Photo credit - Emily Thornberry via Twitter
This week the Islington Labour party were yet again waiting at the school gates of primary schools armed with 'vote Labour' balloons and stickers aimed at children as young as 4 years old. They have form for this and it isn't the first time someone has suggested that this form of campaigning exploits children.
When we challenged Emily Thornberry about this she suggested it was just a bit of fun. So, are we Greens just spoiling the party atmosphere, or is there a serious point here?
Indoctrination of primary school age kids is prohibited by law (section 406 of the Education Act 1996). This includes promoting a particular political party to them. That is for broadly the same reasons that a lot of people would like to limit or prohibit advertising to young kids. They are not sophisticated enough to understand what's being pushed at them and how; and they don't know what other options they have.
The position for secondary school kids is different - there, you can have mock elections etc and provided this is done in a balanced way it is not only permissible but desirable. Of course it would still be absolutely impermissible, unbalanced and plain wrong to push just one political party to kids in a secondary school.
To me these considerations all apply with equal force at the school gates.
The simple fact of the matter is that if the Tories, UKIP or even the Green Party were down at a school with armfuls of blue, purple or green balloons many people would be absolutely up in arms. Yet some of my Labour supporting friends have been relaxed about pushing Labour party stickers and balloons at primary school kids.
So, why is the Labour party different?
In my view the problem here is that Labour feels entitled to the votes of people in Islington. A lot of people here do vote Labour, sometimes over 50% of those voting in Islington North (but still way under 50% of the whole population including non-voters!)
In Emily's constituency of Islington South the figures are rather less impressive - just over 40% of those voting chose Labour, with just over 60% turnout, which means a measly 27% of Thornberry's Islington South constituents voted Labour.
But there is a still a sense of entitlement, of saying 'these are our voters, of course they want our badges/balloons'. I believe that sense of entitlement is wrong and damaging. It also makes it very difficult for people to dissent or disagree, even just to the extent of making their child the only one without a balloon or a sticker.
Thornberry has sought to defend her actions by saying that children and parents had a choice about whether to take a sticker or balloon. But local parents are telling us every single kid walking out of school that day had a Labour party sticker on his/her uniform. I don't accept there was any real choice here. Anyone who has ever collected a kid from primary school knows that would be about the last possible time and place you would want to have a detailed political conversation (or any serious conversation) with an adult. We also all know that kids will see stickers and balloons and will want to have one and that the path of least resistance is often to allow that.
So, what can we do about this and what needs to change?
I would like to see all political parties in Islington and elsewhere stay away from primary school gates and concentrate on having canvassing conversations with adults at an appropriate time and in an appropriate place.
I actually think that older primary school children are completely ready to learn about politics and I would like to see hustings organised aimed at this age bracket (say 9-12 year olds) with their parents, as well as hustings aimed at teenagers aged 13-17, so that children can start to learn and get informed about the policies of *all* the parties. Surely that's the right way to go about civic engagement for primary school children, Emily?