Even if things were getting better, how would we know?

'Tony Blair actually has less uninterrupted access to the public than does Mr Jeremy Clarkson'

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Put the case, Pip (as Mr Jaggers might have said), that there was a meeting in a school hall last week somewhere in north London. Further, put the case that it was one of those routine meetings that not many people attend, such as, say, the statutory open meeting to discuss the school governors' report to the parents. Now populate this exciting evening gathering with 12 parents out of the 1,000 or so eligible to attend, and add the dozen governors - some nominated by the local education authority, some co-opted, some from the teaching body and three elected by the parents. Locate among these latter, if you will, a popular and handsome journalist not unknown to the readers of this newspaper (this last imaginative act is optional).

Put the case, Pip (as Mr Jaggers might have said), that there was a meeting in a school hall last week somewhere in north London. Further, put the case that it was one of those routine meetings that not many people attend, such as, say, the statutory open meeting to discuss the school governors' report to the parents. Now populate this exciting evening gathering with 12 parents out of the 1,000 or so eligible to attend, and add the dozen governors - some nominated by the local education authority, some co-opted, some from the teaching body and three elected by the parents. Locate among these latter, if you will, a popular and handsome journalist not unknown to the readers of this newspaper (this last imaginative act is optional).

So much for the attendance. Picture the scattering of mums (almost the only men present are governors), perched on their blue bucket-chairs, turning to a blue document containing the reports of various committees: on the curriculum, on discipline, on the state of the premises and on - on page 10 - the finances. Put the case that the balance for the year 1999/2000 was a surplus of, say, £20,000. In that year, total income was (let's imagine) £1,005,000. The budget for 2000/01, however, is £1,091,000. If you do your sums, you'll see that that is an increase of over 8 per cent at a time when inflation is less than 3 per cent. Expenditure per pupil in this school will be rising from £2,239 per pupil to £2,486.

Put the case though, Pip, that of the 12 parents present, half take no notice of the figures. So about half a dozen mums (plus the hunky hack) know that the school is getting extra real money, not just chancellor's-speech money. But how will the other 994 find out? Will they notice enhanced literacy figures? Will they clock the books in the class-rooms that might not have been there five years ago, before their children were at the school? The renovated lavatories on the ground floor? The merit payment to the deputy head that persuades her to stay an extra couple of years? The reduction of average class-sizes from 31 pupils to 29? How many years of such changes would it take before someone turned round and said, spontaneously, "My, how things have altered for the better round here!"?

Now put the case that the above was all true and - indeed - had been repeated in many school halls round the country. And not just school halls, Pip. If so, could you contemplate the possibility that the Government might be "delivering" a bit, and that the people of Britain hadn't quite clocked it yet?

My first response to the leaked Gould memo was that sense of anticipatory irritation that I feel whenever a royal is married or a bad film-star dies. Now, I thought, we are going to have to put up with reams of the hysterical Westminster Kremlinology that currently passes for political discussion in this country. Please (I thought, disgracefully), let the Queen Mother die today, mid-pageant, and drive this stuff from the bulletins. My second (more generous) impulse was to call for Philip Gould to be hanged. Though it's true that his memo didn't quite say what the headlines said it said (in that it said a lot else besides), its panicky tones nevertheless seemed to suggest that - back in May - there were fixes to be had. And I have always stoutly maintained that the crucial factor determining Labour's re-electability was not mood-music, but delivery. If the Blairy Bunch "delivered" on education, above all, then they would be re-elected, and never mind your focus groups on law and order and shooting burglars.

And then I began to wonder. After all, who would judge when "delivery" had taken place? Would we even know it when we saw it? The problem is partly in the word. Babies are "delivered". You have conception (an emphatic act - in my household at least), gestation (a clear and very visible process) and then something called Josh or Emily that didn't exist before and decidedly exists now. Post is "delivered". There it is on the doormat: something new. A payment for a magazine article you wrote bloody months ago, perhaps.

For a kick-off, we may not want the thing that is being delivered any more. There's a chap who writes to me whenever I suggest that the Government is not composed of pimps, murderers and outriders for Celera Genomics and indignantly accuses me of "denying his reality". If he says that Blair has done nothing to help the poor, then I rejoin that unemployment has fallen (though I know that Ken Clarke had something to do with that as well). Ah, he replies angrily, but we don't want your lousy, low-paid jobs; we want to stay on the dole until we get good, satisfying jobs. In other words, he's moved the goalposts.

But, for the rest of it, isn't it simply the case that it takes too long for things to change for a four-year government to reap the benefit? If it needs five years to train a doctor, then the very first extra doctor to be trained under a new government may be sticking her catheter up people a year after the following general election. Yesterday's transport billions, announced with what the BBC's Tim Franks brilliantly described as "Maoist grandiosity", will properly change the transport environment in about a decade. The Jubilee Line overspend, attributed by Mayor Ken to "the Government" was probably set in train by a grandee in Mrs Thatcher's cabinet, while the credit for Tate Modern should doubtless belong to some long-forgotten Arts minister called Bottomley or something equally improbable.

Until that far-off moment, it's all statistics; it's all stuff that you can choose to believe or not. And even when the dosh starts to lubricate things, don't expect the recipients to go around shouting about it. If the boss asks you how tricks are, you don't tell her that you're flush and that she should put her chequebook away. The rule of budgeting in any organisation is to squirrel cash away and claim poverty; otherwise your money will be taken from you next year and given to somebody who looks poorer and shouts louder.

But if delivery is a long-term, incremental process, how can the Government convince a sceptical public that things will get better? The hard answer is that it can't, unless the media let it. It is easily forgotten, when we talk about the power of government, that Tony Blair owns no newspapers, controls no media outlets, writes no running orders for TV news bulletins. He can get only exactly as much of his message over as editors and executives will permit. If they decide that leaks are the story, and that devoting resources to tracking the impact of new spending on education is not likely to sell newspapers or get ratings, then TB can go whistle for it. He actually has less uninterrupted access to the public than does Mr Jeremy Clarkson.

Sad but true. What it means, Pip, is that if you're suffering from a bad case of low expectations, you may have to ask a few questions, read a bit, think a bit, so that you, too, know what the six mums and the self-deluding journalist know. There's no other way.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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