predecessor left off.

Labour is ridiculously factional, but the public’s knowledge of leaders’ politics often seems to be limited to a dichotomy between Blair and Corbyn. Starmer seems aware of this, and, in the wake of the last election, he appears determined to ensure he is not lumped with the latter. In terms of voters, this seems sensible; Corybn was, rightly or wrongly, labelled with many wrongdoings, and if Starmer is serious about winning power, he must prove that the same do not apply to him. His rebranding is notably personal, leaving aside the rest of Labour’s image until the shadow of Corbyn is gone. His professional background does him, and the Party, many favours in restoring trust in Labour, and presenting a responsible and cohesive image.

While outlining that Labour is in it to win, Starmer worryingly spoke of eradicating antisemitism, as though it is an election campaign effort and not something that should be done regardless of the last election’s result. While it signals his New Leadership righting previous wrongs, Labour needs to be wary of touting this, and similar issues, as something to be proud of, rather than the remnants of a shameful Party history.

Starmer’s Connected speech also had a heady emphasis on Britain’s greatness. Between the references to past Labour figureheads, a sense of pride in Britain was evident, continuing a trend the Labour leader has maintained throughout his leadership so far. Patriotism is a touchy subject, controversial even, due to its connotations of distasteful and harmful nationalism. But in recent political history, it has dominated conversation, and harnessing this wave of enthusiasm seems to make up a large part of a successful campaign – which is above all Starmer’s aim.

Blair’s “things can only get better” mantra began a century that has, so far, seen a steady decline in how things are going. Starmer seems, as all politicians do, determined to change this. His Connected speech peppered with references to positive change that Labour can, and has, brought the UK. Starmer has adopted the type of national pride that saw Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony be such a success; a celebration of British ideas and diversity rather than a clumsy distain for other nations. Patriotism is difficult to get right, especially on the left. The emphasis on “uniting” is key to both giving patriotism a positive narrative, but also to bridging the divisive image that left many unwilling to vote for Corbyn.

This positive tone, maintained throughout the Tory-bashing and party pride that we expect from a party conference, seems at odds with the current Covid climate, but sets up the party well for the future. The Tories’ shambolic handling of the situation has led to their party’s announcements being synonymous with bad news; Starmer’s bright-eyed vision of Britain could be the thing that gets him into power, if he can convey a persuasive vision of how he will change things.

Starmer’s route to change remains a mystery to many, both in the Party, and out of it. His carefully crafted publicity leaves much to the imagination when it comes to policy. A careful balance is needed to satisfy both the next generation of voters that Corbyn was successful in mobilising, and the crucial Red Wall seats that were lost at the last election. Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s Director of Policy, suggested in her 2018 book that policies are only as good as “The context of what and whom the electorate thinks the party or candidate stands for,” which fits with Starmer’s assertion that the 2019 manifesto was overcrowded. This suggests that the narrative Starmer spins will be tighter and more focused, and overshadow the policies he implements.

Between Ainsley’s appointment and the patriotic banner Starmer has begun to lift, there is clearly a shift right for Labour in some respect. As he notes in his New Leadership speech, “Times change – and so do political priorities” – and clearly, Starmer’s priority is firmly getting into office. His speech represented a balancing act, pushing details aside in an impressive bid to please every inch of the Party. Whether successful or not, Starmer’s careful emphasis on positive patriotism seems the key take away from Connected, and will likely remain the focus in the years to come.

The Problem With the U-Turn

Image Description: Martha Storey along with others at the Leeds Exams Justice Protest

Martha Storey, OULC Secretary, Women*s Officer, and organiser of the Leeds Exams Justice Protest, critiques the governments eventual U-Turn on exam grades.


Given the global pandemic going on around them, the Class of 2020 were always going to leave school into exceptional times. So when it was announced that they weren’t to sit their A-Level exam results, this seemed to make sense. There was danger of them missing much of their last school year, and it seems ludicrous to suggest that students sit an exam in the middle of a pandemic. The solution was to ask teachers to assign Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) for each subject, and then moderate them to ensure that teachers were not unfairly bolstering their student’s achievements. This seemed relatively uncontroversial at the time – those with fears of “grade-inflation” were assured by the moderating system, while pupils got the grades their teachers believed they deserved (despite the issue of the teachers’ biases swaying the results.)

But, of course, not all went as planned. Results day arrived with the news that a controversial algorithm had been used to moderate the CAGs. This led to 39% of results being downgraded, and, predictably, many unhappy students. The problems ran deeper than this, however – the algorithm had magnified existing inequalities within the education system. Predictably, private schools saw the biggest increase in A grades out of all school types (a 4.7% increase compared to a 0.3% increase for state sixth forms and colleges). Southern schools also enjoyed a larger percentage increase in A grades when compared with their Northern counterparts (schools from the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber regions). Perhaps most worryingly, students with a low socioeconomic status saw the greatest decrease from their CAGs to their awarded grade.


It is important to remember how these results have been calculated before jumping to conclusions. Algorithms merely perform what instructions have been fed to them, so anything that is a fault of the algorithm is arguably a result of poor instructions being fed into it. (see Jeni Tennison, 2020 at https://rpubs.com/JeniT/ofqual-algorithm for a good explanation of what the algorithm does) In short, the instructions given to the algorithm contained loopholes and snags that made it easier for students who already enjoyed educational privileges to get better results. For starters, the algorithm heavily leans on a school’s grade history when calculating results, which meant that stories of high achieving students from underperforming state schools dominated results day. Past data dominated the algorithm’s grading mechanism, so exam centres where exam history was lacking (those with five or less students taking a subject in the last three years) were just awarded their CAGs, which naturally benefits smaller exam centres – likely to be fee-paying or independent schools. When tested on the 2019 cohort’s exam results, the algorithm was found to be only 40% accurate.

Predicting a school year’s exam results was never going to be easy, however the manner in which Williamson ploughed on, pushing for an obviously flawed algorithm, was astonishing. With a prominent lack of information about their moderating system right up until results, the chaos in the following few days was not entirely surprising. Student protests took place in London, Liverpool, Canterbury, and Newcastle, all calling on the government to “make the U-Turn” and award students their CAGs instead of the algorithm predicted grades. For much of this time, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson refused to make the U-Turn, suggesting that, once he did so, it was largely because of the mounting public pressure on him to do so.


This U-Turn should be celebrated as a testament to the power that young people can have to influence politics. Along with a friend from school, I organised the Leeds Exams Justice Protest, scheduled for Tuesday the 18th August. The days leading up to the protest were spent speaking to journalists and Teachers Union Representatives, trying to get hold of a megaphone while keeping up with the surprising amount of media attention that our protest had attracted. The purpose of our protest was initially to try to help force a U-Turn, but also to show discontent with the crude way in which the exam results had been handled. With 5 months to sort an appropriate solution, students were left with an inadequate set of grades that only magnified existing problems within the education system.

Upon hearing about the U-Turn, my happiness was somewhat dampened by the stress of deciding what to do about our protest. Our protest wasn’t solely about making the U-Turn, so we eventually decided to hold it anyway, accepting that there was bound to be a smaller turn out. The U-Turn wasn’t perfect; BTec students were not covered, and many universities were now forced to reject students who had the correct grades, simply because they hadn’t the capacity to deal with the influx of students whose grades had been altered. 

The U-Turn wasn’t just about high-achievers who had missed out on universities like Oxford, but the press attention was disproportionately focused on them.  I was asked lots about Oxford – what grades I needed to get in, and, oddly, how well I had done in my first year mock prelims – much more than my friend James who also organised the protest was not. (He is studying History at Bristol – hardly a low achiever.) The attention on high achievers was unsurprising, but had meant that after the U-Turn, no one seemed to care that BTec students were exempt. Since then, the BTec results were pulled on the eve of results day, an outrageous decision that shows the government’s, and the media’s, lack of concern for vocational subjects.

The delayed decision to award CAGs also impacted many who now had the grades for their chosen university. Many universities had closed Clearing by this point, and lots of students I spoke to had been through clearing, and signed accommodation contracts with unis other than their first choice. Universities were telling students that they were full, and students would have to defer a year if they wanted to come. Naturally, this postpones much of the problem, leading to less university places for next year’s school leavers. It is also dangerous for social mobility – as child benefits end when a child leaves post-16 education, many low income families won’t be able to fund a gap year without their child having a job. However, jobs are few and far between at the moment, a trend that is set to worsen as we move out of the pandemic.


Our protest also called on Gavin Williamson to resign as Education Secretary, a sentiment echoed by 40% of the public (Alain Tolhurst, Politics Home, 2020). Warned by the Department of Education director-general as early as July about the inequality that the algorithm would amplify, Williamson has no excuse for not foreseeing the shambles of the last week. There has been an utter disregard for the impact of these results, and a lack of determination to find a better way of allocating grades. Professor Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England, and Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People wrote a letter to Universities UK, detailing how “rights to an education and to fair and equal treatment have been severely compromised this year,” and it seems mistaken to allow Williamson to continue in his role when he was clearly complicit in this compromise. So far in this pandemic, the government has shown a distinct lack of accountability for their actions. Education should not fall into a series of political mishaps to be forgotten about; given the new issues thrown up by the U-Turn, the problem is clearly not over. We can’t allow this year’s results catastrophe to be glossed over – education is worth more than political tit-for-tat, and we must treat it as such.


OULC Treasurer, Martha Storey, writes about the failings of the Conservative Government to prioritise education during the coronavirus crisis.

From the very beginnings of the Covid-19 crisis, the government seems to have forgotten about education. The lack of discussion about schools in early stages of the Coronavirus crisis has continued set a trend for the rest of lockdown. The lack of detail and planning about schools 

has blossomed to become a key failure on our country’s behalf, leading to a desperate “catch-up” plan involving schools hiring private tutors. Children all over the UK are missing out on a vital time in their education, and predictably, the detrimental effect of lockdown is multiplied for less fortunate schools and children.

The Tech Gap

The logistics of lockdown have demonstrated just how much we rely on technology. Schools are no different, and this last term has seen schools flock to online learning platforms for much of their teaching, in addition to video call classes and work being set by email. However even this poses problems for many children – for starters, only 34% of parents of children aged 5-16 say their child doesn’t have their own laptop, phone, or tablet on which to access online lessons. This means in many households, resources are stretched for children to access online learning. With many parents working from home due to lockdown, this places obvious constraints on when and how much work students can do. Add to this a lack of quiet space to work at home, a reality for many students, and a picture emerges of an environment very difficult to work in.

Students lacking their own devices means there is no guarantee they will be able to attend all or any scheduled lessons, which has led to a huge disparity in teaching standards between schools. Naturally, fee paying schools have good reason to believe that the majority of their students will have ample technology to learn at home, and will be in a stronger financial position to help out students who cannot afford it – so their teachers can plan lessons they know students will attend. The Sutton Trust found that privately educated children are twice as likely to be taught every day than state school students; this face-to-face contact is a key opportunity for teachers to check pupils are motivated, and actually doing the work they have been set. A more recent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that four out of ten students are meeting with their teachers less than once a week. The effect that regular contact has on students should not be underestimated, and the lack of it has led a UCL study to find that one in five children do less than an hour a day of work while in lockdown. Throughout various studies, a trend emerges – state education is being left by the wayside, while private schools are going to much greater lengths to keep teaching their children. This is to be expected – private schools must keep in mind their parents are also customers – however the impact it will have on social mobility for children from worse-off schools is not difficult to predict.

Too little, too late

Much of this inequality comes from an inadequate response to the current crisis. Schools shut on the 20th March, already lagging behind the advice to cut down on non-essential contact and travel within the UK. At the start of lockdown, there seemed optimism about children going back to school, which led to a complacency about the standards of at-home teaching and learning. Fast forward three months, and the target date for schools to re-open has been and gone, but most children remain at home. This sloppy response is embarrassing; much of Europe has opened its schools without too much complaint or danger in the number of Coronavirus cases. But beyond the international stage, the current government have fundamentally failed to provide a basic education for the country’s children. Between the pomp and awkwardness of the daily briefings, and the political turmoil of the Cummings affair, education has been swept under the mat, barely mentioned and barely questioned.

Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to extend Free School Meals throughout the summer holidays is one small achievement, however it is not the job of a footballer to force the government into action. Initially, the government rejected the proposal to extend the Free School Meals scheme, which calls into question the benevolence of their later U-Turn. Perhaps even worse is the fact that the Prime Minister is reported not to have known about Rashford’s (well-publicised) campaign until the government announced its U-turn.

Those on Free School Meals get a £15 food voucher per week, or meals provided by the school or an external provider. However throughout lockdown, there has been much concern about the quality of the meals, often consisting of bread, pasta, and biscuits, which starkly contrasts the Education Secretary, Gavin Williams’s promise of “nutritious” meals. Yet again, the response to at-home learning and living is under-developed.

A way out?

The government’s history of incompetence regarding education makes Johnson’s plan for a “catch up” over summer seem even more exasperating. This past term was supposed to be term that was taught, not a term off. The government’s failure to set guidelines or requirements for the amount of work students are submitting has led to a huge discrepancy in what children are learning. But even ignoring this, there seems an obvious solution to this catch up. The summer holidays are arbitrarily fixed, so it seems to make sense to use this time, not as a catch up holiday, but as some kind of extension of school term. This would ensure that students are learning and being monitored. Instead, the proposed catch-up plan seems vague and will inevitably fall into the same dangers as this term has, leading to another six weeks of many students working less than one hour a day. 

The government’s announcement it will fund a years’ worth of private tutors is a step in the right direction. However it seems to be sending a positive message to an industry flourishing on prioritising those willing to pay for education. A year’s worth of government funding will surely boost the private tutoring sector massively, as well as leading to schools depending on external help. When the funding runs out, schools will have to face the tricky decision of whether to continue employing private tutors at the expense of the school’s budget, or to face another rocky period as students adjust to the lower levels of support. The scheme is a positive step, but it needs to help soften the blow on schools, not increase the turbulence. In the meantime, an issue that needs addressing urgently is the exam provision for the coming academic year, a reduction in curriculum to ease the strain of catching up on students taking exams.

The government’s lax attitude towards education has led to a cumulation of problems that are proving near impossible to fix. For a generation tipped to live through the biggest recession since (at least) the Second World War, it is vital that children are learning the skills necessary for getting through the uncertain times ahead. However it seems that the majority are not, and this will have a significant impact upon social mobility in the coming years.