Three simple ways to upset an old-school socialist

Grammar schools, 'superhead' resignations and Section 28 made a triple whammy for the Education Secretary David Blunkett last week
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The Independent Online

It has not been the easiest of weeks for David Blunkett. First, an old pledge he made on ending selection in the nation's schools returned like a boomerang to give him a nasty clip around the ear. Then three of the "superheads" appointed to rejuvenate Britain's worst schools resigned, one after the other. And, finally, the compromise he brokered over the repeal of the law which bans the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities came under attack from all sides - with even the libertarian leader-writers of the Independent pronouncing: "Incredibly, Mr Blunkett has replaced Section 28 with something worse." At the end of it the Secretary of State for Education and Employment must be feeling discomfited. The man whom Tony Blair regards, according to one Downing Street insider, as "a star performer, an absolute star", was caught on the wrong foot.

Unpicking how much political damage Blunkett has done to himself requires the answers to three questions: How has it played in the media? How has it gone down in the Labour heartlands? And how has it affected his relationship with the Prime Minister? For David Blunkett's success has hitherto resided in his skill in keeping a careful balance between these constituencies. Last week he may have dealt a significant blow to at least one of them.

It began with a furore over grammar schools. "Our war against grammars is over, says Blunkett" read the front-page headline in last week's Sunday Telegraph, reporting an interview the minister gave the paper in the wake of a vote by parents in Ripon against the abolition of the town's grammar school. It was the first vote by parents under the new rules introduced by New Labour which have been carefully rigged to minimise the chance that any of the old selective schools will perish.

Yet, for all the fandango in the newspapers, the grammar school row was little more than a retread of previous arguments between the pro- and anti-selection camps. Blunkett said little he had not said in 1997 when he proclaimed "we will not wage war on grammar schools" and "our policy is about levelling up, not down; grammar schools are not an issue for the next Labour government". And the wrath unleashed on him by old-guard Labourites such as Roy Hattersley was merely a repeat of what they had said three years ago.

Even Blunkett's assertion that the "Read my lips" speech of 1995 had been a joke was not new. Despite the excitement caused in the Sunday Telegraph by what it thought was a scoop, he had made the claim more than a year ago on Question Time. And the damage caused by his attempt to rewrite history was marginal. Blunkett has successfully steered his party away from a focus on selection and towards one on standards - so that closing the 164 grammar schools, which are benchmarks of excellence for the country's other 4,500 secondary schools, now looks perverse.

Far more serious was the resignation - within a five-day period - of three of the 10 superheads brought in by Blunkett to revitalise the country's worst schools under his Fresh Start programme. The succession of announcements - all timed so that they could quit at the end of the academic year - was a shock to the Education Secretary. And it overshadowed the unveiling of his new initiative for troubled inner-city schooling - six new "city academies" to be run in partnership with churches, charities and the private sector.

This cannot have pleased Downing Street, which is where the initiative was hatched even if it fell to Blunkett to present it. That is not to imply that it did not have the Education Secretary's backing - though the question of how much of David Blunkett's policy is whole-heartedly his own, and how much it is a loyal execution of the wishes of his party leader, is central to an understanding of the minister's success.

There is no doubt that David Blunkett and Tony Blair dance to the same tune on much education strategy. Both are whole-hearted in their embrace of testing, targets, league tables, and literacy and numeracy strategies. Both are single-minded in their view that the teaching unions must not be allowed to get in the way of government plans to improve standards.

But Blunkett's passion for better education has very different roots from Blair's. The Prime Minister has a vision of building the human resources necessary for the nation to compete in an information-rich global economy. His minister believes, with a visceral intensity, that education is the tool to achieve equality for the poor.

For Blunkett this has its roots in his childhood experience. Born in 1947, he was brought up in a two-bedroom council house on one of Sheffield's poorest estates. When he was 12 his father, Arthur, a gasworks foreman, died after a horrific accident in which he fell into a vat of boiling water. During the next two years, as his mother battled for some compensation, the family literally on occasions lived on bread and dripping. His experience of poverty and injustice, coupled with the extra burdens of his blindness, turned him into a passionate socialist.

Today his politics are still informed by the indignation that led him to become the youngest person elected to Sheffield City Council, where he emerged as a gifted administrator. The civic socialism of that era, firmly rooted in a set of old-fashioned values and virtues, burns ardently in him still. It is that personal passion which led him to the risky pledge that he would resign if under his administration 11 year olds failed to meet their maths and English targets.

By contrast, in other areas, like the superheads scheme, he has the air more of a loyal party member discharging his leader's wishes. "He knows that good headteachers are necessary for the transformation of failing schools - but they are not enough," said one Blunkett insider. "But he is fed up of the weary elitist despair about the state sector in the inner cities. He sees superheads as a way of saying 'no matter how deprived an area is you can do something about it'. But he knows that turning around failing schools is a more complicated business which requires a complex interaction of social and economy policy - and more money." Whether he will get that in serious amounts in the Budget on Tuesday will be revealing.

But though there are tensions with Blair, the two men recognise in each other a common purpose, and their behind-the-scenes clashes don't often break the surface. It was not with the Prime Minister, however, that David Blunkett has had his tetchiest encounters recently. When the Government realised that it had to make some concessions to the Anglican and Catholic bishops to reduce opposition to the repeal of Section 28, it was decided to concoct some guidelines on sexuality for young people - and add them to the Learning and Skills Bill which has its third reading in the Lords this week. It fell to Blunkett to conduct the bargaining with the bishops. For the past month he has been hands-on in the negotiations, and their progress did not best please some of his Cabinet colleagues. Blunkett, who has written that he is a "fundamentalist when it comes to education", is a traditionalist in more than his liking of rigorous discipline, spelling, grammar, solid mental arithmetic and plenty of homework. With his strict Methodist upbringing he still professes to be a believer "in something spiritual, in a power of good and evil". Like his Anglican leader, he uses the language of duty and responsibility more readily than that of rights. But unlike Blair he voted for 18 rather than 16 as the age of male homosexual consent.

In his negotiations with the bishops, therefore, he was happy to accept their strictures about the ideal of marriage as the basis for the new guidelines. As the talks progressed, fellow cabinet ministers, including Chris Smith, Alan Milburn and Margaret Jay, began to express alarm. Even Blunkett's junior ministers were worried. Pressure was put on him to add three extra words to the guidelines so that they spoke of "the significance of marriage and stable relationships as the key building blocks of community and society".

Yet the resulting compromise has annoyed as many as it has pleased. Traditionalists say it is a sell-out, and libertarians protest that, where Section 28 is simply preventive, its replacement will oblige them to teach certain things whether they believe them or not. Whether Blunkett's compromise is adjudged an adroit one will depend on whether the Lords approve it, and then in July repeal Section 28. The nightmare will come for him if they pass the former but then also keep the latter.

That is not all. For David Blunkett has another group of people to watch. Inside the Cabinet only Gordon Brown has been as sedulous as Blunkett in continuing to cultivate support among constituency activists, which has always given him a strong base within the party - as was evident throughout the late Eighties when as leader of Sheffield Council he regularly topped the poll in the party's annual NEC elections. (He was the first non-MP elected to the NEC's constituency section since Harold Laski 40 years before.) His advocacy in those days of some very Old Labour views - unilateral disarmament, renationalising the utilities, retaining Clause IV, and abolishing the charitable status of private schools - still holds him in good stead. His reaction to the general election defeat in 1992 was to argue against any further ditching of principles, and to campaign for Bryan Gould rather than John Smith for the party leadership. For all his pragmatism and modernising, there are still many who regard him as the "last vestige of socialism" in the Cabinet.

For David Blunkett's three key constituencies - the media, the party and the prime minister - last week may well prove in retrospect to have been a turning point in his fortunes. If all goes well, he could end up as Home Secretary after the next election. But if the Section 28 débâcle continues, or the battle to save our inner-city schools falters yet again, the outcome could be very different.