Voters shun Blair's top priority

25th April 1997 at 01:00
In a marginal which has been a barometer of political change education is not a key issue, reports Nicholas Pyke

Candidates in the marginal seat of Yardley, Birmingham, have been making a fuss of education. One of them, the sitting MP Estelle Morris, is Labour's spokeswoman on school improvement. On the doorsteps, meanwhile, and in the shopping centres, the punters persist with their questions on crime, pensions, health and Europe.

Anthony Coombs, MP for Wyre Forest, once a Birmingham councillor, and now the Conservative education whip, says: "I couldn't say that education is a very major issue. More of a fourth or fifth ranker."

It is only a few years since education was quite clearly an issue for the Birmingham electorate: a stick with which all Labour councils were beaten. In the late 80s Birmingham diverted Pounds 250 million away from schools and into high-profile conference and concert buildings in the city centre. The Conservatives allowed no one to forget it.

Tony Blair treated Birmingham to his major education speech of the campaign, declaring it to be Labour's "number one priority" earlier this month. Everyone accepts that things have changed in the city and the local authority wins grudging acknowledgement from Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents. The council and its chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, have reversed the underspending of previous years and generated a deal of enthusiasm among schools and teachers. Regimes of ambitious target-setting and baseline testing have altered the flavour of official Labour thinking. Not that the results of all this effort have been sufficiently striking to merit a mention from Tony Blair; Birmingham's league-table rankings are decidedly average.

Council underspending is no longer an issue, nor are the city's eight state-run grammar schools. Elspeth Insch, head of King Edward VI girls grammar in Handsworth, reports some misgivings about Labour's secret plans on selection. But neither the party's new emollient approach nor Conservative plans to create more grammar schools have caused much fuss in Yardley, a white, working-class and largely residential suburb in south-east Birmingham which butts onto the National Exhibition Centre and Birmingham Airport.

Yardley, like the Midlands in general, is something of a political barometer. Until the election of Estelle Morris in 1992, the seat had for many years returned a candidate on the winning side. Political leaders know they have to take the Midlands seriously: a microcosm of the nation at large, it is the point at which North meets South, combining great variety of industry with agriculture. Birmingham itself has a curiously ambiguous political history. Joseph Chamberlain still casts a shadow in the shape of a Conservative-voting yet municipally-minded working class. It was in the middle of the last century that Chamberlain, then Birmingham's mayor, moved from the Liberals to an alliance with the Conservatives, taking much of the city with him in the process. Thanks to Chamberlain Birmingham was known as a model of municipal efficiency, taking the radical step of establishing its own gas and water services.

Birmingham has three marginal seats. Labour needs a 5 per cent swing to take Hall Green and Edgbaston. Meanwhile, both Liberals and Conservatives are gunning for the third, Yardley, which has been seen as a close, three-way fight. Ms Morris's majority over the Conservatives was only 162 in 1992, with the Liberals close behind. At this stage in the campaign, things look rather different: a recent poll by the Birmingham Evening Mail put Labour on 46 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 31 per cent and gave 23 per cent to the Tories.

Yardley is not a car-building constituency to the extent of, say, Northfields, near the giant Longbridge plant. But like the West Midlands it saw rising affluence as the motor industry boomed in the 50s and 60s; and an equally sudden reversal of fortune with the oil crisis and subsequent depression of the 70s and 80s. There is a low proportion of professional workers - only 2. 5 of the constituents according to one measure. The population is also ageing.

No surprise, then, that health, pensions and jobs, are the main issues according to Estelle Morris. The Conservative list is crime, Europe, and pensions. Tory candidate and family law barrister Anne Jobson says: "Some have been asking about education, but not as many as I would have expected." Rather more prominent, she feels, is the perception of "a growing tide of youths lurking. A lurking youth isn't necessarily up to no good. But people are alarmed all the same. There's more fear." Only the Liberal candidate, Birmingham councillor and businessman John Hemmings' attempts to claim that education is at the forefront of doorstep discussion. The particular bee in his bonnet is, however, somewhat more technical than the average: the national curriculum, he says, is denying teachers the freedom they need, and placing academically weak pupils at an even bigger disadvantage.

When voters do talk about schools, Ms Morris says that class sizes and nursery education - Labour priorities - are dominant. Mrs Jobson hears much talk of academic standards.

Local issues appear to weigh just as heavily in Yardley. It is a feather in the Labour council's hat that it managed to find Pounds 3.5 million to rebuild a primary school in the constituency through the sale of shares in Birmingham airport.

Conservative national government is not flavour of the month. The nearby NEC will not be the site of the Millennium Exhibition, which went to Greenwich. Nor will Birmingham get the national football stadium, which is destined for Manchester. Central government is often seen by the City of A Thousand Trades as pro-London and anti-Birmingham; pro-finance, and anti-manufacturing.

Yardley's problems are intimately connected with the decline of manufacturing, says Estelle Morris, and with what she describes as "our failure to re-generate our big Victorian cities". Outer-ring suburbs like Yardley, she says, suffer because so much money is sucked up by the inner-city problems.

And this in turn leads back to what might be the the most pressing educational issue of all for Birmingham: training for work. While small businesses are still struggling, there are also definite signs of major investment in the city. Rover and Jaguar have decided to build new plants while Birmingham is angling for investment from a major foreign electronics firm. "The thing that worries me most," says Ms Morris, "is that we have always depended on manufacturing in Birmingham, but at the moment we haven't got the skilled workforce ready for an expansion."

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