Tristram Hunt ducks the big fight with private schools

Tory attacks on the Labour leader for being "Red Ed" have always been wide of the mark.

Contrary to his reputation, he has always been far more a cautious managerialist than a revolutionary socialist. Far more fuchsia than red.

As Labour's poll lead has shrunk, this timidity has become even more pronounced. He is now increasingly resistant to policies like renationalising the railways and a compulsory living wage, while increasingly supportive of Tory stances on the deficit and immigration.

The appointment of Tristram Hunt as shadow education secretary was just another sign of this timidity. Despite the public being overwhelmingly opposed to the coalition's education policies, Hunt remains broadly supportive of them. Rather than scrap free schools, Hunt merely intends to re-brand and re-jig them.

His speech today on private school funding follows the same timid line. Despite headlines suggesting that Hunt is launching a "class war" on private schools, the reality is rather different.

Hunt actually has zero intention of removing the £700m charitable tax relief currently received by private schools. He is very explicit about this. In fact he does not want to "penalise" private schools at all.

In a speech titled "Ending our Corrosive Divide," Hunt today insisted that: "We are not interested in becoming embroiled in the politics of removing charitable status."

"Down that road lies a narrow solution which in the end will only increase isolationism," he added.

"We want to end division not entrench it. Break barriers down not impoverish either side."

So what does this breaking down of barriers actually involve? How does Hunt plan to end the situation where in his words: "seven per cent of all pupils in England [provide] more than 50 per cent of our CEOs, lords, barristers, judges, QCs, doctors, even journalists"?

Well apparently it involves making private school pupils occasionally play state school pupils at football.

Yes that's right, the greatest inequality Hunt sees in the system is that state school kids don't get to kick a football around enough with private school pupils.

"This last point is particularly important. Because I have to say it baffles me that we can have private schools loaning a sports pitch to the local comprehensive once or twice a year yet completely refusing to play them at football."

Revolutionary socialism this is not.

To be fair to Hunt, he also announced plans to make private schools share more staff and training with state schools. But this still seems like rather small beer.

If the divide between the private and state sector is as big as Hunt says it is, then why are his solutions so small? Why at the very least does he not simply remove the charitable tax relief for private schools right from the start?

After all it would hardly be a massive step. That £700 million amounts to just a small portion of private school revenues and a couple of hundred pounds a year on the average school bill is hardly going to hurt the top seven per cent of earners in the UK.

And that money could be used to decrease class sizes in state schools right across the country. At the very least, it would amount to a much better investment than the occasional football match between State School FC and Private School United.

Labour's annual conference was widely seen as their last chance to set out a radical plan for turning Britain around. Miliband ducked that chance and has seen his ratings tank ever since. Tristram Hunt's speech suggests that Labour plans to continue ducking right up until the election in May.