Divergence from the party line can be no bad thing

16th March 2012 at 00:00
Des McNulty's tuition fees speech is a reminder of why policy should be challenging

Something strange happened the other day, so strange that it went unnoticed. Maybe people couldn't believe their ears and convinced themselves they were mistaken. Maybe people thought it was a dream (or a nightmare) that they daren't mention for fear of being thought foolish. Maybe I just read the wrong (or right) papers.

The other day a Scottish Labour politician actually said something interesting and novel about education. Yes, that's right, not just the usual cliches about every child being important or making every school a centre of excellence (which, as excellence is a comparative measure, is by definition impossible) but something that might get the author into trouble with the Labour press office or the whips, as it is a departure from the "positions to take" manual.

Des McNulty MSP, a former lecturer, councillor, minister and higher education spokesman, is long enough in the tooth to know what he was doing. It was no mistake, no fluke, no misjudgement.

Admittedly, McNulty's speech was about university education, but it took some guts to make it because it contained ingredients that are allegedly unpalatable to the voter - namely, that tuition fees are distasteful. As is so often the case, the truth is actually different, for recent polling shows that a majority of the Scottish public supports a post-graduation contribution to the cost of tuition. I don't know if McNulty knew of this, but I don't think it matters, for what he was doing was challenging his party's line.

There is a bigger point though about McNulty's speech, and it is this: Labour has not said anything remotely challenging about Scottish schools for the past 10 years. When in government between 1999 and 2007, the party merely shored up the edifice with pay deals and managerial initiatives that tinkered at the edges while spitefully reversing Michael Forsyth's reforms that had worked (school councils). Unlike the SNP (smaller class sizes) or the Tories (greater independence for schools), Labour had no big idea - and the result is that, maybe unfairly, it looks like it doesn't care.

Compared to the constant, almost Trotskyite, permanent revolution that Blairites ushered into English schools, Scottish Labour never wanted to frighten Scotland's union horses.

If Labour wants to send out a message that it cares, it needs some good ideas about improving school education, and where better to start than asking Des McNulty to look at which English reforms worked, which didn't, and why? It would outflank the nationalists, who would sooner jump off the Scott Monument than adopt successful policies from England - and give Labour the big idea it needs to reconnect with Scotland's democratic intellect.

Brian Monteith is a former Conservative MSP.

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