Shadows and light for old Labour

31st January 1997 at 00:00
It was the headline "Blair moves to save grammars" that finally proved we were in the topsy-turvy, looking-glass world of an election campaign.

Alarmed by reports that Labour councillors were, in their old Labour way, threatening to abolish the country's 161 remaining grammar schools and fearful that this might cost the party the vital by-election in Wirral South (where parents like the two local grammar schools), the Blair-Blunkett axis swung into action. The Sunday Times was given the correct New Labour policy: the fate of grammar schools was to be left to ballots of local parents.

This came at the end of a week where, time and again, conventional wisdom about the Labour party had been stood on its head. Monday's headlines ("Brown aims for 2-year freeze on spending", "Brown backs Tory cash clamp") were succeeded by Tuesday's news that Labour was planning no increase in the basic or top rate of income tax, showing the party's determination to shed its old "tax and spend" image. (The Chancellor of the Exchequer's unkind quip that hell would freeze before Gordon Brown could control spending and keep tax down just proved that he was still stuck in the old politics).

A Conservative party political broadcast that same night was stuck in the old politics, too. Picturing a sad woman in an armchair, it ran through the atrocities that would follow the election of a Blair government, the first being a great education Act that would abolish grammar and grant-maintained schools and the Assisted Places Scheme. (Well, the last point is correct).

The woman sat, horror and disbelief spreading over her features as the list went on ("summer of discontent", rising unemployment, hefty tax rises, cave-in on Europe, resignation of John Prescott, constitutional crisis) before taking out her red onion and shedding a tear.

Labour's broadcast the following evening also dwelt on the negative. Worries about school choice, rising class sizes, a doubling in the number of failing schools (possibly because twice as many had been inspected, but let that pass), national health service waiting lists, VAT going on food, rising crime . . .

Time for a little positive policy to stiffen the electors' sinews, summon up the blood. What better than the story in the next day's papers that the Prime Minister was thinking of introducing compulsory cadet training for teenagers, with the enthusiastic backing of his defence, education and home secretaries? Labour replied sniffily, preferring its plan for European-backed community service for young people.

The Sunday papers saw the results of a whirl of Tory spin-doctoring on ideas for the manifesto that were to be thrashed out at Chequers on Monday. Most prominent was the Sunday Telegraph's "Tories unveil plan for the super-school", which turned out to be a scheme to let capital spending "follow the pupil", thus enabling popular schools to expand (if they have the space).

This was accompanied by the usual tales that Gillian Shephard was "considering" (under duress?) ways of giving schools control of 100 per cent of their budgets and hints that all state schools might be given the freedom to control admissions now enjoyed by voluntary schools.

But open enrolment and more freedom for schools are ideas that have been knocking around in Conservative circles for some years. The toning down of Labour's hostility to grammar schools is still relatively new. Hence the shock of the "Blair moves to save grammars" headline.

A spokesman for shadow education secretary David Blunkett explained: "We were just reiterating our position that parental ballots will only take place if there is parental demand for change - that is, as the result of a parents' petition. The Sunday Times had erroneously said the previous week that LEAs could initiate the ballots and Tony Blair was correcting that."

So that should be clear to Old Labour councillors. It just sounds odd, that's all.

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