Blunkett soothes party rocked by doubts

10th February 1995 at 00:00
Susan Young finds Labour activists deeply troubled over the GM issue. Does David Blunkett walk on water? It seems a fair, if slightly blasphemous question to pose after seeing the Shadow Education Secretary in action before the activist troops for the first time.

As he is fond of pointing out, he has had a busy 14 weeks since his transfer from Virginia Bottomley-baiting at Health.

He appeared to change Labour policy by warmly endorsing league tables (value-added, of course), was swiftly over-ruled on the imposition of VAT on private school fees.

Then there was the little matter of leader Tony Blair choosing a distant grant-maintained establishment for the secondary education of his first-born.

But the net result is that Mr Blair now has the sort of reputation accorded to the hunter who shot Bambi's mother, while Mr Blunkett can do no wrong among the party faithful. Schools spokesman Peter Kilfoyle summed up the mood in an education workshop, where he said Mr Blair had dealt an "evil hand" to Mr Blunkett.

During the course of Labour's local government conference in Brighton, Mr Blunkett found himself answering questions on grant-maintained status and whether such schools would be returned to the local authority at no less than five meetings in one day.

The truly impressive thing was that he managed to sound no less good-humoured and passionate on the subject to the Socialist Education Association, his final engagement of the day.

Another surprise: he was only asked one GM question at this meeting.

That he continually stressed the important role of local education authorities was seized on gratefully by his audiences, who pointed out that Tony Blair had never been heard to utter the phrase in all his speeches on the future of education and GM schools. He also won popularity for his contributions to the debate on how schools might be persuaded against going GM, and stressing that it is the status, not the school, which is opposed by the party.

Just how much damage has been done to Labour unity by the choice by Mr Blair and frontbencher Paul Boateng of distant GM or private schools for their offspring was becoming apparent during the weekend.

At least one delegate suggested that neither man had realised just how important the issue was for the party and that Mr Blair, in particular, had left the choice to his wife Cherie without realising the scale of the political repercussions to follow.

Delegate after delegate, speaking privately, said that their trust in the leadership had been eroded over the issue and that this had coloured their view over the reforming of Clause 4. Comprehensive schooling was a basic tenet of the party, and Mr Blair's apparently muddying of the policy of returning GM schools to their local authorities had struck at the heart of many members' beliefs.

However, most delegates thought that, although their constituency Labour party was furious about the education message apparently coming from the top, it was unlikely that this would seriously affect the vote on Clause 4.

Joanna Tait, chairman of the Socialist Education Association, said: "A lot of people are devastated. This is a fundamental value and tenet of our party and Clause 4 is as well. They're coming together and people are very concerned. "

The association's response to this has been to draft its own suggested insert for a new Clause 4, stressing the party's "commitment to equality of access to a comprehensive lifelong system of education for all our people, and so provide social cohesion for our community and liberation and freedom from ignorance for each individual."

But for the next few months, while Mr Blunkett and his team meet local education authorities, teaching unions and parents before thrashing out the definitive policy on what will become of grant-maintained schools under a Labour government, it seems he is doomed to travel the country intoning his own personal mantra of returning such establishments to "a local democratic framework".

He must be able to say it in his sleep by now.

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