Nancy Platts Takes a Dangerous Populist Turn

Nancy Platts helps no-one by over-stepping the line from vigorous campaigning to populist attacks on officials.

Last week, current Brighton and Hove City Council Leader Nancy Platts wrote a piece on opposition to the forced academisation of Moulsecoomb Primary School.  Carried in both Brighton & Hove News and Brighton & Hove Independent,  she mixes a laudable concern that the voice of the local community be heard with a nasty populist attack on the civil servants involved in the process.  This is a dangerous path to venture down, especially in our current toxically populist political environment in which the Institute for Government has found ‘an unprecedented rise in the number of political attacks on civil servants’.

As background, earlier this year, Ofsted found Moulsecoomb Primary to be ‘inadequate’ – its lowest rating.  Academy orders are automatically issued to local authority-maintained schools rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, forcing them to become academies. Meaning, inevitably, Moulsecoomb Primary was issued just such an order.

Platts is therefore flat out wrong when she claims that it is ‘unelected civil servants taking the decision to force Moulsecoomb Primary to become an academy school’. 

Academisation can be stopped, academy orders can be revoked – it is worth campaigning – but this is in the gift of ministers, not the officials subject to Platts’ attack.   

As an example, earlier this year the academy order on William Torbitt Primary School in Newbury Park had its academy order revoked.  Having been found inadequate in December 2018, there was a vigorous campaign against academisation and a subsequent re-inspection found improvement, rating the school ‘good’.  But note – the decision to revoke is made by Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education, not ‘unelected civil servants’.

The Moulsecoomb Primary anti-academisation campaign is therefore doing the right things – building pressure, asking for time to improve and be re-inspected, and writing to the Secretary of State to revoke the order.

It is hard to see what value is added by Platts’ intervention whipping up popular feeling against officials doing their job.  This is a dangerous game, played by populists around the world, casting civil servants as acting against the people and democracy. 

As an isolated case this might just be written off as an inexperienced council leader getting carried away, with resulting intemperate use of language.  However, last week one of Platts’ strongest  Momentum supporters[1] also floated a line blaming council officers for the forthcoming bin strikes.  The worry must be that the council’s Labour leadership team is experimenting with setting the ‘will of the people’ (as represented, it seems, by a minority Labour council!) against council officers and civil servants every time they come against a complex problem that requires more of them than sloganeering. 

Nancy Platts helps no-one by over-stepping the line from vigorous campaigning to populist attacks on officials. Let us hope she rapidly grows in to her new role and its responsibilities.

[1] Creator of the asinine ‘Platts Test’ during the purge of incumbent Labour councillors last year.