Voting's never been so good

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Better or Worse? Has Labour Delivered?

By Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Bloomsbury pound;7.99

So Now Who Do We Vote For?

By John Harris

Faber pound;7.99

Politico's Guide to the General Election

By Simon Henig and Lewis Baston

Politico's pound;9.99

Vote For Who?

By Jonathan Maitland

Metro pound;9.99

I am an unashamed enthusiast for elections. I love them, from day one right down to the last tweak of the swingometer. And every election spawns its own modest clutch of books. This time round Polly Toynbee and David Walker ask: "Has Labour delivered?".

Their answers probe the facts of Labour's record, while insightfully tempering statistics with questions that reflect the complex nature of government delivery. They present the facts about improved health spending, but ask if this results in better health. They present improved education attainment, then ask after those who didn't attain the requisite level.

They find the gaps in the record, complementing their overall verdict, "good, but not good enough", with questions for a third term.

The result is a book heavy on statistics, and thorough on each issue.

Readers are advised to pick their concerns and read the relevant chapter.

In education, Toynbee and Walker evaluate a range of issues, including spending, pupil attainment and school buildings, with university fees receiving a larger chunk of discussion. On this they provide a fair picture that sadly demonstrates the poverty of the public debate about higher education funding that took place when the policy was first rolled out.

They also suggest this Government still needs a vision of the purpose of education: what's it actually for? Perhaps we should send them a set of the recent TES supplements on this question.

Better or Worse? provides well-judged verdicts on the main policy areas of the Blair government's second term, reaching varied conclusions, steering clear of ideology and personalities and sticking with the facts. John Harris's book does the opposite, guiding those disaffected by New Labour policies on Iraq, health and education (the latter reduced to an attack on the Vardy Foundation's sponsorship of city academies). His journey takes in "Blairite monsters", the apparent "uselessness" of Charles Kennedy, Plaid Cymru's "political creativity" and a particularly readable and amusing encounter with the Respect coalition, all voiced-over by a pilgrim's weary humour. I was disappointed that Harris neglected to meet any Conservatives.

Another slight quibble concerns his reliance on interviews, which often consist of bitter displays of wound-licking by the defeated and disgruntled. In weighing up city academies, Harris relies on second-hand testimony from their detractors rather than direct, journalistic engagement in the debate.

When the books turn to the Iraq war, the gap between them becomes clear.

Because the war defies factual pragmatism, Toynbee and Walker's exactitude struggles; for Harris, Iraq is the defining issue. The difference reinforces the impression that May 5 will include two national polls: a parliamentary election alongside Tony Blair's personal referendum. The numbers voting for and against the Government will be counted and remembered. While Toynbee and Walker tackle the actual issues of the first, conventional election, Harris is motivated by that second ballot. His semblance of a strategy advocates protest voting, dismissing the option of not voting as "too indecipherable". Yet if his book has any message it's that the paths of the disaffected are labyrinthine enough to risk sending a message equally indecipherable.

For election junkies, the 500-plus pages of Politico's Guide to the General Election is worth a look. Thorough analysis recounts this Government's term, analysing past elections and opinion polls to show just how much education matters to the voters, compared with crime and war. There are some interesting stories to be found here on matters such as the gap between people's perceptions of the state of education compared with their personal experience of higher satisfaction with the service. However, I stress that the stories have to be found. With its ward-by-ward analysis and forecasts of trends for May 5, the guide is for readers whose pleasures are more rarefied.

There's more fun (yes, fun) to be had from Jonathan Maitland's humorous and bizarre tour of election history and current political issues, including why politicians avoid beards and how to evade questions (a particularly useful section). Subjects such as taxation are carved up, showing how much we each pay for education compared to defence, and there is an inspiring insight into how people really change things, including tips for would-be pressure groups. Recommended reading for every teacher who will be explaining the election over the coming month, it possesses that "pick it up and you're hooked" quality that the best of such miscellanies have.

Given that, like it or not, the election is with us for a little while longer, maybe Maitland has provided the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" solution. Whether you're after the facts, the fury or the fun, why not enjoy it?

Huw Thomas is headteacher of St John's CE primary, Sheffield

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