Labour must have more than a policy in waiting

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Education policy gives a prime example of the opposition's dilemma. With the likelihood of a Labour government enhanced by the English local election results, the party is under new pressure to spell out what it would do. But as soon as it clarifies an area of policy, the critics descend.

Gordon Brown as shadow Chancellor has sought to identify a way of financing his leader's strongest suit: investment in education and training for the post-16s would be paid for by ending child benefit at 16. From left and right the attacks have come. David Blunkett as education spokesman south of the border has also come in for criticism as he tries to tackle concerns about school standards and yet retain the support of the teaching profession.

For the party in Scotland education should pose less of a problem. There is less worry from parents about what goes on in schools and none of the breast-beating about choice of school which affects the leadership in London. Yet Helen Liddell's brave attempt to put flesh on the bones of the party's aspirations has brought nothing but trouble. As education spokeswoman she asked for consultation and partnership. So far the responses to her policy document suggest that she go away and lick her wounds.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association at its conference last weekend (page five) joined the Scottish School Board Association and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council in picking holes. Most SSTA activists would like to see the back of the Government, but their pleasure would be spoiled by the advent of an administration which had teacher standards in its sights. Labour's plans to dismantle the structure of school boards are regarded as an unnecessary diversion from the real problems of funding and resources. On that, teacher spokesmen unite with parent leaders.

Mrs Liddell may discern special pleading and to an extent she would be right. But a minister-in-waiting, which is what Labour's frontbenchers regard themselves as now being, must accept that an art of government is the handling of interest groups. Some have to be heeded, others mollified, some challenged. In its heyday Lady Thatcher's government favoured the third approach. Wallowing in a cosy concert of opposition to the present Government is easy for Labour, especially given its predominant position in Scotland. In the pre-election period there is a temptation to seek the lowest common denominator lest support be dissipated, but a purportedly reforming party cannot be content with bland promises of better times ahead.

Criticism of education policy by people well disposed to Labour is no doubt uncomfortable. But if it directs attention to weak areas, it should be welcome, and it is a necessary element of the partnership which Mrs Liddell so earnestly seeks in her document. It also, however, gives forewarning of strains to come which will extend beyond those represented in the differences between "new" Labour and "old".

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