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What does Wes Streeting’s new autobiography reveal about higher education?

  • 8 August 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • Wes Streeting, the Member of Parliament for Ilford North since 2015 and – currently – the most high-profile former President of the National Union of Students (2008-10) has published a memoir. HEPI Director Nick Hillman takes a look at the new book.

There was recently a row when a 25-year old, Keir Mather, won the Selby and Ainsty by-election for Labour. The Conservative MP Johnny Mercer took to the airwaves to protest against Parliament becoming ‘like the Inbetweeners.’

In the US, there are stringent minimum ages for elected politicians – you must be 25 to be in the House of Representatives, 30 to be in the Senate and 35 to be President – and some would say for good reasons.

But if Pitt the Younger could be Prime Minister at the age of 24 back in the eighteenth century and if local voters want a younger adult to represent them, what’s the problem? It is not as if all older leaders have unblemished records.

Moreover, some of the biggest social policy challenges faced in the UK are intergenerational ones, suggesting perhaps that multiple generations should be represented in the House of Commons to thrash out issues together.

And anyone who has seen the best young students’ union sabbatical officers operate would struggle to explain why youth should be a barrier against political involvement.

So perhaps there is no problem with younger politicians … except in one regard. People are interested in people who become young MPs precisely because they are young. But like most people, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. Young MPs have (comparatively) little experience, so their lives to date may not be as interesting as they hope. Plus when looking at a young MP’s background, it is too early to know how it will subsequently end up shaping a lengthy political career.

The new autobiography of Wes Streeting. One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up, is a good example of all this. Presumably, it is mainly of interest to political nerds as well as higher education wonks, given Wes rose to prominence as President of the National Union of Students (NUS). But Wes doesn’t reach university until page 232 and he doesn’t enter Parliament until page 297, at which point there are only 11 pages of the book left.

This means there are around 15 pages for each of the first 18 years of Wes’s life, under 5 pages for each year of his adult life before becoming an MP and, even including the moving Prologue on his cancer diagnosis, just three pages on each of his eight years as an MP. The result is a bit Adrian Mole.

Nonetheless, it is worth readers persisting because the final few pages are perhaps the most interesting, with Wes using case studies from his constituency work to argue that poverty today blights lives even more than it did when he was growing up in the East End in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the very end, Wes thanks those who persuaded him to excise stories about his time leading Cambridge University Students’ Union and the National Union of Students – in other words, tales from his formative adult years. I am perhaps in a small minority (or maybe not among readers of this website), but I was left wanting to know more about Wes’s time at Cambridge and leading the NUS. The offcuts sound like they might have been more interesting than some of the minutiae of Wes’s childhood that is included. They might also have helped the tale rattle along by providing more breadth and variety.

A second big book of the summer is Caitlin Moran’s What About Men?, which argues men are not always good at talking about their feelings, especially when compared to women. In the same vein, some reviews of Wes’s book claim it tells a story without being very revealing about its subject. That is definitely true when it comes to higher education.

Take these five examples.

  1. The Sutton Trust played a key role in Wes Streeting’s life by putting him on one of their summer schools, thereby helping him secure a place at the University of Cambridge despite a less-than-stellar schooling. He rightly remains very proud of getting in to ‘the world’s third-oldest surviving university.’ But despite being a Labour MP of eight years’ standing, Wes avoids expressing a view on whether the original Sutton Trust model of handpicking poor kids for entry to elite institutions is in tune with left-of-centre views about reforming society or, rather, a way of protecting the existing establishment by helping to replenish it. Even if the Sutton Trust helped Wes get into Cambridge, we never find out how he feels about the other things it has lobbied for over time, such as getting the state to pay for places at the same academically selective private schools that the Labour Party now wants to tax to the hilt.
  2. We are told that Wes was so angry about the introduction of Tony Blair’s £3,000 ‘top-up fees’ as well as the invasion of Iraq that he left the Labour Party in 2003, aged 20. So how does he feel now about sitting in a Labour Shadow Cabinet that defends much higher fees? We are never told.
  3. On page 259, Wes triumphs the reforms to student maintenance brought in by Gordon Brown in his first few days as Prime Minister, when Wes was an influential student hack: ‘we were screaming with joy down the phone to each other. It felt as if we were finally making a real impact on students’ lives.’ But he says nothing about how he felt when it rapidly became apparent that the Brown administration had not done their homework properly, meaning these maintenance changes led directly to a cut in the number of student places, thereby limiting opportunities.
  4. Wes reserves a few nice words for Lee Scott, the Conservative MP he defeated at the 2015 general election. But he tells us nothing at all about how it felt to beat the one and only Conservative MP to lose their job (as a Parliamentary Private Secretary) after signing Wes’s NUS pledge against tuition fees and then refusing to vote for the Coalition’s £9,000 fees.
  5. Wes is open about how much he owes to the NUS, both for giving him so many opportunities and experiences and for providing so many supporters for his political career. But we never find out about how it has felt for him to watch the NUS sink into a mire of anti-semitism allegations – a problem that got so bad that, last year, 21 former NUS Presidents, including Wes, warned privately of an ‘existential threat’ to the organisation.

In short, despite the voluminous details on Wes’s childhood, the dots between his early years, his student activism and his chosen profession as an elected public servant are never fully joined up.

Wes’s experience as an undergraduate is nevertheless clear evidence of how higher education can change lives. His time at Cambridge, Wes writes, differs from that of most of his contemporaries because, while they escaped the pressure of student life in the holidays, ‘for me, Cambridge always felt like the great escape’ and an improvement on his holiday job of working in the electrical store Comet.

This is reminiscent of the recent finding in the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey that, compared to other students, ‘care-experienced students are significantly more likely to agree strongly that they have a sense of belonging at their institutions.’ Even if there is a growing epidemic of loneliness in higher education, for some people enrolling in higher education can feel like coming home.

The book wasn’t Wes’s idea but, if he does ever have a pop at the top political job as so many people expect, it won’t do him any harm to have a tome about his disadvantaged London roots on the shelves. And some of the anecdotes are good, even if the best stories, such as how Wes’s maternal grandmother shared a prison cell with Christine Keeler or how his beloved paternal grandfather was a firm Tory, are already well known from past interviews.

One tale that particularly sticks with me is how 14-year old Wes decided to represent Labour in his school’s mock election in 1997 because of Ann Widdecombe: ‘I’d seen the prominent Conservative MP attack single-parent families in the media, and it felt to me like a direct attack on Mum.’ If the Conservative Party really does plan to fight the next election on ‘woke’ issues, how many more effective lifelong enemies might it provoke?

In the end, it is good Wes eschewed the approach taken by those politicians who refuse to write autobiographies on the grounds that it can resemble ‘a dog returning to its vomit’. But I still wish his book was shorter and, given the author is of interest because he is a famous politician, included somewhat more politics. If Wes makes it to Number 10, we won’t have gained much from knowing that he has a particular penchant for pinching profiteroles.

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