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Hague looks to his town hall seedlings

Local authority Tories are chipper as their national leader allots them a key role, reports Nicolas Barnard

William Hague wants the handful of remaining Conservative-controlled local education authorities to become the experimental greenhouse which will nurture the new generation of Tory policies.

Tory councillors at the party's annual local government conference last weekend were told by their leader and by education spokesman Stephen Dorrell that they held the key to the Conservatives regaining control at Westminster.

And the leadership was blunt in saying now was not the time to set forward a national platform - instead it would develop from the "innovative" work being carried out by Conservatives in the one place where they still hold a degree of power - town and county halls.

Rallying the troops ahead of the May local elections, Mr Hague said the policies of the Thatcher and Major governments, including radical education reforms such as testing and local management of schools, had been "the result of experimentation and testing in the laboratory of local democracy.

"If this was true of the first phase of Conservative change, how much more true will it be in this next phase?" he said.

That call was echoed by Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth Council, one of four Tory London authorities. "Let's not sit back and wait for the next Blunkett rules - let's do what we've always done and lead the way. The LEA that sits on its hands is dead."

Mr Dorrell told the conference in Kensington it would be "absurd" for him to set out a blueprint for further Tory reform in education. But he repeated the Tories' fundamental belief in choice and diversity - "children are different and schools should reflect the differences of the children. . . the communities they serve and. . . the views of people that work in the schools".

Labour's education policy, he said, was like Henry Ford's comment about his Model T car - "You can have any colour you like, as long as it's black."

Good education was the cornerstone of a successful economy, he argued. But reflecting Mr Hague's attempts to steer the party towards a softer, more community-oriented stance, he admitted there was more to education than exam results. It was the way we "pass on the values we hold dear". That stance neatly also allows the Tories to attack Labour's changes to the primary curriculum to allow schools to focus on the 3Rs.

The conference, the first since the Tory rout at the general election, was a small but fairly jolly affair - perhaps unsurprisingly. After all, while half the Major cabinet lost their seats, Tory councillors found themselves on the same night back in control in Hampshire, Kent and elsewhere. They expect similar good news on May 7 this year, when London and the other metropolitan boroughs, unitary education authorities and district councils hold elections.

Local councillors are clearly enjoying holding the whip hand in the party for once. At last October's annual party conference, local government spokesman Sir Norman Fowler was booed and heckled by councillors. This time, they were gentler on him - there were a few coy references to "past differences" - as he, Mr Hague and Mr Dorrell effectively went cap-in-hand to their local authority colleagues, acknowledging that the Tory revival could only start in local government.

There were apologies all round, too from the party leadership - a humble Mr Hague admitting the party at Westminster had treated councillors badly, failing to consult them about major decisions and sabotaging their election campaigns with in-fighting.

"We spent too much time reorganising local government and not enough time campaigning for it," he said, adding that he had spent the weekend before in Richmond, North Yorkshire, canvassing in a local by-election .

Given that, councillors in the education debate were unsurprisingly vocal in their enthusiasm for local government - of an enabling, co-ordinating, light-touch nature, of course.

It is a relief for them to be able to fight Government attacks on local democracy without being disloyal to their party.

Saturday saw the bones of a strategy for fighting Labour emerge, but members remain confused about the precise line of attack - blame Labour for stealing their ideas or dismantling them? In the end they seemed to choose both - "Let's not allow Labour to undermine our achievements while seeking at the same time to claim credit for them," Mr Dorrell said.

Labour's apparent centralising tendencies are another option. And raising the spectre of the Greater London Council, and by implication the Inner London Education Authority, won applause in Kensington Town Hall, though it may set fewer pulses racing on the capital's doorsteps. And there is always the question of funding.

"Where is the extra money going?" Mr Dorrell demanded of Labour's spending claims. "As I visit schools and talk to councillors, the experience I find common in every education authority in the country is they still find the problem of leaking roofs and making budgets balance. It was a dishonest pledge made before the election."

It could be asking a lot of teachers, however much they may smart at Labour's first education settlement, to forget the 18 Tory ones that preceded it.

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