A conciliator with the clout to carry out Blair's changes

28th October 1994 at 00:00
David Blunkett, the new leader of Labour's education team, is too much a municipal socialist to be wholly on the modernisers' side of the latest party schism that labels the other side or the out-of-favour as traditionalists. His claim to be a moderniser rests on having firm views about what Labour needs to do to restore it to government.

At the same time, his belief in local government is not generally shared by the modernisers in the Tony Blair camp.

It had been expected that Mr Blair would appoint a woman to square up to Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, who is likely to prove harder to unsettle than her predecessor. Mr Blunkett, however, has already demonstrated he can rattle Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley with constructive but critical opposition. There is little doubt that Mr Blair wants significant changes in education policy, and that Mr Blunkett has the clout and seniority to carry out a revision without too much internal acrimony.

He has the reputation of being a backstairs conciliator, and was consulted by John Smith, even though he had been Bryan Gould's campaign manager in that leadership election.

Politically, Mr Blunkett belongs to the old soft Left that rejected the extremist tactics of Militant-inspired Liverpool and threw in their lot with Neil Kinnock. In the main, though, he has avoided attachment to factions, a policy that probably cost him a place on the Tribune slate for the shadow Cabinet when he first arrived in the Commons.

The glory days were probably before he became an MP, when he was leader of Sheffield council. The role earned him a national reputation and huge support from Labour Party activists who voted him on to the national executive, the first non-MP to be voted on for decades.

At that time, Sheffield was part of the "independent republic" of South Yorkshire and the inspiration for Labour-led councils having to deal with the penalties being imposed by the Thatcher government. He retains an unfashionable attachment to local government.

Mr Blunkett was born blind and lived on one of the largest council estates in Sheffield. His father, a gas board foreman, was killed in a works explosion when he was 12. Like most blind boys of that era, he was sent to special boarding school. At 16, he was faced with the limited career choice of piano tuner, capstan lathe operator in a sheltered workshop, or a commercial course for Braille typing and shorthand. He chose typing and, after technical college, joined the East Midlands Gas Board.

With qualifications gained at night school, he made it to Sheffield University where he took a degree in political theory and institutions. He was only 23 and still a student when first elected to the council. He also has a certificate in further education teaching and taught industrial relations and politics at Barnsley College of Technology.

The fact that he has achieved so much against the odds allows him to speak with conviction on the importance of education. When he talks of children only having one chance, he has also in mind his three sons, who have all attended local comprehensives in Sheffield; the eldest is now at college. (Mr Blunkett's marriage ended soon after he reached Westminster.) His ideas on voluntary community service, which found their way into the report of the Commission on Social Justice, were developed while he was at Health, and chime well with Mr Blair's stress on community values.

As a young councillor on Sheffield's education committee, he took particular interest in adult education and the integration of children with special needs, issues that still require a champion.

He prefers to describe himself as a modernising traditionalist, and he sees his great strength as being in touch with the thinking of the average voter.

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