Tristram Hunt's 'zero tolerance' policy to homophobia is a hint of the clashes to come

“Zero tolerance” is one of those phrases politicians love throwing around, seeing as it carries a “tough guy sheriff walks into town and kills the bad guys” ring about it.

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt is now at it, saying there will be “zero tolerance” towards homophobic bullying in schools. But what does that mean, exactly?

Zero tolerance is a police term used to describe a tough approach to dealing with petty crime in the hope of reducing serious crime, the logic being that once you fully prosecute fare-dodgers, loiterers and drug dealers you also get a reduction in murder and violent assaults. It was most famously used in New York City, a place that was once synonymous with violent crime but is now almost a byword for order and civility.

But how can you have “zero tolerance” when you are, by definition, dealing with children, even unpleasant ones?

It’s strange, but I went to a Catholic state secondary school that upheld religious ideals, beliefs that I’m sure fail the “British values” test, but I never remember anyone being bullied for being gay (or for being of a different race, for that matter).

Quite incredibly, and without signing up to the ruling ideology on sexual politics, they managed to impart the idea that bullying people was wrong, and that being unpleasant to someone on account of their sexual orientation was wrong. Don’t know how they did it, they kept on mentioning some Jewish guy who lived 2,000 years ago; forget his name.

I’m being facetious – I don’t doubt that a culture that supports gay teenagers makes life better for people who are going through a difficult time; being a teenager generally is awful, but don’t worry, kids, life gets better (before getting a lot, lot worse).

But Catholic teachers don’t have to be especially paranoid to see that Hunt is signalling to the “Cathedral”, that is the priesthood of the secular state faith, that he is a true believer; this is inevitably going to clash with Catholic beliefs over sex education, contraception and various other issues to do with sex. If you really want to adopt “zero tolerance” in this case the only way to do so is to teach children from an early age the state’s view on sexuality and sexual behaviour.

The strangest thing Hunt said was this: “The legacy of Section 28 – a most pernicious piece of legislation – casts a shadow over our education system, both for those that are new to the school workforce and for those who worked in schools whilst it was in operation.

“That is why repealing Section 28 alone is not enough. We need new training for new and long-standing teachers and others in the school workforce.”

Hunt is a historian, which makes this sort of naked partisan Tory-bashing pretty low; Section 28 was wrong, but no one was ever prosecuted for it (it didn’t actually create a criminal offence) and how much people actually paid attention to it for the 11 years it was on the books is open to debate. It has been, however, very effective as a form of historical propaganda for the Labour party, showing that the Tories were on the Wrong Side of History over this issue.

Personally I think it was wrong because the state should stay out of issues of personal morality, which are primarily the concern of the parents and less so that of the school, let alone Whitehall. Ironically, through its various equality laws Labour has helped to create an anti-Section 28 where promoting traditional Christian teaching is now increasingly difficult, if not impossible. I don’t imagine it will get easier if Hunt becomes education secretary.