Fabian uproar as research chief says: 'bring back selection in schools'

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The Independent Online
THE Fabians have fallen out. Labour's own think-tank, founded 110 years ago by George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, has been locked in heady conflict over Labour's last great sacred cow: education.

When the society was created to develop socialist philosophies, its name was inspired by Fabius Cunctator, a Roman general whose patient and elusive tactics in avoiding pitched battles with Hannibal secured his ultimate victory over stronger forces.

But patience had no place in the workings of the society when its research director, Stephen Pollard, put forward a proposal for a pamphlet outlining how Labour should once more embrace selective education. Pollard, a former research assistant to the Labour MP Peter Shore, is an unabashed devotee of the market.

"The Labour Party is a market party now," he declared last week. When, however, he explained to the 38 members of the research and publications committee that he wanted to explore plans for the reintroduction of streaming and the use of education vouchers, they were aghast. The members, whose numbers include Professor Ben Pimlott, biographer of Harold Wilson and a father who sends his own children to the selective public school, Westminster, vetoed it.

Now in a byzantine twist which has bemused the Fabians' colleagues in think-tankland, London, SW1, Pollard's paper will be published on 15 October by the Social Market Foundation, a rival think-tank founded on the back of David Owen's Social Democratic Party but now leaning further right. And later this autumn, the SMF's director, Daniel Finkelstein, who endorsed publication of Pollard's views, is off to the Conservative Party to be head of research at Tory Central Office.

One director of another rival, left-leaning organisation said: "It really is quite bizarre to have the work of a research director of one think- tank published by another. I can't really recollect it happening before. But the difference between the Fabians and most other think-tanks is that work is vetted before publication. The Fabian Society is a broad church but obviously there are ideological limits."

Pollard's selective-education pamphlet is only the latest in a series of ideological pinpricks from the Fabians which have made the Labour Party jump over the past two years. Other shibboleths which have been given a thumping include state pensions, higher taxation, the idea of a non- market-driven NHS, and most famously, Clause IV. On each occasion, letters of complaint have flooded in from irate party members, including Fabian Society members.

As an organisation, the society's influence is far more extensive than its size would suggest. Even its heyday in the late Forties, the members of the Fabians, which is affiliated to the Labour Party, only numbered 8,500. Today the numbers are down to 5,000, with the majority being middle- aged and middle-class, but they include all the shadow Cabinet, bar Dr John Cunningham and John Prescott. Party officials say that it is noticeable that the Fabians are now being taken seriously by the party leadership.

"They have the ear of the party, and by that, yes, I do mean Tony," said one senior Walworth Road executive. "A few years ago that would not have happened."

The men most responsible for the Fabians' new lease of life are Pollard and the society's general secretary, Simon Crine. "If we get complaints, then I'm doing my job," said Crine. "If there is a Fabian view it is that socialism is about values, not structures, and we should delve into every nook and cranny.

"Since the fourth election defeat, one half of the Labour Party wants to look back to a golden age, and the other half wants to modernise. That's why we get into trouble when we air the divisions. But there is also a sense that now is the time for the party to explore ideas and be receptive to them. It's up to us to provoke people."

When the research and publications committee - other members include Barbara Follett, the economist Paul Ormerod, and MPs Austin Mitchell, Margaret Hodge, Judith Church, Calum Macdonald, Denis MacShane, Tony Wright and Chris Smith - learnt what Pollard wanted to write, they were quite clear about stopping its publication even if it had been written by one of its own staff.

Phil Woolas, the Labour Party candidate at the recent Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, was one of the committee members who voted to veto it. "You can say things in the Fabians which you can't say anywhere else. But when it came to Stephen Pollard's proposal, it was beyond the pale. We wanted a serious debate about education, and this paper would have detracted from others we wanted to produce," he said.

While the Pollard paper is being edited at the SMF office in Queen Anne's Gate, the Fabians, based a few minutes' walk away in Dartmouth Street, intend to publish three other contentious papers on education, from wholesale opting-out to a reversal to the days when all state schools were run by local education authorities.

The society knows these are dangerous waters. Education is the issue which pitches the aspirational, middle-class, pro-Blair voter up against the traditional socialist standard bearers. Only a few months ago, Labour's stance on education caused Tony Blair one of his first leadership crises when he and shadow education spokesman David Blunkett clashed on imposing VAT on school fees.

Then in June a Fabian tract calling for a Labour government to split control of education from county and metropolitan authorities to school boards was dismissed by David Blunkett as "politically inappropriate." And this week, when Blair's son Euan starts his education at the opted- out Oratory School, attention will once more be on the issue.

Coming up next on the Fabians' provocation agenda is Europe, and Crine and Pollard are both acutely aware that so far Labour has escaped suffering the trauma endured by the Conservative Party. They expect the stirrings of trouble when they publish Peter Mandelson on the benefits of a single currency.

Mandelson's pamphlet will be published complete with glossy Nineties logo, a far cry from the days when Shaw edited the solemn Fabian Essays in Socialism. But Shavian thinking is still a part of Fabianism. It was he, of course, who said: "All great truths begin as blasphemies."