Pupil Plebiscites and Leftist Leanings: Political Participation and Manchester Grammar School, 1906-2015
Following its recent mock election, Richard Kelly reflects on a MGS's engagement with UK politics and political education. Find more PSA Mock Election resources online here.
When Manchester Grammar School held its mock election on 7 May, it was upholding a long and moderately distinguished tradition. Mock elections had been a fixture at the School since 1906, when they were inaugurated by the School’s High Master, J. L. Paton - a classical scholar renowned for progressive teaching methods, stout liberalism and (during the Great War) unashamed pacifism.
Since then, MGS has been pretty consistent in promoting political education and political participation, with its mock elections (held on the same day as a general election) being a prime demonstration. This may explain why, in terms of nascent politicians and political commentators, MGS remains one of the most politically fertile schools in the country - trumped only, perhaps, by Eton. The main difference is that, while one of these independent schools has had a marked effect on the Conservative Party, the other has made an interesting contribution to the politics of the liberal-left.
The galvanising effect of the MGS mock election - particularly for pupils with lib-left instincts - was apparent during the first mock election of 1906, when a pupil stood for the Women’s Suffrage Now Party (it was, and is, an all-boys school). The pupil concerned was Harry Pankhurst - son of grand dame suffragette Emmeline - and he gained a respectable 36 votes. However, like most contestants in the 1906 general election, he was overwhelmed by a Liberal opponent.
During Paton’s tenure as High Master, Pankhurst was one of several MGS pupils to expound, and presumably develop, politically progressive views. One of Pankhurst’s rivals in 1906 was ‘Socialist Party’ candidate George Benson (Labour MP for Chesterfield from 1935 to 1964), while one of Benson’s MGS supporters was Robert Young (Labour MP for Islington North 1929-1931) Neither was Benson the only Paton protege to become a long-serving Labour MP. Leslie Lever, a participant in the mock election of 1918, represented Manchester Ardwick from 1950 to 1970.
Paton’s essays in political education may have had a particular impact on a pupil called Harold Laski – a name that will be familiar to many PSA members. Leaving MGS shortly after the election of January 1910, Laski became one of Britain’s leading socialist academics, securing a chair at the LSE and mentoring the likes of Gandhi and Ralph Miliband. During the 1945 general election, Laski was also Chairman of the Labour Party, at the same time that another ex-MGS pupil – Lord Woolton – was Chairman of the Conservative Party. Woolton, in fact, is a rare example of an ex-MGS pupil becoming a Conservative politician; and it may be no coincidence that he was at the School during the pre-Paton era.
Paton retired as the School’s High Master in 1924. Yet his legacy was profound, ensuring that MGS continued to nurture future MPs, journalists and academics of a leftist/nonconformist hue. Examples included: Labour Cabinet minister Harold Lever; fiery Labour backbencher Frank Allaun; Daily Herald editor and Labour MEP John Beavan; political philosopher, and author of Left Behind, David Selbourne; and recent PSA prize winner Michael Crick (who stood for Labour in the MGS election of October 1974).
In recent years, with the advent of major party conferences in Manchester, the School has had a further opportunity to advertise its link to progressive politics. When the city hosts the Labour conference, MGS is now an accredited fringe venue, providing a platform for both local Labour MPs and left-leaning Sixth Formers.
Prior to the 1979 contest, the School introduced A-Level Government and Politics to its sixth form curriculum. The new Politics department quickly became one of the largest school-based Politics departments in the country, employing two or three specialist staff, and entering up to 50 pupils a year for A-Level examinations. Its existence obviously meant that political education at MGS became more formalised; but it also meant more detailed attention was given to the organisation of the MGS mock election (ME), resulting in three specific changes from 1979 onwards.
First, in order to make the campaign less insular, and more connected to the ‘real’ general election, ME candidates were required to enlist support from both their parties’ official youth section and from actual, Parliamentary candidates. In some cases, the contact made between ME candidates and party HQs led to MGS pupils forging strong links with party apparatchiks, which was often consolidated after those pupils left school.
Secondly, during ME campaigns, it was made harder for any pupil, of whatever age, to disengage. Forms or tutor groups, for instance, would be enrolled into quasi- opinion polls, involving questionnaires about political issues and voting intentions. During the 1980s, this project was enhanced by the fact that one ex-pupil - Professor Ivor Crewe – was one of Britain’s leading psephologists and synonymous with the so-called ‘Essex school’ of voting analysis. A picture of young Crewe, meeting Leslie Lever on a School trip to Parliament in 1960, was accordingly hung in the corridor of the MGS Politics Department pour encourager les autres.
Finally, for purposes of polling and counting, mock elections after 1979 divided the School into constituencies based on age-groups. This allowed us to identify any age-based variation in voting behaviour, and, after the election, discuss whatever issues arose from ME results (a favourite being the extent to which older pupils are more left wing). In the weeks that followed the ME, such discussions would occur both formally and informally, offering a potentially interesting source of extra-curricular education.
Voting in MGS mock election, 7 May 2015
As the 2015 General Election approached, there was again reason to think that political education at MGS had long-term effects. In addition to all those standing in council elections, or working as party activists, no fewer than nine ex-pupils had been selected as prospective Parliamentary candidates: not as many as Eton (with over 20) but, as far as we are aware, way ahead of any other school in the maintained or independent sector. Of these nine PPCs, three were Labour, two were Liberal Democrats, one was Conservative, one was UKIP, one was a founding member of the revamped Whig Party, while another was independent.
Of particular interest to MGS was the contest in the nearby marginal seat of Manchester Withington. Here, ex-pupil John Leech - the incumbent Liberal Democrat - was defending his seat against a stern challenge from Labour, whose own candidate - Cllr Jeff Smith - was another former MGS pupil. This made MGS (in 2015, anyway) the only school in the country to have educated both the main antagonists in a marginal constituency. Among current MGS pupils, this served to arouse a particular interest in the Withington contest.
In respect of the School’s latest mock election (‘ME15‘), a decision was taken to involve former pupils as much as possible. So, prior to the campaign, the ME Labour candidate was supported by a visit from Chris Matheson, then Labour’s PPC for Chester (see photo). When the campaign actually started, a Question Time debate was held in the School theatre, involving four of the other ex-pupils now standing as Parliamentary candidates (see photo).
During the remainder of the campaign, ME candidates upheld the tradition of addressing various assemblies and lunchtime hustings, while Parliamentary candidates (standing in the three Manchester constituencies) dropped in to lend support. Pupils thus had chance to hear and question Conservative Rob Manning (Manchester Withington), the Lib Dems’ Dave Page and the Greens’ Laura Bannister (both Manchester Gorton), UKIP’s Myles Power (Manchester Central), as well as the School’s long-standing Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman.
On 7 May, voting in ME15 took place between 8am and 2pm (see photo). The votes were counted between 2pm and 3pm by teams of A-Level Politics students, who then announced the results to the 400 or so young politicos assembled in the School’s main hall.
Details of the results appear in Table 1. But the ‘headlines’ were as follows:
- Turnout reached 78% - up 17% from 2010.
- Turnout was highest among years 4-7 (age 7-11) and the non-teaching staff.
- Turnout was lowest among the teaching staff and sixth form.
- The election was won by the Conservative candidate, with 42% of votes cast, on a swing of 18% from the Liberal Democrats (who won ME10).
- The highest Conservative vote share was among years 4-7, the lowest among the teaching staff.
- The highest Labour vote share was among the non-teaching staff, the lowest among years 4-7.
- The UKIP candidate came 2nd among boys aged 11-16.
Another curious aspect of MGS is that, though independent and academically selective, its recent pupil ballots have not been inconsistent with concurrent, national polls. The Lib Dem victory in ‘ME10’, for example, chimed with the party’s success at getting into government, while in the mock AV referendum of 2011, both turnout (39%) and result (69%no) were virtually identical to the outcome nationwide. Even the mock referendum on Scottish independence last year, when almost 40% of MGS sixth formers voted ‘yes’, had echoes of ‘real’ voting behaviour among same-age voters in Scotland.
So it was not wholly surprising that, in 2015, the MGS election looked like a sort of bellwether, for four reasons:
- The marked increase in turnout portended that in many Scottish and marginal constituencies.
- The Tory candidate won with a dramatic swing from the Liberal Democrats – the sort that later defined the general election.
- The Tory candidate’s vote share was almost identical to his party’s overall vote share in England.
- The impact of UKIP among our ‘middle-age’ boys reflected both its phenomenal surge across England and Wales and its tendency to achieve creditable second places rather than outright constituency victories (see Table 1).
The MGS mock election of 2015 was therefore an interesting exercise in political education. And, like other MGS mock elections since 1906, it might encourage a group of young people to take politics more seriously. The result itself was somewhat at odds with the School’s historic political leanings. Yet news of our alumni showed some continuity: Jeff Smith and Chris Matheson were duly elected as Labour MPs, and will be back to endorse their alma mater’s Labour Society this autumn.
Richard Kelly is Head of Politics at Manchester Grammar School and an active member of the PSA teacher community.
MGS MOCK ELECTION, 7 MAY 2015: OVERALL RESULT
G. Alexander (Con): 527 / 42%
N. Kelly (Lab): 244 / 19%
M. Hafeez (UKIP): 210 / 17%
A. Truman (Lib Dem): 142 / 11%
R. McGill (Green): 134 / 10%
Spoilt ballot papers: 29
Turnout: 78% (+17% since 2010)
Swing since 2010: Lib Dem to Cons 18%
Junior School: Cons -150, LD -32, Labour- 30, Green -20, UKIP- 11 Turnout: 98% (Swing since 2010: LD to Cons 8%)
Lower School: Cons-121, UKIP-58, Labour-40, LD -22, Green-19
Turnout: 74% (Swing since 2010: LD to Cons 20%)
Middle School: Cons-126, UKIP-75, Labour-55, Green-41, LD-27
Turnout: 84% (Swing since 2010: Green to Cons 17%)
Sixth Form: Cons-71, UKIP-56, Labour-44, LD-28, Green-22
Turnout: 63% (Swing since 2010: LD to Cons 17%)
Non-Teaching Staff: Labour-32, Cons-26, Green-13, LD-10, UKIP-3
Turnout: 84% (Swing since 2010: LD to Lab 22%)
Teaching Staff: Labour-43, Cons-33, LD-23, Green-19, UKIP-7
Turnout: 73% (Swing since 2010: Lab-Cons 16%)
MGS Election Debate, April 2015: a panel of ex-MGS Parliamentary candidates. Left to right: Nick Bent (Labour, Warrington S), Waleed Ghani (Whig, Vauxhall), Walter Houston (Green Party agent, Macclesfield), Richard Kelly, John Leech (Lib Dem, Manchester Withington), Suhail Rahuja (Cons, Hornsey and Wood Green).