Labour's fighter for every child;People;Profile;Helen Liddell

8th March 1996 at 00:00
When Helen Liddell was in her final year at Strathclyde University she applied for the job of running the economics department of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Sir Kenneth Alexander, her economics lecturer, was adviser to the STUC and saw her application. He did not know that she was in his class because she had been so silent.

In view of her volubility and high profile now, Labour's education spokesman in Scotland tells this story against herself to illustrate the lack of self-confidence of young people. "I was in awe of the articulate English students in the class," she recalls. A quarter of a century on, she still thinks Scots pupils and students do themselves a disservice. On a recent visit to a secondary school in her East Monklands constituency, she found fourth-year pupils dismissing themselves as "I'm thick, miss" and determined to leave school, probably for a life of unemployment.

In her education brief, Mrs Liddell's starting point is as a parent herself with one child in primary and another doing his Highers. She also recalls her own school-days at St Patrick's High in Coatbridge where she claims to have been no star pupil. "I was the typical product of a working-class family and I had to work hard. I was a first-generation student at university."

But she had at least one academic advantage. In the days before the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, pupils like her could take English A-levels. At Strathclyde she was able to enter some second-year classes and studied a broad range of arts subjects as well as the economics and politics which were the main component of her general degree.

From the moment she won the bitterly fought Monklands by-election in 1994, she was destined for rapid promotion to Labour's front bench. Her natural place was in economics and industry. She had been chief executive of a business venture programme and, controversially, head of public affairs for Robert Maxwell's newspapers north of the border.

The remit she now has includes working with John McFall as an industry spokesman, and she carves her way with ease through a thicket of policy about reforming Scottish Enterprise and the local enterprise companies, stimulating small firms and enhancing the national skills base. She has taken as steady a grasp of educational terminology and of the detailed proposals contained in Every Child is Special, the consultation paper for this weekend's party conference in Edinburgh.

But when pressed on what an incoming Government would do, she often falls back on the need to "talk to as many people as possible". This no doubt makes sense as a prelude to forming the kind of partnership with parents and teachers which she wants to underlie policy. It can also be seen as a response to the way she claims the present Government has taken decisions without involving people and has allowed morale to plummet.

But would Gerald Wilson, the chief civil servant with whom she would have to deal if she became Education Minister, be expected to set about implementing the raft of proposals laid out in Every Child is Special, or would he, as she says, be asked to talk to as many people as possible before embarking on firm planning? One answer is that she expects teachers and parents to notice within a year the benefits of Labour's care and commitment.

The political correspondent of a Scottish daily says that Helen Liddell's style is to play the part of the reasonable woman, seeking a basis for agreement and decrying bickering among the men and between parties. That accords with her businesslike approach. She looks every inch the professional woman in control of her body language as well as her politics.

If she gets into government, "where a great advantage is the back-up - in opposition you have to do everything yourself", she will be well prepared for the sticks and stones. Not only did she do a decade as secretary of the Labour Party in Scotland during the Bennite traumas and the SDP defections, but she acquitted herself well in a torrid by-election.

Short in parliamentary experience she may be, but she has been more politically exposed than most of the junior ministers who have paraded through the Scottish Office since 1979.

She is particularly scathing about her main opponent across the floor, Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister and, ironically, her parliamentary "pair" for divisions. She condemns his dismissive attitude to the 40,000-strong protest march through Edinburgh and says that whereas he is "reluctant to go to the Dispatch Box to speak on education, we on the Labour bench do so with enthusiasm, which shows the difference in attitude between the parties".

The trick will be to maintain enthusiasm and support if in power the resources prove too sparse to fulfil the expectations of Labour's parent and teacher partners.

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