Left bares teeth but loses bite

20th April 2001 at 01:00
"SO, Doug," one hopeful hack in the National Union of Teachers press corps asked the general secretary. "Is this the end of the Left?" No one - least of all Doug McAvoy - would go that far. But there was an unreal, slightly dazed air about this year's conference, as if no one could quite believe it had been so easy to see off the hardliners. If there wasn't going to be a fight what were they going to do instead?

That's not to say the Left were entirely silent. Routed in their attempts to restart industrial action on cover, they nevertheless delivered a sting in the tail with victory over performance pay.

And then there was the reception they gave David Blunkett ... who lapped it up. The more they heckled, the more the Education Secretary threw it back at them. In pre-election limbo mode, he wasn't really going to provoke them by, say, telling them they couldn't have a 35-hour week.

No, this was once more for old times sake... a Blunkett whizz through Labour's greatest hits with the punchline that he was really singing the praises of teachers. They gotto shout, he got to shout and everyone was happy. There was the magnificent absurdity of delegates waving "No cover" placards at a blind man. And with his desire to move on to another job no longer a secret, he was patently looking forward to a future that will not involve facing down the NUT every Easter.

Another who won't have to go through that again is Theresa May, who got the biggest laugh of the day when she said she would be the next education secretary. To be fair, her grin showed she was in on the joke as well, as the delegates gently wound her up like a supply teacher they didn't have the heart to savage totally.

Theresa had tried Blunkett's old trick of provoking a row to grab some headlines. Unfortunately, delegates couldn't care less about her. She did get the biggest cheer of the conference when she called delegates "the last bastion of unreconstructed trades unionism". They could have asked for no higher praise. Sadly, subsequent votes proved that Theresa hadn't even got that right ... with the headbangers the losers of the week.

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