Paisley passions bypass schools

31st October 1997 at 00:00
The Paisley South by-election bears uncanny resemblance to this week's Renfrewshire education committee: the odd verbal stramash, a little posturing and hardly anything to get steamed up about, writes David Henderson.

In the run-up to next Thursday's by-election, sleaze and corruption may hog the headlines but Labour is deflecting the flak in its new squeaky, clean stride. Douglas Alexander, a youthful lawyer, appears confident that he will follow the late Gordon McMaster as Labour MP, despite fertile ground for the SNP, which provides his only serious challenger.

Ian Blackford, a financial consultant, needs a 17 per cent swing to capture the seat and detects "a significant sea change in public opinion". But there is no euphoric momentum in the Nationalist camp. "Sleaze and corruption have been the backdrop to this town," Mr Blackford says.

Exceedingly New Labour, Mr Alexander promises "zero tolerance" policies, "firm action" against corruption and "five pledges to the people of Paisley South", including nursery education for all four-year-olds. The SNP campaign is in "desperate straits", he says.

Over in the council chambers, Brian Oldrey, Renfrewshire's Labour education convener, is equally intolerant of his Nationalist and Independent opposition. Tuesday's education committee opened with the traditional offensive from controversial Independent Paul Mack, and drifted quietly into the buffers of school choirs, HMI inspections and consensual agreement.

Mr Mack, expelled by Labour, sought to make capital out of the Government's new deal cash injection for school buildings. Mr Oldrey, a former Strathclyde councillor and union official, matched his robustness. "The truth was never something you were keen on," he fired. "Are there any other sensible questions?" It may have been political coincidence, but for the first time in the committee's 18-month existence an SNP motion appeared. Colin Campbell, former Glasgow headteacher and party national secretary, was absent on the Blackford campaign trail and left it to Ian Mackay, his deputy, to call for young teachers to get supply work ahead of colleagues who have retired.

Unfortunately, reality punctured the challenge. Of 1,300 supply teachers, only 13 are retired and some if those are in subjects where there were no other replacements.

The running of schools is hardly a burning campaign issue. Mr Blackford makes passing reference to financial profligacy and insists the SNP stopped Labour spending Pounds 250,000 on refurbishing council offices. Instead, the money went on nursery education, he claimed Not the full story, said Mr Oldrey.

The introduction of tuition fees at Paisley University and the ending of grants may provide more productive territory for Mr Blackford. He also warns of impending cuts in local authority education budgets. "Although we have changed the government, the policies and practices have remained the same," he says.

Alas, the practice of returning Labour MPs may prove similarly difficult to reverse.

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