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The A to Z of election strategy

ONE of the Labour party's great strengths in opposition was its ability to work strategically.

Barely a syllable was uttered without its implications being costed, both financially and politically. If a Labour spokesman said A one day, and B the next, he did it because a week later he wanted to be able to say C - all geared to being able to say D at the election.

The same process began again on May 2 1997. Uppermost in party strategists' minds has been winning the next election. Their approach has meant a lot has changed in three-and-a-half years.

For example, if Labour had said in opposition that it wanted to privatise some local education authorities or increase the number of city technology colleges, it would have risked offending much of its core support. But, by moving stealthily through intermediate stages - E to F to G to H, if you like - it has managed to make privatising a few LEAs seem run-of-the-mill stuff.

For the past few months, Labour policy-makers have been thrashing out where the party wants to be on election day; not so that it can reveal everything about the second term, but so it can put itself in position to start moving from I to J to K.

If the first term has focused on getting the basics right, and thus primary education, the second has to focus on secondaries.

Even before Chris Woodhead's resignation, Labour advisers were alive to the strength of the Conservative's "free schools" mantra. Labour has been caught in a dilemma.

It is beyond dispute that the people best placed to determine how schools should be run are teachers. All the research evidence shows that the most successful schools are those which are most free from outside bureaucratic interference.

But a look at what has happened to a generation of children's edcation shows that something was deeply wrong, which seemed to require prescriptive action from the centre, leaving Labour open to the Conservative accusation that it was overwhelming schools with paperwork.

With Mr Woodhead expected to join in the Tory attack, that is a boil which has to be lanced.

Expect an election commitment building on the Government's attacks on harmful LEAs and its escalation of the number of specialist schools and city academies. In the latter types of school, heads have greater freedom to run their own affairs.

If schools should have more freedom, the same goes for teachers. And that means more, and better, teachers. Why do so few of the best and brightest graduates enter the profession? Poor status, poor pay and too much prescription.

The single biggest challenge facing the government is attracting the best-qualified graduates. The aim is to create a virtuous circle: greater freedom to do the job will make it more attractive, meaning better applicants, meaning a political justification for higher pay.

The third leg of this trinity is parents. The Tories have, with justification or not, claimed the mantle of parental choice. Labour needs not only to neuter that but to show that its response to this is parental involvement.

My hunch is that a second term of Labour government would see greater concentration on the development of more and different types of schools, along the lines of American-style "charter" schools. But for that to work, parents need to become far more involved.

Yes, we'll have the pledges too - class sizes, exam results and all that. But for the real meat, look to this triumvirate of headteachers, teachers and parents.

Stephen Pollard is a political commentator and columnist for the Express

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