Better the devil you know?

15th January 2010 at 00:00
A new poll says the beleaguered Labour party is still the most popular among teachers. But, asks Richard Vaughan, is this just a sign of a profession wearied by change?

In what has been a torrid start to the new year for the Prime Minister, the most recent of what will be a multitude of polls published between now and election day may give Gordon Brown a morsel of consolation.

No sooner had Mr Brown kicked off 2010 with a host of, albeit six-month-old, promises on education than he was forced to defend his position as leader of the Labour party and the right man to steer the country through the next five years.

But according to an Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by the Sutton Trust, Labour is still the most popular party among teachers, with a quarter of the 1,000 teachers questioned backing the beleaguered party (see graphs). The Conservatives were second, with 18 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats third with 14 per cent of the vote.

However, this was offset by a significant minority - 15 per cent - stating that they were still undecided when it came to which party they would vote for.

Unsurprisingly, when asked which political party would be best for the education system, Labour again came out on top with 23 per cent of teachers opting for the party. The Conservatives were a way behind with 15 per cent and the Lib Dems were favoured by 10 per cent of teachers polled.

Worrying for all parties is that a far greater proportion of teachers - 34 per cent, more than one in three - were unable to say which party would be best for education.

Even more disturbing, however, was that nearly one in 10 said none of the parties would be best for education, claiming they were "all as bad as each other".

The figures would seem to contradict claims from both Schools Secretary Ed Balls and his Conservative counterpart Michael Gove that voters have a clear option as to who would be best for schools and the education system as a whole.

Mr Balls has spent much of the past six months, often to the exasperation of his fellow cabinet members, reiterating the claim that voting for Labour would be a vote for sustained investment in education.

The Schools Secretary stated to The TES in November last year that a "simple dividing line" had been drawn between the two parties - one of investment versus cuts. But a look at the poll results suggests one in three teachers are less than assured by Mr Balls' words.

It echoes the sentiments of the wider voting public and is one of the major fault lines running through the Cabinet, a number of which, including Chancellor Alistair Darling, feel that the "simple" choice of investment versus cuts will not work in order to win the general election. Few in the electorate believe that borrowing more can be a sensible way of reducing the budget deficit.

But perhaps greater concern will be among the Conservatives' education team in light of the figures. The party's rhetoric has been that of "trusting the teacher" more: devolving power away from central government and handing it straight to schools, ridding teachers of the layers of bureaucracy that prevent them from getting on with their primary role.

Only one in seven teachers feel that would be best for the education system.

While the lead in the education polls currently seems to be in Labour's favour, both Mr Balls and Mr Brown should be wary of reading too much into the figures.

Looking beyond the ingrained political allegiances that teachers can and do have, the stats could simply betray an overall desire for stability among teachers, a stability that despite 12 years in power has been generally lacking under Labour.

The reluctance to support the Conservatives among teachers could be down to fears that a change of administration could bring a reinvention of the wheel and yet more wholesale changes.

By supporting Labour teachers could just be saying "better the devil you know".

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