Looking-glass politics reflect 'kaleidoscope' of interests

Last Thursday, the London borough of Hackney was the focus of intense media interest as the Government announced that it no longer trusted the authority to run an education service and was sending in a team of improvers, or, in popular parlance, a hit squad.

But the local paper, the Hackney Gazette, had a different sense of news values, choosing to splash on a story about the sale of bogus, substandard Teletubbies at car-boot sales. This could well be an example of the weary resignation with which Hackney residents and employees regard anything that happens at the town hall.

While outsiders tend to peer with appalled fascination at the bizarre and unholy political alliances in the council, employees such as Chris Doyle, who has taught in the borough for the past 13 years, "prefer to keep out of the politics". There are others, like Mark Lushington, secretary of the Hackney branch of the National Union of Teachers, who argue that it was the antics of the councillors that prompted the Government to make an example of Hackney.

He also argues that the achievements of Hackney teachers - GCSE results have risen more rapidly than in many other London boroughs - have been seriously underplayed: "It could have been written up as a huge success story."

But while the local government excesses of the past tended to be associated with splits on the Left, events in Hackney suggest the emergence of the loony Right council. Last Thursday, three of the "new" Labour councillors reacted to the news of the hit squad by defecting to the Tories, and another joined the Liberal Democrats.

The 17 councillors who originally broke away from the Labour group last year claimed to be Blairite, but the national party was unimpressed and they were obliged to hand in their party cards before they were expelled. Since then they have worked mainly with the Tories and Lib Dems, heaping abuse on the "old" Labour councillors.

As the report on Hackney by the Office for Standards in Education acknowledged, any attempt to fit Hackney political groupings into the national mould is doomed to fail - this is looking-glass politics. "The traditional party names cover a kaleidoscope of complex and shifting constituencies, reflecting a diversity of interests and multiplicity of ethnic and other minorities," it says mildly. The leaders of the political groups are in the habit of firing off impassioned press releases at every opportunity. In May, Tories, Lib Dems and new Labour called on the new Secretary of State to intervene in Hackney, blaming the state of the education service on the "malignancy" of old Labour. Now that he has obliged, they seem uneasy about the result.

Both "new" Labour, led by Gerry Ross, and the Lib Dems, led by Kevin Daws, reminded ministers last week that they do not yet have the power to take over local services. "Old" Labour has been more welcoming to the improvement team, perhaps with an eye on the local elections next May.

Officers who have left Hackney for calmer waters talk about the paralysing effect of all this on employees. They also accuse senior management of allowing education to drift while carrying out a restructuring exercise. Chief executive Tony Elliston has said that he accepts OFSTED's criticisms, but insists that the restructuring can "provide the platform on which we will make the far-reachi ng improvements which are needed."

The inspectors' report said that the enormous social and economic problems faced by the authority should have "defined the council's task with stark clarity". It should have focused on literacy and numeracy, and on fostering the belief that good schools can "help individuals to rise above what might otherwise appear to be a virtually inescapable destiny". Instead, it appears to have been mesmerised by structures and distracted by parochial politics.

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