David can do it, but Darren can't

4th April 1997 at 01:00
The Easter headline Labour's spin-doctors must have prayed for - or plotted for - failed to materialise. But if "tough on bad teaching and the causes of bad teaching" did not appear in precisely that form, the message was still unmistakable.

"Teachers won't push us around warns Blunkett," screamed the Daily Express, that traditionally Labour rag. "Shadow education secretary David Blunkett warned teachers yesterday he would not be bullied by militants," chimed in the soaraway socialist Sun, adding for good measure a checklist of "five key issues which divide new Labour and its old union ally the NUT."

As far as jaded newsdesks are concerned, the Easter teacher union rallies are good for a few page leads and headlines at a traditionally slack news period, especially when the complaints against violent kids begin or the Dinosaur Tendency of the National Union of Teachers trot out their annual strike threat over class sizes.

So far, so dull. But in the middle of an election campaign where one of Labour's perceived weaknesses may be insufficient toughness on unions, the conference season was one that the party's employment and education secretary-in-waiting had to get right. Moreover, it was crucial for an ocean of clear blue water to divide Labour and the NUT. As the Sun leader explained: "Question: why are the militant teachers threatening strikes? Answer: because Labour no longer holds the same beliefs as the left-wingers. That shows the transformation Tony Blair has brought about in his party."

As the Independent presciently pointed out on the day of Mr Blunkett's speech to the NUT, "it has been a point of honour for Tony Blair and Mr Blunkett to devise policies that the NUT will oppose because the union (unlike the teaching profession as a whole) stands so low in public esteem."

The Guardian noted that Labour's campaign team had watched the NUT nervously for fear it would provide the Tories with a plausible image of the potential unrest facing a Blair government. Not very helpful? General secretary Doug McAvoy pointed out that not only was his union not affiliated to the party, but: "If I told them to pipe down I'd be spitting in the wind. And the Conservatives would claim we were merely softening the voters up, only to unleash all our guns when Labour was elected."

Since Association of Teachers and Lecturers' leader Peter Smith had won himself a metaphorical standing ovation in the press for telling his members to stop whinging, this tactic began to look less than statesmanlike. In the conference's closing minutes, however, "the leader of the largest and most militant teaching union tried to reassert authority over activists by warning them not to threaten an incoming Labour government with strikes."

Another curious use of tactics was noted, solely, by the Daily Telegraph, by far now the most anti-Labour national paper. "David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, sought to win support for his party's policies yesterday by making two radically different speeches at the annual conference of the NUT." The paper listed Mr B's announcement "of Labour's conversion to traditional methods of teaching arithmetic," which in a press conference he "billed" as having delivered to the conference. "Despite the interest teachers might be expected to have in such proposals, Mr Blunkett made no specific reference to them when he actually addressed the 1,200 delegates in Harrogate. "

The Telegraph continued: "It was absolutely clear - Mr Blunkett told the media but not the delegates - that Chris Woodhead, HM chief inspector, whose sacking teachers demand, would remain in post under Labour. Instead, he assured the conference, it was 'time for radical change' and that Labour would 'make a difference'."

Mr Blunkett is notorious among journalists for having a carefully written and press-released speech from which he cheerfully deviates in the cold light of a conference platform, a trait variously put down to his blindness, his delight in off-the-cuff oratory or - as the Telegraph suggests - a nifty way of pleasing two audiences by giving them what they want to hear. Unsurprisingly, he penned a furious letter to the paper pointing out that his speech had been merely truncated for reasons of time and that he had left nobody in any doubt about his support for traditional teaching methods. "This is the first time it has been expected that the details of questions from journalists should be repeated on a conference floor," he fumed.

Still, Mr Blunkett should thank his lucky stars that his parents named him David rather than Darren, a nomenclature singled out by a delegate to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers as indicative of academic failure. "I'm afraid that Darren, Dean, Damien, Liam and Nathan can't do it, never will do it, and frankly would not give a damn if they don't do it at all," reported The Times. Unlike David and the spin doctors.

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