A most agreeable man

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Geraldine Hackett profiles Graham Lane, New Labour's loyal and local servant

The Government has few more loyal servants than Graham Lane, the somewhat excitable chairman of the education committee of the Local Government Association.

The evidence of his devotion is the skill with which he has lined up the elected representatives of local government behind ministers' plans to reorganise schools, despite the almost universal unpopularity of the scheme to create a new category of foundation schools.

After years of enthusiastic opposition to the Conservatives, Mr Lane has embraced with equal passion the notion that Labour local government is the partner of central government and that the LGA has more to gain from behind-the-scenes persuasion than public dissent.

The strategy appears to require Mr Lane to have regular meetings and chats on the phone with Stephen Byers, the standards minister, who is equally adept at managing the political process. The minister rose to fame doing much the same job as Mr Lane in local government when he was chair of the education committee of the Labour-dominated Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

According to Mr Lane, the minister has agreed that any request from him for a meeting will be met with a response within 48 hours. The minister is not only accessible. Mr Lane hints that the majority decision of the LGA (when the Conservatives voted with Labour) not to oppose the basic structure favoured by the Government will bring concessions in areas even more vital to local government.

Any possible deals aside, Mr Lane, who also chairs the education committee of the London borough of Newham - this week confirmed as London's most improving education authority - takes the view that no purpose can be served by Labour local government taking an oppositional stance.

There are those in central government, he surmises, and Tony Blair may be one of them, who do not believe local government is capable of playing any sort of responsible role. In any case, he says, it was made clear at the highest level that the Government's proposal on the future structure of schools was non-negotiable.

The months since the election have been hectic for Mr Lane, who is always available to comment on, for example, the latest antics of Hackney councillors: "These people are bringing local government into disrepute. If they decide to try and join Guy Fawkes and blow up the Government, they will see fireworks. " He also usually has advice to pass on to David Blunkett, as in his recent remark that the teachers' pay review body should be sacked if it dared to propose an award higher than inflation.

When it comes to his own remuneration, the last work for which Mr Lane received a salary - he estimates his income from local government allowances at around Pounds 10,000 a year - was the post of political adviser to the Labour group on the former Inner London Education Authority. He is a former English teacher and has an English degree from Manchester University. His last teaching job was as head of English at Little Ilford comprehensive in Newham, a school that has just failed its inspection.

A grammar-school boy, Graham Lane was brought up in Birmingham, in a working-class home. He claims his father was a staunch Conservative who probably considered Mrs Thatcher too left-wing.

It is a source of real pain to him that the organisation to which he has devoted much of his boundless energy, the Socialist Educational Association, is now paralysed by open warfare between factions. As the SEA's general secretary, he has been attempting to get members of the executive to sign a loyalty oath that requires them to accept Labour's policy on education. Mr Lane claims that such a clause has existed in the SEA's constitution since the 1920s and was used to get rid of the Communists.

While the SEA is not influential in developing Labour's education strategy - over the years it has produced little in terms of quality background papers - its membership includes key figures in the Labour establishment. Mr Byers, for example, is vice-president.

As well as members at loggerheads over whether the SEA is allowed to voice criticism of the Government over foundation schools, a slanging match is also in progress about whether photocopies of ballot papers should have been counted in the recent election of the chairman.

Among elected members of the LGA, there is majority view that Mr Lane manages to operate an effective old Labour style of "fixing". He has fans across the spectrum, including Ronnie Norman, Conservative chair of Kent's education committee, who believes that Labour's national policy goes a long way to taking the politics out of education.

There are others, however, who take a more negative view of what they consider to be the horse-trading that has taken place and suggest that Mr Lane is no match for Mr Byers - a minister keen to deliver on the Government's strategy.

The churches, it is being said, managed to wring changes bypublicly challenging ministers.

The chairman's detractors take the view that the often accidental imprecision of Mr Lane's language - he sometimes appears to have slightly shifted his ground - did not matter when Labour local government was opposing a Tory government. The problem now, they claim, is that the detail of what has been agreed in private negotiations with Labour is unclear.

The level of irritation has not reached the stage when other councillors are likely to challenge Mr Lane as chair of the education committee. The risk remains that Mr Lane's chosen role as the Government's emissary, may annoy those who want to see local government's case put with greater force.

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