Money, money, money - it must be an election

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Election manifestos, like the oratory of public meetings, date from the last century. In the age of televised debates, even without party leaders going head to head, meetings have almost disappeared or been replaced by cringe-making "rallies". Manifestos do not have the importance accorded to Robert Peel's pioneering effort at Tamworth but they remain the principal opportunity to get publicity from policies rather than personalities.

Few people will read their way through the four glossy documents just published. If they are particularly interested in a single subject, they will prefer to see the parties' promises set side by side, which is what we have done on page five with the Scottish education manifestos. The Liberal Democrats offer the most detail and their 1p on the income tax pledge. The Scottish National Party is the most generous, even keeping faith with old-style student grants. The Labour manifesto tries to combine "old Labour" passion for education with "new Labour" attention to the balance sheet. The Conservatives are as anxious to show that they have fresh ideas, such as a scholarship scheme for underprivileged children, as to demonstrate pride in 18 years of stewardship.

Inevitably, the three opposition parties often occupy the same territory, united in their dismissal of the Government's record. Particularly in Scotland, the Conservatives have to play public-service issues off the back foot, not a stance favoured by cricketers like the Prime Minister. Leaving aside references to the assisted places scheme and nursery vouchers, there is not much in the manifesto that teachers and education-conscious parents would take exception to. But the Government's record and especially Michael Forsyth's legacy mean that few votes from the education community will go the Tories' way. No doubt the Secretary of State would ascribe that to his failure yet to undermine a self-regarding interest group.

If any of the opposition parties gets its way, there should be more money for education, though in the case of Labour not much immediately. It is interesting that in Scotland resourcing the system is the key issue. None of the parties makes much of the standards debate which south of the border is one reason why all three parties put education at the top of the agenda. Here the feeling is that although levels of achievement could and should rise, there is no crisis. Or rather, no immediate crisis because there is also concern that year-on-year underfunding must endanger standards as well as undermining morale.

Recovery will be hard won. It will not come without pain. The teacher unions cannot count on Labour being markedly more sympathetic to their concerns, for that would bode ill for Tony Blair's wider strategy. So whatever the outcome on May 1 few people think that salvation is just round the corner.

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