Why the school vote is crucial to Labour

15th April 2005 at 01:00
How Labour can return to power on May 5 is one of the mysteries of the age.

As I write, the polls say Labour will win, with about 36 per cent of the vote. Yet almost nobody I know intends to vote for Tony Blair. Pensioners are said to be disillusioned, and so are women. According to a TES poll, support among teachers is sharply down; similar anti-Labour shifts are reported from the NHS. Muslims are outraged by the Iraq war, students by top-up fees. The unemployed don't vote. It's all a bit like 1987 when Margaret Thatcher won by a landslide, but nobody ever confessed to voting for her.

But Mrs Thatcher always had an adoring following among the kind of people one never meets - indeed, would go to some trouble to avoid meeting. If Mr Blair ever had such a following, he has lost it now. He never spoke to Labour's heart, as Lady Thatcher spoke to the Tories'. His appeal was wide but shallow, whereas hers was narrower but deeper. To get back, Labour needs something like nine million votes on May 5 and I suspect that, whatever the polls say, it will struggle to reach that figure.

So teachers' votes will matter. No government, however, will deliver much of the "readers' manifesto" published last week. Reduce the number of tests? Scrap league tables? Cut paperwork? End new initiatives? You must be joking. Governments have abdicated from attempts to control the economy directly. Instead, politicians have turned to education as the instrument through which both economic growth and social justice are to be achieved.

School test results perform much the same role in press and political discourse as the balance of payments once did. The "output" of the education system is now as important as the output of mines and steelworks once was. No doubt this will eventually go out of political fashion, but not, I predict, for another decade or so. It is another example of the consensus which dominates British politics and rules out a vast range of options.

So teachers must judge which party is likely to lean most towards what they want. Specific promises should be regarded with suspicion. For example, the Liberal Democrats say they would abolish league tables, but there is no guarantee they wouldn't create new controls.

Look instead at where a party's priorities will lie. Under a Labour government, nearly all ministers will have direct experience of state schools, as pupils and parents and, often, as teachers. Some ministers will have worked in further education. The Conservatives have changed, but their personal engagement with state education is still much less than Labour's.

Labour will always tend to spend more on education. The Tories may insist that they will maintain or even increase spending, but they would find stealthy ways of making cuts just as Labour found stealthy ways of raising tax. But Labour will also tend to interfere more. As I have explained in the past, members of new Labour's metropolitan circle are almost personally affronted by the paucity of London schools that they consider fit for their own children - hence their imposition of ideas that border on quackery, such as city academies and parts of the national literacy strategy.

Teachers won't get as much extra money or as much loosening of controls as they want from any party. But the complexion of the next government will still make a difference. And teachers have to make up their minds: is it the money or the control that matters most?

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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