Conor Ryan: What the NUT badly needs is a Neil Kinnock

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The Independent Online

Every Easter, Doug McAvoy, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, dutifully denounces his union's militant left. But while he does occasionally sideline some strike demands, he still seems in perpetual thrall to the militants.

Why else would he advance such ludicrous legalistic arguments to justify the NUT's opposition to the new teachers' contract? The deal may technically allow classes of 60 pupils, but so does the law (except for infants). And class sizes are falling anyway. How teaching assistants are ultimately deployed is decided by teachers and headteachers, many of them NUT members, not ministers. So, what happens is in his members' hands. And after 18 months negotiation, McAvoy's charge that the Government wouldn't talk to him seems pretty far-fetched.

I suppose we must also believe that Eamonn O'Kane and David Hart, the hard-nosed leaders of the NAS/UWT and the National Association of Head Teachers, who supported the deal, were outwitted by the machiavellian ministers Morris and Miliband. In fact, this dastardly new contract meets more teacher demands than any deal in decades: shorter working hours, reduced cover requirements, personal assistants taking over paperwork. Not to mention guaranteed in-school marking and lesson-preparation time with no loss of pay or holidays. No wonder the other unions happily signed up.

But the NUT is a serial offender. The teaching unions won concessions on performance-related pay in 1999. As a result, over 90 per cent of applicants were successful and classroom pay can top £30,000 a year. But the NUT didn't cheer this pay boost – it took the Government to court. This delayed the process, but the losers were ordinary teachers who had to wait for their money, many of them NUT members.

This gesture politics wins headlines, but does neither the union nor its members any favours. It reduces the NUT's influence with ministers and its credibility with the public. So why do it? After all, its leaders are always keen to stress their constructive side. Clever people close to the leadership recognise that change is long overdue. Nods and winks are given privately that this public persona is all a charade to outwit the left.

In fact, this stance simply strengthens the left's hand. McAvoy is rather like Michael Foot, the decent Labour leader who presided over his party's 1983 general election disaster. Like Foot, McAvoy criticises his militants. But he has neither the will nor the inclination to defeat them by changing the union's rule book or policies. Like Foot, McAvoy is stuck with an equally obdurate national executive committee – and feels powerless to change it.

The NUT badly needs a Neil Kinnock. It was Kinnock's policy and rule reforms after Foot resigned that laid the groundwork for Labour's 1997 and 2001 victories. As Martin Westlake's recent biography showed, it was Kinnock's single-minded determination that ensured that Labour started to reform. He developed a middle ground on the NEC to support his modernisation. He changed policies where necessary, and denounced the militant tendency, as well as removing its party powerbase. He had a sense of purpose, something the NUT's "moderates" seem to lack.

McAvoy might have hoped that his problems would vanish after a merger with the other teaching unions. But that is now a remote prospect. Turning the NUT around requires the courage to welcome constructive change instead of opposing everything for a quiet life. It means taking on the Socialist Workers Party rather than trying to appease them. It means not being afraid to criticise ministers, but being ready to promote reform that will benefit its members. Real leaders lead debates, rather than trying to catch up after decisions are made. But the NUT's leaders have fallen victim to their failure to tell it like it is. That is bad for those they supposedly serve.

If McAvoy needs any pointers, the new Education Secretary Charles Clarke could lay on some private lessons. (He was Kinnock's chief of staff.) But the NUT's general secretary shouldn't expect entirely selfless tuition. Should Clarke propose scrapping the annual conference, it would do wonders for the union's image – and it would allow him to enjoy Easter.

The writer was David Blunkett's political adviser between 1993 and 2001