Labour's last taboo shouldn't keep keep a good man from being mayor

he issue of private schools is the only respect in which the Party is more politically correct than in the Sixties
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The Independent Culture
SUDDENLY, THE race for the London mayoralty is about 100 per cent more interesting and less dismal than it was 36 hours ago. The announcement yesterday by Trevor Phillips, the black TV journalist, presenter, writer and independent producer, that he is running for the job of being Britain's first directly elected city boss, has at last turned the contest into something about more than which Cabinet minister can be dragooned into stopping Ken Livingstone getting the Labour Party nomination.

For a start Mr Phillips not only wants the job - in stark contrast to most of the bigger names that have been touted - but he has also - in equally stark contrast to Mr Livingstone - believed in and campaigned for a directly elected London mayor for over a decade. But much more important, it would be a pitiful response to the Lawrence report if there were no black voice at or near the top of the London regime, which will be charged with helping to revamp the Metropolitan Police and to which the force will be accountable.

Yet there have been, by all accounts, precious few credible black candidates putting their names forward as Labour members of the Greater London Assembly, which will provide 12 of 23 members of the new police authority. It's hard to think of a greater damper on the expectations of reform raised by the Macpherson report than an all-white Labour administration in London. Mr Phillips looks on the task of helping to carry out those reforms with some relish. He also believes that it is time for the black community to take a hand in shaping the future of the Met rather than watching from the sidelines. This is slightly more relevant than the fact that Mr Phillips admires Tony Blair - not yet, one presumes, an actual disqualification inside the Labour Party - or that Peter Mandelson was the best man at his wedding 15 years ago when they both worked at London Weekend Television.

If, of course, you want Mr Livingstone, then Mr Phillips is not for you, at least as mayor. But his presence as a declared candidate will ensure that some of Mr Livingstone's more exotic claims, such as that a Livingstone administration is perfectly capable of operating in cosy harmony with Tony Blair, will get a little more scrutiny.

As David Aaronovitch pointed out in these pages in February, this proposition sits a little uneasily with Mr Livingstone's desire for a heavily increased corporation tax or the kind of familiar, Eighties-flavoured, left- wing support he has been attracting at his public meetings. Or his view, expressed in this newspaper last year, that Gordon Brown "is not on top of macro- economic policy" and that Mr Blair "urgently" needed to move him from the Treasury.

What Mr Phillips has to overcome, however, when he appears before the Labour Party selection panel, is the fact that, in contravention of one of the last taboos left intact by New Labour, he has chosen to send his two daughters to North London Collegiate, which was a state school until the direct grant system was abolished and is now a private school. Oddly, the issue of politicians sending their children to private schools is one of the few respects, perhaps the only respect, in which the modern Labour Party is more restrictive and politically correct than its Sixties equivalent.

Harold Wilson, the most left-wing of Labour's last three prime ministers, was a University College School parent and thought nothing of offering Roy Jenkins the job of Education Secretary when he, too, had children at private schools. But that is neither here nor there. The question is whether this should disqualify Mr Phillips from a big Labour job in the late 1990s.

Why did Mr Phillips make the choice in the first place? At the time the family was in the catchment area of White Hart Lane Comprehensive - where he and his sister had both been pupils and where the number of children with five GCSE passes in last year's league tables was just 14 per cent. In fact the school has improved; in 1995, the year his older daughter would have gone there, the proportion was a mere 4 per cent. Additionally conscious of evidence that children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds frequently did least well in inner-city schools, he simply was not, as he put it to me last year, prepared to tell his children that he was sending them to a school "where I know you are going to fail".

He could have bused his children to a grant-maintained school across the borough border, as many others in the Labour Party have done. Instead he took the view that once you had rejected the local comprehensive, what you did next was irrelevant. This, of course, is precisely why a significant number of black parents send their children back to the West Indies to be educated; why Mr Phillips's brother Mike teaches his own child at home; and why his neighbour and friend, the MP Bernie Grant, was among the few brave enough to speak up for Harriet Harman when she decided to send her son to a suburban grammar school before the general election; and why, finally, many of the well-off white metropolitan middle-class parents who now tell each other at dinner parties what a good mayor Ken Livingstone would be would never dream of sending their children to a local state school.

Of course, it's an open question whether Trevor Phillips is going to turn out to be the best candidate for the mayoralty. The race is at an early stage. Maybe he will wind up as deputy this time around. And of course Mo Mowlam, the most popular politician in Britain apart from Tony Blair, would wipe the floor with the other contenders if she wanted the job, which she seems not to. Nick Raynsford, the skilful Minister for London, would also be a distinctly serious contender.

It isn't true that Mr Phillips has "never run anything" since he was head of current affairs at LWT for six years; he now has his own highly successful independent production business. What is true is that he isn't a professional politician. Whether that is a handicap or an advantage is a moot point. But the fact he was not prepared to sacrifice his children's education to Labour orthodoxy will surely count for rather than against him with the wider electorate.

As it happens, the mayor won't be in charge of education in London. But he will have a lot of clout in pressing the Government, and the boroughs, to improve it even faster. Answering the problems of education in London means confronting them and not pretending they don't exist. As Mr Phillips put it yesterday, "the most important thing about London schools is not where my children go, but why it is that so many children are failing". Mr Phillips, in short, is a serious candidate; and at the very least he will make the contest a lot more lively. Perhaps there are reasons why he won't be London's first elected mayor; but wanting the best for his children shouldn't be among them.

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