Can Mr Blair continue to please both right and left without ending in a muddle?

He believes that on every issue there is a way through that keeps the centre-left and centre-right on board
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The Independent Online

Forget about the soap opera at the top of New Labour and look at what is happening on the ground. The most revealing event of its wobbly pre-election campaign took place last Friday when the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, was jeered at the annual conference of the Secondary Heads' Association.

Forget about the soap opera at the top of New Labour and look at what is happening on the ground. The most revealing event of its wobbly pre-election campaign took place last Friday when the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, was jeered at the annual conference of the Secondary Heads' Association.

After substantial increases in government spending on schools, the head teachers should have been in the mood to exude goodwill. Instead, they were furious. With an election only weeks away, Ms Kelly was in no position to take a bow on behalf of the Government's education policies. She left the conference in a hurry.

No doubt, this was partly because some head teachers were disappointed that Ms Kelly had rejected key sections of the recent Tomlinson report on the future of A-levels. Perhaps also some of those attending the conference would have been better behaved if the former education secretary Charles Clarke had addressed them with his burly charm.

But there was much more to this than a macho intolerance of an inexperienced female minister. Here was a gathering of committed head teachers unable to contain their anger. Normally they are the ones who instruct their pupils to behave themselves when a special guest visits their schools. In front of their own special guest, they were unruly.

Not that any regret their spontaneous outburst. I spoke to a couple of senior representatives from the Secondary Heads' Association yesterday who told me that they were alarmed by recent statements from Ms Kelly and Tony Blair. In their view, they are pre-election pledges that will raise parental expectations in a way that cannot be met. In particular, they worry about last week's announcement that pledged tuition in smaller groups for brighter pupils and those with learning difficulties.

More broadly, they are concerned about the coherence of the Government's plans for schools: parents will be empowered. Head teachers will be empowered. Schools will be self-governing. Everyone will be getting his or her own way.

This is what is wrong with Labour's campaign, a disconnection between headline-grabbing initiatives and the reality on the ground. Instead of seeking credit for the substantial increase in investment in schools and hospitals, Mr Blair has higher ambitions. Probably, he will dismiss concerns of head teachers as another example of what he once called the "forces of conservatism".

But the anger does not necessarily mean those who work in schools and hospitals are opposed in principle to reforms of their services. It is true that some of them are hopelessly resistant to any change and deserve to be challenged. But with good cause, quite a lot of them question whether the reforms can be implemented with the current level of resources.

Public spending on schools and hospitals has more or less caught up with other European Union countries. Mr Blair and Gordon Brown have breathed life into dying public institutions after decades of severe under-funding, a substantial achievement. But already the Health Secretary, Dr John Reid, is pledging a choice of hospitals for patients and Ms Kelly is pledging tuition in smaller groups for pupils. Apparently, we are moving from decay to paradise in a single leap. The head teachers got particularly angry when Ms Kelly seemed to suggest all this would be possible on the basis of existing resources.

Ms Kelly has been Education Secretary for less than three months. My guess is that her first priority is to prove to Mr Blair that she is worthy of her promotion. The one way to meet that objective is to mouth what Mr Blair wants to hear. Downing Street takes an obsessive interest in the activities of the Department for Education.

A more experienced Education Secretary would occasionally dare to challenge some of the ideas and instructions emanating from Mr Blair and his colleagues, but Ms Kelly is in no position yet to assert her authority. She was defending Mr Blair's five-year plans for schools launched last July and his mini-manifesto on education published last week. Indirectly, therefore, the head teachers were jeering Mr Blair, something they would not have done in 1997 or 2001.

Peter Hyman, a former senior adviser to Mr Blair, has written an illuminating book on New Labour. Mr Hyman left Downing Street to become a classroom assistant at a school in Islington. His book One out of Ten is partly an account of his experiences in the school but is also a narrative of his Downing Street years. He writes that soon after arriving at the school he became aware of the gap between ministerial announcements and the reality. There was a significant time lag between an announcement and the implementation of a policy. Occasionally, there would be no connection at all between a much trumpeted government initiative and what was happening in schools.

Mr Hyman is even more candid in his account of strategic discussions in Downing Street. He notes that Mr Blair would never position himself "against his newly won support". This is a defining phrase. It seems that those who once voted Conservative but switched to Labour in 1997 had to be caressed, soothed and never challenged. Mrs Thatcher managed to convert some Labour supporters into true believers. Mr Blair resolved to position himself more defensively.

I read occasionally that the "third way" has been dumped as his guiding philosophy. Perhaps some of the evangelists are looking elsewhere, but Mr Blair remains attached to it. He believes that on every issue there is a way through that keeps the centre-left and centre-right on board. Sometimes he achieves an impressive synthesis around the broad theme of economic competence and social justice. But quite a lot of the time, the third way leads him into a dangerous muddle.

He admitted to seeking a third way in the build-up to Iraq, one that would not alienate his "newly won support" and yet a route that would also keep his more progressive supporters on board. The route was blocked, leaving Mr Blair parading unreliable intelligence on non-existent weapons.

On schools, Mr Blair's third way proclaims choice but not selection, parental power and, at the same time, more scope for schools to be self -governing. It is not clear what will happen if a newly-empowered parent wants to exercise choice by selecting a school and the head wants to apply his or her new powers by rejecting the parent. Meanwhile, the Government pledges higher standards but gives away control of some levers to bring this about.

The practical implications of the policies will be tested after an election. For now, the worries for New Labour are related to winning the election convincingly. At the weekend, the Leader of the House, Peter Hain, warned that Labour voters in marginal seats were "dangerously complacent". Voters assumed Labour would win and could therefore protest safely. It is more serious than Mr Hain suggests. They are not dangerously complacent. As Ms Kelly discovered, quite a lot of them are dangerously angry.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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