Labour runs scared ofa red balance sheet

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Life for Labour will get more difficult as the prospect of power edges closer. After last week's by-election and Tony Blair's reception in Washington as almost a Prime Minister-elect, the country appears ready for a Labour government. But that means expectations will be transferred. Instead of bemoaning the present Government's failure to deliver, for example, on school building repairs, people will look for commitments from the ministers in waiting. They will test their own wish lists against Labour's policies.

What they find is bound to be unsatisfactory to many who would wish the party well. Spending commitments have been ruled out of order. So there can be no guarantees of the extra spending educationists and others are looking for. Instead there is bound to be suspicion that a party in office would find other roads for its constrained budget.

There may also be a mismatch between what observers think a Labour government ought to stand for and the policies which its leaders deem necessary for election and for the common good. Already the party's education policies have come in for criticism from Labour supporters.

In Scotland, Helen Liddell, the party's spokesman, has neatly avoided too close an association with the debates of "middle England", but has none the less run into problems with proposals aimed at parents more than teachers. In particular, the party's ambitious ideas for pupil "compacts" have raised teacher fears of yet more assessments and another layer of bureaucracy. A recent meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland also heard robust criticism of intended sanctions against underperforming teachers.

At this week's Scottish Trades Union Congress (page five) there was no overt attack on Labour but the education and training debates were dominated by demands a Labour government would be hard pressed to meet, in the unlikely event that it regarded them as priorities. The relationship between union aspirations (and self-protecting anxieties) and the practicalities of a Labour government is one from which the party's spin doctors would like to divert attention.

The tensions of approaching power are open to exploitation, and the Scottish National Party is keen to make capital. Its education "budget" (page two) contains ambitious promises, not least of which is the restoration of the value of student grants. The economic benefits of an independent Scotland are adduced to allow the budget to be balanced. Whether the arithmetic makes sense can be debated, but in practice the sums will not have to add up for at least a few years.

Labour does not have the luxury of planning for ideal circumstances. The party's freedom is increasingly circumscribed.

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