Matt Hancock (Health Secretary): A bunch of absolute arses teaching unions are
Gavin Williamson (Education Secretary): I know they really really just do hate work
Matt Hancock (Health Secretary): 😂😂🎯
Just two years after sending these messages, Matt Hancock, a serving Member of Parliament, would spend three weeks in the jungle being paid £320,0000 for an appearance on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.
In his next money-making scheme, Hancock, Tory health secretary from 2018-2021, hoped to publish a book detailing his role in leading Britain’s healthcare service through the pandemic, in a deal worth £150,000.
Unfortunately, it seems that Handsy Hancock struggled to fit the task of writing said book into his busy schedule. He therefore hired right-wing journalist Isabel Oakeshott to pen it for him. To assist in this task, he handed over 100,000 Whatsapp messages to his appointed ghostwriter.
It seems that judgement of character is also a skill he lacks, however. Oakeshott – whose partner leads the Reform UK party, which sees itself as a reactionary rival to the Tories – promptly decided to publish the entire cache of texts in the national press.
The messages reveal a government permeated with a deep sense of cynicism, a disdain for working people, and a callous disregard towards the education, health, and wellbeing of children.
During the COVID outbreak, the Tories played fast and loose with the protection of care homes. They made important policy choices, not on the basis of consultation with experts, but in pursuit of their own narrow interests. And they dismissed the advice of teachers – worried for the health of their students, colleagues, and communities – as being “an excuse to avoid having to work”.
It was not scientific evidence that drove decisions, but a combination of maximising the bosses’ profits, meaning that children had to be in schools so that parents could work, and the myopic, self-seeking outlook that pervades the Tory Party.
The texts show that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary at the time, was personally wedded to reopening schools in January 2021. This is despite opposition from other cabinet members who could see the dangers that this would entail, knowing that schools were an important vector for transmission.
Instead the Tories were determined to open schools, with then-PM Boris Johnson claiming that the situation was safe for teachers and pupils, only days before U-turning under pressure from below.
The only thing that prevented a greater disaster at this time was a mass struggle by the NEU and by teachers on the ground, who organised a huge campaign of resistance.
Thanks to this mobilisation, tens of thousands of teachers refused to open schools on the grounds of health and safety.
The high point of this campaign was an enormous online rally, called by the NEU, with over 100,000 in attendance, which demanded that the government close schools in order to protect the public. Within hours of this mass meeting, the Tories had changed course.
In one of the leaked messages, Williamson claims that all of this was just “an excuse to avoid having to teach”. In other words, the Tories paint teachers and their unions as lazy and uninterested in their jobs.
Yet the truth is that the NEU consistently put forward plans to allow schools to be run safely during the pandemic – but these were consistently overlooked by the government, who were more concerned with protecting profits than lives.
The union called for the requisitioning of public buildings in order to limit class sizes, and for a national plan to bring hundreds of thousands of qualified teachers back into the profession. All of this was ignored.
Whilst lives were saved by the lockdowns, irreparable damage has been done to children’s education. The responsibility for this lies with the Tories and their stubborn refusal to invest in safe and effective schooling.
When the government’s education catch-up programme was eventually released, it offered a meagre £50 of extra funding per pupil. This compared to £1,500 per head in the USA, or £2,500 per student in the Netherlands.
In truth, a change in Westminster wouldn’t change much either. At every stage, Starmer has shown that he shares the same levels of contempt for workers – including those in education. He has made it clear whose side he is on.
The shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson cries crocodile tears today when she describes Williamson’s attitude as “a kick in the teeth for the teachers who stretched every sinew for children during the pandemic”. But at the time, she was just as happy as the Tories to ignore the advice of teachers on key issues: from Ofsted to school reopenings.
All of this clearly shows why the ongoing struggle of the NEU against the government is so vital.
At the end of the day, establishment politicians of all stripes will always put profits over education. The conditions of teachers; the health of students; and the quality of education: all of these are secondary considerations for them, far behind their own short-term interests, and those of the capitalists that they represent.
To defend education against the attacks of the Tories and the bosses, we need to arm ourselves with both a shield and a sword: the shield of militant united action – between the NEU and other education unions, and across the labour movement; and the sword of bold socialist policies, to answer the problems that teachers and pupils face.
Our schools will never be safe in Tory hands, or under capitalism in general. Instead, we need an education system free from the influence of profit; run by staff, parents, and students; and funded by the expropriation of the banks and big monopolies.
Importantly, the fact that these messages were leaked at all is a reflection of the deep splits within the ruling class and amongst its agents.
The government may be digging its heels in against the strikes, and threatening our movement with further repressive laws. But the truth is that the Tories have never been weaker. We must seize the moment, and strike whilst the iron is hot.