Editorial: so what would change under New Labour?
So at the turn of the year life appears to go on as usual. But the nursery vouchers may be scrapped before they are promoted in more than four pilot councils. The White Paper may have an even shorter pre-pigeon-hole life than is normal for statements of Government intent. The crux of the year will be the general election. If Labour wins - which looks increasingly likely as the time for Conservative recovery in the opinion polls diminishes - the vouchers scheme will be snuffed out and the Government's wider priorities will change.
That is not to say that a new government will make a significant difference to the well being of schools and colleges. Even among committed Labour supporters there is a high level of realism, scepticism or cynicism about the outlook, especially because the party leadership continually dampens expectations. Rhetoric will certainly change. The language of a Labour White Paper would differ from that now being prepared.
More than that, some aspects of policy - among them nursery vouchers, opting out and assisted places - will be affected. But there must be well founded doubts about resources. As the Liberal Democrats keep saying in an attempt to distance themselves from Labour, what credence can be given to opposition promises when Tony Blair refused to support Liberal Democrat rejection of the Tories'1p off income tax? An incoming Labour government will also confront local government at a low point. No one yet knows whether the direst predictions will come to pass. Teachers' jobs have been threatened in the past, although Glasgow's initiative in issuing protective notices has no recent precedent. A new Scottish Secretary might be faced with emergency calls for a rescue package. What would be the response of Chancellor Gordon Brown? His party will have just withstood Tory claims that a Labour government would mean higher taxes, wage inflation and an economic crisis on the scale of those that afflicted the Wilson and Callaghan administrations.
Clamour from teacher unions and Labour councils would be met with sympathy and little practical help. So although the election is bound to be a watershed, it will not mean (either positively or negatively), apres nous le deluge. Government, we will be told, is a matter of priorities and money for public services must remain severely rationed.
So what else can we look forward to? The beginning of the end of the wait for a Scottish parliament? Don't get too excited too soon. A new shape for post-school education? The Dearing report is eagerly but fearfully awaited.Eagerly because it offers the first opportunity since the Robbins committee more than 30 years ago to chart a fresh path. Fearfully on the part of students and parents who expect no alternative to self-financing of higher education in an age of mass participation. Political leaders will also be fearful since they have postponed hard decisions until Dearing reports and the election is over.