In the running for hot tickets

28th March 1997 at 00:00
As Labour's unofficial advisers line up in hope of victory, Elizabeth Hartley Brewer warns that not all will move on to tread the corridors of powers - or will want to.

With the general election in sight, a sizeable group of people who have helped shape Labour's policy informally while in opposition will be eagerly awaiting the gift of a golden ticket for Labour's shiny new gravy train. Who will be among the chosen few, able to turn their unofficial position into that of "Government adviser"?

Twenty years in opposition raises problems. Few of the current shadow ministers have ministerial experience. Private briefings from current and former permanent secretaries and advisers apart, this makes it particularly important that any new advisers quickly become accustomed to the sharp intrigue of Whitehall and gain status in their own right. "Bright young things", like those who filled most of the adviser posts last time round under the experienced tutelage of their bosses, may not be strong enough to cope unaided.

Some of those "bright young things" of yesteryear are now older and certainly wiser. Can they help? Perhaps. But this raises further problems. Many of them have gone on to make a name for themselves and they might not welcome the necessary anonymity of the infamous back rooms; and, in any case, there's room for only so many chiefs.

Relating this general dilemma to education, who might do what and where? David Blunkett has six members of staff who currently support research and policy development. They can't all move over to the Department for Education and Employment after a victorious election night. As one of them said to me, "This is a bit of a sore subject for us. Basically, we're applying for jobs." Broader policy advice is reputedly being given currently by a handful of academics and practitioners which includes Professors Michael Barber and David Reynolds and Birmingham's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse. The corridors of power are highly seductive. Might any of these be tempted to jump on board if invited?

How many seats might there be to fill? Last time each Labour Cabinet minister had a senior policy adviser and one political adviser chosen for his or her political nous rather than specialist knowledge. Some Ministers of State also had political sidekicks, so a general rule of one per minister won't necessarily mean one per department. Blunkett, covering employment as well, might have more advisers than others but they might not all be chosen by him.

There are one or two other places for education advisers. The Number Ten Policy Unit is bound to have a position; and, given the "education, education and education" commitment, it probably won't be the same person who has to cover not only social policy but also Home Office matters, as was the case in the late Seventies. David Miliband, currently head of policy in Tony Blair's office, holds the education brief too. He must be a strong candidate.

There is also talk of reviving a Central Policy Review Staff-style think tank to inject more longer-term direction into the Cabinet's thinking. If these two bodies were to merge, would this mean just one, or two, education jobs? And who would choose the incumbents, the new head of unit or the Prime Minister? It is most unlikely to be the Education and Employment Secretary. In the past, appointments were the preserve of former Policy Unit head Bernard (now Lord) Donoghue. To what extent might a senior educationist be happy working under an equivalent figure?

But first things first. What does an education policy adviser actually do? And will it differ depending on whether the placement is in Number Ten or the DFEE? If the task is to suggest policy changes on the basis of professional evidence and experience, is this not what Chris Woodhead, Nick Tate and Anthea Millett are in post to do? If it is to strengthen the politician's hand in any confrontations with professional interests - the unions - is it better to have someone who knows them well, to sweet-talk them, or someone who is comfortable with toughing it out if necessary?

Last time round, the advisers were supposed to offer advice which was independent of departmental interests and the education "establishment". To what extent is this possible if the encumbent has strong professional credentials; or if he or she has none, will any recommendations be workable? In any case, professional advisers can't guarantee success. They are rarely of one mind and they've been known to get it wrong - vide the national curriculum.

These problems are just for starters. If Tony Blair is going to retain his clear hold on social policy, as talk of think tanks suggests, his education adviser could end up at odds with any counterpart in Sanctuary Buildings. Tight - very tight - expenditure controls will add to intra-Whitehall tensions. With this scenario, might the top jobs be better given to people whose skills also encompass power-broking between the proliferating points of interest?

And then there are the civil servants. Whitehall is notoriously resistant to change. Civil servants are past masters at representing new ideas as crackpot schemes, and when that happens, tactics and firm charm become as important as policy creation.

Sniffing victory, hopeful recipients of spoils may be forgiven their excitement. Of course being on the inside is thrilling. But it can get dirty.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer worked as an adviser at the Number Ten Policy Unit under Lord Callaghan as Prime Minister.

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