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Behind the gloss of the party spin doctors

When the voters finally get into the polling booths at the end of this drawn-out election campaign, their decision may not be influenced by the education policies of the parties, but every effort is being made to ensure that it is. As the conference season draws to a close in Bournemouth today, the signs are that all parties still regard education as potentially decisive. They have reached that decision for one pre-eminent reason: their private polls tell them that it is an important issue for the voters.

On the opposition side, Tony Blair with his chant of "education, education, education" showed how easy it is for policy to become mantra. But the Labour leader knows that despite the buttress of detailed policies emanating from David Blunkett, his education spokesman, and Helen Liddell on behalf of the Scottish party, it is the association of an idea in the electors' minds rather than sophisticated analysis of policy that has the potential to swing votes. Labour wants to be the "education" party (and the "health" party) because these are areas where the electorate is likely to favour it over the Government if the association can be placed in their minds.

For Paddy Ashdown the relationship has to be simple, too. If the Liberal Democrats are to be more than a party of regions like the south-west and a repository for discontented voters they have to find a distinctive voice. People associate them with willingness to add a penny to income tax for education. That is different from and bolder than what Labour says. Whether it makes even educationists switch their allegiance to the Liberal Democrats is questionable, but it shows commitment and gives the party a focus.

The Scottish National Party has a similar problem to the Liberal Democrats in finding something to say about education that distinguishes it from the majority Labour voice north of the border. Judging by its recent conference debates, it is ready to maintain radical positions abandoned by the rest of the opposition. It is strongly behind students' rights to maintenance support. It articulates the suspicions of at least a section of the teaching force about devolved school management. But to voters who do not study conference resolutions the SNP is presumed to be the guardian of Scottishness in the school curriculum.

What then of the Government? Inevitably it will be judged on what it has done rather than on what it proposes after 17 years of having the opportunity to impart its beliefs. Choice, standards, discipline - these are among the watchwords with which it hopes to appeal to voters. The Conservatives must rebuild their support in "middle" England where worry about schools is reputedly rampant. But as with law and order, is it too late for the party to be indissolubly linked to good education?

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