For the next four weeks Labour wants no signs of industrial trouble. If it wins, it will then earnestly hope that a pay dispute does not undermine its credibility. The immediate omens are good, those for after May less promising.
Labour has shown unease when challenged about its attitude to trade union legislation. The outbreak of sleaze stories has so far saved it continuing embarrassment. Then there was the round of Easter conferences when the profession traditionally shows itself in the worst light. This year there was little for Tory propagandists to pick up on. Even the Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment was better treated than usual at the hands of the National Union of Teachers. Calling for the resignation of Chris Woodhead as head of the Office for Standards in Education seemed a modest and entirely understandable demand, even if it is not Labour policy.
There will be no rocking of the boat before the election. But immediately after, pay claims will have to be settled. As our report on page one shows, council support staff are flexing their muscles. The teachers' claim has yet to be considered. The immediate challenge will be to council employers, but an incoming Government will not want either industrial trouble or concessions under threat.
Less than 1 per cent on pay bills will separate claimants from employers. But to councils the difference is critical. Desperately stretched budgets are based on pay rises of no more than 2 per cent. Conceding more would result in job losses, another prospect that would be anathema to incoming Labour ministers.
Gordon Brown wins no friends in union ranks with his pledge to maintain existing levels of public spending. The Shadow Chancellor is more interested in reassuring floating voters than in offending those who are committed supporters. But the pressures will shift after May 1. A battle of wills will be fought over council-run services, including education. Its political significance could be profound.