Success against the odds

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Tim Brighouse enjoys David Blunkett's memoir for his account of his time at the helm of the education department

The Blunkett Tapes: My life in the bear pit

By David Blunkett Bloomsbury pound;25

Almost 300 of the 855 pages in The Blunkett Tapes cover David Blunkett's time as Secretary of State for Education and Employment. This will come as a surprise to those who have read the serialisation and coverage in national newspapers.

The Blunkett Tapes is interesting for two reasons. It offers the first authoritative insider's glimpse of the personal and collective ambitions, ambiguities, rivalries and human frailties of the politicians who have been part of the Blair "project" - the code name of those who plotted and planned to make New Labour electable. But it is simply that: a glimpse.

Blunkett is too loyal to do more than raise the curtain an inch or two.

Second - and perhaps more important for issues of equality in the longer term -here's an account of the first blind statesman who has risen to power and subsequently fallen from grace. He's neither asked for nor been given any quarter on that account. Indeed you writhe in sympathy as he recalls the hapless Frank Dobson's reference to "my blind friend" and "What a remarkable achievement it is for someone who can't see to have made the progress my friend has".

Yet, as you read on, you have to pinch yourself in disbelief as you are reminded what this blunt, awkward, obstinate, arrogant, stubborn, passionate, pig-headed but in the end, lovable northern lad has achieved.

I first met David Blunkett when he was shadow spokesperson. He had form. As leader of what was dubbed the Socialist Republic of south Yorkshire he'd pioneered free public transport in large cities. Sheffield colleagues attested to the fierce loyalty he inspired in those who worked closest to him. In the end, although he is himself too loyal to mention it, this was to bring him down. But all that was a long way ahead on election night in 1997.

Like most left-leaning public servants, I have bittersweet memories of exactly where I was when Stephen Twigg's face betrayed his incredulous astonishment and delight at unseating Michael Portillo in Margaret Thatcher's old constituency. A key part of my career in education had been spent in an increasingly hostile environment. The screw of market forces tightened with every passing year.

Favourably funded city technologies with selective admission policies for the fortunate few were followed by obscenely large extra capital and revenue resources for the grant-maintained schools which opted out of the local authority family. Then the specialist school programme did the same for schools already doing well as they too were offered the chance to expand. Exam league tables showed the schools at the top, with very low percentages of kids with free school meal entitlement, and those at the bottom, unsurprisingly often the schools of last resort. To cap it off there was an Ofsted school inspection regime reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. Some of this would surely change?

Well, no. As we've slowly come to realise, for Tony Blair the market is god. What we all have to do therefore is to find ways of securing social justice within what is in effect a flawed education market place.

Blunkett's book deals with this only in passing. He was too busy as a passionate committed man trying to make the best of the cards he had been dealt. Like Aneurin Bevan, a similarly driven politician, he claims he arrived in the corridors of power only to find no one there. This is surprising.

In Bevan's day Blunkett's equivalent had just three powers and when one of his predecessors fell asleep during a conference it seemed emblematic of the role. Blunkett, on the face of it, had no such problems: he inherited more than 400 powers. But, I suppose, the lack of extra resources in the early Blair years was frustrating and later still he may have found that some powers had evaporated to what Ted Wragg memorably described as Tony Zoffis.

What strikes you most as you turn the pages of this and other political memoirs, is how our politicians become pre-occupied by daily crisis and in reacting to the media's relentless hunt for bad stories and scapegoats.

However, for the whole of his time at the DfEE Blunkett is a master of this world. During his tenure he won unparalleled extra resources for schools budgets in particular; he initiated Excellence in Cities, which has supported the largely unreported improvement in standards in urban schools.

He instigated Sure Start and the expansion of pre-five provision, which in the years ahead should begin to turn the tables for schools trying to make a difference in cracking the cycle of disadvantage. He even secured new monies for teachers' professional development, which was sacrificed after he and his successor had left office.

Blunkett also reveals some of his dealings with Chris Woodhead: "He had many qualities which he did his best to hide, but collegiality and modesty were not among them."

What also emerges is how little time is devoted by Blair's ministers to strategy and any doubt that it might be ever so slightly flawed.

Blunkett's account reveals his unquestioning loyalty to Blair, which appears to have precluded any examination of how to compensate for the inevitable structural and systemic flaws in a market place of schooling. In the end it's these flaws in Blair's "project", which may prove the undoing of New Labour. Presumably it was the same qualities of excessive loyalty of those close to David Blunkett that didn't allow them to give him a reality check when he most needed it in his later years at the Home Office.

In the end, The Blunkett Tapes is a good, if occasionally embarrassing, account of a Sheffield lad's achievements in high office against all the odds.

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